An Unforgettable Experience in Thailand

by Lia Holloway on 02 January 2015, 13:01PM An Unforgettable Experience in Thailand

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting bustling and beautiful Thailand, a place synonymous with stunning white beaches, picturesque lagoons and vibrant nightlife. However, this idyllic country like too many others, could not escape the grasps of war and turmoil.

One of the most infamous war torn areas of Thailand is Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai, which was pushed into popular culture from the French novel (1952) by Pierre Boulle, then the 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai and more recently The Railway Man (2013) starring Colin Firth & Nicole Kidman which brilliantly captivated the tragedy and personal torment suffered by the Prisoners of War. Unfortunately, I didn’t know a lot about what occurred here in World War II prior to our trip and did not know what to expect. This is an account of my experience of travelling through Kanchanaburi.

A rural and lesser known part of Thailand, the town of Kanchanaburi lies 130 kilometres west of Bangkok. Our first stop on tour was visiting the Allied War Cemetery for those that perished during the construction of the Burma Railway. Although a solemn reminder of the thousands that gave their lives, the first thing that you notice is the sheer beauty of the area. Immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it is a clear display of the respect and honour that the Thai people feel towards those that rest there.

Of the 6,982 POWs buried here, nearly half were British and the rest came mainly from Australia or the Netherlands. Walking along the long rows of graves the engravings tell a tale of lives cut short, “Aged 19, Aged 20, Aged 23” were repeated time and time again. Other heartfelt engravings of bravery and broken-hearted mothers prevented me from reading on. Adjacent to the memorial is a small interactive museum called Thailand-Burma Railway Museum. The museum is a must-see as it shows very detailed exhibits, video footage and artefacts.  Most importantly it sheds light on the 240,000+ forgotten souls of the Burma, Java and Malaya labourers who did not receive the honour of marked graves or proper burials.

Our next stop was to the Bridge on the River Kwai, built during World War II by POWs. Again, the first impression was the awe-inspiring beauty of the surrounding area with lush trees lining the banks of the fast flowing river. The Bridge has been rebuilt after multiple bombings and an empty shell stands at the beginning of the bridge as a reminder. The atmosphere around the bridge is much lighter and less solemn than one would expect around such a landmark. There are buskers on either side of the bridge as well as a bustling market place and restaurants overlooking the river. Suddenly, there was a distant train whistle and we rushed to see the bright yellow face of the Death Railway train as it slowly appeared around the bend. As the old train approached, we were met with lots of smiling faces and waving hands hanging out of the open windows.

Our group climbed aboard the old train and it seemed the smiling was contagious. The train journey was an absolute highlight of the trip. Sitting in the wooden carriage, we were promptly greeted with a cold towel (which was very welcome in the humid climate) and a small snack box. The scenery as you pass through the countryside is spectacular and changes between lush forests, bamboo, tapioca fields and teak forests in the foreground with towering mountains ever-present along the horizon. Passing through the varied terrain, you get a true sense of the hardship faced by the labourers that had to build such an extensive railway network.

After an hour or so on the train, it slowed down to pass along the rickety wooden bridge at Tham Krasae.  The bridge is also shared by pedestrians who were making their way back to safe ground upon hearing the train approach. Our group disembarked the train at Tham Krasae Station. Around the station were markets and a restaurant that overlooked the River Kwai and was surrounded by thriving tropical forest. After a tasty lunch, I took the opportunity to explore the area.

Along the tracks is Krasae Cave, a small but popular pilgrimage site for Thai people which houses several Budda images. Feeling daring (or stupid), I joined other brave pedestrians across the wooden bridge, carefully manoeuvring around a minefield of protruding rusty bolts. My decision to cross was rewarded with stunning views and photo opportunities across the River Kwai and quite exhilarating considering the train could come at any moment and there was huge drops either side of the tracks. Luckily I made it to the end just as the faint horn was coming around the mountain pass, again providing a fantastic photo opportunity of smiling passengers hanging out the windows and happily returning my high-fives as the train slowly passed by.

Our tour then continued by coach to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum which is built and maintained by the Australian Government. The pass is noted as being an area of heavy loss of life and harsh conditions. The pass was given its name because the prisoners labouring at night by torchlight was said to resemble a scene from Hell. The memorial is dedicated to the Allied POWs and Asian labourers who suffered not only at Hellfire Pass but throughout the Asia Pacific region. Like the cemetery in Kanchanaburi town, the memorial museum is immaculate and provides great insight into the everyday battles for POWs and the labourers. The museum has a balcony where a Peace Vessel sits overlooking the picturesque rainforest canopy below to emphasise the positive values of life where war once raged. There is also a walking path that leads you through the forest to Hellfire Pass.

The walk has an atmosphere of serenity and peacefulness allowing for quiet reflection of the vivid contrast between the natural beauty today and the devastation that once took place here. The cutting on either side towered above our heads as we walked through and is scarred with incisions made by hand tools. As I walked along there were small tokens left behind from previous visitors including Australian flags, photos of loved ones lost, poppies and the occasional small toy koala.

I now have a new sense of appreciation of the hardship that the Prisoners of War encountered and the thousands Asian labourers that will never be identified. The memorials and museums provide a humbling experience by not only as a reminder of the devastation that occurred but also emphasising the cooperation and coming together of nations in the hope of peace. On your next holiday to Thailand, take drive to Kanchanaburi or enjoy a scenic journey on the Death Railway. It truly is an unforgettable experience in honouring the fallen.

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