A tour of duty for martial history buffs
The building of the “Death Railway” was a monumental folly on an epically tragic scale. To build this railway—which would help Japanese forces occupying Thailand during World War II to take over Burma (still a British colony then)—the POWs enlisted as the labour force were required to tunnel through mountains and hardwood forests. Historians have estimated that as many 100,000 Asian coolies died while constructing this 415 km railway while more than 12,000 Allied troops, mostly Brits, Australians, and Dutch, also perished from overwork, malnutrition, tropical diseases, and beatings.
One soldier who survived this punishing ordeal, albeit with severe trauma, was Eric Lomax. The former British railway engineer, taken prisoner after the Japanese Imperial Army overran Singapore, was transported by railway car, along with many other POWs, to work on the railway. His bestselling memoir, The Railway Man, published in 1995, was turned into a film—starring Colin Firth as Lomax and Nicole Kidman as his new wife—in 2013. Much of it was shot in and around Kanchanaburi.
DTC Travel of Bangkok has designed a special tour to show you around four different locations in the movie and six from the book. The tour begins, not so far outside the Thai capital, with a stop at Ban Pong, the starting point of the railway. For many visitors this countryside station with its wooden buildings, flower pots, and rustic white signs with the next and previous stations written in black paint, is a typical sight in the panorama of pastoral life. For the POWs forced to work here or being sent on to Kanchanaburi, this was the antechamber to hell.
Under such harsh conditions, altruism flourishes. On the DTC tour we stopped at some heritage-heavy houses in the town. The owner of one house was a war hero who never served any time in the trenches. At first, Boonpong Sirivejaband did business with the Japanese, winning a bid to supply them with the sleeper logs for the building of the railway, but his father had been a doctor and civil servant.
This shophouse, with what used to be an adjoining pharmacy, gave Boonpong access to the medicines he would smuggle into the camps, using his attractive young daughter as a decoy, to hand out to the POWs. Fluent in English, Boonpong smuggled messages out that were written in code which he then passed on their respective governments. After the war, the courageous businessman received royal decorations from both the British and Dutch governments for the help he had rendered to their nationals.
Built in 1917, this three-story house makes for a fascinating detour and some captivating photos, as it’s embellished with antiques, Chinese ancestor shrines, fading artworks, and timeworn posters.
At the Thai Burma Railway Center, rife with World War II relics and overlooking an Allied cemetery, you can stave off the sadness of seeing all these graves arranged with military-like precision, by learning about other heroes, like the Australian doctor Lieutenant-Colonel E. E. Dunlop, better known as “Weary Dunlop,” who saved many lives by tending to the sick and injured with little in the way of medicine or resources.
Dunlop’s legacy continued decades after the war when in the 1980s he teamed up with a bunch of fellow POWs to help reclaim “Hellfire Pass” from the jungle near Myanmar, and found a museum and an Australian memorial. Nicknamed for the hellish conditions that saw forced labourers chiseling their way through the rock with pickaxes, illuminated by the glare of bonfires blazing all night long, this Herculean undertaking resulted in the deaths of more POWS and coolies than any other section of the railway.
Though the museum and some of the original railroad ties ram home the horrors of this undertaking with a railway spike, it is about 80 km west of the main city and not included on the DTC tour. By the original cutting there is also a 4 km walking trail that will give you a deep appreciation of the POWs’ struggle—toiling up to 18 hours a day with only a little rice and water for sustenance. The Hellfire Pass scenes in The Railway Man, shot on location in Thailand, are some of the most memorable in the movie.
The Notorious Bridge
Kanchanaburi is justly renowned for its riverside accommodations and restaurants. With the famous bridge in gawking distance, we sat down for a lunch of Thai specialties, before walking over to check out the bridge made famous in the 1957 (mostly fictitious) war movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Still standing tall as the province’s most famous tourist attraction, the bridge has some of the irksome touts and all the souvenir stands to prove it. That said, visitors can still take a stroll across this relatively small structure, enjoy the riverine vistas and the sight of kayakers, as well as do some vintage train-spotting with some of the old locomotives.
From there, we hopped aboard a long-tail boat to pay our respects to the fallen soldiers at the Chungkai Allied Cemetery, which draws few tourists. As someone who grew up in a military family which suffered the loss of many relatives in the two great wars of the 20th century, I was shocked to see how many of the deceased were only 19 and 20 years old—about the same age as my Uncle Jim, whom I was named after, a tail-gunner on a Wellington bomber shot down during a bombing raid on Germany. He was 19 and had just been married to an English woman for three weeks.
For anyone who’s lost relatives in war, this trip is bound to be more of an emotional rather than sentimental journey, a day of solemn remembrance rather than the usually joyous amnesia of travel. But it does put things into perspective. In comparison to these young men, cut down in their prime, one’s own troubles seem trifling.
Unlike Uncle Jim, whose plane and remains were never found, at least these battlers of fascism have a final resting place. Though quite a few graves house remains that were never identified. Emblazoned on these plaques are the words: Known Unto God.
NOTE: DTC Travel’s Death Railway tour can be booked for groups (minimum four people). The price is B2,400 per person, including lunch and snacks. On the outing you can watch the film The Railway Man on the tour bus.
ARMY OF GHOSTS
After meeting a Canadian nurse, who is 17 years younger than him, on a train back in England after returning home, was right around the time when Eric Lomax began to go off the rails again. He kept hallucinating about a torture chamber into which his Japanese captors were dragging him.
Patti, who became his bride, knew something was wrong but her husband’s manly code of silence, and Scottish reticence, forbade him from telling her anything. Back then the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder did not exist. Other terms once in vogue, such as “shellshock” and “combat fatigue,” do not suggest the level of psychological scarring that takes place under conditions of extreme torture.
It was only when Patti made friends with another former POW named Finlay, who headed up a group of local veterans, did she begin to find out what happened during the building of the railway.
In the film adaptation of The Railway Man, Patti, as played by Nicole Kidman, may be the film’s heart but Stellan Skarsgard as the older Finlay is its psyche—bruised and haunted. To Lomax he utters the film’s most poignant lines about these former POWs who are still at war with themselves and their invisible tormenters. “We can’t live. We can’t love. We can’t sleep… we’re an army of ghosts.”
In Eric Lomax’s memoir, the most combustible relationship that develops is between him and Takashi Nagase, the former translator for the Japanese Imperial Army who tormented Lomax—accused of making and hiding a forbidden radio—threatening him with death and ever more gruesome tortures. After getting back in touch decades after the war, they exchanged a series of letters to air their grievances and share their memories.
As touching as some of these letters are, they could not possibly be filmed as a series of voiceovers without losing their dramatic intensity. On the battlefield of cinema, inevitably there will have to be a face-to-face showdown between the two.
These scenes are electrifying. Lomax (as played by Colin Firth) sizzles with anger whereas Takashi (as played by Hiroyuki Sanada) is more reticent, more Japanese and tactful. Only these two men can understand what really happened in Kanchanaburi. Only they can use those experiences as pickaxes to grind each other into the dust or to question the nature of duty, of repentance, of the boundary lines between warfare and war crimes.
Either on screen or in a memoir, what develops is one of the most unorthodox “relationships” between two enemy soldiers which has ever been chronicled. For those unfamiliar with the book, or who have not seen the film yet, I won’t play the spoilsport, but a key line from a real letter written by the POW to his interrogator—“Sometimes the hating has to stop.”—sets the stage for one of the most moving films ever shot in Thailand.
As a backstory or cinematic backdrop for your trip to Kanchanaburi, The Railway Man is essential reading or viewing.
By Jim Algie