The (River Kwai) Bridge in Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi, Thailand is the location of the Bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by the 1957 film of the same name, widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, now preserved in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry. I saw the movie when I was a kid and it made quite an impression upon me, feeling like I was actually there with the POW's. 

Although a fantastic film, it and the 1952 book by Pierre Boulle it was based upon, were works of fiction. There was a much bigger true story that happened in that area during World War II. Fortunately the real story is now mostly told there, without simply trading on the excellence and fame of the film. Paula had visited the bridge with the Gang, but had not seen nor heard of the film.

Notice that in the book, it was a bridge over a river; whereas in the film, it was a bridge on a river. That's a bit of trivia that might win you a small wager in a bar one day.

See the previous two articles in this series to read more about the wartime events in Kanchanaburi. I recommend reading them in the order we actually visited their sites: first the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and then the Death Railway Museum.

When I began to write about the bridge, my first impulse was to pull up a Google map of the area, to get everything properly oriented in my mind. To my major surprise, none of these three important locations are properly labeled by Google on their map of the area!!! I kid you not!

Exploring a Map of the Area
So let me walk you through how to find them on the map. The following directions work for the Chrome browser. Some features may not appear in other browsers.

First go to Google maps and enter the search term "Death Railway" and Google will offer several choices. Click on the one that also says "Mueang Kanchanaburi District, Kanchanaburi, Thailand" and hit enter. You will be taken to a map with a red pin pointing to a small circle labeled "Death Railway." You have arrived in a parking lot for the bridge. Go to street view and you can see part of the bridge behind the parking lot. Go back to the map, so I can give you an overview of the area. 

Zoom in a couple of "+" clicks, and you will see a faint line that passes just to the right of the pin, crossing the river just to the south of the pin. That is the railway line and where it crosses the blue river it is on the famous bridge! You see, it is not labeled. But you'll notice there is a small white circle in the middle of the railway line in the middle of the river. It is labeled in Thai script. Click on it, so the red pin moves there and you'll see that street view is now showing bigger images of the bridge. Click on "Photo Tours" and you'll get a slick 16 second series of close-up images of the bridge. These are some of the best images of the bridge I've seen. [Sorry, this doesn't work in the Opera browser.] If you don't see the Photo Tours option, click on the Photos option, to the right of the Street View option. This will let you click through individual images of the bridge and surrounding area, 100 of them at the time of this writing (May 2014).

Now let me show you where the other two locations are that we visited. Go back to the map and zoom out a few "-" clicks, so you can see a larger area on the map. Look just to the north of the Death Railway label and you'll see a street called "Kwaiyai Rd." Follow it with your eye, zooming out as needed, and you'll see that it goes in a sweeping arc to the right, soon connecting with Sangchuro Rd, which is Highway 323, which runs from southeast to northwest on the map. Zoom out a bit and follow 323 down toward the southeast. Soon you will see a blue rectangle labeled as "Kanchanaburi Railway" and just past that you will see two large green rectangular areas. The lower of those two is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Zoom in there and you will see that it is not labeled. If you zoom in far enough, you will see the cross street on the northwest side is called "Chao Khun Nen Rd." The Death Railway Museum is in the middle of that block, facing out onto the cemetery. If you look further up toward Highway 323, you'll see a label for "Thailand-Burma Railway Centre," which is the official name of the Death Railway Museum. You could click there and follow a link to three reviews, but it's a wild goose chase, taking you to a useless description on Google+. So skip that, as that label is in the wrong place. It should be in the middle of that city block.

Instead, look for the red fork and knife in a small circle just above the C in Chao Khun Nen Rd. Click on that label, then on the street view it offers you. The white building to the far right is the museum. Two clicks in the middle of the road pointing to the right and you will be standing in the middle of the road in front of the museum! Rotate your view to the right and you will see the cemetery in front of you, the large white structure in the middle being the entrance archway.

Now go back to the map. You'll see that there are three white circles in the green area just below Chao Khun Nen Rd. If you click on any of those three, you will also be offered street view images of the cemetery. The far right one of the three also offers a look at the logo for the museum. So there you have it. You've been oriented to the location of these three important sites, none of which are labeled properly on the Google map!    

Exploring the Rivers Around Kanchanaburi
Now let's take a look at the rivers. Leave the red pin in the middle of one of those three labels on the edge of the cemetery and then zoom out. Leave the red pin there, so you won't get lost. Zoom out and move the map up and down to look at the rivers in the area. To the south, you'll see the blue rivers form a large inverted U shape. Down and to the right, you'll see that river becomes quite wide and is called the Mae Klong River. It runs south and eventually empties into the Gulf of Thailand. The river on the left side of the inverted U is labeled the Kwae Noi River, which means the "small branch," or "small tributary." You'll see that it heads west and is actually coming down from the north, parallel to, but west of the river that becomes the Mae Klong River. 

Now go back to the inverted U near the red pin and zoom in. You'll see that the river coming down from the north that flows into the Mae Klong is called the Khwae Yai River, which means the "big tributary." So we have a big and a small tributary, which are meeting to feed the much larger Mae Klong River. The only definition I have found for "Mae Klong" is that it is a river in Western Thailand. So the full name of the River Kwai passing through Kanchanaburi is the Khwae Yai River, or Mae Nam Kwae Yai, as Yahoo maps has it. Kwai, Khwae and Kwae seem to be interchangeable spellings. 

Now for a bit of history. During the war, our now famous bridge was crossing a river that was then called the Mae Klong River. It was NOT called the big tributary at that time! It was just the Mae Klong River, which would soon meet the little tributary as it headed south on its way to the Gulf of Thailand. So during the war it was The Bridge on the Mae Klong River, or just bridge 277 to the Allied bombers. 

Street Directions
Three years after the huge success of the Academy Award winning film, in 1960, the locals renamed the river under the bridge to be the big tributary, the Khwae Yai River. And as you drive up highway 323 from the cemetery toward the bridge, when you get to Kwaiyai Rd, where you need to turn left to go to the bridge, the highway sign points to "The Bridge Over the River Kwai," the book variation of the title. Maybe the local folks got tired of telling the tourists that it was really the bridge over the Mae Klong River.

Apparently Pierre Boulle, who wrote the book that eventually became the 1957 film, was confused about the names of all these rivers. For some reason he chose the name of the little tributary, the Kwae Noi River, as the one under the bridge, which he shortened and misspelled to be called the River Kwai. Some say he picked that one because the railway line follows that river after it crosses the famous bridge. Or maybe he made it all up and was writing about a fictional bridge on a fictional river! In any case, the tourists wanted a bridge to visit, so the Thai people seemed to have accomodated them.

Wrong Name, Wrong Spelling and Wrong Pronunciation!
Americans pronounce the River Kwai with an "i" sound on the end, as in k-w-eye. As we walked toward the bridge, Paula told me how to say the word, which is actually Khwae and it's not with an i sound on the end, but an "a" sound, as in bat. If you follow the IPA pronunciation guide in the Khwae Noi River Wikipedia page, you'll find she's right: "kʰ" as in Can, "w" as in Way, and then "ɛ" like in Bat.

To sum up, pretty much everything I "knew" about this bridge was wrong. At this point, I'm inclined to just call it The Bridge in Kanchanaburi!

Furthermore the bridge shown in the 1957 film is not the one in Kanchanaburi, as the movie was filmed near Kitulgala, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). I haven't seen the film in decades, but my recollection is that the bridge stood very high above the river in the film, much higher than the bridge in Thailand.

The building of the Burma-Siam 415 km long railway line did use forced labor by POW's, in part, on orders of the Japanese soldiers. It is now called the Death Railway because of the approximately 115,000 men who died during its construction. About 100,000 of those men were romusha from China, so-called civilian workers, not POW's, but actually slaves brought there by the Japanese soldiers.  

The railway line was a strategic route of supply and the bridge in Kanchanaburi, as well as many other bridges along the way, were important targets for Allied forces because of that. SPOILER ALERT. But the River Kwai bridge was not destroyed by the POW workers as shown in the film, but by aerial bombing by The 493rd Bomb Squadron on 13 February 1945 from modified B-24s, based at Pandaveswar Airfield, India, using 1,000 pound AZON bombs, the world's first smart bombs. Before the development of these bombs, there were many unsuccessful attempts to destroy this and other bridges along the railway line. See my article on the Death Railway Museum for a lot of details about that.

The steel and concrete bridge has oval shaped spans, which are the original spans the entire bridge had during the war. The two trapezoidal spans in the middle of the bridge were put there after the war by the Japanese as part of war reparations, replacing the center section of the bridge that was destroyed by Allied bombing. The bridge was in service for nearly two years during the war (April 1943 to February 1945), not destroyed during the first crossing by a train after it was built, as shown in the film.  

Here is a video that  shows the way the bridge is now, as a tourist destination in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. The narrator corrects the pronunciation from the usual wrong way it is pronounced in the US, but still gets it wrong (see above), changing the ending from the wrong I sound, to an equally wrong A sound, when it should be "ɛ" like in Bat.

So much for the twists and turns of all the details. Now I want to tell you about my experience of the bridge. We arrived there on a hot sunny afternoon in June 2013. I don't think I'd seen pictures of the bridge before we arrived. I had only dim memories of the 1957 film, which was a different bridge anyway. When I looked at the bridge, it was dark and imposing. The dark color seemed appropriate, in line with most World War II movies I had seen as a kid, filmed in black and white, rather than color. 

We walked down some steps to the level of the river and walked under the bridge. Up close it looked massive and heavy, rather foreboding. My mind was still on the history of all the death that had come to so many in that area during the war, which we had learned about at the cemetery and museum. On the other side of the bridge we walked into a restaurant built out over the river, or perhaps even floating on the river. We had a lovely lunch on the river level, watching the tourist train carrying the people back and forth across the bridge, many with brightly colored parasols as protection from the sun.

We were in no hurry and soon my mood began to lighten. By the time we finishing eating, I was feeling quite good. I looked around and realized that everyone there seemed to be enjoying a special holiday mood. It began to feel like a happy Disney theme park! We took pictures of each other, smiling happily next to the AZON bomb that was planted at the front of the bridge. And then we walked around buying souvenirs at the various stalls; some hats, a bamboo flute, and beautiful silver rings with gemstones.

So an area of slavery, suffering, unspeakable horror, torture and death seventy years earlier has been transformed into a major tourist destination; a fun, happy place! In the parking lot, there were at least a dozen or more large tour buses, that had brought people there from all directions, people from all over the world. In The Railway Man, the current film in theaters about the wartime period in that area, there is a scene in England, in which the leading man tells the leading woman about a battle that had happened on that beautiful countryside hundreds of years earlier. He summarized the scene by saying that everywhere man has ever gone on Earth there have been wars. And as I saw in Thailand, people over time have a way of healing an area where war once occurred. I felt happy as we headed back to our hotel after our long day exploring the history of war in Kanchanaburi. Life was good.