There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Friday, 20 November 2015

Kanchanaburi, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass: Part 13 of Thailand and Laos

A short drive took us into Kanchanaburi from our resort hotel. In 1942-3 the town had been the main depot at the southern end of the infamous Burma railway.

Our first stop was at the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum. Privately funded and run by Australian historian Rod Beattie, it naturally concentrates on the 60,000 POWs who worked on the railway - British and Australian troops captured at the fall of Singapore and Dutch taken when the Japanese overran the Dutch East Indies. 13,000 POWs died (7,000 British, 3,000 Australian, 3,000 Dutch), but it is important to remember that there were as many as 300,000 East Asian workers among whom the death rate was even higher. At first they were recruited on contracts, but these were never honoured and they became slave labourers. Later all pretence was dropped and men - Burmese, Thais and Malayans- were pressed into service, snatched from their homes, fields or market places.

Decades earlier the British had considered building a 400km railway from southern Thailand across the Three Pagodas Pass into Burma, but had abandoned the project after surveys suggested that driving a railway through such inhospitable country would be too expensive, both financially and terms of lives that would be lost. For the Japanese the cost was lower - they paid no wages and their workers were expendable.

The approximate route of the Burma Railway (in green)
While in the museum I picked up a copy of The Railway Man, Eric Lomax’s autobiography written in the 1990s. I read a few paragraphs where the author constructs a radio to obtain news of the outside world. It was a compelling and vivid account of bravery and resourcefulness.

We had intended to see the film when it was released in 2014 but it disappeared too fast from our local cinema. We watched a DVD after returning home. Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth head a powerful cast, but despite some dramatic set pieces the film failed to engage and it was easy to see why it stayed so briefly in the cinema. I later read the book. It tells of how a strange and solitary youth is socialised by his time in the army and how his early experiences as a prisoner make a man of him. After the discovery of the map and radio he and his companions had made, he endures the utmost brutality and takes desperate actions to survive. The end of the war does not end his suffering and decades later he makes the difficult decision to seek healing through reconciliation. It is a powerful and moving testament.

The Railway Man, film poster borrowed from Wikipedia
I re-watched the film. The chronology is distorted, the important chapters dealing with Lomax’s time in jail are omitted and the end is changed for cheap dramatic effect. In reality the first meeting in Kanchanaburi with his torturer’s translator (not his actual torturer) was carefully set up. The film ignores the important role of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and has Lomax ambushing the translator in a museum and threatening violence. The main theme of the book is the redemptive power of forgiveness and reconciliation, the main theme of the film is unclear.

Inevitably, the prisoners look too fit and well; make-up can simulate tropical ulcers but not starvation. The museum’s photographs show ribs like xylophones and high bony shoulders, but your eyes are always dragged to the prominent ring of the collar bone, through which the head of a recognizable young man, sometimes still capable of a grin, is threatening to fall. Those who are not skeletal are bloated with beriberi, an often fatal disease caused by malnutrition.

Eric Lomax survived. Those British, Australian and Dutch soldiers who did not were buried near where they died. After the war their remains were collected and re-buried, 7,000 in Kanchanaburi, 1,500 in nearby Chungkai and the remainder at Thanbyuzayat in Burma. The Kanchanaburi cemetery is a Dutch/Commonwealth cemetery differing slightly from the usual Commonwealth War Graves format, but every bit as well-kept. A service of Remembrance was taking place on the far side; not an unusual occurrence.

War Graves, Kanchanaburi
The bridge on the River Kwai is only a few minutes away. It does not resemble the bridge in the film (which was shot in Sri Lanka) nor is it in remote jungle, but it is the bridge about which Pierre Boule’s* 1952 novel was written - at least a repaired and restored version. It is not actually on the ‘River Kwai’ either. The two branches of the Mae Klong meet in Kanchanaburi. The bridge crosses the Khwae Yai (Big Branch) just above its confluence with the Khwae Noi (Small Branch) and Kwhae (Branch) became Kwai.


The Bridge on the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi

The Bridge remains in use, Kanchanaburi being the terminal for the small section of the railway still functioning, but tourists are free to walk across it and have a good look.


Walking across the Bridge on the River Kwai

Eric Lomax called his book The Railway Man not just because he was forced to work on the Burma Railway but because he was a train buff. He understood the irony, but could not help being interested in the trains the Japanese used, and two are on display at the end of the bridge.


Train used on the Burma Railway, Kanchanaburi

He was particularly fascinated by the trucks that could be modified to travel on road or rails.


Truck-Train, Burma Railway Kanchanaburi

My mother took me and some young friends to see The Bridge on the River Kwai many years ago. We all took it so seriously, but on re-viewing I wonder if there has ever been a worse multi-Oscar winning film. The demands of Hollywood required an American action hero be crow-barred into the plot. The bone of contention between the British colonel and the Japanese is that officers as well as men were being forced to work - maybe against the Geneva Convention but to 21st century sensibilities it seems he was fighting to maintain the class privileges two world wars did so much to erode. If the prisoners in The Railway Man looked too well, those in ‘Bridge’ were positively bronzed and fit and finally a mistreated and eventually shot Alec Guinness, staggers around like the ham actor he was not.


The Bridge on the River Kwai, film poster borrowed from Wikipedia

A, our guide for the first part of this journey from Bangkok to Sukhothai and Laos told us that his father had been an officer in the Royal Thai Air Force. The first American attempts to bomb the bridge in 1945 led to the deaths of many civilians but left the bridge undamaged. On subsequent missions they carried Thai navigators, among them A's father. They were eventually successful, but precision bombing was in the future (if it exists at all) and A's father felt responsible not just for destroying a bridge, but also for the deaths of innocent people. He never spoke of it without weeping.

We drove north, the modern highway taking a different route from the railway. After a while we left the main road in what seemed a rural area, but soon found ourselves among buildings more like the edge of a town than a village. In densely populated Thailand it is not always easy to know where you are or what sort of area you are in. We stopped for lunch at a large open barn of a restaurant. There were a few other customers, mostly European, but Chart promised good food. My ‘beef with curry paste’ and Lynne’s tomyum soup were indeed good – far better than the much more expensive tourist food at our hotel.

After lunch we visited the nearest hospital so Lynne could have her wound checked and dressing changed. It was a 'government hospital', a little less smart and affluent than yesterday's private hospital, but clean, well-staffed and efficient. Lynne felt fine, the wound looked clean and we decided we did not need to visit any more hospitals.

We continued to the Hellfire Pass Museum, opened in 1996 at the top of a steep wooded slope. Jointly sponsored by the Royal Thai Armed Forces and the Australian Government, it covers much the same ground as the Kanchanaburi Museum, but with perhaps a little more emphasis on the huge numbers of Asian victims of the railway.


The path down the slope from the museum to Hellfire Pass

It also, of course, focuses on Hellfire Pass, a narrow cutting driven through solid rock by half-starved prisoners of war and local slave labour in six weeks, working eighteen hours a day. The sight of emaciated prisoners working at night by torchlight was said to resemble a scene from hell.

Working on a Thailand Railway Cutting, July 1943 by the official war artist Murray Griffin. This has become one of the most famous images of the hellish conditions experienced when constructing the Thai–Burma railway, though Griffin painted this from accounts by other POWs. He spent the whole of his captivity in Changi.
Picture and caption borrowed from Australian Prisoners of War on the Thai-Burma Railway
A trio of middle aged Thai women who had been photographing each other at every opportunity, prevailed on me to take a picture of them together. They were enjoying their visit, somewhat inappropriately, we thought, laughing and joking their way round the museum. Chart was upset, 'They should behave with respect,' he said. 'This is a serious place and a memorial.' He was, of course, right, though it was really only a museum, the 'serious place and memorial' was reached via a series of wooden staircases down the wooded slope behind the museum.

Looking west through the bamboo to the hills cross the valley we  commented, yet again, that places of great suffering are not marked out as such by nature. They are often banal, like the killing fields of Choeung Ek or the flat farm lands of Silesia, sometimes they are beautiful.

View acros the valley from the southern end of Hellfire Pass
 75m long and 25 deep Hellfire Pass was built by drilling holes in the rock using a hammer and metal pick, filling the resulting hole with explosives and then, after the detonation, clearing the rubble by hand. Little of the railway remains in situ. There are some sleepers...
Original sleepers, Hellfire Pass
 ... but the rails are not original.

Not original rails Hellfire Pass
Just before a tree that has made a sturdy start on reclaiming the pass for nature, the broken end of a pick embedded in the rock is the only other remnant of the men who worked and died here.

Lynne and Chart inspect a broken pick, Hellfire Pass
But they are not forgotten. At the end is a monument, and evidence of recent visits.

Australian Memorial, Hellfire Pass
I am not a great one for patriotism and national flags, but there are times when a flag can cause the stiffest upper lip to tremble.

The end of Hellfire Pass
 We climbed from the depths of the pass in the glare of the afternoon sun.

When I was growing up in Buckinghamshire Les and Pearl Price lived two doors down. Everybody knew Les had been an unwilling participant in the building of the Burma railway and that the Japanese had done 'horrible things to him', which was why Les and Pearl's children, Paul and Verity were adopted. I was six or seven, so my understanding was limited. Les and Pearl became friends of my parents - they attended the annual Burma Star gathering at the Royal Albert Hall as their guests on several occasions.


In the late fifties/early sixties, before the advent of supermarkets, even a commuter village on the outer London fringes boasted a full set of shops, a butcher, fishmonger, baker, grocer, greengrocer, two newsagent/tobacconists and more.

The shops changed hands occasionally and sometime around 1960, Hillary's the grocers became McTavish's. I remember Mr McTavish as being a big cheerful man with (I thought) a strange way of speaking. We soon learned that he was another Burma Railway survivor. Les went to visit. 'As soon as I saw him,' I heard Les tell my parents, 'I thought, "poor bugger”. We used to give people like him all the clothing we had, but they suffered terribly.'

It was years before I understood that remark. I have never suffered from sunburn, at that age I had probably never heard of it. McTavish was a fair-skinned, sandy-haired Scot with no natural defences to any sun, never mind the remorseless sun of Thailand. He and men like him would have endured another layer of suffering over and above that of their darker skinned comrades.

Although most of the railway was dismantled in 1947, a small section still exists, from south of Hellfire Pass through to Kanchanaburi.
Lynne waits on Wang Pho station
We drove to Wang Pho station, bought tickets and did not have long to wait for the train. The railway for which so many suffered and died is now a toy train taking tourist for a short trip beside and finally across the 'River Kwai'.
The train arrives, Wang Pho Station
 A cheerful bunch of brightly dressed well-fed people leant out of the windows to take pictures of themselves, the train and the railway, particularly where it crosses sections on wooden trellises vaguely reminiscent of the bridge in the film.
Crossing a trestle section of the Burma Railway
Were we being disloyal to the memory of Les Price and Mr McTavish? I don't know, I felt a little uncomfortable, but my behaviour was the same as everybody else's, so I have no grounds to feel superior. Perhaps they would be pleased that their efforts were not entirely in vain, part of the railway was at least being used and for a peaceful purpose….but still.
Children rafting on the 'River Kwai'
 We left the train at Ai Lit, the station before Kanchanaburi and drove back to our hotel arriving at dusk.

There was little outside our hotel except a dual carriageway, but on the far side we had spotted a small general store and as our 'Premium Lao Whisky' had survived no further than Champasak we needed a replacement. I would not wish to compare our situation with that of Les Price and Mr McTavish but resort hotels always feel like luxurious prison camps, perhaps more Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner than the real thing.

We walked up the drive to the exit where the security guard gave a smart salute but did not check our papers or advise us to turn back. Crossing the busy road was exciting but we discovered a well-worn path over the grass of the central reservation - others had been this way before. The woman in the little shop was obviously used to dealing with escapees and we soon found or way back to camp clutching a half bottle of SangSom Rum.

We approached dinner with trepidation but Lynne declared her spring rolls with chicken, prawn, mushroom and water chestnuts ‘delicious’, while my tilapia in three flavours was a touch ‘cheffy’ but so much better than last night’s gutless green curry.

*Pierre Boule was a French secret agent who was captured in 1943 and endured forced labour in Southeast Asia. He wrote over 20 novels, the only other one well known to an English speaking audience is, rather incongruously, Planet of the Apes.

Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the update on your travels. A few memories stirred.

    We went to Thailand and took the same journey along the railway. Something we had to do as my dad helped to build the thing, he did come back as he was one tough old bugger.

    Michael W

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