Rachel Beswetherick

Walking the Death Railway

I'm walking along a railway line. My feet, covered in blisters, are in agony. I can't get a flat footing as the line is strewn with rocks and my feet are paying for it. The line was hand built by thousands of prisoners of war during WWII. The Thai-Burma Railway (nicknamed The Death Railway) was a project of the Japanese army. They needed to be able to transport goods up into newly invaded Burma. A railway was the only option and they had thousands of prisoners to do the job. These men were forced to work under inhumane conditions; starved, tortured and beaten. They literally lived through hell everyday.

I am doing this walk in memory of those men. The railway for me creates a different picture. Already I see the railway as a friend. Something I can rely on, put my trust in. When I'm following the line I know I'm heading in the right direction. As long as I am on that railway I feel safe. Except for the trains. I'm nervous of trains bearing down on me unaware. I have been following this line for two days. I still have three weeks of walking. It's tough. The sun is murder, the humidity is stifling and I'm struggling.

As I continue to trek along this straight path with no end in sight and no shade to protect me, I ponder. There are so many people living along the railway. Their simple houses are inviting but their dogs are suspicious and bark if I come too close. Farmers look up from their heavy laden and give me a toothless smile. I wonder if any of them lived here during the war? I wonder if any of them remember the POW's or the Japanese? I'm deep in thought when my contemplation is broken by an old Thai lady waving at me calling, “Sawadee ka!” She makes the universal action for drink. I turn off the track and make my way to her house. I'm excited to meet a family who lives alongside the railway line. I'm also incredibly grateful for the chance to rest. It's 11am and already the heat is suffocating. Soon my hands are chilling, holding an ice cold cup of water. Not sure where the water has come from I pop in a chlorine tablet. Meanwhile the Thai family stands before me grinning ever so proudly! We try to communicate with each other which only results in the family giggling uncontrollably and shaking their heads in disbelief. I bet they didn't expect to meet a farang today!

I step onto the first sleeper. It creaks under my weight. I carefully move forward being careful to take it slowly - one step at a time. I look down between the sleepers. Big mistake. A cry escapes me. I don't like this. I feel completely vulnerable. What if a train comes?


Rachel Beswetherick

Rachel Beswetherick is a writer, adventurer and outdoor enthusiast. In April/May 2011, Rachel along with her brother Luke Nowell walked over 300km in memory of the F-Force prisoners of war from WWII. The Death Railway Expedition saw them trek along the still existing railway, through the Thai jungle and remote villages. Luke is making a documentary about the journey whilst Rachel is currently writing her first book.

You can find out more about the expedition on their website www.deathrailwaywalk.com. Rachel also runs her own website www.intrepid-girl.com where you can find out more about her other projects. Or follow her on twitter @intrepidgirl

“Ban Pong?” I try to say so they will understand.

“Oohh, Ban Pong,” the elderly lady nods.

“Uh, Ban Pong,” I gesture with my arms and walk on the spot, “de nee” (here). My Thai is limited but with each interaction I'm learning more and more.

“Oohh, de nee!” another nod of understanding. More walking on the spot, “Kanchanaburi!”

“Oohh...!!” nods all around.

Confident they have understood what I am doing, walking from Ban Pong to Kanchanaburi, I take the chance now to observe my surroundings. The house is a very simple, concrete style common in rural Thailand. A mango tree hovers above me, the branches hang low, heavy with sour mango. Off in the distance I notice a man working with his hands on what looks like from afar, a masterpiece. I stroll over to where he is. He is building Buddhist shrines. Now I notice them everywhere, he obviously has a thriving business! A good business it is to be in too. The correct names for these shrines are spirit houses – in Thai San Phra Poom – and they come in two styles; one leg and four leg. Each Buddhist household must have a spirit house, in fact, they need to have more than one. So if someone were to ask me, 'What business should I begin in Thailand?' (cause I get asked that question all the time, not really), my answer would inevitably be spirit houses! This mans spirit houses are eloquently made, colourfully painted in red, blue, yellow and greens.

“Kao?” one of the ladies asks. Knowing this to mean eat, in Thai, I nod. She indicates for me to enter the house. But I need to get going. The heat of the day is not far off. I want to make as much distance as I can before the heat debilitates me. Whatever the universal action for take away is, I do it. The lady nods, jumps on her motorbike and rides away! I have no idea where she has gone. I sit in silence waiting for the next surprise, and a surprise I sure get! The lady arrives back ten minutes later with food she has bought. I am taken back – how incredibly generous. She has no idea who I am. To add to the spontaneous kindness she also piles my arms with bananas and sour mango from their trees. Overwhelmed, arms heavy laden with an over abundance of food I bid the family farewell. Not far down the dirt road I ditch the mangoes, launching them onto a field. Unlike the sweet mango which is soft and makes taste buds sing, its relative the sour mango is the opposite – crunchy and tasteless except for a bitter twang. Also they are extremely heavy! I doubt the POW's discarded food when Thai's offered it to them. I feel bad; selfish and ungrateful. But I have to remind myself I'm not here to relive the POW's experience. It's about gaining an understanding. I remember reading about Thai locals giving POW's food when they passed through towns on their march; rice pudding wrapped in banana leaves, fruit and packets of salt. Maybe this spontaneous generosity is a part of the story – the POW's and mine.

I am approaching another bridge. Originally there was 680 trestle bridges along the 415km Thai-Burma railway. Not many of the originals remain today. The bridge before me is made of wood and stands 20 metres or so above the ground. It's also really long. I step onto the first sleeper. It creaks under my weight. I carefully move forward being careful to take it slowly - one step at a time. I look down between the sleepers. Big mistake. A cry escapes me. I don't like this. I feel completely vulnerable. What if a train comes? I'm about half way across when it starts pouring with rain. Desperate to reach the end but careful not to slip on the wet track I quickly move forward. I decide to stop for lunch under a tree away from the rain. In the paper packages, given by the Thai lady, is rice and chicken. It's delicious and the fresh coriander hits the spot. I'm so grateful for the tasty lunch. Slurping it down with pepsi and munching on a banana for dessert I smile - inside and out. I am loving this moment. It's incredible how food lifts morale. It's even more incredible how food given as a gift, from a family with little, restores one's faith in humanity.

Sign up to receive free updates from Sidetracked here.

Next Story