Friday, December 03, 2004

Thai-Burma Railway, Hellfire Pass

Kanchanaburi is an unremarkable town with an incredible history. It lies as the capital of the local province, 2 hours west of Bangkok. Nowadays, it's a quietish middle sized Thai town with a history of mining and hooning on the streets (not as yet a recognised industry). It is, however, also the home of the bridge over the River Kwai, one of the most remarkably engineering feats of World War 2.

The bridge is a part of the Thai-Burma railway, built by Allied PoWs and well as unwilling local Thais, Malays and Burmese, under the instructions of their Japanese masters. The initial estimations said it would take 5 years to constract the 415km railway, but with slave labour and torturous techniques, the railway was completed in 16 months. Thousands of soldiers died in the process, mostly through malnutrition, disease and construction accidents.

The legacy of the railway is everywhere in Kanchanaburi. In the centre of town lies a graveyard, where 6,782 allied soldiers (Dutch, British and Australian in this case, with the Americans repatriated home after the war). It's interesting to think back 60 years, to what it must have been like at the time the bridge, and the railway, was being constructed. The temperature here does not dip below 30 degrees during daylight hours, and even it town conditions are dusty and unfriendly (the weather, not the people). From all reports, the PoWs were working more than 12 hours a day, the rations were pittiful and even the badly injured were forced to work. The situation seems to have been truly oppressive, and it is comforting and remarkable that so many survived.

The first week in December each year there is a spectacular commemmoration in honour of the bridge and those who constructed it - a stunning sound and light show tells the history of why the bridge was built, the allied bombs which dropped on it, and its repair, all with lots of things that go BOOOOOM and FIZZZZZZZ and POWWWWWWW and "what the fuck was that?".

Thai people seem to have a genuine appreciation of the sacrifices made in constructing the railway. There's much respect for those people involved, and some of the many monuments and museums in honour of those involved are very moving and heartfelt.

As a quick sidenote for those political tragics out there (okay, just me, really). The Australian government have done an excellent job of honouring veterans here. The two major musems - The Death Railway Museum at the war cemetary, and the Hellfire Pass museum just outside of town - had heavy Australian involvement in the design and funding. Fading newspaper clippings show that both Keating (1994) and Howard (1998) have been here to pay their respects. Bronwyn, Bruce (Scott, not Ruxton), Dana and whoever else has had Veterans Affairs to look after: top stuff, chaps.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great posts, Ari... t'rific! But seriously, man, you're not going to spend you're whole trip in Internet cafe's, are you? :P

Pete

ps, great to see you're having fun!

emily said...

I was in Kanchanaburi this summer, too.
Beautiful little town these days; makes the museums and the stories all the more horrifying.