Travelogue

Kanchanaburi 2013: A Memorable Experience

One afternoon in 2009, all the way at the western end of the little island Sentosa, a few Fortians in green camo and khakis told each other, “Wouldn’t it be an honour if we can go and see the Death Railway?”. And then, four years later…

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This trip to Kanchanaburi is very special to me. I’ve learned so much about the Death Railway back when I was a guide and had dreams to see it with my own eyes but due to many personal constraints, this dream was pushed to the back of my head. Never have I thought I would overcome my issues and strike this off my bucketlist. So I am very proud to share with you my humbled experience.

On the third day of our Bangkok trip, we went on a guided tour to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, Kanchanaburi War Cemetries, Tiger Temple and Hellfire Pass. The journey from our hotel at Novotel Siam Square to the first stop took two hours. But it was a good 2 hours as our guide did give us some information about culture and the sights along the way. Plus, we had time to catch up on some sleep since we had to leave the hotel at 7am to be on schedule for the tour.

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Damnoen Saduak in Ratchaburi is about 109 kilometres south of Bangkok. Best accessed by package tour as finding your way here may be difficult if you are not familiar with the roads.

You can find many floating markets across Thailand but Damnoen Saduak is popular amongst tourists. History has it that in the older days, due to the vast land, getting around seemed almost impossible. King Rama IV was concerned over the country’s ecomony and had canals dug to connect to rivers so that his people could live and go about their daily lives with easier access for business and transportation.

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Colourful and a very unique experience exclusive to Thailand. A variety of goods were seen displayed for sale along the waters such as clothes, souveneirs, flowers, spices, toys and even food stalls on their little wooden boats! I was amazed at the stall holders’ ablilities to balance walking, squating and working on some two-feet planks in front of their stalls on sticks. I learned that most of the sellers rowing and mending the little wooden boats are elder ladies as it is less straining than working on the field. Most of the fruits and vegetables they sell are harvested from their own farm.

A few tips on shopping at floating markets:

  • Do not touch their items if you are not intending to buy. It’ll piss them off.
  • Expect prices for clothes here to be a bit more expensive than Bangkok as most are brought from there.
  • Opens from 8am to 11am but the earlier you reach, the better you’ll avoid the crowd.

Next up, a place that tugged at my heartstrings.

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We visited two of Kanchanaburi’s War Cemetries – Don Rak War Cemetery and Chungkai War Cemetry. These cemeteries are associated with the victims of the Death Railway.

Don Rak is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There are 6,982 former POWs buried here, mostly Australian, British and Dutch.

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Here are the gravestones of some of the brave men that have sacrificed their lives. Looking at each and every gravestone made my heart sink. Each had insignias of the regiments they have served and engraved on some were words of love to the dearly departed, heartbreaking to be reminded that these men have had families, children, wives, parents and home they left behind to fight for their countries only to be cruelly tortured and have their lives taken. How painful it must’ve been for them and for their loved ones, I cannot even phantom. What made it even more sad was the age of some of these men, some as young as 18 and those gravestones marked ‘Known Unto God’. My deepest condolences and rest in peace.

“God’s garden must be beautiful because he always takes the best.” – engraved on Corporal V.Holker’s Gravestone of The Royal Norfolk Regiment.

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Chungkai War Cemetery is located at the point where the River Kwai divides into two separate rivers; the Mae Khlong River and Kwai Noi River. It use to be one of the base camps on the railway and had a hospital and church built by Allied POWs. This cemetery is the original burial ground started by the prisoners themselves and the burials are mostly of men who died at the hospital. There are 1,427 Commonwealth and 314 Dutch burials of the Second World War in this cemetery.

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The Bridge over the River Kwai was part of the Death Railway. In 1942, the Japanese forces invaded Burma through Thailand. In order to maintain their forces in Burma, they had to bring necessary supplies to their troops, however, it was only possible to do so by sea through the Straits of Malacca and Andaman sea which were vulnerable to allied attacks. Hence, the Japanese deviced a plan to construct a railway from Kanchanaburi, Thailand to Thanbuzayat, Burma. One of the most famous portion of the railway is ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’, which was built over a stretch of river which was then known as part of the Mae Klong.

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It is said that in the 90,000 allied prisoners that were sent to buid the railway, 16,000 died and out of the 200,000 asian labourers, 60,000 died. Construction began at the Thai end on 22 June 1942 and in Burma at around the same date. On 17 October 1943, the two sections of the line met south of the Three Pagodas Pass. The railway was completed in 15 months instead of the projected 3 years.

Our tour included lunch by the River Kwai.

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The Tiger Temple is located in Sai Yok, not far from the border with Myanmar. We asked our guide, Joe, the association with Tigers and the buddist’s beliefs since its a temple. It was there that we learned that the religion had no association with tigers but that the monks there rescued abondoned tiger cubs and bred them.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t the least bit nervous because these cats were HUGE.

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But of course, I’ve put on a brave front and a straight face for the sake of my photos. The tigers were generally quite tame. Goes without saying that you shouldn’t do anything stupid that will annoy, displease or hurt the tigers unless you’d like to be on their ‘Today’s Special’ menu.

Although its called the Tiger Temple, you can find other animals roaming around freely. The tigers there are watched and handled by the keepers and monks unlike the other animals. They are also fed regularly at their appropriate meal times hence there is no need for them to go hunting. Here we see a deer bribing Nas for leaves welcoming her visitors.

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And contrary to popular belief, the most dangerous animals on the grounds of the Tiger Temple are not the tigers but the buffaloes. In fact, they were so scary that I didn’t dare take a picture! There was one looking right at us while we were walking out and started following us! For a short while, I thought Nas’s red streaks on his shoe caught the buffaloes attention. Instead, it tailed us because it was on its way into the algae filled pool to meet its lover. So sweet, even animals kiss.

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A few tips on visiting the Tiger Temple:

  • Wear appropriate covered clothes; t-shirts and long pants as a form of respect to the monks. Shawls do not count (don’t be like me!).
  • No red clothing allowed as it will aggitate the buffaloes.
  • Do not wear suglasses as it reflects the image of the tiger/buffaloes.
  • Watch out for big shitloads (literally) of animal poop. They are everywhere.
  • When taking photo with a tiger, make sure u have a firm grip. Soft grips will tickle the tiger.

And we’re off to the Hellfire Pass…

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The name ‘Hellfire Pass’ was derived from the scene of the weak and dying prisoners labouring to cut the rock for the railway passage at night and their only form of light was from the torches. The Japanese Generals claimed that it resembles a scene from Hell.

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Hellfire Pass in the Tenasserim Hills was a particularly difficult section of the line to build. It was the largest rock cutting on the railway, coupled with its general remoteness and the lack of proper construction tools during building. A tunnel would have been possible to build instead of a cutting, but this could only be constructed at the two ends at any one time, whereas the cutting could be constructed at all points simultaneously despite the excess effort required by the POWs. The Australian, British, Dutch and other allied Prisoners of War were required by the Japanese to work 18 hours a day to complete the cutting. Sixty nine men were beaten to death by Japanese guards in the six weeks it took to build the cutting, and many more died from cholera, dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion. However, the majority of deaths occurred amongst labourers whom the Japanese enticed to come to help build the line with promises of good jobs. These labourers, mostly Malayans (Chinese, Malays and Tamils from Malaya), suffered mostly the same as the POWs at the hands of the Japanese. The Japanese kept no records of these deaths.

The railway was never built to a level of lasting permanence and was frequently bombed by the Royal Air Force during the Burma Campaign. After the war, all but the present section was closed and the line is now only in service between Bangkok and Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi. – Source from Wikipedia.

It felt surreal standing on the grounds of the Hellfire Pass. I couldn’t believe I was standing on the very ground I have learned of for 4years of my life, that I had always wondered how it would look like and how it would feel. Looking at the scenery at the Hellfire Pass and massive rock cutting, its unbelievable that it took the men just changkols to break it in just over a year and how much they must have suffered. In a way, it is a reminder that despite all the problems that I have faced, it can never compare to how much sacrifice and pain these men have gone through. I think for Zilin, Nas and myself, this felt like somewhat of a pilgrimage.

My experience to Kanchanaburi has been a very fruitful and rewarding one. I hope to visit this place and spend more time here again someday. Thank you to Zilin for planning this trip and adding yet another amazing memory to our friendship. Nas and I love you to bits. Till the next entry.

Reference:
World War II Today
CWGC Cemetery Details
The Death Railway by Scott Murray

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