Sunday, November 11, 2012

River Kwai: Remembering the prisoners of war of the Death Railway

Our guide Tan was surprised that we wanted to visit the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi, some hundred kilometres out of Bangkok, in the direction of the Thai-Burmese border. Most tourists visiting the prisoner of war camp were elderly people, he told us, people who wanted to visit the graves where their fathers or colleagues had died. These trips tended to be very emotional for them, Tan told us, as the site brings back very painful memories for some.

It may have seemed odd for a young couple to be visiting a former prisoner of war camp during our honeymoon, but we both love learning about history, and we felt that it would be appropriate given that Remembrance Day was coming up. Also, Rob had really enjoyed the movie Bridge on the River Kwai.

During World War II, the Japanese army forced thousands of British, American, Dutch, and Australian prisoners of war to construct a railway connecting Thailand and Burma. Although professional engineers assessed the project should take five years to complete, the Japanese army forced the POWs to finish it in sixteen months. As a result, massive numbers (over 16000) of war prisoners died due to the harsh conditions. They say for every single track laid down in the railway, a prisoner died.

The driver and guide we hired first took us to the war ceremony, a few hours out of Bangkok, where these soldiers were buried, mostly British, Dutch, and Australian (the Americans had shipped their dead home). Many of these soldiers were died quite young, as early as 20.

It was interesting to hear all about the war on the Southeast Asian front. As Canadians, we spend a lot of time learning about the war in Europe, but we do have to remember that countries all around the world were involved, and the fighting was happening here in the jungles of Southeast Asia, just as it was in France and Germany.

The cemetery was quite well-maintained, although it was hard to believe that so many of these Allied soldier had been buried so far away from home.

Afterwards, we drove to the war museum which contained photos and records of life at the prisoner of war camp. As you can imagine, some of the images were quite shocking. What struck me the most was the series of paintings done by a former prisoner, depicting life at the camp. I imagined it must have been his way of coping with these memories, of dealing with all of the horrible things he saw. I was also impressed by the story of one of the Japanese interpreters who worked for the Japanese at the camp. Afterwards, he was so filled with regret at what had happened at the camp that he became a monk and devoted the rest of his life to help people and give back to society.

After the museum, we took a brightly colored long tail speed boat down the River Kwai to see the Death Railway itself. Along the way we passed all sorts of floating restaurants and bars on the river, and even a floating discotheque.

The bridge on the River Kwai itself that forms part of the Death Railway has been bombed and destroyed by the Allied forces. It has since been rebuilt, and you can actually ride a train along the railway that serves both as a tourist attraction and as a commuter option for local Thais.

We rode the train, sharing a compartment with a tour group of excited noisy Japanese tourists. The open air train was not air conditioned, and despite the ceiling fans, it was still quite hot with the noon sun beating in. The energetic, talkative Japanese tourists didn't seem to realize that with this heat, the more you move, the hotter you get. The trick is to sit still and calm your heart to a slow beat. I drank out of a coconut to stay cool.

The train took us through the Thai jungles and the countryside full of monkeys and tapioca fields. Vendors walked through the train selling tapioca snacks, as well as yogurt drinks, beer, and pancakes.

The train broke down in what felt like the hottest, sunniest field without a sliver of a shade. The chattering Japanese tourists kept on chatting. The heat rose. I thought about what it must have been like for the Allied soldiers, working on this railway, used to British cold but forced to work in this sweltering heat in the middle of a foreign jungle far away from home and everything they knew. I was glad that the Japanese were excited but I wished they would shut up and stop moving around, bumping their sweaty hot bodies into my sweaty hot body. I wished the train would move again.

Eventually a woman mechanic rode up to the train on a motorcycle with a wrench in her hand, and she saved the day. The train lurched forward, and we all waved to her from our window.

We approached a wooden bridge, the most difficult part of the railway to build. The train teetered perilously over the cliffs. I tried to imagine how the prisoners of war would have struggled to build this dangerous part of the railway, the tracks clinging tightly to the side of the mountain.

We got off the train at Wang Pho, about a hundred kilometres from the Burmese border. For lunch we stopped at a middle of nowhere restaurant called Phimohaya, run by Burmese owners. It was an open air restaurant with a thatched roof and caged birds that screeched at you as you passed. They served pad Thai and spaghetti that was underwhelming, but the fried banana was delicious.

It had been a long hot day, so the drive back to Bangkok was quiet. It was a long journey to take, but I was glad that we had this chance to see a bit of World War II history. Both of Rob's grandparents fought in World War II and were fortunate enough to make it back alive. My great-grandfather was a fighter for underground resistance against the Japanese occupiers, and one day disappeared without a sign, presumably killed by the forces. It's interesting to see how these major events affect people all around the world, and I'm glad I had a chance to pay my respects to veterans in a different country on the other side of the world.