Ghosts at the Bridge on the River Kwai

Like most people who have seen the 1957 film, any mention of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai conjures up images of leech-ridden swamps; a relentless, searing sun; and sweat-drenched prisoners marching back to camp in formation while whistling the Colonel Bogey March. With my knowledge admittedly stemming solely from the movie, I decided to take a day trip from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi to see if reality lived up to movie myth.

Based on a true-life story, the film depicts World War II British POW’s who were forced by the Japanese to build a bridge that would facilitate movement of supplies on the Burma Railroad. After a brief stop at the local War Museum, I slogged two blocks in oppressive heat to the foot of the iron trestle, gazed out over the placid stream and tried to imagine the torture prisoners had to endure in this unforgiving landscape. More than 100,000 conscripted laborers and 12,000 prisoners of war died during the project.

Canโ€™t view the above slide show of the Bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Thailand? Click here.

Stepping carefully between railroad ties and track, I crossed slowly to the other side, at one point scrunching to the railing to allow passage of a tourist-filled miniature steam locomotive that chugs across every few minutes. Although the movie ended with a spectacular explosion of the entire structure, the arched iron spans at either end are original, as are many of the iron tracks. In fact, I learned that the bridge was actually destroyed by bombers, not by explosive charges set by ground troops, as portrayed in the movie.

The list of inconsistencies and mistakes in the film is extensive but perhaps most glaring is that the river over which the bridge was built is not the Kwai. Kanchanaburi is located at the confluence of the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai Rivers and the bridge spans the Khwae Yai. Not unsurprisingly, British corrupted the word Khwae (correctly pronounced “kwhere“) to “kwai.” Kanchanaburi, hoping to capitalize on tourism and bowing to the power of the cinema, renamed the stretch where the bridge was built to River Kwai. Still, the movie’s mystique endures. I marched back to my minivan, accompanied by rhythmic marching and whistling carried on the winds of history.

Author’s note: Day tours from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi can be arranged through most any tour agency in Bangkok. As mine did, they often include visits to other sites, including the Damnoen Floating Market and The Royal Thai Handicrafts Center, the latter of which is featured in the video below:

12 thoughts on “Ghosts at the Bridge on the River Kwai”

    • Hi ferienwohnung: Thanks for your nice words and for taking time to leave a
      comment so I know you are out there reading my blog!

  1. Barbara, this place disappointed me. With what should be a commemoration of the atrotious conditions that the prisoners (including fellow Australians along with Brits, Dutch, Americans and others) worked under and the evils of war in general, I thought the area failed to engender that memory at all. While the cemeteries are moving, the JEATH museum was also disappointing.

  2. Really interesting post. I’m a huge history buff and I love seeing posts like this. I’m always amazed at the liberties Hollywood takes in historical pieces, but I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised anymore, especially since I recently found out that Ritchie Valens, you know La Bamba, wasn’t afraid to fly. -Randy

    • BeersAndBeans: Yep, makes you wonder about every movie you ever saw that was
      supposed to be based on actual events, doesn’t it?

      Mark and Alicia: I was actually disappointed as well when I found out how
      wrong the facts were, and the museum was pretty lame, but I still enjoyed
      seeing the bridge itself, knowing how many men died in its construction. If
      it only serves as a reminder of the horrors of war, it is providing a
      valuable service. As it has been said, those who forget history are doomed
      to repeat it.

  3. Interesting/frustrating to see the power of popular culture to re-write history and shape the experience of a place. I can certainly identify with your conflicted emotions even if I have not yet had the chance to pay a visit. I am new to this blog but if this post is any indication of the quality of writing and introspection on Hole in the Donut, you’ve got yourself a new dedicated reader! Thanks for what you do:)

    • Thank you Bjorn, Debbie & Andi! I was definitely conflicted by the whole
      scenario, especially when I found out that the Thais renamed that part of
      the river for the benefit of tourists. On the other hand, without the
      history of the bridge and the POW camp, this rural village would have little
      source of income other than from peasant farming, so you really can’t blame
      them for capitalizing on it and trying to make their lives better. And
      Bjorn, I especially appreciate your praise of my writing. I sweat over every
      word, so it meant a great deal to me. Welcome!

  4. Oh the license Hollywood takes! Very interesting post. The pictures are truly beautiful. Thank you for enlightening us.


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