Death Railway

415km of railway were constructed between Thailand and Burma during WWII – that’s a lot of sleepers!

Although I had heard of the book title ‘bridge on the river Kwai’, I never knew the full story of the construction of the Thailand to Burma railway or the significance of that bridge until our visit to Kanchanaburi a few weeks ago. It’s one of the most moving and heart wrenching stories I’ve ever heard. The cruelty that was inflicted on so many people was so truly horrendous that even thinking about it now sends chills down my spine and makes me feel incredibly uneasy. It’s a story that I think is important to share and important to remember.

The beginning

Back in the late 1800s, the British government considered building a railway to connect Burma with its neighbouring country of Thailand. After surveying the proposed route, it was decided that the mountainous jungle and numerous rivers would not only be physically challenging to penetrate, but would be totally inhumane for labourers working in the stifling tropical heat and inhospitable environment. The proposal for the railway was, quite rightly, abandoned.

During the Second World War, Japanese forces invaded many countries in eastern Asia and the Pacific. Part of their conquest included seizing control of Burma from the British government. They supplied their forces in Burma using an oceanic route but were frequently attacked by Allied submarines. They became particularly vulnerable after they lost a gruelling sea battle (the Battle of Midway) in May 1942, so to avoid the hazardous 2000-mile sea journey the Japanese formed plans to construct a railway linking Thailand (Ban Pong) to Burma (Thanbyuzayat). This would connect existing railways and be the key to safely supplying much needed resources to their troops – even though they knew it would be the worst kind of living hell for the labourers.

Many Japanese and Koreans were employed to work on the railway as engineers, guards and supervisors. However, the cruel task of constructing the railway itself was given to prisoners of war and slave labourers from neighbouring Asian countries.

POWs

Prisoners from Britain, Australia, America and Holland were forced into trains, 30 – 40 people per carriage, where they travelled for up to 4 days with no food and barely any water, in the stifling heat, no toilet facilities and no space to even lie down and take nap. Once they arrived at their destination, many men then faced an exhausting trek through the hostile terrain of the tropical jungle. Sleep deprived and already malnourished, they were expected to hike for days carrying supplies and construction materials to their designated work camps.

Romusha

The Japanese were in a hurry to build the railway and “employed” 180,000 Asian civilians (known as Romusha) to bulk out the existing workforce of 60,000 POWs. The Romusha were essentially tricked into working on the railway. Many arrived with wives and children on false-promises of good wages and housing facilities, while others were conscripted by force. They arrived into hell-like conditions, they suffered the same conditions as the POWs but they hadn’t had the same military training as the POWs and ultimately suffered even more as a result.

Working conditions

Camps were set up using bamboo as the main construction material. Sleeping platforms were created in a space about 60 meters long, they were completely open to the elements and each one housed around 200 men. The men had very few belongings and most just had the clothes they were wearing. In the tropical heat and humidity, clothes and shoes soon rotted away and many men were forced to work barefoot. By contrast, the nights were comparatively cold; many men saved their tattered clothes for sleeping in to keep themselves warm. During the day they worked in nothing but a loin cloth.

Just imagine this for a second – you’re in an impenetrable jungle and sleeping in filthy, tattered, often damp clothes on bare poles of bamboo at night, then during the day you are forced to do extreme manual labour in the searing heat with nothing but a rag to cover your genitals. Exposed to torrential rain during the wet season, to searing sun causing unforgiving sun burn during the dry season and to all the hazardous wildlife that live in the jungle. Of course, you might think the many poisonous snakes that live in Burma and Thailand would have been a big worry – but far more worrying were the microbes found in dirty drinking water that lead to many cases of debilitating dysentery and cholera, and the mosquitoes that spread malaria and dengue fever.

This drawing of the sleeping platforms was done by one of the Allied POWs and is on display at Hellfire Pass museum

Meanwhile the men were given food rations that were a quarter of that required to keep a regular man well-nourished, yet alone a man doing extreme physical labour. Food would often be sent from afar, but after travelling for many days in the tropical heat much of it would be maggoty and rotten. The Japanese would claim any good food for themselves, whilst the workers would be left with scraps. The guards would bury food they deemed unfit for consumption, but the workers would often dig this food back up and eat it – that’s how desperate they were.

Photographs on an information board displayed at Hellfire Pass museum.

Prisoners found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder in an incredibly cruel and unforgiving culture. Japanese culture is often about maintaining ‘face’ and many were brainwashed during the war to believe they were the world’s most superior race. They were taught to never surrender – that surrendering would be incredibly shameful and that even if the only alternative was death, this was way more honourable. They truly believed that if they were captured by the enemy they would have been treated unspeakably badly. Given the hierarchical system in their culture, they had zero respect for their captured prisoners and slave labourers and would treat them as sub-human. I listened to an account of a prisoner who survived death railway and he described how guards would dish out horrendous beatings, often for no reason, which would render men unconscious or even be deadly. He described a common punishment for misbehaviour where guards would force the men to stand holding a heavy rock above their heads for hours on end, then beat them when they were so weak that they could no longer hold the heavy weight.

Another drawing by a POW done in 1943 and displayed at the Hellfire Pass museum

Sickness was a major killer on the railway, but the Japanese offered little in the way of medical supplies. They would even prevent sick men from receiving their food rations as an ‘incentive’ to get back to work. They would get men to defecate on the floor and examine their faeces to see how ill they really were. If there was 50% blood or less, they were deemed fit to work. Skin ulcers often became so bad that skin rotted away exposing bare bones. The account of one POW describes seeing a number of cases of tropical ulcers with “legs bared to the bones from ankle to knee”. The medics did the best job they could with the supplies they had. They used natural resources from the jungle, administered charcoal to relieve the symptoms of dysentery, saved precious marmite to be used as medicine rather than food, used thorns from plants in lieu ofhypodermic needles and used bamboo to create prosthetic limbs after skin diseases became so bad that amputation (with no anaesthetic) was the only option.

An account from one of the POWs describes the stunning landscape as one of the few joys of working at Hellfire Pass and something that would help to raise morale in such a desperate time

Hellfire Pass

Hellfire Pass was a section of the railway that was particularly difficult to build. It’s an enormous cutting through the rocky hillside which was created by malnourished and sickly labourers with inadequate tools working up to 18-hour shifts a day. Sixty-nine men were beaten to death and many more died from disease in the 12 weeks it took to build this cutting. At night the starving men would work under fire light under the harsh control of Japanese guards – as a result the area became known as Hellfire Pass due to its remarkable resemblance to a scene from hell.

Another POW drawing depicting the labourers working at Hellfire Pass

Hellfire Pass as it is today

It’s amazing to think that this huge pass was created by men using nothing but manual hand tools

Bridge over the River Kwai

One of the most challenging aspects of the railway was the construction of the bridge over the Mae Klong River (which later on became known as the River Kwai Yai). A film was later made called Bridge on the River Kwai, which unfortunately I have never seen but I’ve heard is very good – albeit a little unrealistic.

A camp of British POWs were forced to build this section of the railway and conditions were equally as tough as what is described above. There were originally two bridges over this river; the first was a wooden construction which was finished in February 1943. This was accompanied by a more modern concrete and steel construction which was finished in June the same year. Many POWs tried to undermine the plans for the bridge by exposing parts of the structure to vulnerabilities whenever the opportunity arose. This would include planting termite mounds next to wooden structures and letting ‘nature take its course’, or reducing the length of piles which were subsequently driven into the ground to make the structure less stable. Despite being one of the most difficult sections to build, we learned at the Hellfire Pass museum that very few men died during its construction in comparison to many other sections of the railway thanks to the organisation and management of the camp leaders, who were POW officers. Both bridges were bombed on two separate occasions in 1945 by Allied Forces and subsequent repairs were done by the slave labourers and POWs. Since the camps were next to the bridges, some labourers were killed and injured during the raids. The wooden bridge was never rebuilt but the concrete-steel bridge was repaired and is still in use today.

A model of a wooden bridge displayed at Hellfire Pass museum shows how the old wooden bridge over the river might have looked

Bridge over the River Kwai as it stands today.

The railway over the bridge is still in use today

Final thoughts

The 415km railway was finished ahead of schedule in October 1943, just 13 months after the start date.  Over 200,000 Romusha were forced to work on the railway as slave labourers – over 100,000 of whom died from disease, starvation or brutal beatings from Japanese guards. Over 60,000 POWs also worked on the railway, over 12,600 of whom died. Interestingly, 1000 Japanese and Korean overseers also died during its construction. Well over 100,000 men lost their lives, that’s a death rate of 45%, in just over a year. I’m not a person of faith, but if I had to prey for something, it would be that no human ever has to suffer in this way again.

The memorial cemetery with 7000 POW graves

New Year in Koh Mak

Koh Mak is one of the smaller islands off the south coast of Thailand near the Cambodian border. From what I can tell, Koh Mak’s economy is largely based on rubber plantations but like many of the islands around this area, expanding tourism is also starting to play an important role. A speed boat from the mainland leaves daily and makes Koh Mak an easy destination to get to. There are a number of resorts offering reasonably-priced accommodation and you can find everything from youth hostels to luxury bungalows. There are many beach bars and restaurants which serve fabulous food and tasty beverages whilst offering a chilled-out atmosphere in the tropical sunshine.

Motor boats offer fast transport to Koh Mak from the mainland

One of the many rubber plantations on the island

The first travel blog I read about Koh Mak was, unfairly I think, very uncomplimentary about the entire island. It described the beaches as ‘decent enough’ but nowhere near ‘good enough’ in comparison to other Thai islands when you’re looking for a true Thai tropical paradise. To be fair, I have never been to the neighbouring islands of Koh Kood or Koh Chang to compare, but I have been to enough stunning tropical islands that my level of beach snobbery is up there with the best, and I certainly wouldn’t discount Koh Mak as a place to visit based solely on its beaches. Even in the high season, the island is not overpopulated with tourists and it’s very easy to find your own deserted patch of white sandy beach with turquoise warm waters to swim in. I must admit that the snorkelling could have been a little better, but it’s possible to rent a kayak from one of the various resorts and paddle to small neighbouring islands which offer clearer waters and healthier coral reef for snorkelers to enjoy.

This beach is good enough for me

We rented a kayak for the day to explore some of the smaller peripheral islands

The ambience of the whole island was wonderful. For me it offered a characterful mix of peaceful, quiet relaxation with the vibrancy of night bars, markets and clubs for the times when I felt more energetic. Also, the best Thai massage I’ve ever had was in Koh Mak for the bank-breaking sum of 250baht an hour (about £5.50)!

Koh Mak is quite a small island and it’s easy to explore the whole thing in just a few days if you rent and bike or scooter. We visited the main view point overlooking the bay, a local Buddhist temple, various market stalls, piers and beaches and enjoyed the interesting art sculptures scattered around the place.

We rented a scooter for a few days

A lovely view of the bay from the highest point of the island

This is the evening view from the pier at Cococape beach bar

A sacred tree at the Buddhist temple

One of the four Buddhas

One of the interesting sculptures

New Year’s Eve was one of those wonderful evenings that ended up being unexpectedly fabulous. We’re all familiar with those New Years Eve events which are planned for months in advance, the expectations are wild and when it comes to crunch time – the result is a big fat disappointment. This year was not so! Despite some initial difficulties finding somewhere to have dinner, we ended up eating at our favourite pizza joint, followed by a visit to a fun beach bar where we danced to some great music and enjoyed the midnight fireworks. We took the party back to our Airbnb which just so happened to be one of the nicest places to stay on the entire island – Garden Villa. This house is beautiful, large and very luxurious, not at all what Alex and I are used to and it was a real treat for us. It was great fun to spend New Year with my wonderful family in such a stunning location. We were all very merrily drunk and danced in our living room until the not-so-small hours of the morning. Alex even demonstrated his super-cool skanking abilities, by the end of the night, we were all ‘skanking’ – he’s such a trendsetter.

Psychadelic camper van at our beach bar

New Years Eve fireworks at the beach

Garden Villa – our luxurious mansion getaway

This is what skanking looks like

The whole gang

People on the island are very friendly and there’s a general laid back attitude that really soothes the soul after the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. Even though Koh Mak was more ‘built-up’ in comparison to many of the Pacific islands we’ve visited,  it was nice to be back in a somewhat familiar environment.

Merry Christmas from the tropics

We’ve been especially busy since leaving Tonga almost 6 weeks ago, although in many ways it feels like we only left yesterday. We set sail to New Zealand with a stop off at Minerva Reef. We were expecting to wait at Minerva for just a few days for an appropriate weather window to continue our journey to New Zealand, but ended up staying for a whole two weeks. It turns out that being stranded in such a remote location (no shops, no buildings, in fact – no land at all!) was one of the best experiences we’ve ever had!

Minerva Reef – no land but the protection from the seas made it a good place to anchor.

A view of our friends boat ‘Local Talent’ from the top of Bob’s mast with reef in the background

 

Here are a few shots from various snorkel trips. The reefs are amazingly healthy and host a wealth of diversity – it’s the best snorkeling either of us have ever done!

Alex did an excellent job of hunting and gathering and brought us back this fabulous lobster for dinner. Another day he brought back an octopus. Fine dining on Bob even in the remotest of places.

 

At low tide the water is shallow enough to take a walk on the reef. We put on the crocs and went for a wonder to the outer reef – here are some shots of our walk on water.

We made it to the outer reef

 

One of the highlights for me was diving with a 10-foot tiger shark in North Minerva. We had heard there was a resident tiger shark lurking around the pass of the atoll and a group of us were keen to check it out. I would have been seriously freaked out if one came along unexpectedly when Alex and I were diving on our own, however, we planned the expedition with some friends in the hope that we would actually get to see this magnificent beast and I felt like we had safety in numbers. During the dive I was busy recording all the small fish species around me when I looked up and saw the stripy grey sheen of something huge about 10 meters from us. The tiger shark made a slow, wide circle around us and was followed by about 20 grey sharks – she made the grey sharks looks like insignificant fish bait. Our friend Gail (who was snorkelling at the surface and had a birds-eye view of the whole thing) must have thought we were about to face a mutilating and gruesome death. Fortunately we survived and it turned out to be another amazing wildlife experience that I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren about when I’m old and wrinkled.

Our passage to New Zealand was wonderful! There was no drama, no breakages, no storms – just relatively smooth sailing for the whole journey and we made a safe arrival in Opua in early December. We picked up our new campervan ready to explore the country by land in a few months time. Otherwise, we spent most of our time preparing the boat and the camper van to be left for a couple of months while we’re in Thailand (and Alex in Australia for a few weeks) visiting my parents.

Sailing into the sunset – leaving Minerva and heading for New Zealand

Land-Ho! Arriving in New Zealand

Alex giving our new camper van (Jacangi) a wash

Bob on her pile mooring in the Kerikeri river. What a lovely home for her over the coming season.

I’ve been in Thailand now for almost two weeks and it’s so wonderful to be in this colourful and vibrant country with my family, some of who I’ve not seen in almost two years! Alex is enjoying the festivities in Australia with his brother and other family members. He will fly out to Thailand to meet me on the 27th of December ready for tropical New Year celebrations on the Thai island of Koh Mak.

Drinks at the Vanilla Sky Bar

The stunning view of Bangkok at night

The family having Christmas eve drinks in a bustling Bangkok street bar

Christmas morning with presents under the ‘tree’

Finally, I’ll leave you with some festive wildlife. Believe it or not, there’s an underwater species known as the ‘Christmas tree worm’. They are a type of tube-building worm that lives in coral reefs and get their name from their Christmas tree-like appearance. Each worm has two brightly coloured crowns that project from its tube-like body which are used for respiration and to catch food. They are about 1.5 inches in length, come in a variety of festive colours and recoil quickly into their burrows when they detect movement by a large creature in their vicinity – it makes them good fun for snorkelers.

Merry Christmas.

Fun, cute and colourful Christmas tree worms – Spirobranchus species

 

 

We’re finally on our way to New Zealand (again)!

We ended up staying at the Minerva Reefs for much longer than expected (9 days in North Minerva and 3 days in South Minerva) waiting for a suitable weather window to New Zealand, but we’re now finally on our way (again)! We set sail from South Minerva yesterday afternoon and have been enjoying wonderful sailing conditions since then. As I write this we have just crossed over into the Eastern Hemisphere, which is quite exciting. Alex tells me he has never sailed in this half of the world before.

I think we made the right decision not to leave in the potential weather window last week. The low pressure system that everyone was trying to beat sped up and hit New Zealand a day and a half earlier than forecasted. Two boats were lost in the heavy winds and whilst we don’t know the exact details, we heard all the people on board were rescued and there was no loss of life. Unfortunately, our late departure means that we’ll miss out on the various events of the All Points Rally which are held in mid November in Opua. But most unfortunately it means we’ll miss out on seeing our friends, Eileen and Alex, who were visiting New Zealand recently. Sorry guys, I really hope our paths cross in the not-too-distant future and we hope you had an amazing time exploring New Zealand.

The current weather window is being described by meteorologists as ‘as good as it gets’. So hopefully it’ll be pleasant sailing from here to Opua where we expect to arrive in just under a weeks time.

We’ve made it to Minerva!

We’ve made it to North Minerva Reef and amazingly there are 17 other yachts here! So much for minimal human interference, but at least we have plenty of company. The sun is shining and the waters are crystal clear – I can’t wait to go for a dive and see what’s around. I wonder if the resident tiger shark will make an appearance…?