The battle for meaning

Kerry van der Jagt visits World War II's notorious railway, where thousands of Australians died undergoing forced labour.

In a World War II cemetery in the town of Kanchanaburi, Thailand, neat rows of headstones mark the graves of 7000 Australian, British and Dutch war prisoners who lost their lives during construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway.

"He lived as a gentleman, died as a hero," reads the inscription on F.R. Jakeman's headstone.

A gunner in the 2/10 Field Regiment R.A.A., Jakeman died in 1943, two days before Christmas. He was 23.

Under the searing tropical sun, I overhear a guide tell his group to walk wherever they please, as there are no remains buried in the cemetery. Armed with this erroneous information, the group wanders around like Brown's cows - stepping on graves, crossing rows, picking flowers - while their guide sits in the shade sending texts on his mobile phone.

War has long been associated with indifference and half-truths and, unfortunately, battlefield tourism can suffer the same.

Kanchanaburi is a popular day tour for visitors from Bangkok; a taste of war sandwiched between temples and tigers, bridges and boat rides.

Some are drawn by the story of the bridge over the River Kwai, others want a break from shopping, many come in search of a long-lost ancestor. I come, time and time again, like a pilgrim, hoping to make some sense of it all, to uncover some meaning amid the madness.

To do it properly you should allow a few days and choose your sites with care. Although you'll never comprehend the loss of young lives, I promise, you will remember them.


Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

The 415-kilometre railway between Thailand and Burma was built during World War II by the Japanese Army using forced labour. During its 15-month construction, about 100,000 workers died from disease, malnutrition and brutal treatment; 90,000 Asian labourers and 12,399 Allied prisoners of war (POWs).

Of the 13,000 Australians who worked on the Thai-Burma railway, some 2800 died as prisoners of the Japanese.

After the war, a combined Australian, Dutch and British war graves party came to Thailand and arranged for the bodies to be recovered and then moved to a field adjacent to an old Chinese cemetery in Kanchanaburi. The land was a gift from the Thai people.

Today the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (known locally as the Don-Rak Cemetery) is administered and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Don't miss Beautiful grounds tended with obvious pride and care.

Where Located on Saeng Chuto Road, opposite the train station in Kanchanaburi. Entry is free.

Thailand-Burma Railway Centre

Next door to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (TBRC), a privately operated museum and research facility founded and managed by Australian Rod Beattie.

The story of the railway unfolds over two levels of interactive galleries showing the living conditions of the POWs, the medical aspects and, finally, what happened when the war was over. The displays are revealing and sometimes graphic but the staff, some of whom are sons of Australian former POWs, are very supportive and happy to help visitors search the database for possible family members.

The TBRC database of POWs from all participating nations (British, Dutch, Australian and American) is the most comprehensive in the world, with about 105,000 individuals recorded.

In the case of the Australians, the TBRC has identified the work camps and movements on the railway for most of them, with research continuing daily to complete the records.

Connected families can arrange a personal pilgrimage tour with TBRC to the specific work areas of their POW relative.

Don't miss The cafe on the second level gives fine views of the cemetery for quiet reflection.

Where On the western edge of the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, 200 metres from Kanchanaburi railway station. Open every day, 9am-5pm, 100 baht ($3) for adults, 50 baht for children,

Bridge on the River Kwai

After David Lean's movie The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957, thousands of tourists headed to Thailand in search of the infamous bridge. And that's when the trouble began - Kanchanaburi had a POW-built bridge and it crossed a river - just not the River Kwai.

Faced with busloads of long-faced tourists, the ever-resourceful Thais changed the river's name from Mae Khlung to Kwai Yai. Complicating matters further, there were actually two bridges at Kanchanaburi built by POWs. The first, a wooden crossing, was bombed and superseded by the steel bridge that stands today.

Look closely though: the curved steel spans are original, but the straight-sided spans were installed after the war to replace spans destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945.

Oh, and the movie was actually filmed in Sri Lanka.

Regardless, it is still worth a visit, but a brief one.

The walk across the bridge gives some lovely views along the river, after you've dodged the souvenir stalls and the busker playing Bridge over Troubled Water.

Don't miss Taking the train along a 50-kilometre section of the historic route from River Kwai to Nam Tok.

Where The bridge on the River Kwai is about five kilometres from Kanchanaburi city centre (one train stop).

Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum

Beyond Nam Tok is the infamous cutting known as Hellfire Pass (locally referred to as Konyu Cutting). The area earned its name following the notorious three-month "speedo" period, when POWS were forced to work 15- to 18-hour shifts.

The lights of the fires throughout the night and the eerie human shadows were said to resemble Dante's inferno. Today, a modern museum dedicated to all who worked and suffered on the railway displays historical information, POW artefacts and footage of original film.

If you do only one thing at the memorial, it must be this - take the walking trail along the disused railway bed.

With each step, remind yourself that a life was lost for every sleeper laid - for the entire 415-kilometre length. Keep your eye out for the small memorial to Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop, whose ashes were scattered here on Anzac Day, 1994. And read his plaque, "When you go home, tell them of us and say, we gave our tomorrow for your today".

Don't miss Watching young Australian travellers paying their respects quietly, minus the beer and bravado.

Where Located 80 kilometres north of Kanchanaburi. Open 9am-4pm every day. Entry is free (donations welcome). An Anzac Day remembrance is held each year.

The writer travelled with assistance from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Trip notes

Getting there: Thai Airways International flies daily from Sydney to Bangkok, 1300 651 960, Kanchanaburi is 130 kilometres west of Bangkok and reached easily by train or private car and driver (the writer recommends

Staying there: The River Kwai Jungle Rafts is a floating hotel on the River Kwai, from 5200 baht ($162).

Hintok River Camp at Hellfire Pass is a tented camp overlooking the River Kwai. From 5700 baht.

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