This past weekend was a three day holiday due to the Thai Coronation Day celebration on Monday (or something like that). For me, this just meant an extra day off, and I was determined to get out and see another part of Thailand before I left. Luckily, I am blessed with the friendship of a fellow intrepid explorer and co-worker who has previously appeared in this blog: Mr. Ankit Rao. He agreed to go with me to Kanchanaburi, more famously known as the location of the Bridge on the River Kwai. Being the language stickler that I am, I feel that it is important for all my readers to be properly pronouncing the name of this river as they read this post; thus, please note that Kwai as you are probably used to pronouncing it (kwa-I) is NOT how it is pronounced in Thai. It is actually pronounced Khwae (kwa – A), or, according to some guide books kwa-re (like as in “square” without the ‘s’).
ANYWAY, we went to Kanchanburi for a weekend of exploration and some catering to my life-long fascination with war, particularly WWII. We stayed at a really lovely little resort called the Kasem Island Resort, which I would highly recommend if you happen to be in the area. Due to the red shirt situation, tourism in Thailand is at a pretty serious low. Sad for everyone who depends on tourism as part of their livelihood, but pretty great for those travelers still comfortable with going out.
As the name would suggest, the resort was on a little island with a free boat shuttle back and forth. I never cease to be surprised by how happy boats, water, and the like make me; having been off the river for quite some time now (no recent trips) and already missing my recent trips to the beach, it was wonderful to be back next to some water. I had been a little anxious about traveling with Ankit, as you never know how compatible two travel styles are, and conflicting styles can lead to an unpleasant trip. Luckily, we both seem to have almost identical styles, and are both happy to go with the flow in a case where compromise is needed. Case in point: we were shown to the room we had rented (it’s customary to see the room before agreeing to rent it in Thailand) when we first arrived. We both walked in, looked around for about five seconds, looked at each other, and both turned to the gentleman showing us around and said, “May we see a different room? Maybe one on the water?” He took us to another room on the other side of the island that had a porch out over the water, walked in, turned to each other, and both said, “We’ll take this one.” Truly an anxiety relieving moment for me, and a very nice tone set for the rest of the trip.
That evening, we were treated to a surprise concert given by a group of high school students from a local music school. They played a really neat combination of traditional Thai music with Western themes, all preformed on Asian instruments. They were excellent performers, and the tunes were really appealing to my western ears. We were nearly the only guests in the hotel, so we felt like we were getting a private performance. Combined with a gin and tonic and the warm evening Thai breeze, I would have been hard pressed to improve the evening.
Our second day, we headed out to see Hellfire Pass, which is a portion of what is now known as the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. This was a railway meant to supply Japanese troops that was to cross some of the most inhospitable terrain in either Burma or Thailand during WWII. The Japanese went against the Genova Convention agreements of the time that forbade the use of prisoners of war to do heavy labor or sustain grueling conditions, and used POW to build the railway. Over 100,000 Asian laborers and British, American, Australian, and other European troops died during the construction of the railway, part of which was the now famous bridge that now spans the River Kwai. Conditions were unspeakably horrendous, and those who didn’t die were commonly sick, malnourished, and subjected to horrific treatment.
The Australian built and maintained memorial near Hellfire pass did a fantastic job of memorializing the men and women who lost their lives here, and who toiled under the suffocating heat and brutal torture of their captors. They’ve restored and care for quite a large portion of the old railway bed, and some of the old teak sleepers and original rail are still in place.
They also have built a lovely museum that tells the story of what happened during the war, and displays some of the few photos taken of the railway’s construction. There were also some very poignant drawings displayed, drawn by the prisoners themselves. We rented headsets so that we could walk a portion of the rail bed and listen to the accounts from survivors of the construction.
Though the stories of the torture, heat, and backbreaking work were quite moving, it was the sheer amount of work that was done that impressed me the most, and the conditions in which it occurred. There were almost no mechanical tools available to the prisoners, so all of the vegetation, soil, and rock were removed by hand, or with basic chisel-and-hammer tools. You could still see the marks in the rocks where tunnels had been drilled, loaded with dynamite, and blasted into pieces only to be hauled out by hand. Even just walking an hour in the heat was a bit taxing; I can’t possibly imagine surviving it while hauling 50 lbs of crushed rocks on my back, riddled with malaria, barefoot, all while being beaten by bamboo rods.
Still, through all of this was the persistent reminder of the endurance of the human spirit. More than once, there were moments in the recorded narratives from survivors where they mentioned laying down yet another teak sleeper, straightening their malnourished bodies, and finding themselves in awe of the breathtaking beauty of the valley the railway skirted.
Even though they were beaten by bamboo rods by vicious guards, most survivors we listened to commented on the usefulness of the plant. Even though they were delirious with diseases of every kind, they all mentioned the kindness of their doctors, and in perhaps the most understated British or Australian manner, every narrative featured the man telling the story chuckling at the lunacy of the conditions they had endured. It was truly touching to listen to now 60-80 year-old men talk about the years they had taken from them, spent toiling in the harshest of conditions, most of the world completely oblivious to their plight, and yet their voices harbored almost no animosity. Perhaps I am mistaken in these assumptions, but I left the monument truly in awe of the power of forgiveness and time passed.
On our way back, we stopped at the POW cemetery and paid our respects to those who didn’t return home. I feel that visiting a cemetery is a very personal experience for most people, so I won’t remark too much on my own feelings from my visit.
One interesting thing to note: though American POW did die and would normally have been entombed in the cemetery, the United States makes quite a valiant effort to repatriate all the remains of their lost. Thus, there weren’t any Americans (that I could find anyway) in the cemetery. The British, on the other hand, have a council entirely dedicated to the maintenance of some 1,700,000 graves and memorials worldwide. I thought it was an interesting contrast between the two means of remembering the fallen. Perhaps because we are such a young country and comparatively have lost many fewer men and women than a country like Britain, we bother to repatriate? I think we also have more space to bury our dead at home, while Britain is getting to be quite a crowded isle, both above ground and below.
Our final day, we packed up and left the hotel feeling rested and relaxed. What a lovely place it had been, and how kind and accommodating their staff! Ankit, knowing my love for boats, suggested we take a long tail boat up the river to visit the infamous bridge. I happily agreed, and we took a lovely ride upriver.
The bridge, though built under tragic conditions and now only a tourist attraction, is strangely lovely. Its steel beams are all painted black, and only metal plating has been added to the original reconstruction (it was reconstructed after being bombed by the Allies toward the end of the war) to make it walkable. There are no handrails, no safety netting, and no anything else that might keep one from taking a careless step and plummeting into the river some 30 or 40 feet below. I loved it. Ankit, on the other hand, had to bear the thought of escorting some 40 or 50 5th graders across the same narrow walkway later this year and wasn’t quite as pleased with the set up.
That particular portion of the railway still offers a train that tourists can ride around for about 20 minutes. Thus, while admiring the bridge and walking across its lengths, one must watch their backside for an oncoming train! Thankfully, the train moves quite slow, is bright yellow (hard to miss), and there are little platforms welded onto the sides of the bridge to allow visitors to step momentarily out of the way. We had to stop and wait for the train on our way across, and as soon as the train was out of the way, Ankit took off for the far side. I couldn’t imagine what the rush was all about, and so continued to take pictures and think of the engineering feat it must have been to construct such a thing in the 1940’s (note: being something of an engineering idiot, most bridges, buildings, etc. are a marvel to me; this bridge may actually be much less impressive than I’m making it out to be). I then noticed Ankit speaking to someone standing off in one of the little ‘get-out-of-the-way-of-the-train’ platforms, and my curiosity was peaked. He was waving his arms, gesturing toward me, and all the while trying to keep me from getting too close. “Hmm…,” I thought. “What the heck is he up to?” Not want to be caught off guard, I hastened toward where he was when suddenly, out stepped a tiny Thai gentleman holding a lovely little fiddle. As I neared, he began to play “When the Saints Go Marching In”, and I was simply beside myself with laughter and delight.
Ankit, that clever sonofagun, had been to Konchanaburi before and remembered the fiddling local, and upon reaching the bridge had been set on trying to get him to surprise me. And surprised I was! The Thai man played for me a few more American tunes (or versions of mostly recognizable songs anyway), and then a few British ones for Ankit. He then gave me the greatest gift of all, and let me play his violin. I only managed a few tunes in the heat and with a mix of happiness and reluctance, gave the violin back.
We gave the man all our spare change, and then hopped off the other side of the bridge down to a nice little garden by the river. Ankit read for a while, and I made a bad attempt at furthering my art skills by drawing the bridge.
All in all, it was a wonderful trip, and I’m very happy to have gotten a chance to see yet another little part of Thailand. Many thanks to my thoughtful and fun traveling companion. I think that even if I never return to Kanchanaburi in the future, this one trip will be so full of delightful memories and lovely experiences, my heart will be content anyway.
I’ll end this post with a wonderful poem that I’ve borrowed from the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. It was written by a POW survivor who worked on the railroad. At the time of this entry, I couldn’t find the Australian author, but I will endeavor to do so and post it later. In the meantime, enjoy the poem, and perhaps take a moment to think on a “mate” of your own.
“I’ve traveled down some lonely roads
Both crooked tracks and straight
An’ I’ve learned life’s noblest creed
Summed up in one word: “mate”.
I’m thinking back across the years
A thing I do of late
An’ this word sticks between my ears
You’ve got to have a mate.
Someone who’ll take you as you are
Regardless of your state
An’ stand as firm as Ayers Rock
Because he is your mate.
To slavery and the ‘ate
When one’s man chance to stay alive
Depended on his mate
And bamboo for a plate
A bamboo paradise for bugs
Was bed for me and me mate.
You’d slip and slither through the mud
An’ curse your rotten fate;
But then you’d hear a quiet word:
“Don’t drop your bundle mate”.
An’ through it’s all so long ago
This truth I ‘ave to state:
A man don’t know what lonely means
‘Till he has lost ‘is mate.
If there’s a life that follows this,
If there’s a “Golden Gate”
The welcome that I want to hear
Is just “good on ye mate”.
And so to all who ask us why
We keep these special dates
Like Anzac day, I answer:
“Why, we’re thinking of our mates.”
An’ when I’ve left the driver’s seat
And handed in me plates
I’ll tell old Peter at the door
“I’ve come to join me mates”.