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Reliving ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’: A postcard from 1992!

Oct 9, 2018

This time it wasn’t the Chanakya Cinema, New Delhi, that peak monsoon morning seventeen years ago. Where I sat drenched, in the front row. Having arrived after a marathon city bus ride from the Delhi University campus. The show btw cost me a mere sixty-five paise.

Yes, to be in time for The Bridge on the River Kwai. As the brilliant action unfolded, the extra efficient air-conditioning and the close proximity to the seventy mm version of this World War Il act, elicited all the willpower I could muster. Afterall I could not belittle myself witnessing the heroic deeds.

Tonight too I was in the very front row, but of prime seats at a sound and light show. Right on the water front of river Khwae (Thai for Kwai). Having driven 140 Kms from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, close to the Burmese border.

Historic Kanchanaburi

Kanchanaburi is a small sleepy town abuzz with tourist activity. Having landed there during the mid-day, one started with the war memorial. It houses fifteen thousand graves of the allied soldiers. Laid neatly in the green backdrop and rose beds. One of the walls at the entrance bears testimony to the heroic deeds of the Indian soldiers. Its caption reads “These soldiers died serving their country and the cause of freedom and lie buried – elsewhere in Thailand”. They represent the various units of the Indian Armed Forces viz; The Corps of Royal Indian Engineers; Q.V. O. Madras Sappers and Miners; 13th Frontier Force Rifles; 14th Punjab Regiment; Indian Army Medical Corps; Indian Army Veterinary Corps; Indian Army Ordnance Corps and Indian Pioneer Corps.

A quick lunch at any of the several eateries and you could be back on your feet. The JEATH War Museum is not an absolute must. But if you are in Kanchanaburi during the River Kwai Festival Season, as I was, the entire place is like a big flea market. Wares ranging from woollens, to Chinese cigarette lighters, handicrafts and local jewelry are abundantly available. All for a bargain. Also on display at the official jewelry and gems exhibition is the country’s biggest 40 carats blue sapphire. Mined from the Bo Ploi District of Kanchanaburi province.

The eleven day festival which has now become an annual feature, (last week of November to the first week of December) commences with a Don Rak Thai religious ceremony conducted by dozens of Buddhist monks. It is followed by a Colourful Peace and Love Among Humans procession from the City Pillar Shrine to the Bridge. The 240 hours of festivities include special attractions such as traditional long boat races under the bridge, a mini marathon and a Miss Peace Thailand Beauty Contest.

Just as the dusk takes you by surprise, thousands of lights transform the bridge, river and the surroundings into a fairyland. The restaurants along the river front start filling up. There is also a scramble for getting the right seats for the show. The cool breeze  takes many a visitor by surprise. Sale of windcheaters and sweaters warms up. There is an air of expectation.

Simulating the war theatre

The sound and light show commemorates Allied bombing campaign that neutralised the infamous 415 Kms of Death Railway from Ban Pong to Thanbyuzyat in Burma during World War Il by Allied POWs . Working to the brutal Japanese chant of “speedo”. Commenced in October 1942 from both the Burma and Thai ends, the rails were joined at Konkuita wartime camp, some 37 Kms south of Three Pagoda Pass in October 1943. It is supposed to have cost lives of 16000 POWs and 100,000 Asian labour. Interestingly, today it is an enormous Japanese investment that has reportedly helped develop the provinces’ infrastructure.

The show commences dot on time. A train rambles across the bridge. An occasionally sharp whistle perhaps helps it to pierce through the artificial mist on the tracks. Chuck, chuck, chuck… And suddenly there is a commentary (in ‘phasa’ Thai). If you plug in the earphone you could hear the English version. But it is the sound effect that leaves you completely overawed. In no time you are in midst of a war theatre. The Japanese brutalities, cries of the POWs – all seem too real. Just when it begins to feel unbearable the aerial attack commences and so do the ack-ack guns, the sirens and the activities of the Red Cross.

Large amount of dynamite and other deafening explosives recreate the Allied bombing on the bridge. Explosive charges floating in the river are ignited to send huge columns of water spouting up into the air to imitate a near miss by a 2K pound bomb. The destruction of the bridge is quite spellbinding. It virtually creaks and ‘drops down’ into the river. Incredible, particularly for those who have strolled across it during broad daylight.

There is a feeling of shell shock as well as relief, as you emerge out of the show. And if you choose to drive back to Bangkok the same evening – as I did – the dramatic experience will surely keep you wide awake all through the next two and a half hours!

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