Saturday, May 2, 2015

Day 63 - 1 May 2015 - In Bangkok

The Bridge on the River Kwai, the 1957 World War II movie classic by David Lean, left an indelible impression on me as a young film buff. And stories of valour such as depicted in the movie was a synopsis of the hard fought battles and plots that pieced together important elements of the War. My paternal grandfather had served the Army during WWII and a bit thereafter in what are parts of Bangladesh and Pakistan. The spine chilling stories he told his grandchildren of the War and Partition came to life, as it were, when I saw movies like Bridge on the River Kwai. Even though I had visited Thailand a few times in the past I had not ventured to Kanchanaburi to see the Bridge. From the time I announced the expedition to South East Asia a Facebook friend kept on reminding me not to miss a visit to Kanchanaburi. If nothing else, I could not turn a deaf ear to such fervent reminders, despite the historical place being more than 175 km from Bangkok, close to the Myanmar border. Being Labour Day Moncy also had a day off, the beginning of a long weekend. Therefore, Moncy, Thomas and I planned the out of city visit this day.

This morning at breakfast the number of Chinese tourists had come down quite a bit, even though they were the only ones to be seen around. I was told that were in Bangkok in transit to their home towns in China after sightseeing in Thailand. Though they are not heavy spenders the numbers provide margins for hotels and other support systems.

We set out for Kanchanaburi after breakfast with young Thomas as navigator assisted by Google Maps. The roads, be it the highway or those that linked inconsequential towns, were ship shape. However, the traffic was denser than expected, possibly due to the long weekend. Besides public holidays on 1 and 5 May and the weekend that intervened on 2 and 3 May, all government offices and banks had declared holiday on 5 May too. Therefore, people were ‘migrating’ out of the city to holiday locations, rural vacation homes and resorts.

Kanchanaburi railway station was the first halt, which is almost opposite the Bridge. The quaint metre gauge station has organised tourist train trips to visit the Bridge. I was told that the ride is scenic and spectacular, at the same time. We did not have time for that. The friendly station master gave us clear direction to reach the Bridge. He was doubly pleased when I told him that I am a retired officer of the Indian Railways. He told that to all his colleagues present there. One of them came out to see the car and expressed his wonderment inimitably slapping his forehead and uttering sounds that sounded ‘Tarzan’ish. On the way to the Bridge, beside the main road, lay the war cemetery. The Don-Rak war cemetery, as it is locally known, is the main PoW cemetery with over 6900 graves.

The award winning movie was based on the 1952 best seller, Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai by Pierre Boulle. The author himself was a Japanese POW. However, his novel borrowed less from fact and more from fiction. However, the curios part is that even history was ‘bent’ to accommodate fiction. The construction of the Burma Railway in 1942-43 is the historical setting. The novel depicted the railway bridge as one over the River Kwai. In actual fact the bridge was over the Mae Klong River. The ‘original’ Kwai River did not have any railway line passing over it. After the film became a hit and tourists wanted to visit the Bridge over the River Kwai the Thais were put to a dilemma, because the River Kwai was actually the River Mae Klong. But, they did a star turn by renaming the Mae Klong River as River Khwae Yai in the 1960s! Fiction became history, Voila! The movie was filmed in Kitulgala in Sri Lanka and bagged many international awards and is widely recognised as one of the greatest movies ever made. The movie did not find acceptance by the Japanese as their engineers were shown in the movie as being incompetent.

The construction of the ‘Death Railway’ was a Japanese project to support its military ambitions in Burma and India. More than 13,000 prisoners of war and 100,000 civilian are said to have died in the execution of the project, and hence, the name of the railway. The destruction of the bridge as depicted in the film is entirely fictional. In fact, two bridges were built - a temporary wooden bridge and a permanent steel/concrete bridge a few months later. Both bridges were used for two years, until they were destroyed by Allied aerial bombing. The steel bridge was repaired and is still in use. The steel girders bear testimony today to the heavy artillery fire the bridge was subjected to.

I walked across the Bridge; it was so romantic and at the same time a walk down pages of history. There were tourists all along the Bridge, River Kwai railway station and the many shops in the area. I bought a few pieces of exquisitely hand carved soap. Craftsmanship is of a high order in Thailand. We came back to Bangkok after lunch in one of the Malaysian restaurants in the complex. It had been extremely hot and we were happy to get back.

After relaxing a little while in the hotel we left for some street shopping and dinner. I picked up a few shawls, belts and t-shirts before we homed in on a Lebanese restaurant for a few rounds of beer and short eats. Moncy took me to a Nepalese restaurant for dinner later, where he has been a few times before. I was put off by the waiter who ‘demanded’ that we place all the orders at once and not in piecemeal. When I gave him a piece of my mind the lady owner stepped in and restored ‘peace’.  Three Sardarjis occupied a table in the restaurant. One of them seemed to convince the lady owner about his skills in palm reading. A casual ‘eavesdrop’ convinced me that he was peddling a non-existent skill, but one that is a sure shot to gain attention with the fairer sex. We left the restaurant after the chappatis and chilly chicken that were average fare. 

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