Kanchanaburi – bridges and memorials

Today was a very long day, but a very worthwhile one. Our original plan was to take the train to Kanchanaburi, but due to time constraints (and being spoiled), Lou insisted on a hired car. Still, it cost less for the 3-hour drive than you’d pay for a train ticket back home. It also meant aircon that wouldn’t have been available on the only trains that go there from Bangkok.

We stayed at the Felix resort right on the bank of the River Kwai, about 200 yards from the famous bridge. A five star resort for £30 a night. Can’t beat it. Our room service and bar tab at the end cost as much as the room! It’s a beautiful resort as well, laid out like a collection of islands with little bridges between them all. It’s not all cheap, though. They advertise a 12-course banquet at 99,999Baht which includes a free stay in their Executive Suite as part of the deal!

We arrived around midday and, after dropping our stuff off, arranged a taxi to the JEATH museum at the far side of the town. This is quite a small museum, and is fashioned as a reconstruction of the “accomodation” given to the allied prisoners of war who built the bridge further upriver. It really is quite a thing to walk around, with many paintings, photos, newspaper clippings and so on detailing the horrific conditions the men were made to put up with. If you’ve seen the famous film, it doesn’t even begin to get across the level of atrocities. It’s also (as usual with most American films depicting “history”) woefully inaccurate.

We decided to walk back to the hotel via the Allied War Cemetery and the Bridge itself. Which turned out to be an eentsy bit further than we thought. Ragardless, the walk was worthwhile. Lunch was at another roadside “café” and once again was Cow Pat Guy. Delicious. And a little puddy tat curled up at my feet as well. The people were really friendly and quite chatty even with their limited English (though less limited than our Thai!)

I also remembered that I needed passport photos for my visa applications so we popped into a little shop that did them. Very “back room”! I was led upstairs where the owner took my photo then ran it through Photoshop to create a contact sheet with 9 pictures on. Top notch – and 100Baht. About 1/10th what you’d pay for the same number of pictures in the UK. In addition, we asked for some help with directions to the cemetery and he photocopied a map for us at no charge!

It was a long way to the Don-Rak Cemetery, which we eventually reached. Definitely worth the plod, though. It is incredibly well looked after and was being watered when we arrived. The grass is the thick, short, tough variety very common over here and absolutely shines in the sun. Each grave – almost 6982 of them – marks one of the allied POWs who died building the bridge. Many were buried elsewhere, but all the bodies were disinterred and reburied at this one site. Next to each headstone is a flowering plant, a different one for each fallen soldier. The overall effect is utterly beautiful. I may take photographs if I visit again next week, but somehow it just didn’t feel “right” to do so.

Every headstone bears a name, a rank, a regiment and a date of death. Most have the dead man’s age. Very, very few are over 25. A small number simply say “Unknown Soldier” and in a way they are the most sad. A man has laid his life down and nobody even knows who he is to recognise the sacrifice he has made.

There is one headstone which bears Lou’s brother’s name – quite scary. She’s asked and nobody in the family is aware of any forebears having been involved, but she doesn’t have a very common surname.

I’ll be utterly honest – I was moved to tears by the whole thing. 6300 lives is hard to comprehend until they’re laid out in front of you. Carved, glinting in the sunlight and stretching out over such a distance it does somehow give the magnitude of the number some meaning.

However. The reckonings are that almost 100,000 conscripted natives (Thai and Burmese) died in similar manners to the allied POWs. One. Hundred. Thousand. Trying to even picture the size of cemetery required to house those in a similar manner to the Don-Rak Cemetery really makes the mind boggle. I know such cemeteries exist elsewhere in the world, but without visiting them it’s just a huge, incomprehensible number.

As we were leaving, two tour buses arrived and discourged a large number of people, varying in age from twenties to OAP. What struck me was that the younger ones walked up and down, looking around and on the whole were rather quiet. Many of the OAPs just stood at the entrance laughing and shouting at each other. Is it a coincidence that they were Japanese? At least it seems that the youth have learned respect – such a shame their elders haven’t got any.

We moved on.

Another long walk eventually got us to the Death Museum (nice name) which we didn’t have time to visit. Lou actually walked right past it – and the huge steam train outside – utterly oblivious while nattering to her dad on her mobile. She also almost got bitten by a timid dog she kept pestering but I’m not allowed to go on about that!

Right by this museum is the Bridge itself. I think the concrete supports have been reinforced over the years, but the arched steel sections are the originals. Brought from Java, put together, bombed into the water and repaired.

It was smaller than I expected. It’s a single train wide and doesn’t leave much of a gap at the sides when the train goes over. It is still in use today, though trains go over it very slowly indeed due to its use as a footbridge when the rails aren’t taken up with a huge lump of wheeled steel. There are little plinths you can move onto when the train approaches, but I’m glad to say we made it to the other side a short while before a train arrived. It took quite some time to crawl over.

One thing that struck me was the number of gaps you could so easily fall down. In the UK these would have netting and fences and people stood there telling you not to trip in case someone sued. Over here – your problem. So if you ever visit, watch your step!

At the other side, we spotted an elephant chained up and munching at some bamboo. The owner approached and we took some food (for 100Baht) to feed him. The poor thing only had one tusk (his right) and one eye (his left) – he lost the others when he was very young. Given that the owner old us he was now 6, he seems to be coping well. He certainly had no problem grabbing cucumbers from our hands and shoving them in his mouth!

Many people complain about the treatment animals suffer in foreign countries for show, but in Thailand they all seem well looked after. Unlike many cases where animals have been declawed or stolen from their parents, all the ones in Thailand have been rescued from poachers, or born to animals which have been raised in this way. They are looked after, but many species can no longer be used to “perform”. This is a huge problem for the people who look after them as they suddenly have no source of income to help pay the huge costs of feeding some of these creatures. Elephants, obviously, aren’t cheap to feed.

As a result, they have to resort to effectively begging and charging passing tourists 100Baht to feed an elephant 10Baht worth of food.

Darkness fell as we walked back to the hotel. Watching the sun set over the River Kwai was quite something. Night falls very quickly in Thailand. Dusk lasts maybe 10 minutes before the place is pitch black.

Just as we got back to the room, I saw something out of the corner of my eye – two lizards hiding around the big lamp over our door. These were similar, but less brightly coloured, than the ones I’d seen in Nigeria. Lovely things and I managed to snap a few pictures as they poked their heads out to munch on evil mosquitoes.

Tomorrow would be the Tiger Temple. Camera batteries were charged and beer had to encourage sleep!

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