Whistling Along The River Kwai

A Thai river cruise with Cruise Asia Ltd. combines somber history with the serenity of the present day By: Dean Blaine
The River Kwai ship sleeps 20 guests comfortably. // © 2011 Dean Blaine
The River Kwai ship sleeps 20 guests comfortably. // © 2011 Dean Blaine

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The Details

Cruise Asia Ltd.

Cruise Asia Ltd. offers agents 20 percent off published rates, which start at $766 per person. Pricing includes transfers and everything except optional tours, gratuities, bar and laundry. The cruise sails twice a week, except in May, when the boat is drydocked for maintenance.
It's one of those tunes that gets stuck in your head. We know it less by its title, the "Colonel Bogey March," than as the absurdly catchy melody whistled by defiant prisoners of war in the 1957 Academy Award-winning film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai." The song was foremost in my mind as I boarded Cruise Asia Ltd.'s River Kwai ship for a four-day cruise through the dark interior of western Thailand to a jungle and a railroad that inspired the book that became the film.

The remote villages and misty landscapes along Thailand's Kwai Noi River (or River Kwai) have changed little since the days of World War II, when the Japanese sought to complete the construction of the strategic Burma Railway through this region. A gentle cruise along the River Kwai today offers scenes of rural life: modest Buddhist temples dot the hillsides; farmers drive their cattle or their prized elephants to the river for a swim; children fish from bridges; and families peddle harvested bamboo shoots by the side of the road.

The River Kwai is the first inland cruise ship to operate in all of Thailand. Designed to emulate a 19th-century river cruiser from the Irrawaddy Flotilla of British colonial Burma, the ship is a masterpiece of polished teak wood, sleeping 20 guests in 10 cozy but comfortable lower deck cabins complete with private bathrooms and air conditioning. Most guests, however, prefer to spend their time lounging on the gorgeous upper deck, either admiring the passing scenery or enjoying traditional Thai dishes including papaya salad and pad Thai.

The cruise runs between Kanchanaburi, home to the bridge over the River Kwai, and the beautiful Sai Yok Yai waterfalls to the north. The itinerary varies little between the two northbound and southbound routes. Everything is communicated in English and guests, generally in the 30-70-year-old range, come from Europe, mostly Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, Denmark and France, along with some from the U.S.

Before this cruise, I must admit that I didn't know much about the real story surrounding this region, save for the mostly fictional "Bridge on the River Kwai" film and its contagious theme song. The film was based loosely upon the construction of the Burma Railway, a 258-mile Japanese supply line stretching from Bangkok, Thailand, to Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). Also called the Death Railway, its story is one of the particularly dark episodes of the war. Roughly 60,000 allied POWs suffered unbearable conditions at the hands of their Japanese captors to traverse the Kwai Noi River and complete the project ahead of schedule. More than 16,000 POWs perished in their efforts.

Much of the cruise itinerary follows the story of the railroad. A mid-century train allows guests to ride a section of the route. A visit to the excellent Hellfire Pass museum recounts one of the more treacherous segments of the line, and an audio tour presents the recorded memories of surviving POWs. The new Thai-Burma Railway Museum, adjacent to the POW cemetery in Kanchanaburi, is an eye-opening testament to the challenges of the railway and the atrocities of war.

But what I ultimately discovered along the River Kwai was the gentle kindness of the rural Thai people who live along its bank and the tranquil beauty of the region: cave temples attended to by Buddhist monks in bright orange robes; elephant rides through the river; Wat Phra Pathom Chedi, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Thailand; hot springs, waterfalls and bamboo rafting in the river; the tiger sanctuary; the painted faces of the Mon tribe; and the smiling children at the refugee school near the border with Myanmar.

And, I also went home with another great memory: On the last night of the cruise, when the entire crew assembled on the deck for a sing-along --- or, better yet, a whistle-along -- of the famous tune that helped put this very special river on the map.
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