Thanbyu Zayat Death Railway
Only the handful of new generations may have heard of the notorious “Death Railway”. However, most of my generation and a few later generations would be quite familiar with that railway line though they may not have seen it with their own eyes, apart from those depicted in Hollywood movies. Right after the Second World War (WW2) in 1945, many stories about that railway line emerged. Most of the stories were related to the hardships or the hellish conditions the people who were forced to construct that rail line were subjected to. There were also adventure-like stories of how some civilian forced laborers escaped. There were also lighter sides of the stories, where some fortunate escapees stumbled onto troves of treasures hidden in the jungles along their escape routes.
Later during my teenage years, a very interesting movie was released by Hollywood. The name of the movie was “The Bridge on the River Kwai“, based on a factual fiction by that name. It was about the plights of the allied prisoners of wars (POWs) who were forced to construct that rail line linking Bang Pong, in Siam (Thailand) and Than Byu Zayat, in Burma. The highlight of the story was how the hero in the movie, a U.S Naval personnel, who escaped successfully from a labor camp inside Siam and later came along with a small group of British Special Force men as a guide to destroy one of the bridges built along that line.
In 1942, at the height of Japanese offensive during the WW2 to advance further into the British and its allies held territories in India, where they retreated without putting up much resistance. However, that was just a feint to trick the Japanese to think the British were no match to them. By then the Allied Armies had taken up strong defensive positions along the Burma-India border, especially at Imphal in Assam. For that final push, the Japanese needed more arms and equipment and other commodities for their war efforts to be shipped to Burma. As the over 2000 nautical miles sea route was dangerously vulnerable to attacks, they chose to transport them overland across Indochina, then through Siam to Burma.
To make that possible they had to build a rail line to link Bangkok and Rangoon where the Burma Railways had established an efficient rail system. It spanned from right up north in Myitkyina to the south down to Than Byu Zayat, not very far from the Siam-Burma border, with many junctions. Before the war, the British had already surveyed a route to construct a rail line linking Rangoon and Bangkok. The Japanese took advantage of that and constructed a rail line along that surveyed alignment across the Tenessarim Range (Tanintharyi Yoma).
The constructions started in June 1942 with two teams – one started from Bang Pong railhead a few miles west of Bangkok and another team from Than Byu Zayat railway station and completed in October 1943. The total length was 258 miles, of which 69 miles was inside Burma and 169 miles in Siam. There were around 600 bridges along the route. That rail line provided a train link between Bangkok and Rangoon. The Japanese called it the “Siam – Burma Railway”. It was built by forced labor – over 60,000 allied POWs were thought to be brought in from Singapore, where they became POWs when she falls and the rest were approximately 200,000 Asian conscripts, including Burmese, recruited with false promises of a good salary. They were forced to work under very harsh conditions and the foods were scarce and thus many risked their lives to escape. The Burmese laborers called themselves Chway Tat meaning “Sweat Army”, a term that became well known in our younger days.
The original bridge depicted in the movie was a wood and bamboo structure covered with concrete for extra strength. The bridge seen today is the second one built later with steel structures dismantled from a bridge in Indonesia. Most of the rail tracks were also from the rail network in Malaya. From my visits to the Museum at Kanchanaburi, I learned that the first bridge was bombed by the US military planes in early 1945 just before the end of the war. Now the second steel bridge has become a popular tourist destination. There are throngs of local and foreign tourists almost every day, especially in the open seasons during the winters and early summers. Nearly the whole town of Kanchanaburi is involved in the tourism business, thus it is known as the home of “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.
According to the records, there are three such war cemeteries for soldiers who perished while constructing the “Death Railway”. The other two are – one in Than Byu Zayat and the other, a much smaller one not far from the one in Kanchanaburi. Regrettably, there was no such special burial place for the civilian laborers to be found.
Other places of interest are the “Hellfire Pass” and “The Three Pagoda Pass”. At the “Hellfire Pass,” the railroad had to pass through a large boulder. In normal circumstances, a tunnel would be dug through the rock, but without proper equipment, a chasm had to be cut from the top down to the level where the rail line would pass.
The other place of interest is the “Three Pagodas Pass” located at the border with Myanmar in the town of Songhlaburi through which the rail line crossed the border. The road trip from Kanchanaburi to that place is very scenic as the road passes through dense teak forests over the Tenessarim Range. There is a large reservoir along which the road winds and zig-zagged as we drove through the dense forests. The many windings and zig-zagging made the climbs and descend seem less steep than they are as the gradients are reduced.
One interesting thing about the “Three Pagodas Pass” is, most of us in Myanmar thought that the three pagodas are inside our country. That was not so. Of course, there is a town called Payar Thon Zu (Three Pagodas) inside our country immediately next to the border post, but the three small pagodas from which the Pass got its name are inside the Thai territory.