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A Day Out on the Death Railway by Toni Marie Ford

‘This is the start of the Death Railway’, says Pai and I look back at Nong Pladuk station as we chug into motion and leave it behind. Sun-scorched yet saturated with colour, it’s a station in miniature. The walls shed snowflakes of blistered paint and clutches of jasmine and frangipani drip their scented sweat onto a sea of potted plants. It feels wrong that it should be so pretty; I mean, what have potted plants got to do with death?

The train is 3rdclass and the only respite from central Thailand’s suffocating humidity are a few pitiful fans that blow air, warm as breath, around the carriage. Pai says everything twice, once in German for the brothers sitting in front of me and once in English for me. ‘Each railway sleeper* from here until the end of the line represents one life', says Pai and the brothers nod in sync, as if they knew that already. I put my head out of the window and watch thick wooden sleepers flash by underneath, thinking something must have been lost in translation.

Pai goes on, ‘The Empire of Japan built the railway during the Second World War. The railway is 415 km long and stretches from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma. Over 100,000 people died during the building of the Thai-Burma railway.’

Pai’s nodding as she talks, as though she’s trying to convince me that what she’s telling me is the truth and I know that it is but I also know that my expression betrays me because how can you believe in something that you can’t imagine?

We fly through the tropical landscape that looks beautiful to me in the way that only something alien can and the hours slide by, unhurried. Every now and then the train guard makes a loudspeaker announcement in Thai that makes everybody laugh and I laugh too because laughter, like cruelty, is infectious.

Explanations offered for the behaviour of the Japanese Imperial Army during the building of the Death Railway: 1) That Japanese soldiers were brutalised by the harshness and violence of their own military training. 2) That soldiers were raised to believe that following orders was not only more important than their own morality but than their own lives. 3) That during wartime, killing is so normalised that it loses its taboo completely and becomes not just the only thing to do but the right thing to do.

Banal rather than evil, stupid rather than sadistic, the Japanese Army internalised the clichés of the regime they had been raised under and suspended their own morality for as long as it took to get the job done. Could it be as simple as that? In certain situations and given the right incentive to do so, are we all capable of inflicting torture? Yes, said Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, the Yale and Stanford psychology professors whose experiments, they once said, revealed the dark heart in us all. No, I think. No.

The train snakes around bends in the track reaching an ascent that forces the driver to slow to a crawl. As we shudder our way up the mountainside the view opens out into an expanse of rice paddies that seem to throb with a vibrancy only living things have. Someone once told me that no grass grows on the ground at Auschwitz and no birds fly overhead. It’s a comforting thought, that the earth has memories and keeps a record of the atrocities we inflict on one another because if the earth could remember all that then we wouldn’t have to.

We arrive at the bridge that spans the River Kwai and step off the train directly onto the tracks. It feels dangerous, like climbing over the barrier on a balcony or wading into water where the current is strong. I look around for someone to stop me but no one appears. Tripping on the metal beams of the bridge that were not built for sightseeing tourists, I try to get away from the crowds but there are too many bodies around, battling for the best photo position. I ask myself what I’m doing here and I mumble a response I can’t quite hear.

The final stretch of the railway is uneventful and most people doze through the intense afternoon heat with their heads bobbing at angles that will pain them later. The end of the line is Nam Tok, home of the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall, a cascade of water filtering down into an idyllic network of freshwater streams where children splash and adults picnic. A few hours of respite here, away from the confines of a metal box on wheels, away from the other passengers, away from the Death Railway.

I’m terrified of slipping on the moss covered stones at the bottom of the waterfall, breaking my neck and being left there to drown so I sit down in the pool. My denim shorts soak up the freezing water and I splash my arms with the crystal-clear salve that should make me feel clean but doesn’t. I fall into a deep sleep on a wooden bench and by the time I wake up my clothes are bone-dry and the train is snorting steam and signalling in a high-pitched shriek that it’s ready to leave.

The itinerary for the way back is sparse, just one stop at the Death Railway Cemetery at Phanthamit Place. Only we’re running way behind schedule now. The train pulls up to the stop but there isn’t time to walk to the cemetery so people rush at the refreshment stand as though the cartons of juice and tiny chocolate bars are the last on earth. Everyone files back onto the train without encouragement, dirty and irritable, desperate to get back to Bangkok.

Later, from the comfort of an unnecessarily large hotel bed, my body temperature perfectly controlled with a mixture of air conditioning and fluffy duvet, I ask myself again why I went to the Death Railway. Am I a gruesome ‘dark tourist’, stepping on human bones in Cambodia’s Killing Fields, collecting my identity card with relish at DC’s National Holocaust Memorial museum, gripping my Geiger counter with glee as I wander the ghost towns of Chernobyl? Again, I mumble an answer I can’t quite catch.

The more I read the less I understand. The Death Railway was completed in 1943 but only performed its role of supplying Japanese forces in Burma for a year before it was bombed by Allied troops. A railway to nowhere built over seventy years ago, the Death Railway is a relic of a tragic time in history that has nothing at all to do with me, so why is it that I can’t sleep? I ask myself, will the future be better than the past? In the same situation would I act differently, would I be better, could I sacrifice myself to save someone else? I ask myself these questions over and over throughout the night and refuse to answer at all.

* Railroad tie (North American English)

Toni Marie Ford is a freelance travel blogger and writer, cinema lover and slow travel enthusiast from the UK who has been enjoying a nomadic lifestyle since early 2014. Visit her blog, www.worldandshe.com, or follow her on twitter @worldandshe or instagram @tonimarieford.

Judge's Comment: This is so much more than an account of a dark episode in history. With sparse writing, the writer grabs your guts and makes you question everything you once believed: 'In certain situations, and given the right incentive to do so, are we all capable of inflicting torture?'

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