Friday, 20 February 2009

HELLFIRE PASS. KANCHANABURI AND BANGKOK Janurary 2009

























On the 5th of January we all flew to Bangkok where we were met by Ponchai in his luxury 12 seater tour bus and taken out to Kanchanaburi. We arrived late at the Blue Star Guest House  (www.bluestar-guesthouse.com Phone Thailand 034512161) and were shown to lovely rooms for 300Tb per night per couple. The Blue Star provided very good value and excellent meals. The following morning Ayer, the operations manager at the Hellfire Pass Museum met us and Poochai drove us the 80 km up to the Museum.
The Hellfire Pass Museum was established and is maintained by the Australian Government as a monument to the POW's from Australia, England, America and Holland, who under Japanese command, built the 415 km long Thai Burma "Death" railway during the 2nd World War. Work commenced on the 2nd of September 1942 and was completed on the 25th of December 1943 Just 16 months!! The deaths of prisoners was caused by overwork, starvation, beatings, disease and injury. The numbers are appalling. More than 16,000 POW,s and 100,000 impressed Asian labourers died.
Hellfire Pass or Konyu Cutting, is but one of the numerous cuttings constructed using hammer and Tap tequnique by the starved and beaten prisoners. The entire route is constructed of rail line over bridges, through cuttings and viaducts throught rough and difficult terrain. There is a walking trail for 4 km along an actual reconstruction of the line which we didnt have time to do. The exhibits are exceptional and the Museum is a must do if visiting Thailand. it would be especially moving to attend an Anzac Day memorial dawn service in the cutting.
It was at Colin's instigation that we found ourselves in Kanchanaburi as he has several friends who were POW's on the railway project and was therefore very keen to see it. We would highly recommend a visit to the area also but to make the effort to go the 80km out to the Museum and Pass.
Hintok River Camp on the Kwai and close to the Helfire Pass Museum would be a great place to stop over. We lunched there. see wwwhintokcamp.com
Kanchanaburi itself is a fairly large town on the River Kwai, famous for its bridge. The Bridge over the River Kwai was constructed by POW's using bridge components bought in by the Japanese from Java, It was a strategic crossing and was bombed many times by the Allies in an attempt to cut the supply line from Burma. Unfortunately the Japanese used POW's as human shields to try to prevent bombings to no avail. The prisoners were also camped very close to the bridge as a deterrent and this also caused severe injury and fatality amongst their ranks. The prisoners made every endeavour whilst constructing the bridge and the railway to undermine its structure and facilitate failure under load. This practice, if detected was punished severely. Punishments were harsh and often fatal.
 
We made a pre-dawn pilgrimage to the Bridge walking from our hotel for 15 minutes in the cool quiet morning air. There were a few sleepy stall holders setting up. Early coffee and watching the monks on their ritual alms collecting round provided interest as we awaited the first train and sunrise for a photograph or two. Back to the hotel for breakfast then a big day at the two huge war cemeteries. It is interesting that the Japanese, so cruel and ruthless, allowed the prisoners to bury their dead with some piety. They often attended the funerals and allowed the prisoners to be buried with all their identification. When the Australian War Graves Commission commenced the exhumation of interred soldiers for identification and reburial this facilitated their gruesome task.
Their remains are now buried , in two beautifully maintained cemeteries in Kanchanaburi A headstone marks the name and details of each soldier.
Across the street is another excellent museum of the period called the Thailand - Burma Railway Center. www.tbrconline.com
It is interesting conjecture that the Australian government is planning to hand over the Hellfire Pass Museum to the Thais. Should this happen is is widely believed that the Japanese, quite influential financially in the region, will put pressure on the Thai's to endeavor to have the history "modified" so as to present them in a better light!!
Thank you to Ayer, Bill and Poochai for your help and guidance during our visit.
Back to Bangkok and to the stately and comfortable Sommerset Hotel for 2 nights. A visit to the Grand Palace, established 1782 houses the royal residences, throne halls and several government offices as well as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It was in stark contrast to the previous few days with luxurious jewels gold and glitter everywhere the eye roved. The complex is enormous, 218,000 square meters and justifies some serious research before a visit and plenty of time to browse. There is almost 8 km of internal wall mural. A whole day with a long lunch break recommended. Photo opportunities abound but require plenty of patience as the crowd is unrelenting. Don't be caught purchasing "appropriate" clothing outside the gates. Its available free for loan inside if your attire is deemed unsuitable.
Colin and Edna flew out of Bangkok on the 9th of January and we returned to Phuket and to Taipan the same evening. Really sad to say farewell and looking forward to seeing them again in March, back in Australia.