At last the real Thailand has begun to reveal itself to me.
I begin this blog in Kanchanburi, where allied prisoners of war and Javanese, Malay, Indochinese and Burmese slave labourers were forced to build a railway for the Japanese occupying forces.
Just had a lovely simple meal at the family establishment at the head of the soi (lane) leading to my guesthouse. Wonton soup with noodles, and beer, all for $2. The son of the family just emerged, homework complete, to get his Mum to sign it off, which she did in between cooking my dinner. Lovely and friendly women operating that stall, ready with their smiles and few words of English. Young men pull up on their motorcycles and order their dinner for that night. Soon I will cross the soi for a coffee and dessert at the little cafe opposite.
Thais always eat out, as it is so cheap, and they don’t have kitchens at home, usually.
I am staying at a very simple guesthouse which is literally built out over the River Kwai. For $10 I have my own room with bathroom built out over the river, the night air full with the sounds of frogs, crickets and mercifully free of some of the noise which often fills the Thai night air. Disco barges do go up and down the river, pulling revellers dancing to the beat, and karaoke bars are everywhere. Bangkokites, missing the deafening roar to which they lead their city lives, descend on places like this for the weekend and demand similar noise levels til all hours of the night.
I have spent a moving and fascinating day, leaving Bangkok early (8am) by bus for Kanchanaburi, but as Bangkok is so vast and unweildy, it took 2 hours and several changes of methods of transportation to reach the southern bus terminus.
At Kanchanburi allied POWs and thousands of slaves from Japan’s occupied Asian territories were forced to build a railway to link Bangkok with Rangoon, so that the Japanese army could advance westwards into India. This objective was never quite completed, as allied bombing of the railway, and Japanese military reversals, meant it had to be abandoned before the end of the war. The site is made famous by the bridge which spans the River Kwai, the building of which became the subject of a novel, and then David Lean’s 1957 movie. The book and novel are pure fiction, however, as soon becomes apparent from a visit to the area.
The bridge is just 1km from my guesthouse and I have just returned from there after spending a fascinating 2 hours exploring the many historic sites. The bridge itself, the central portion having been blown up, was rebuilt after the war, though at least half of the remaining structure is original. Evidence of allied bombing is still visible on the concrete pillars. I walked over the bridge and met an Australian family from Kalgoorie on holiday in Thailand. A train crossed the river as I was on the bridge, tooting at the tourists to get out of the way. An elephant on the other side of the river grazed peacefully in the gathering dusk.
Lastly I enjoyed a quiet beer on a restaurant barge adjacent to the bridge, watching the sun set and enjoying the relative peace at that historic place.
Earlier in the day, at the excellent Thailand-Burma Railway Museum (http://www.tbrconline.com/), I met the volunteer researcher (an Englishman, Derek Lawson) and we looked up all the New Zealanders who are buried at the Commonwealth War cemeteries hereabouts. There are 11 of them, navy and air force, captured in other parts of SE Asia and brought here. We talked for quite some time and exchanged email addresses; I will follow up more about the NZers who are buried here once I return to NZ. Derek’s story was fascinating. His father was one of the POWs forced to work on the railway. He had never spoken of it until one day in 2005 he advised his son that he intended to travel to Thailand and visit the sites of his forced labour. Derek had by then emigrated to Perth, and was living happily there. He met his father at Kanchanaburi and was so moved by all that he saw here, that he decided on returning to Australia to sell his house and leave his job and move to this place and work in the Museum as a volunteer assisting relatives of the deceased POWs to find graves and more information about their son, brother, uncle, or father.
He has been working there for two years now and fields many inquiries from people who, for instance, know that their father is buried there in one of the cemeteries, but they know nothing about him. In some cases the children whose fathers were shipped off to war before or soon after they were born, and who never saw their father, and their mother re-married, are seeking more information about their true father. So it is very emotional for many, including Derek, who is named after the 21-year old best friend of his father, another Derek who lies buried in a dusty field in this place.
The research centre is very well organised. Derek, on arrival, began to enter all the names which were in a folder, onto the computer, and to try to amass as much information about each man (or in a very cases, woman) as possible. So it was possible to quickly find all the New Zealanders.
This is an ongoing task. Boxes of unsorted material still lie in the Imperial War Museum and other institutions, waiting for someone to go through it and describe it.
The museum is very well put together ; it describes in sometimes graphic detail the extraordinary deprivations and horrors that the POWs had to put up with at the cruel hands of the Japanese. Diseases killed most; it is said that for every sleeper on the railway, one man died. Punishment for not working hard enough was severe, although at one time men were forced to work 18 hours per day, still on starvation rations of not much more than a small bowl of rice per day. How any survived at all, is incredible, and very few survived at the end who had been brought in at the beginning of the railway construction. And remember the unbearable heat, insects, and a prickly thorn so sharp that the camp doctors used it as improvised needles or surgical instruments.
So it is very interesting not to say moving here; I was very moved in the war cemetery opposite the museum where so many men are buried – 1000s of them – some as young as 18 or 19. With heartbreaking messages from their mothers, wives, families. The next day I looked again at the cemetery and found two New Zealand graves; how sad to see our silver fern there in that hot, strange and distant place.
There are other war cemeteries about this area, which really warrants a stay of two days or more to fully appreciate all that it has to offer.
Later I went to the night market in Kanchanaburi, where excellent local food and produce is sold very cheaply.
The next day, 20th January, I took the train over the death railway to the end of the line at Nam Tok. The train itself is a decript old thing, slow, pulled by a diesel locomotive not quite up to the task. This part of the journey was full of tourists, our carriages were attached to the rest of the train, carrying locals, which arrived 45 minutes late from Bangkok. We chugged very slowly, in quite some heat, through numerous stations, each one bedecked with flowers and with its own guard who came out and blew on his whistle and waved various flags about. One of the German tourists near me, an older man, collapsed in the heat. His tour guides seemed helpless as to what to do; he staggered eventually to the very crude toilet where he again fell, hitting the metal toilet seat and gashing his head. The reaction of the Thais was to charge about and jabber into their mobile phones, but still the train lurched on, and it was only when we reached the station where the tour bus was ready to meet them, that he got off with the rest of the party. The poor man looked dreadful, not having received any first aid at all.
We lurched and juddered on for another 30 minutes through very beautiful scenery to Nam Tok, at the end of the line, quite high in the mountains near the Burmese border. Past dragon-backed mountains, sweeping curves of the river, in many places flanked by massive stands of bamboo, golden, yellow and amber-tipped bamboo, and beautiful flowers. At one stage the train passed through a very narrow cutting made by the POWS, so close I could reach a hand from the train and touch the rock, all hewn with the most basic of tools by the prisoners. Most of the slaves were actually labour imported from Java, Burma and French Indo-China, and those men died in the tens of thousands, treated as completely sub-human by the Japs, with no records kept of their death or grave marked.
Oddly the Japanese did respect the deaths of the allied pows, attending their funerals and burials and even paying towards the cost. In Kanchanaburi there is a large memorial erected by the Japanese to those who died building the railway; today, the small local Japanese population tends to this memorial.
By the time this train had reached Nam Tok, we were very late, so it immediately turned around (regrettably for me as it meant I had no time to look around) and began to lurch at the same crawl back to Kanchanaburi. I intended to stay on the train for the return to Bangkok. It was now very hot and dusty, and on wiping my face I saw that I was covered in black soot, from the diesel engine I supposed. The windows were permanently open. Tourists thinned out and various locals hopped on and off – children on the way home from school, a monk reading plans for a temple (or so it appeared, when I peeked), people headed to Bangkok on whatever business necessitated their trip, which is for locals, very cheap. As Thais are immediately recognisable to other Thais, they receive lower prices or even free admission to many places. So another Asian person who spoke Thai would still be detected as non-Thai, and asked to pay the foreigner price (though almost all Thais have some Chinese blood in them).
Horribly late, me tired, hungry and filthy from hours sitting on that train on the hard wooden seats, we eventually arrived at Thonburi station on the outskirts of Bangkok. I was too late now for the river boats that would have taken me back downtown, so had to catch a taxi to my hotel in Suriwong road where I had left my laundry, and then grabbed something to eat, I was so very hungry, before battling through the subway system to my other, cheaper hotel for that night.
Still, I was not complaining, when I think of what those who had built that railway had endured, or of the tiny children lying on the filthy, busy road at the entrance to the metro, begging for a few coins….we live in the most fortunate of circumstances.