Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Thailand -The River Kwai - A dark chapter in history



After our brief stay in Bangkok where I felt like a woman who had left one lover (India) and quickly taken on another (Thailand), we headed out in our immaculate large van complete with DVD player for the River Kwai. I am totally ashamed to admit that this is a very dark chapter in the history of the world that I knew very little about. The River Kwai and the building of the Death Railway is Vimy or Dieppe to the Aussies and Dutch as well as many British.

In June of 1942 following its decisive defeat at Midway Island, the Japanese decided to build a railway linking its remaining strongholds in Burma and Singapore. The British had previously surveyed the railway but gave up on the possibility of constructing it due to the tough terrain and endemic diseases and monsoonal rains. To Japanese planners studying the route in Tokyo, however, the 415 km railway seemed an obvious solution to supplying the army in Burma and thus avoiding the hazardous sea route around Singapore and through the Straits of Malacca.

Accordingly, the Japanese took captured POW's from the States, Netherlands, Australia and England and put them in cattle cars (like the Germans to Auschwitz) and sent them on the 4 day trip to Kanchanaburi. They also offered Asians work through advertisements in Malayan newspapers seeking labourers for up to 3 months work in Thailand. These workers were offered free rail travel, housing, food and medical services together with pay of one dollar a day. The responses were negligible, so instead they offered free picture shows at the various movie theatres and when full, the doors were locked and all males in the audiences were put aboard trains and railed to Thailand.

What really complicated matters, is that the Japanese General who was charged with turning the dream into a reality was killed in a plane crash while surveying the route along with all of the experienced and skilled engineers. The route was then determined by inexperienced junior Japanese army officers using a 19th century map and their own educated guesses about where the track should run.

Construction of the railway commenced on Sept 1, 1942 and was completed on Dec 25, 1943. It was nicknamed the Railway of Death as 16,000 prisoners of war and 100,000-200,000 Asian labourers died completing it. The really amazing thing is the conditions they were forced to work under. They suffered from cholera, dysentery, beri-beri,malaria and tropical ulcerations of the skin which led to massive infections. They also suffered beatings and tortures such as having to hold a large stone above their heads and if they let it down they'd be beaten, or kneeling on a bed of nails with a log jammed behind their knees or having to swallow water from a hose and then being punched in the stomach to vomit it up. To add insult to injury, near the end, their camps were bombed by the Allies and many died near the end at the hands of their own forces.

We visited both the bridge over the River Kwai which was a strategic completion of one of numerous bridges they had to build and also a place known as Hellfire Pass. Hellfire Pass was a cutting through rock in 2 parts. The first was 450 meters long and 7 meters deep and the main one was 75 meters long and 25 meters deep. By this point the railway was way behind schedule and was into its Speedo phase, This meant they worked sometimes nonstop for 18-24 hours at a time and worked by the light of fires which cast shadows on the walls that looked like the fires of hell.

We were so amazed by the whole process and by the fact that so many people died under such atrocious conditions. We bought the movie The War To End All Wars and watched it in the van. At the end, 2 of the main characters meet at the Kanchanaburi cemetary and we had just left there.

On a lighter note, we also climbed the Erawan Waterfalls. I had always wondered where our good friend Cathy Gotfried (remember our trip to Bali and the gals trip for me back to Bali?- she was the one who organized it all). Her company is Erawan travels and Erawan means elephant in Thai - I think. These waterfalls are amazing and there are 7 steps to them. We climbed all the way to the top and enjoyed absolute privacy for about half an hour before anyone else arrived. We swam in the pools at the 7th,6th and 5th levels. It was amazing. there were little fish that would nibble at you and our guide told us that this was one of the only natural cures that the prisoners working on the railway had to clean out their festering wounds. The fish would eat the dead flesh and leave the living flesh.

We stayed for 2 nights on a floating hotel on the River Kwai and sat out at night in our lightest of clothing to watch the sun set and the moon rise. It is really a great pleasant temp at night here. There was also a pool that was long enough to swim lengths in!!

We are now south of Bangkok in a place called Hua HIn. Our hotel has one long pool that snakes its way around the property and is continuous for 200 meters with 2 big pools at either end. The kids are in the pool right out our deck door right now enjoying a post dinner swim. We will spend 7 nights here and I don't think that's going to be too difficult. Just in case we are missing India there is an Indian wedding here going on for the next 4 days (they are large and long affairs) and there is Indian music accompanying it. The waves at the beach are perfect for body surfing and the water is the warmest I've ever encountered at a beach.

By the way, if any of you ladies want to join Cathy on a trip to Bali, she is hosting another one in May. It is an amazing adventure like nothing you have ever done before. She has been there 17 times and holds your hand the entire way. It is a great break for you and a girlfriend ( it's ladies only at this point). Let me know and I'll forward you the information.

Off for a swim, Holly

1 comment:

Wanderlust woman said...

I'm so happy (and relieved) to hear that the Thailand plans have all worked out so far. I wa hoping that the River Kwai was not to 'dark' for your kids as the history behind is is pretty disturbing. Richard and I were there many years ago and I just remembered feeling quite humbled and abit embarrased that we didn't know more about it. Other than that, I also remember it being quite tropical in that area and so much different from Bankkok. Lots of people do the River Kwai as a day trip out of Bangkok but I think by staying there you get a much better feel for the area.

Thanks for mentioning the Bali Ladies trip. I still have more space for the May trip (2-19th)...maybe you could meet up with us!!!!

Enjoy the beach at Hua Hin because I know Cambodia will be challenging, like India.

Cathy Gotfried