The Burma Railway

‘The phantom of the hangman’

In the morning around ten o’clock when a train departs from the Kanchanaburi station in the direction of Nam Tok (Thai for waterfall) the party can begin.
The festivity of a touristic ride along the River Kwae Noi and over the ‘Kwae Yai’ to discover that the Bridge is another railway bridge than the one in the movie, the myth of the white screen. Pierre Boulle wrote the story and David Lean directed the film with an overwhelming success.
The Bridge over the River Kwai as the name was spelled, a degeneration but since well known. Even the stretch of river originally named: Mea Khlong where the Bridge is located was renamed.
The word Kwae means tributary and there’s only a small one (Kwae Noi) joining the Mae Khlong south from the Bridge. It doesn’t matter, it’s a legend anyway, the sorrow and suffering of thousands prisoners of war building a railway with a lot of sweat and tears but above all deadly, the statistic says for every sleeper almost one worker died. The famous or better spoken notorious line to Burma and desperately needed by the Japanese force to for fill their dream of a united South East Asia under a single flag. Symbol of the Rising Sun that did not stop fluttering in the wind before the other wind of atomic power flattened Hiroshima and a few days later Nagasaki.
With a whip and other brutalities they forced the unwilling labour to conquer the jungle in no time. From an engineering standpoint a remarkable piece of work, the rest a human tragedy. Building a line these days and in the same terrain with all the modern equipment available would take much longer than the time span the Japanese were willing to wait.
After the emperor bowed his head but unwillingly, the British dismantled the line near the boarder probably as a political move in order to protect Singapore as a main port for the hinterland. Later the tracks where sold to the Thai government and they servicing the line until today as far as the Nam Tok station. For the purpose of a special weekend train in the beginning of this century the line was extended by 1454 meter to the Waterfall itself.  Here one can enjoy a few hours of relaxation on the former track bed or refreshment of the splashing water.
For any enthusiast in railway archaeology beyond this point the great search can begin; traces of track and bedding hidden in the jungle or more precise what’s left of it since most of the teak and other precious trees were felled even before the railway was build. What came back is undergrowth, a mass of shrubs, bushes bathing in scorching temperatures; if you bring a machete you may well find a way. Not so for the walking trail the Hellfire Pass Museum initiated but on flip-flops no change, the cleared track for minimal four kilometres demanding solid booths. Riding the train only abstain the pain.
Beyond the Bridge the landscape is peaceful and perfectly in harmony, nothing that reminds the illustrious past, a tropical world and the sun dances on the fields till the wooden trestle short before the Wang Pho station and named after a cave: Kra Sae. The most spectacular passage of the whole line with deep below the water. The scary cracking sound of wood when a train almost walk over the trestle if it were the fainted voices of fallen comrades the ordeal escaped but their soul still lingering on the spot. Or even the phantom of the hangman a cruel some Japanese soldier of higher rank still pondering a sort of revenge.
All windows on one side are open and the passengers relieve themselves with a lot of oh’s and ah’s, excitement is in the air. The revelry is almost over; the road towards was a long one but above all a heavy burden. Hidden for as far as it goes an old veteran still alive joined the trip and gazing in the mist of his memory, the day whereupon he was driven into the jungle with inadequate gear but above all lack of food and medication. His tear stained eyes and full of grieve while riding along the reminiscences. Maybe he likes to enjoy it like his companionship but forgiveness is an unspeakable word.

For once no photographical illustration but if you want to have an idea sea my Flickr account called: The Burma Railway: link click here.


About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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