They made a good couple, the two adjacent bridges straddling a broad span of the Songkhalia River. The Mon bridge was a tall wooden structure, a jumble of sturdy logs and planks, riding high above the water, this being the dry season. The bamboo pontoon bridge next to it was thrown together when a flash flood tore up the wooden bridge a couple of monsoons ago. Each pontoon was a fat bundle of a dozen bamboo poles, the bamboo walkway straddling them neatly lined with woven bamboo mats. The bamboo bridge was being maintained even though the wooden bridge had been repaired. I could see why. These two reminded me of friends I’ve known: the stout bulwark that’ll resist a flood and rupture; the pliable pontoon that’ll ride any flood afloat. There’s something reassuring about having both around.
I met this charming bridge couple in Sangkhlaburi, at the west-central edge of Thailand, near the Burma border. Up on the wooden bridge, I was gifted with a greater vista of the surrounding tropical splendour. Blue hills, with a dense cladding of teak and bamboo, peeked at the mirror waters coiled at its feet. This is the land of the Mon people, whose raised bamboo huts neatly hug the slopes. I saw Mon women in their brightly coloured, striped, woven sarongs sway towards the market, huge baskets of vegetables perfectly still on their heads. Down on the bamboo bridge, the squishy give of the mats made walking a pleasure. The languorous gait of a Mon man in a longyi showed me how it was done.
The Ranti and Bikhli rivers join the Songkhalia here to become the storied River Khwae Noi — or Kwai — that flows down to Kanchanaburi and under the bridge of the film fame. The river was dammed 70 kilometres downstream from here, flooding huge swathes of the Khwae Noi valley, drowning nearby villages and a revered monastery, Wat Wang Wiwekaram. I took a long-tailed teak boat one morning, to visit its submerged remains. As I cut through the placid waters of the reservoir, a wafer of mist still clung to the surrounding curl of blue hills, its reflection blurred by our wake.
The top of the bell tower appeared first, afloat like a ghostly sentinel. This being January, the water level was low enough for me to walk into the damaged ordination hall. Stripped of the usual Thai glitter, the bare stucco walls were easier on the eye, revealing subtle ornamentations. I noticed the flood-water mark high up the wall, nearly 10 metres above the current water level. This is an active shrine in the dry season, and a clutch of Mon ladies were hawking flowers and incense. One, a statuesque woman, swirls of dried thanaka paste on her cheeks, her flower tray balanced on her head, crossed her arms on her chest and held my gaze. I thought I saw the same flood mark in her eyes. On the ride back, I imagined homes, schools and temples, in metres of water under me. And my boatman mentioned that a large section of the Death Railway was similarly drowned by the dam.
I kept running into the Death Railway. Later that day, I caught a glimpse of it on Burmese soil across the border at Three Pagodas Pass. As I travelled through the beauteous Khwae Noi valley, from Sangkhlaburi to Kanchanaburi, over the next few days, it nagged me, like a pesky subcutaneous rash.
If you scratched the earth here like you would a kaffir lime, instead of a citrus bouquet, you would release a whiff of the Death Railway — a WWII-era railway jungleproject along the Khwae Noi, connecting Thailand with Burma. In pushing for its completion, the occupying Japanese army drove to the edge of death a workforce of 60,000 Allied PoWs and 2,00,000 forced Asian labourers — Burmese, Thai, Javanese, Chinese, but mostly Tamils from British Malaya. Between June 1942 and December 1943, these men completed 415 kilometres of railway track through the harshest possible terrain, cutting through several million tonnes of rock, and building over 600 bridges, several of them viaducts. They did this work under conditions of unspeakable horror, with the most rudimentary tools, in the face of starvation, disease and Japanese torture. Unsurprisingly, many died, over 1,00,000 by most accounts. Of these, only 12,000 were Allied PoWs.
For a proper encounter with the Death Railway, I headed for Hellfire Pass: a particularly difficult section where the line went through solid rock. En route, I caught a glimpse of the Khwae Noi at Thong Pha Phum, just south of where it is freed from the dam. The river was bottle-green, tantalisingly still in parts and swirling in others, like a bottled-up woman who has seen things.
The skies were overcast at Hellfire Pass, the place deserted. The trail here tries to follow the old railbed. I walked on it past thick groves of bamboo and teak, the air fragrant with camphor. At the Konyu cutting, the skeletal remains of the original ties peeked through the railbed, on which muscular trees with buttress roots had cropped up. Gnarled and curlicue vines hung above the trail in places. Nailed to the cutting wall, I saw an original torch: a foot-long section of bamboo, rigged with a primitive wick, nearly black from use. At the Hammer and Tap cutting, the eerie silence was a thin skin over a sea of remembered sound. I pictured a thousand gaunt men in loincloths, working by the hellfire light of a hundred bamboo torches, cutting through dense black basalt to create a canyon half-a-kilometre long and 25 feet deep. Hold your blunt chisel as your partner hammers away. Stick in the dynamite when the hole is deep enough. Carry the debris away in a basket. Repeat through an 18-hour shift, or until you collapse and become debris.
Squatting to compose a photo, I felt a pebble hit my back. I jumped up, chastised, and wheeled around. Nobody. Noticing a gooseberry at my feet, I looked up and saw the tree. But was it really the tree? A sharp wind whistled through the leaves, making the bamboo creak and rattle like so many bones.
I took a train later that day, from Nam Tok to Kanchanaburi — a 70-kilometre section of the Death Railway that is still operational. We clickity-clacked along the Khwae Noi, the river flitting in and out of view. This train reminded me of the old locals on Kolkata’s south-suburban line: wooden benches, rickety repair jobs, easy camaraderie. Being a slow train, it was nearly empty, a handful of tourists and a few Thai families. Outside my window, unobstructed by grills or glass, was the lush Khwae Noi valley. Under heavy grey skies, acres upon verdant acres of tapioca, sugarcane, and paddy spread out to the blue hills in the distance.
At about the halfway point is the Wang Pho viaduct, a section of the railway with a particularly heavy death rate. To my right, the river made a wide lazy loop; a tug pulled a string of a dozen bamboo rafts overflowing with nubile white bodies in neon orange life-vests. In solidarity, someone on the train hollered: “Rock and Roll!” To my left, was Tham Krasae, the dank caves where the PoWs camped when building the curved trestle we were riding, the only original trestle to remain. And I sat in the middle, taking it all in, riding 1,00,000 railroad ties... or was it corpses? But it was hard to stay present to that morbidity. It started to drizzle. The train chafed against exuberant foliage along the tracks; a torn leaf, wet and fragrant, hit my face and yanked me out. It brought me the obvious news that life goes on. And that horror continually recedes into knowledge of horror.
Trundling into Kanchanaburi over the bridge on the River Kwai, I found it crawling with tourists in the throes of a selfie epidemic, our slow-moving train only inches from their faces. I thought of Japan’s propulsion behind the Thai-Burma railway. Japan wanted India. It was this railway, completed in December 1943, which allowed them to mount the attacks on Imphal and Kohima in April 1944. Their decisive defeat in those battles was to alter the course of the war in the Pacific theatre. I thought of Calcutta circa 1944, bracing for the Japanese assault. Blimps hovering above the newly opened Howrah bridge to deter Japanese bombers, the Victoria Memorial camouflaged with dark grey paint, GIs milling about Bow Barracks, the US military hospital where now stands the house I live in — I was taking a selfie too.
That night, the skies opened up over Kanchanaburi. Outside my window, fat ropes of rain lashed a towering teak; at its base, gigantic taro leaves glistened balefully. I thought about this place, full of memorials built painstakingly by energetic white men — the ‘lest we forget’ people. They carefully guard the names, bodies, stories of their 12,000 lost. The rest of us — who lost the other 88,000, nameless, in mass graves, or Dantesque conflagrations of cholera-ridden heaps, with some still alive — take a different tack on remembering. We, the people of the fecund tropics, know that if left alone long enough, the jungle always pulls rank, even over the most ambitious edifice. We don’t let memory get in the way of life.
In the morning I visited Kanchanaburi’s war cemetery, the resting place of nearly 7,000 Allied PoWs killed on the Death Railway. It’s a pretty park. Shady tamarind trees tower over neat rows of graves, interspersed with well-tended flowering shrubs. I saw jasmine, red plumeria, blue trumpet, orange lantana. Then, between two British graves, I spotted a bird’s-eye chilli bush. Tiny beads of bright red, these furiously hot Thai chillies are pricey because no one wants the job of harvesting them. These here, nourished by the bodies of PoWs, were free for the taking. I did what came naturally: plucked one and ate it with my noodle soup for lunch.
Getting there: There are excellent flights to Bangkok from Delhi and other Indian metros. Round-trip economy-class tickets cost upwards of Rs 17,000.
Visa: Apply via www.vfs-thailand.co.in. The helpline number is 022- 67866003 (Mon-Fri, 8am-5pm). A single-entry visa, valid for three months, costs Rs 4,000. Indians are among the people from 27 countries eligible for visa on arrival, valid for 15 days (www.vfs-thailand.co.in/Delhi/faqs.html; application fee of 1,000 Baht).
Currency: Re 1 = 1.53 Thai Baht
How to tour: Intrepid Travel (www.intrepidtravel.com) arranges a wide variety of tours in Thailand. Intrepid trips can be booked through their India representatives www.ActiveHolidayCompany.com. I was on their 7N/8D Thai Discovery Tour (code: TTSP). The tour began and ended in Bangkok, with two nights in Sangkhlaburi, one night at Thong Pha Phum, and two nights at Kanchanaburi. Intrepid’s tours have a maximum group size of 12. My group, luckily, only had 6. All our transportation was public, via bus, train, songthaew (covered pick-up truck), saamlor (cycle rickshaw) and long-tailed teak boat. A guide travelled with us throughout the week, and handled all travel arrangements.
In Bangkok, we were put up in a backpacker hotel in the heart of Banglamphu, on a 24-hour party street that is an easy 10-minute walk away from the Grand Palace. Elsewhere, we stayed outside of town, at mid-range to budget resorts with en-suite rooms.
Meals were mostly at cheap local restaurants, with one relatively fancy dinner at Kanchanaburi. Far and away the best meal of the week was homecooked fare at Ti Pu Ye, a Karen tribal village inside the Sai Yok National Park.
In addition to the sites related to the Death Railway, one highlight was a hike through a moist tropical jungle up the Erawan Falls, outside Kanchanaburi. The last couple of its seven levels will test your thighs, but you’ll give up at the cost of a spectacular payoff. See www.intrepidtravel.com/thailand/thailand-discovery-83404/tripnotes for the detailed itinerary.
The price per person on twin share basis is $690–$815, depending on the departure date. Check the company’s website for their departure schedule. Some departures have a single supplement option, but prices are not pre-published; contact the company for details. Single travellers share their room only with people of the same gender. The price includes accommodation, transportation, and all entry fees. Of the meals, five breakfasts and two lunches are included. Intrepid suggests a budget of $160 for the meals not covered. Drinks, laundry and tips are extra. In addition, Intrepid requires you to buy travel insurance from a provider of their choice. I paid $65 for coverage during the week that I travelled.
Travel tips: Arriving early makes all the difference for certain sights. For example, having arrived at opening time, I had the Hellfire Pass trail all to myself, where the silence was a crucial part of the experience. Pack light; laundry is cheap, but many public buses don’t have a separate luggage bin so your suitcase will end up on the aisle.
A fat part of Intrepid’s clientele are Australians visiting Asia for the first time, and their food recommendations are geared accordingly. If these are too lily-livered for you, do seek out and graze through the fabulous wet markets, street stalls and night markets. Every town in Thailand has them.