Sunday, June 12, 2005

Item From the Past: The Death Railway

This item is from 11 years ago, around my 33rd birthday.

At 10 in the morning on June 10 [1994] we caught a minibus to Kanchanaburi. We rented a bamboo hut overlooking the banks of the River Kwai for all of 100 baht per night (about $4), complete with mosquito screens. No mossies got in by night, but a bird lives somewhere in the walls. That was our best guess, anyway, since we never did see it. A few times an hour, it would sing, “uh-oh,” “uh-oh,” “uh-oh,” “uh-oh.” That’s what I heard. Yuriko heard “aho,” “aho,” “aho,” “aho,” which means “stupid” in Japanese.

Late in the afternoon of the first day we walked to the Bridge On the River Kwai -- luckily under cloudy skies, though still hot. It’s a fine railroad bridge, rebuild after the war, unexceptional but for a bloody past and the gloss of Hollywood. You can walk across it. We did. There are essentially two planks alongside the rails and nothing much on the sides, so it’s best not to stumble. It isn’t a high bridge, but the river is still far enough down to do some damage after a freefall. Every 20 feet or so there are places to stand away from the tracks in case you’re on the Bridge when a train comes to cross, but nothing came along while we were on the Bridge. Since the line doesn’t go into Burma anymore, traffic is fairly low.

Near the Bridge are souvenir shops and a gaudy WWII “museum" -- overpriced even at 30 baht. All we bought we a couple of bottles of Coke. We walked back to the guesthouse via the main road through town, a long strip occupied largely by auto/motorcycle sales and repair shops. The town’s main recreation, it seems, is buzzing down the road, mostly on two wheels.

The next day we rode the train to the end of the line at a place called Nam Tok, a few miles shy of the frontier with Burma. In the signs for tourists, this is called the Death Railway, though it’s only a small part of the line that Allied POWs and native conscripts slaved on. The ride to the end of the line takes about two hours, and a regular ride costs 17 baht each way—so for two round trips, we paid 68 baht, or about $2.70. At a table at the station were tourist tickets for 100 baht each. For this you got a guaranteed seat, a soft drink (which normally run 10 baht), and a silly certificate saying you’d ridden the Death Railway. The tout at the table wasn’t especially energetic, and he left us and a handful of other tourists alone after no one showed any interest in his tickets.

The Death Railway is a local line, making whistle stops fairly often. The line follows the river, though a lush tropical valley. You see the river only occasionally, but then spectacularly. The train had mostly emptied out by Nam Tok, which sported a seedy, nearly deserted station building under dense foliage. There were only a few minutes to look around anyway, since the same train was going back to Kanchanaburi. En route back the train hit a truck, just enough to jar the passengers a little. I think it was a maintenance truck parked too close to the rail. This delayed our return about 30 minutes, but we weren’t on any schedule, and didn’t care.

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