The iconic bridge made famous by the 1957 movie has a fascinating history

A train whistle sounds and at the bridge on the river Kwai, tourists seek positions to take the perfect photo of the approaching train.

The train is coming from Bangkok and carries around 240 passengers.

It has been under way for around three hours, stopping in Nakhon Pathom to let the passengers take a stroll and to see the 127-metre-high Buddha temple.

Now it’s rolling over the famous bridge near the town of Kanchanaburi on its way to its destination at Nam Tok. In the afternoon the train will head back to the Thai capital.

The passengers are mostly Thais. The mood in the carriages is relaxed and cheerful. Vendors offer chicken legs, sweet sticky rice, beer and water.

The faces are earnest as a teacher from Bangkok recounts the history of the bridge and the hardships suffered by the forced labourers who built it.

The Death Railway

From September 1942 to December 1943 prisoners of war from Thailand, the United States, Britain, Australia, India and China were forced by the occupying power Japan to work on a railway line running through the jungle to Burma.

The conditions were harsh and the labourers dubbed the line the “Death Railway.” Exhaustion, accidents, cholera and malaria killed around 100,000 of the workers, now commemorated at a cemetery and museum near Kanchanaburi.

Today the bridge over the river Kwai is a newer steel construction with massive stone pillars. For decades it’s been a magnet for tourists from all over the world, drawn there by the 1957 British movie starring Alec Guinness and William Holden. Ironically the film was shot in Sri Lanka.

The journey today

Only about 77 kilometres of the railway line are still in operation.

The rest has been destroyed, dismantled or become overgrown by jungle.

Outside the train’s windows, fields of maize, papaya and sugar cane pass by. Farmers work in rice fields and water buffalos are almost motionless in the hot sun. The train is slower now, rumbling carefully over an old, patched—up iron viaduct.

If one wants, one can stop at a village station and enjoy Thai food in a small restaurant before catching the next train — there are three to four every day. There are also hostels where one can stay along the route.

The area offers Buddhist temples, waterfalls, nature parks, caves and elephant rides.

The bus is faster but the rail route offers something for both the movie buff and the train fan. And on the return leg, you can try to remember where exactly Alec Guinness placed the explosives used to blow up the bridge at the end of the movie.

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