Thursday, October 13, 2005

October 27: Kanchanaburi

(1) When my train arrived in Bangkok, I took a taxi over to the Southern Bus Terminal (Sai Tai Mai) to begin my two hour ride west to the provincial capital of Kanchanaburi. There are a couple random trains that make this run, but comfortable buses leave, quite conveniently, every fifteen minutes. My timing landed me on the first class #81-1 bus, offering both a movie and air conditioning set to arctic. After pulling into town I checked into the popular Jolly Frog Backpackers and walked over to the Thailand-Burma Railway Center. Several Death Railway museums are scattered around town, but there's hardly a reason to visit any but this one - it's Smithsonian good. Across the street from the museum rests the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (Don Rak). Before going over for a look, I met an older British couple in the upstairs coffee shop at the museum. The woman told me the story of her cousin who served for the Royal Army in Singapore for two days before being taken prisoner by the Japanese, and shipped over to one of the POW camps to work on the Death Railway. He was an only child whose parents, after his death, became close to this woman - their niece. Today, she finally had the opportunity to pay her respects, and was the first member of her family to come to Kanchanaburi. In this grave lies her cousin, Gordon Hancock, who died in WWII at age 23.

(2) Most people are only familiar with this region of Thailand because of the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. Here's the bridge. Of course, the film only focuses on one part of the Death Railway story, taking a few creative liberties even at that. So, it's worth it to spend a few moments giving this terrible chapter in world history its propper justice. I'm not sure how things are taught in other parts of the world, but I don't recall these events ever being discussed in my grade school history classes. Then again, I never really paid attention.

(3) In December 1941, the Japanese empire was firmly planted in Southeast Asia and needed to create a supply route for their newly acquired territories. Seeing as how Allied forces still had some control in the Bay of Bengal, it would be difficult and dangerous to use the seas. Therefore, despite rough terrain, they intended to connect the Nong Pladuk terminal in Thailand and the Thanbuyazat terminal in Burma. This 415km stretch would become the Thailand-Burma Railway. Using 200,000 Asian laborers and 60,000 Allied POWs, work began in June 1942. Fifteen months later, the railway was complete at the estimated cost of 16,000 POW and 100,000 Asian laborer lives. In many ways, death was almost a welcome friend - work and living conditions, teamed with Japanese brutality, made the prisoner camps hell on Earth. After the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, much of the track was torn apart. Today, a rebuild of the famous bridge over the River Kwai, and a short section of track, are all that physically remain from the Death Railway. I chose to walk about 40 minutes, each way, from town to see what has become of the bridge. For one thing, it looks nothing like the elaborate structure in the Oscar-winning film - which was actually shot in Sri Lanka. However, what's most obvious is the shameless commercialism that has blossomed from one side of the river to the other. It's sort of a turnoff. But, hey, you can't come to Kanchanaburi and not see the bridge... even though you don't see the bridge.

(4) Don't mind if I do.

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At 10:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Thank you for the blog... any chance you have a name or contact details of the couple you speak of related to Gordon Hancock? I am a cousin and have been looking for this missing link! Thanks sor your time. Not sure it I should leave my email address? here...R Martin Thanks


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