A bridge like no other


Even the hairdressers were setting up their chairs next to the train, and had customers waiting.

I had one or two problems finding the correct carriage though, not because the train was lengthy - there were just three carriages - but because my ticket said carriage '2', which turned out to be next to carriage 6 - as it would be. All seats on the train were reserved and passengers were expected to sit in their allocated seat, even if there were spare seats to be had. The guards - four of them for each carriage - spent some time later on in the journey ensuring that people were in the right seats, and moving people around from seat to seat almost on a whim, it seemed.

True to Thai-time, the train was late leaving by about 20 minutes, and we crawled out of the station at walking pace. The heat and smells (like raw sewage - or decomp) of Bangkok really hit as soon as the train was a few metres out. Although the ceiling fans worked very well, at that point, and the windows were fully open, it was remained humid. Once the train picked up a little speed, there was a nice breeze blowing throughout the carriage.

The wooden seats of the train were not really designed to accommodate Westerners, they easily fit two slimmer Thais, as I found out when we stopped to pick up passengers, and I was sharing my small space with a family of three (Mum, Dad and a large guy who was probably about 30 years old). They had several bagfuls of food with them and the Mum kept making the son put stuff up on the luggage rack, then take it down again, then back up again. All this time - in fact throughout the entire journey - he was clutching an English railway magazine, which he didn't put down for a second, not even when he was eating (which was almost constantly).

For a mile or two, right next to the track, there were wooden huts where people were either eating, cooking or sleeping. This was all taking place as trains passed literally within feet of them. Train tracks are not fenced in, and many people were just walking the route, stepping aside when a train came too near.

I'd been on the train about half an hour when we stopped at Nakon Pathom. A lengthy announcement was made by a guard through a loud-hailer, and then the doors opened and people filed out. As I got up, a Westerner with a broad Yorkshire accent said to me "What'd he say?" Thankfully, a fellow Thai passenger realised that we were utterley confused, and pointed to his watch, tracing the dial round with his finger. Basically, a 40 minute stop! I got off the train, walked past the endless fruit sellers, and spotted, although you couldn't miss it, the Temple. Nearby, novice monks were collecting food from the vendors, who gave their wares freely to these very young boys, some looking about 10.
There was a service going on outside the Temple at the time, so no-one was permitted to actually go inside. But the building looked very impressive from the steps - which were the steepest I'd climbed in Thailand so far. Most of the shops stopped serving people whilst the service was going on, so I had to wait to make my purchases.

Back on board the train, we'd been joined by on-train vendors who were selling everything from bottles of cold water to fruit, rice dishes and umbrellas! They walked up and down the carriages, and then parked themselves down in the spare seats in order to get to the next station. The guards just ignored them.

The train chugged on, and the day got hotter and hotter. Despite the heat, the Mum next to me decided that she was too cold and made her husband close the window, and turn off the fan. The next brief stop was at Kanchanaburi, where there was barely time to open the doors, see if anyone wanted to get on or off (including the vendors), and off we went once more. We were due to stop there again for an hour on the way back in order to visit the War Graves of the British soldiers who had died whilst helping to construct the bridge.

Several hours later, and going over some very rickety and unsafe-looking bridges, we arrived at Kwai station. The whole area is quite commercialised - restaurants, souvenir t-shirts, postcards, etc. There are numerous 'tours' for unwitting day-trippers. For instance, tourists were being charged 300 baht (6) to join the train when it travelled over the bridge and onto Nam Tok. I had paid a paltry 120 baht (2.40) for the entire round trip from Bangkok.

The 'arched' ironwork forms part of the original bridge; although the arches had been brought in by the Japanese army already welded together, just needing to be put into place. The other bits of ironwork were installed when the bridge was restored following the infamous bombing raid. Steel footplates had been bolted onto the walkway since it became a tourist attraction to make it appear safer - but the water could be seen quite clearly through the gaps, and the plates wobbled.

There are lovely views across the river, and many boat tours available. But for me, just walking across the bridge was a thrill in itself, and of being somewhere so historic. I stood at where I calculated the centre of the bridge to be, and looked out along the river in both directions. For the briefest of moments, I blocked out the noise and bustle of other visitors and, for some reason, my late father's voice crept into my head. To the best of my knowledge, he'd never served in this part of Asia but he'd always wanted to travel more. I felt sure he was here with me.

With there being only a short stop of 30 minutes or so at Kwai station, it was back on the train to actually ride over the bridge. This was no mean feat, as there were people still walking across. But several places had been specially constructed to let visitors get off the track and into a relative place of safety. The train went very, very slowly over the bridge and finally we reached the other side and picked up speed again. Two more hours of hot, humid travelling and we finally reached Nam Tok - the end of the line.

On the way back, and on the home-straight now. It was beginning to get dark and I had hoped to catch the sunset from the rear of the train. The back doors of the train were open to let air flow through - no safety barriers in sight! But the sky was just a hazy sort of pink, and I didn't take any photos. Arriving back in Bangkok we were just 90 minutes late! The whole trip had been a mere 31 miles, but had taken a staggering 13 hours.

I doubt I would ever do this journey again but I'm very happy to have achieved my objective - to walk across The Bridge Over The River Kwai. Fabulous feeling!


J.Smith

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