All right, I’ll admit it. The only reason that Kanchanaburi, Thailand was on our radar was because of a movie, Bridge on the River Kwai. Just the famous name of the movie, actually, since we’ve never seen the film. But what the hey, we’ve toured Lord of the Rings locations in New Zealand and watched The Killing Fields while in Cambodia. A fictional movie can provide an entry point into real places and events.

And I do mean “fictional”. Bridge on the River Kwai, the novel, is based on real events, but gets everything about them pretty much wrong. The characters are twisted mashups of real people, and the bridge- the one in the title- wasn’t even on the River Kwai. It was on the next river over, the Mae Klong. The movie was made in 1957, the title became famous and Thailand had a problem: busloads of tourists were showing up asking for the wrong river. Thai officials took a novel approach: they renamed the river so it matched the movie. That section of the river is now called the Khwae Yai, the “big tributary”. Oh yeah, and it’s pronounced “kware”, not “kwie”.

Glad we got that out of the way. After a dusty train ride from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, we spent a few days delving into this area’s World War II history. It centers around construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway. In 1942, Japanese forces were kicking butt in Southeast Asia, surprising the Allies with spectacular victories like the fall of Singapore.

Thailand saw the writing on the wartime wall and agreed to let Japan do what it wanted in Thailand. What it wanted was a way to move supplies to Burma without those pesky Allied submarines blowing them up. The answer: a railway.

It would become known as the Death Railway. Japan created a huge workforce by putting over 60,000 prisoners of war to work alongside 180,000 Asian laborers (the romusha) lured by phony contracts. Teams cleared some of the most inhospitable land in Thailand under brutal conditions. Even as they faced starvation and sickness, they were pushed to work faster and finish the line sooner. Ultimately, roughly 12,800 Allied POWs and 90,000 laborers died during the undertaking.

All hail the King at the entrance to Hellfire Pass

At the Hellfire Pass Memorial, we delved into the details at a small museum, and then went to see for ourselves.

See that channel cut through the rock? It was cleared by hand power- a little dynamite to loosen the rock, and then nothing but picks and shovels. The hellish sight of laborers working all night by torchlight give this area its name. Remnants of the old railroad ties can still be seen in the ground.

On a side note, here’s something we’ve seen at a few other historical sites, and it bothers me: just before I snapped this photo…

…this girl did her best swimsuit model pose… on a railway built by slaves, tens of thousands of whom died. Am I being too sensitive here?

Anyway, while most visitors take a short walk through Hellfire Pass, Karen and I opted for the “long walk”, an hourlong hike along the old railway route. They give you a radio at the visitor’s center to keep in touch with you, which I thought was awfully considerate of them. With an audio tour guiding us, we passed through more rocky crevices and saw the former locations of trestle bridges.

The sun beat down on us. Bugs swarmed over us. Hard to complain when you’ve got plenty of water and a radio, though. What the hell was it like to work here in 1943?

And that brings us to the bridge. That famous bridge.

The Red Army invades. That caption is funnier if these are Chinese tourists, so let's assume they are.

More gleeful posing

This was one of the few metal bridges over the river, making it a prime target for Allied bombings. Sure enough, in 1945, Allied planes swooped in and destroyed portions of the bridge. Today, only the curved sections are original; the squared-off sections were built by the Japanese as part of their war reparations.

This hyper-realistic diorama truly captures the pathos of the bridge bombing. Or not.

In the pre-CNN era, you found out wars were over by MAIL

Oddly, this little town with this little bridge is a hive of tourist activity. Does a 55-year-old movie starring Alec Guinness still have that much sway?! Is this the only site of historical significance in central Thailand?! It’s possible to ride the train over the bridge- most passengers are tourists, although a few locals seem to use it for actual transportation.

Besides a couple of museums (one better than the other), there’s a market selling everything from skewers of mystery meat to jade jewelry, and the tour buses just keep coming.

Sausages on the River Kwai

Caught in the act! Karen pets stray dogs by the bridge. This is the kind of thing that gives our travel doc nightmares (Karen managed to survive).

Karen chats with local students who practiced their English with us

Is this how Iraq will be in fifty years? A scale model of Fallujah in a heavily air-conditioned building, surrounded by postcard racks and Pepsi logos?

My last stop in town was the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, where the remains of Allied soldiers lie. It’s an oasis in this dusty, noisy city, and I finally got a chance to reflect on the individuals who perished here. Reading the messages on headstone after headstone, I found myself getting choked up.

I guess I can thank David Lean for getting our butts up here, to “accidentally” learn about the moving history of the Death Railway, Hellfire Pass and the bridge over the River Khware.

Sunset from the train