The Bridge over the River Kwaiis a novel by French author, Pierre Boulle. The story is fictional but uses the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942–43, as its historical setting. The novel deals with the plight of World War II Allied prisoners-of-war forced by the Imperial Japanese Army to build a bridge for the “Death Railway“, so named because of the large number of prisoners and conscripts who died during its construction.
Curiously, the bridge described in the book didn’t actually cross the River Kwai. Pierre Boulle had never been to the bridge. He knew that the ‘death railway’ ran parallel to the River Kwai for many miles, and he therefore assumed that it was the Kwai which it crossed just north of Kanchanaburi. This was an incorrect assumption; the bridge actually crossed the Mae Klong river.
The structure was immortalised in David Lean’s 1957 film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ which centres around one of the line’s main engineering feats, the bridge across the Kwae Yai river just north of Kanchanburi. Although the film was shot in Sri Lanka, the Bridge on the River Kwai really exists, and still carries regular passenger trains from Bangkok as far as Nam Tok.
When David Lean’s film The Bridge on the River Kwai was released, the Thais faced a problem. Thousands of tourists came to see the bridge over the River Kwai, but no such bridge existed. However, there did exist a bridge over the Mae Klong. So, to resolve the problem, they renamed the river. The Mae Klong is now called the Kwae Yai (‘Big Kwae’) for several miles north of the confluence with the Kwae Noi (‘Little Kwae’), including the bit under the bridge.
Anyway, enough of the background …we took the passenger train from Bangkok over the bridge as far as the terminus, Nam Tok, and then waited for the return trip back over the bridge to Kanchanaburi, where we stayed the night.
Later, walking across the bridge along with the hundreds of other visitors makes you realize what a tourist trap this area has become. It is a crying shame that such an historic event has been reduced to gross commercialism, but I guess that is the way of the world these days.
If you look at the photographs, the original sections of the bridge have the rounded spans, with the two centre square sections being rebuilt after the war, following the Allied aerial bombing of the bridge.
We paid our respects at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where the remains of almost 7,000 Commonwealth servicemen are buried in the immaculately manicured lawns and gardens.
As darkness descended on the town, people dined at the floating restaurant with spectacular views of the ever-changing light show projected on the bridge. Who’d have thought it? Certainly not the tens of thousands of men who lost their lives during the construction of the Death Railway. What a strange world we live in.