Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Best books about the Death Railway Kanchanaburi Thailand

There are stacks. Literally.

I have personally read around 30 or 40 books, diaries, manuscripts, etc over the years of the POW experience on the notorious Death Railway Kanchanaburi, about 2.5 hours northwest of Bangkok (yes, it's in Amazing Thailand not Burma as some people erroneously think).

Central to this of course is the story of Hellfire Pass, which has taken centre stage in Thailand as shorthand for the atrocities, much as Changi in Singapore has over the years. However, it should be noted that Changi camp was deemed to be the camp to be in under the Japanese because if there was food, medicine, supplies, etc on the island, that's where they would be.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, and to save you wondering which of all of those books to read, here is my shortlist of the 'best' books about the Death Railway:

1. One Fourteenth of an Elephant - Ian Denys Peek.

After wading through so many books, feeling a sameness of tone and material, this was somehow fresher, and gives excellent stories from around the incredible Wang Po viaduct area where elephants were heavily used (they found each pachyderm could lift as much as 14 men.)

2. The Railway Man - Eric Lomax.

Can a book about such a dismal episode really be called delightful? Yes, I think so. Lomax was a trainspotter back home before the war, so offers a unique perception of the Death Railway in terms of the machinery, the engines, rail gauge, etc, all wrapped with a wonderful storyteller's eye.

3. And Dawn Came Up Like Thunder - Leo Rawlings

I may be a little biased with my choice here because I was given a signed copy by Dick Lee, a PoW who appears sitting on a log in one of the hundreds of illustration plates contained in this book. And I guess that's what makes this one different ... it tells the story of the atrocities up the line visually, with deft sketches, water colours, drawings and paintings.

4. The Colonel of Tamarkan - Julie Summers

The REAL story of the Bridge on the River Kwai. Do NOT buy Philip Boulle's Bridge on the River Kwai thinking that's how the famous bridge was built. Boulle was a PoW (well, he's French, they're good at that sort of thing), but not on this part of the railway ... he wrote from hearsay, even getting the name of the river wrong, jing jing. Summers is uniquely placed, being the grand-daughter of Colonel Toosey (the character played by Sir Alec Guinness in that movie) and sets the record straight.

5. Blue Haze - Leslie Hall

I include this not because it necessarily worked for me (I found it a little dry and for-the-record) but on the strength of recommendations by two authorities on the railway: Bill Slape, manager of the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, and Rod Beattie, proprietor of the Thai Burma Railway Centre.

Well, that's my five. I'm sure you agree with some, disagree with others, right? Let us know by leaving a comment here ...

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