Last weekend, I journeyed to the Kanchanaburi province with my French friend Leo. As soon as we got to town, we rented motorbikes and took off on a 90-minute ride to the Erawan Waterfall, one of Thailand's most beautiful natural destinations. The falls are seven stories high, and the water is perfectly clear. Fish swim around under giant trees where monkeys play, rockslides abound, and the whole scene is one of peace – except that the lower four levels are filled with tourists and a snack bar waits at the bottom. In addition to Erawan, we rode through rural areas, visiting caves, temples, and a great historic city built by the Khmer Empire in the 12th century.
Towards the end of our journey, we stopped along the famous Death Railway. This railroad runs from Thailand to Burma, or Myanmar, and it earned its name during World War II. Thailand fought on the side of the Japanese, who had grand plans to dominate Asia. The Japanese forced 200,000 Asian civilians and 60,000 POWs, or prisoners of war, to complete the railroad in just a year and a half, despite engineers' predications that it would take four or five to construct. The railway was built so quickly because the Japanese forced workers to build in horrible conditions. We now think that about 100,000 Asian civilians and 16,000 prisoners of war died during the construction of the railway.
POWs were forced to live in bamboo huts, where they had little to no food and often suffered from terrible diseases. Cruel punishments were normal for those who refused to work, and many awful stories survive from those days. Leo and I visited a small museum commemorating the railroad. The museum was interesting, but it only spoke of the prisoners of war, not the civilians. We also visited the memorial cemetery, located right in the center of Kanchanaburi. Each gravestone was inscribed with the dates of the soldiers' birth and death, their name, and an epitaph (some words to dedicate the burial). Some were as young as 20 or 21, and many epitaphs read "we're proud of you, son." It was a heavy experience.
There are some strange things about the modern-day memorial sites. If you want to walk on the actual railway, you can – and you'll be surrounded by dozens of people. The path to the railway is lined with 20 or 30 vendors, selling all sorts of souvenirs, ice cream treats, and even clothing. In the museum, there is no mention of Thailand's actions during the war – we even heard a tour guide explaining that Thailand was forced to fight on the side of Japan, which simply isn't true. And, there is almost no mention of the deaths of the forced civilian laborers, even though 100,000 of them passed away building the railway. Many visitors come to the area just because a Hollywood movie, "The Bridge Over the River Kwai," is loosely based on the region's history during the War. So, this weekend gave me lots to think about.
Adam De Gree
I am a senior in college, studying philosophy, and am visiting family in the Czech Republic and travelling and studying in Europe and Asia.