The Bridge over the River Kwai (French: Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai) is a novel by the French novelist Pierre Boulle, published in French in 1952 and English translation by Xan Fielding in 1954. The story is fictional but uses the construction of the Burma Railway, in 1942–43, as its historical setting, and is partly based on Pierre Boulle’s own life experience working in Malaysia rubber plantations and later working for allied forces in Singapore and Indochina during World War II. The novel deals with the plight of World War II British 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. The novel won France’s Prix Sainte-Beuve in 1952.
The largely fictitious plot is based on the building in 1942 of one of the railway bridges over the Mae Klong—renamed Khwae Yai in the 1960s—at a place called Tha Ma Kham, five kilometers from the Thai town of Kanchanaburi. [Sourced from Wikipedia]
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission:
“The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar). Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre.”
Boulle had been a prisoner of the Japanese in Southeast Asia and his story of collaboration was based on his experience with some French officers. However, he chose instead to use British officers in his book.
The story describes the mistreatment of prisoners in the POW camp and how they tried to sabotage the construction of the bridge.
Lt. Colonel Nicholson marches his men into Prisoner of War Camp 16, commanded by Colonel Saito. Saito announces that the prisoners will be required to work on construction of a bridge over the River Kwai so that the railroad connection between Bangkok and Rangoon can be completed. However, Saito also demands that all men, including officers, will do manual labor. In response to this, Nicholson informs Saito that, under the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), officers cannot be required to do hard work. Saito reiterates his demand and Nicholson remains adamant in his refusal to submit his officers to manual labor. Because of Nicholson’s unwillingness to back down, he and his officers are placed in the “ovens”—small, iron boxes sitting in the heat of day. Eventually, Nicholson’s stubbornness forces Saito to relent.
Construction of the bridge serves as a symbol of the preservation of professionalism and personal integrity to one prisoner, Colonel Nicholson, a proud perfectionist. Pitted against Colonel Saito, the warden of the Japanese POW camp, Nicholson will nevertheless, out of a distorted sense of duty, aid his enemy. While on the outside, as the Allies race to destroy the bridge, Nicholson must decide which to sacrifice: his patriotism or his pride.
Boulle’s portrayal of the British officers was satirical, for example, Colonel Nicholson is a military snob. Boulle also examines friendship between individual soldiers, both among captors and captives. The victorious Japanese soldiers cooperate with their prisoners, who strive to establish their superiority through the construction of the bridge. [Sourced from Wikipedia]
Here is a link to the movie on IMDB.
In reality, the trip out of Bangkok to Kanchanaburi to the bridge is a must-see, helping to contextualize this extensive history into a real life event that changed the area forever. Visitors should ask tour guides to stop at the Thailand-Burma Railway center for the interactive museum to experience the ‘Death Railway’ vicariously through the exhibits and information there.
Tourists should then make their way to the Kanchanaburi war cemetery (Don Rak) to see the reconstruction of the POW camp and pay homage to the fallen soldiers and laborers.
Then you should take a wooden long-tailed boat up the Mae Khlong to see the historic bridge and soak up the atmosphere.
There are tickets available for around 180THB from Bang Sue train station that will take you to the bridge, a beautiful waterfall and is all included in the price as a one day, non-ac tour. Check out our article on waterfalls for a sneak peek at what to expect.
We have provided an itinerary for those who want to plan their trip down to a ‘t’:
06:00 – Start of pick up from Bangkok hotels. Depart for Kanchanaburi province
09:00 – Arrival at Kanchanaburi province. Visit Thailand-Burma Railway Center, Allied War Cemetery, Bridge over the River Kwai
12:00 – Lunch
13:00 – Death Railway Train ride
14:30 – Journey back to Bangkok
18:00 – Estimated time of arrival back in Bangkok
Most tours include:
- Pick up from Bangkok city center hotels
- Buffet lunch
- Train ride
- English-speaking guide
However tours do not include:
- Tips and gratuities
- Personal expenses
- Optional activity costs
I have here added a little note that a major tour operator mentions in order to fully brief the guests on what to expect:
- Departure times are estimates only and may be an hour earlier or later. Our local tour operator will contact you regarding actual pick-up time depending on your hotel.
- Changes may be made to the itinerary.
- Ride will be on a Regular Train. There is no guarantee that you will have a seat on the train.
- Children below 2 years old are free of charge.
- The tour at River Kwai ends around 15:00. After the tour, the arrival time in Bangkok will be around 18:00 depending on traffic conditions.
- Tours in Italian, Spanish, French and German may be available upon request. Please inquire.
- It is recommended that guests follow any public prohibition notices that may be issued and wear appropriate clothing. Guests should also avoid photographs, videos and selfies due to the nature of the site.
Here are some links to reliable tour companies to help you plan your trip:
http://www.thailandtouristservices.com/bangkok-tours/tiger-temple-tour-thailand/ (this tour includes a trip to the Tiger temple nearby too. Prices start at 1660 THB per person.
http://www.asia-discovery.com/destination/daytour/riverkwai.htm Prices start at 1650 THB per person.
http://kanchanaburitourriverkwaitravel.com/ offers a variety of tours starting at 1400 THB per person.