Sawadee from Thailand,
I hop into the minibus early in the day for a tour to the River Kwai and the Thai-Burma railway, scene of some of the worst wartime atrocities against fellow Australians. It’s likely to be a fairly sobering experience. “Is the air conditioning alright?” someone asks. Wait a moment! We’re going off to learn about inhumane brutality and shocking privations inflicted by one section of the species on another and someone is worried about the air conditioning! I hold my tongue in the interests of civility.
I joined an excursion up to Kanchanaburi where the Japanese had a base camp during World War 2. Today there is a cemetery and museum in which the barbarism of the prisoner-of-war regime is exposed warts and all. Ruth from Melbourne is also in the party, on something of a personal pilgrimage to find out more about her late father’s tribulations on the railway. She is very pensive and later succumbs to her emotions. As she observes later in the day, this is one place where it would be churlish to complain about the throngs of tourists. “It’s great to see so many young ones here,” Ruth says. It certainly is.
prisoners of war
Australians were among many others to be taken as prisoner of war by the marauding Japanese in South-East Asia. They were treated woefully by their captors and the conditions were appalling by anyone’s standards. Major A.E. Saggers wrote in June 1943: “Never had I dreamt that I would see the day when human life would be held so cheaply”.
|Malay and Tamil||75 000||42 000|
|Burmese||90 000||40 000|
|Dutch||18 000||2 800|
|British||30 000||7 000|
|Australian||13 000||2 802|
|Javanese||7 500||3 000|
Dr. Robert Hardy wrote in July 1943: “The whole party who were just-living skeletons, collapsed and exhausted, make a ghastly picture: bearded, filthy, those who could stand staggering with matchstick legs and wasted faces, their eyes glazed with anguish and despair. No protest to the Japanese authorities against this inhumane treatment of the sick and the barbarous brutalities being inflicted by the engineers and guards on the railway workers, seems to have any effect.”
The Bridge over the River Kwai
The Bridge over the River Kwai stands pretty much as it was constructed, repaired after allied bombing during the latter part of the war. We all catch a train along the infamous track which leads towards Hellfire Pass. I sit opposite the quintessential whinging Pom who quickly forgets her reason for being there, preferring to talk about her accommodation in Bangkok. “The train trip took three hours when they said it would be two and a half.” “They told us we would have a river view. Well, yes, it’s a river view but . . .” “The steps are too steep and there’s no-one there to help you.” and so on. I prefer to engage with the Thais across the aisle who are chatting and smiling pleasantly.
We eventually alight in the mountains and are met by a fierce tropical storm. The monsoon has arrived and is a sight to see : one of the things I listed before leaving Australia as a must-see. The monsoon occurs here in Asia at the opposite end of the seasons to the Top End of Australia and occurs via exactly the same meteorological phenomenon. Here it causes temporary inconvenience for the locals who go about their business pretty much unperturbed, just transferring everything to indoors. The journey to the Thai-Burma railway was well worth the effort: something all Australians should do, I believe.
Back in the city, we also made a point of witnessing a kickboxing tournament. It seems kickboxing serves exactly the same function as the Marquis of Queensberry version does in the west ie. affords boys an opportunity to climb out of poverty and provides an outlet for surplus testosterone. It was admittedly hard not to be swept along in the fervour and noise of the crowd, especially as the live music gained tempo. The Thai kickboxing is a more ritualistic experience but just as barbaric as the Marquis of Queensberry version.
The Thai food is delicious. When I told Green that we were planning on crossing the border this evening, Green said, “Thai food will give you lots of joy. Laos food only some joy.” We’ll see.