Yesterday we got the train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. This is the line that formed the Burma railway and the two and a half hour journey gave us a chance to reflect on what it must have been like to build the railway under those conditions.
Our train seemed old enough to have been one of the first in operation when the railway was completed in 1943. There was no air-conditioning; some of the fans worked; the seats were broken and many of the windows and shutters wouldn’t open or close. We had thought that travelling with the windows open would provide a cooling breeze but we were wrong. It was like sitting in a sauna with a fan heater on full blast.
Still, we had plenty of clean water and space to spread out. The POWs were packed into carriages without enough space to sit or lie down. And they had no windows! NO WINDOWS! And they travelled like that for four days! They had little food and drink. Their water wasn’t cold or clean and would have given them dysentery, beri-beri and other stomach ailments. Once they arrived they had to contend with malaria, cholera, mosquitoes, lice and bigger animals, forced marches, brutality and slave labour. It’s amazing that around half of the 200,000 POWs and workers from the surrounding Asian countries (Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia) actually survived.
On the journey we passed people working in the intense heat (this is the cooler season!). I noticed construction workers laying pipes and dancing along dodgy scaffold, quarry workers loading lorries and women carrying buckets of sand and clay to form bricks that would bake under the searing sun. All of them were wearing long sleeves and head coverings with coolie hats on top. It must be unbearable. A worker here can earn about £6 a day, which makes sense if you consider our train journey cost £2 each; but is less than adequate if a cheap night’s accommodation is £12 (2 day’s wages, so not many holidays!) or a simple cotton dress costs £6 (not many shopping expeditions).
The train also passed Thai houses literally inches from the moving carriages, mostly built of plywood and corrugated metal. There’s not always a clear distinction between the outside and the inside as they often cook outside so you can see right into the houses. There’s no fan, no privacy and a dirt floor but, ironically, it’s not unusual to see a satellite dish outside. On this trip we have seen people leading very hard lives.
This morning we went to the bridge over the river Kwai. The river is beautiful, surrounded by trees, flowers, a colourful temple and floating restaurants and the bridge area is surprisingly tranquil. We walked right across the bridge, musing the fate of those men who had slaved in the jungle, mountains an riverside for nothing more than a bowl of rice.
We’re now sitting on the river bank outside our little room listening to the birds calling to each other, the lizards hooting (yes, they really do, it sounds like ‘cup-cake, cup-cake’), fish splashing and the occasional boat drifting past, once again realising just how lucky we are.