Thailand's tourists put new stress on famed Bridge over the River Kwai

August 29, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

KANCHANABURI, Thailand -- The train to Nam Tok rumbles over the Bridge on the River Kwai, still in use all these years after Alec Guinness blew it up at the end of the movie.

It didn't really happen that way, of course. It was actually the Americans who bombed the bridge toward the end of World War II.

The real story is an epic in its own right, and the real bridge, a black steel expanse repaired after the war, remains an enduring monument to the Allied prisoners of war and Asian laborers who died building it at the hands of the Japanese.

Unfortunately for their memory, the Bridge on the River Kwai has also become a tourist trap, much to the dismay of many who come to visit the site of their relatives' graves.

From the bridge's graceful, crescent-shaped spans, visitors can look out across the Kwai's fast-moving waters and see souvenir stands selling Bridge on the River Kwai T-shirts, Coke and Pepsi signs in Thai, a foreign exchange van from the Bank of Thailand, and a dozen speedboats moored in front of a floating restaurant waiting to whisk tourists down the river.

Need a souvenir of your trip? Why not a River Kwai bumper sticker? Or maybe River Kwai tumblers, ashtray or baseball cap? A $12 documentary video?

"The bridge itself is absolutely soured by the tourism and the mercenary way the people are exploiting it," said Brian Kettell, a London academic, on vacation here. "But this is Thailand, I suppose."

Kettell was drawn to the bridge, in part, by what he called its "tremendous popularization" in England by David Lean's 1957 classic, "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

A sense of that "horrible suffering" -- and how it lives on -- is still to be felt in this provincial city, 90 miles west of Bangkok, &L despite the blatant tourist exploitation that includes a 10-day Bridge on the River Kwai festival every fall, complete with sound effects of bombing and anti-aircraft fire.

A mass grave containing the skeletons of hundreds of Asian laborers was discovered here last year, right before the annual bridge bash, a major tourist event.

While cynics noted how convenient the timing was, finding the grave site did help underscore the fact that more than 100,000 Asians -- Indians, Burmese, Malays, Indonesians, Chinese and Thais -- perished while building the so-called Death Railway, a 260-mile line connecting Thailand and Burma.

Also perishing were some 16,000 Allied prisoners of war mostly British, Australian and Dutch, with only several hundred Americans among the victims.

The Japanese, after having invaded and occupied Southeast Asia, had ordered construction of the route in 1942 in preparation for an invasion of India.

Most had said it would require five years to hack through the dense jungle and mountain rock, but they completed the line in 13 months -- albeit at tremendous human cost.

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