Sitting on the bank of Thailand's Khwae Yai River, just beneath the unimposing steel bridge, I was struck by how commonplace the setting was. In the distance I could see softly sloping hills whose verdant foliage extended right down to the shore from which I was watching the setting sun. The slowly flowing muddy waters could just as easily have been those of the Potomac or the Susquehanna.
But as soon as I heard the whistle of an approaching train, the imagery abruptly changed. I half-expected to see a column of emaciated, khaki-clad British soldiers, jauntily whistling a familiar tune as they marched out of the forest. Or better yet, a staggering Alec Guinness, about to fall on a detonator that would blow up the infamous bridge above me.
Just 40 years ago this month, on Feb. 13, 1945, the "Bridge on the River Kwai" -- as it was dubbed in the movie -- was destroyed, not by Alec Guinness' Col. Nicholson but by a squadron of American B-24s on a sortie from India. The bridge, a key link in Japan's notorious "Death Railway" of World War II, has long since been repaired, and serves as an impressive memorial to the tens of thousands of Allied troops and oriental laborers who died while forced by the Japanese to lay the 275 miles of track between 1942 and 1945.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (actually, the river is known locally as the Khwae Yai and is pronounced more like the first three letters of the word "quack" than the first four of the word "choir," as it was in the 1957 film) is located just north of the town of Kanchanaburi, or about 85 miles west of Bangkok. And while it is certainly the most well-known attraction for visitors to Kanchanaburi, it is by no means the only one.
The region surrounding Kanchanaburi is resplendent with colorful Buddhist temples, many of which are built into limestone caves, as well as some of Thailand's most beautiful waterfalls. There are also archeological ruins of an ancient civilization, discovered, ironically, by a Dutch prisoner of war working on the construction of the Death Railway. And then there is the floating Buddhist nun, who attracts thousands of worshippers annually as she drifts across a quiet pond, whistling blessings to those who come for visits.
After the Japanese occupied Thailand (then still known as Siam) in 1941, they decided to construct a railway to Burma to transport supplies and troops westward toward India. Expediency was critical to the Japanese, and they forced thousands of American, British, Dutch, Australian and New Zealand prisoners of war, along with local laborers, to work arduously on the railroad, and under extremely trying conditions.
As the movie, based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, relates, the railroad workers were treated as virtual slaves. Many died of starvation, malaria, typhus, dysentery, gangrene and exhaustion, as the Japanese denied the prisoners adequate medical supplies and drove them to labor around the clock in the tropical climate.
Yet the film hardly captures the dire conditions under which the men lived and worked. A true portrayal of the living conditions enforced upon the prisoners is offered in a small but moving museum in Kanchanaburi, just above the Mae Klong River, into which the Khwae Yai flows. The museum is housed in long, narrow bamboo huts built to resemble the crude dormitories in which the prisoners resided. Photographs and paintings of the Allied soldiers at the time of the bridge's construction show that none of the prisoners looked as hearty and muscular as William Holden, who starred in the movie as an American naval officer.
Instead, one sees pictures of ghastly looking human shells, soldiers so undernourished that their bones jut out grotesquely. I wondered, looking at these discomforting pictures, how the men had the strength to build the railroad. In all, according to one account in the museum, hundreds of men died "for every kilometer of railway built." Many of those who succumbed to the rigors of enforced railway labor are buried today along the river banks or in two well-kept Allied cemeteries in Kanchanaburi.
Photographs of the old bridge also adorn the museum. In the film the bridge was wooden, but the real bridge had steel spans built upon concrete pillars. A temporary wooden bridge was built about 100 yards downstream from the main edifice, but it was intended only to transport equipment until the permanent bridge was completed.
Several attempts had been made to bomb the bridge, beginning in late 1944, but none succeeded until the Feb. 13, 1945, foray. The photographs in the museum reveal that the only section of the bridge actually destroyed by the American bombers was the central portion, consisting of three spans. Today those spans are flat, while the original spans that still stand are arced.
After visiting the museum, I decided to search for the floating nun, or "Mae Chee." I had read about her, skeptically, in a guidebook, but her existence was confirmed at a local bank. My search ultimately was futile, a matter of showing up on the wrong day, but the excursion proved fascinating nevertheless.
I was told that the elderly nun does her floating, as a form of religious meditation, beneath the Wat Tham Mongkorn Thong, a small Buddhist temple built into a cave on a hill about four miles from Kanchanaburi. Her ritual has become legendary, and I was told she attracts religious devotees from around Thailand.
I walked from the museum down to the Mae Klong River, where a small, barge-like ferry transported me -- at no charge -- across the river to a dirt road that, I was informed, would lead me to the temple. Without any solicitation on my part, I was offered a ride on a small pick-up truck along the sugar-cane-lined road heading to the temple. I debarked and was told I had about a half-mile's walk to the cave-temple, which I could see from the main road.
As I walked I was entertained by a group of Thai schoolchildren, who kept vacillating between shyness and curiosity, as they individually approached me to try out their English and just as quickly shrank away giggling as I attempted to respond.
As I neared the hill of the temple, I saw a long series of steps leading up to an exceptionally colorful monster painted on the limestone rock where the temple appeared to be. This creature had huge red ears and eyebrows, a black mouth with ominous-looking white fangs and yellow squirts of wavy hair protruding from his head. A hand rail leading up the steps was also colorfully painted and sculpted in the form of a gigantically long dragon. I peered about for the floating nun as I ascended the steps, but no one was to be seen. It was just the monster, the dragon and me. When I finally reached the top, I was met by two young Buddhist monks clad in orange robes. Their English was about as inadequate as my Thai, but somehow they convinced me to have a look at the cave behind the temple.
These monks did have the benefit of electricity, and the few weak bulbs that barely lit the inside of the cave were the only evidence of modernity at Wat Tham Mongkom Thong. The cave was home to more bats than light bulbs, and at times I had to squat on all fours to pass through the low passageways. The cave led upwards and finally we emerged through a hole at a point about 100 feet up the hill from where we began. The only striking aspect of the tour through this cave was the oddity of it all.
The two monks then guided me back down to the face of the monster and offered me -- gratis -- a Sprite, while taking great interest in my camera, for which they posed with glee. Eager to find out about the floating nun, I asked them in my pidgin English-Thai where I could discover this famous creature. Responding in kind they sadly informed me that she was not floating today, that I would have to come back in about four or five days to catch her act.
The floating nun, however, is not the only quirky attraction of Kanchanaburi. The town itself, while looking not unlike a typical small town in the American Midwest, has some interesting features of its own. One is a mangled wreck of an automobile, sitting like a sculpture on a piece of concrete in the midst of Kanchanaburi's busiest intersection. It serves as a warning, I was told, to drive carefully.
The names of streets in this community of about 30,000 are painted on little sign posts that are shaped like fish. (Even though Kanchanaburi is landlocked, the region is well known for a certain edible fish that inhabits its rivers, thus the unusual street signs.)
Thailand is a seafood aficionado's paradise, but Kanchanaburi is especially known for its scrumptious barbequed chicken, which can be purchased from the many restaurants and foodstalls that dot Saengchuto Road, the main north-south drag leading to the Bridge on the River Kwai. And despite its distance from the sea, Kanchanaburi still has excellent fish, squid, crab, oysters and shrimp, particularly in the wonderfully aromatic and spicy shrimp-and-lemon-grass soup known as tom yom kung.
I discovered another little surprise at my hotel. I decided to bypass the one western-style hotel in town, the Rama of the River Kwai, where single rooms go for about $20 per night and doubles for about $24, and opted for one of the dozen or so basic Thai hotels, where singles cost about $4 and doubles about $3 more. I chose the River Kwai, adjacent to the more expensive hotel of similar name, and was greeted upon registering by a playful monkey and a not-so-amicable civet.
The 2 1/2-hour bus trip between Kanchanaburi and Bangkok costs about $1 for a regular bus and twice that for an air-conditioned bus. Buses depart from both Bangkok and Kanchanaburi approximately every 15 minutes from about 5 a.m. until 7 in the evening.
Before departing this pleasant town I decided to make one more visit to the famous bridge. A walk there takes about an hour from the middle of town, while a ride in a songthaew, a covered pick-up truck with two benches along the side, costs about 20 cents and takes 10 minutes.
I went beneath the bridge again, slightly downstream where a wooden walkway leads across the water to one of several restaurants that cater to the tour-group trade. Relatively few western tourists have discovered Kanchanaburi. Most visitors seem to be from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.
Trying for that one last magical photograph, I switched camera lenses, stumbled on the walkway and watched helplessly as one of my lenses plopped into the river, lost forever, right about the same spot, I figured, where Alec Guinness dropped dead as he blew up the bridge.