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An Exciting and Welcome Yet Strangely Familiar Holiday in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

By Pipit Tai

......among the names of the graves so well tended in the war cemeteries, was not a single Asian name to be found....

It was like taking a journey into an unknown world, a plunge into a dark, bottomless abyss. I was invited to join a peerless adventure and hiking group for this trip more than 2 months in advance, yet the time needed to prepare for it never seemed quite enough. Surf the internet for more information, change RM700 into Thai baths, go on long hikes to prepare yourself physically; that was the advice. But hang on a minute, RM700 for a 9 day trip including the return rail ticket? That seemed more than a bit on the short side, especially since an initial search on the internet revealed that tour agencies usually charge about 30,000 to 40,000 baht for a SEVEN day sojourn in Kanchanaburi, not inclusive cost of getting there. Getting stuck in a strange country, not able to speak nor read the language, without money, did not seem like a good holiday. Some might even say it is more like a suicide mission. My contingency of changing RM1000 was conveniently sabotaged by Forest who seemed to sense my insulting hesitation in accepting advice when he asked for the favour of exchanging RM200 worth of bahts with him (apparently he had RM500 worth of bahts left from previous trips and needed another RM200's worth).

That was not the end of my discomfort and worries. About 2 weeks before departure, news flashed on the TV - army posts attacked by terrorists; soldiers, village headmen, Buddhist priest and teenagers cruelly slaughtered in Thailand: bird flu strikes in Kanchanaburi; man dead, boy seriously ill, WHO and UN worried about imminent human to human contagion. The seemingly endless clumsy hints and dark talk started from family who were worried for my safety. Luckily it never progressed to an outright demand to cancel my trip. I guess they know me well enough.

D-day arrived. I said my goodbyes to family who looked as if they'd never see me again. I am comforted that at least someone cared. I set off, packed to the neck back and front with luggage. A mistake, if you ask me again. Travel light, but without sacrificing safety. Ignore being treated like a social pariah because of unwashed shirts and socks. Be nice and helpful to companions to try and regain social standing. Tolerate THEIR unwashed condition. Take comfort and security in having trusted friends. Bring foot powder.

Some new faces and the customary introductions. Familiar faces greeted with a smile and a nod. All seems well, but still, the train's clanking wheels seemed to synchronise with the excited thumping of the heart. Old familiar scenery flashed by, I know and love them well. New yet strangely familiar scenery came to view. Are those storks? Strange-looking bulbuls and mynas, red-wattled lapwings interlaced with common egrets and pond-herons. It looks more rural, more peaceful, more welcoming, belying the simmering tensions in this part of the world.

Change of plans. We shall not stop in Bangkok after all. We stop at Nakhon Pathom and take whatever transport we can hire to Kanchanaburi. We save a few precious hours and a few bahts. Plans A, B, C and D disappear down the drain following the famous plans of mice and men. After this, everything, like the scenery from the train, becomes a blur of stupas, wats, chedis, golden statues, monasteries, caves, breath-taking waterfalls, towering dams, vast lakes, long humid jungle hikes, a riot of flowers, mushrooms and insects, incredibly beautiful scenery, peaceful misty mornings relaxing on the banks of the River Kwae, hoopoes and strange looking orioles, ancient ruins, memorials to ancient battles, museums, war cemeteries, weathered limestone figurines, thousands of photographs, endless steps, endless climbing, endless walking, rivers of sweat, aching muscles and blistered feet, food glorious food, cheap beer, enchanting Thai smiles, shopping and haggling expeditions, bicycling and exploring, wet markets, pasar malams and hawker stalls, a train ride on the famous Death Railway, a gigantic rain tree, frequent changes and adaptations and the omnipresent cloud of familiar tensions among travelers.

One might be forgiven to think that there was enough activity and sights for all, but among a diverse and disparate group, which fortunately or unfortunately we were, some tensions surfaced. Likes and dislikes were more narrowly defined. Some liked nature, hiking and climbing, others called it torture. Some like shopping, others called it mind-boggling boredom. Some liked the Buddhist temples and monasteries, but with others of other religious persuasions among the group, including one particularly irritating story-telling devil-worshipping iconoclastic Satanist, even this unique and charming characteristic of Thailand did not cut any ice. Some liked the cross-cultural sights and events of Thailand, others simply the everyday routine life and food of the Thai people. Some liked spicy food, others found it too painful. Some had a sweet tooth, others had health problems to worry about or did not care for sweet desserts. Some liked meat, others, vegetables. Some had a passion for photography, others birdwatching, still others for other pleasures of life. Some were patient, others had problems with waiting. Some liked air-con rooms, others didn't. Some liked caves and museums, others preferred to wait outside. However, strange as it might seem, there was a uniting factor. Apparently, everyone was worried about the bird flu. Even this did not help in the end though, when some members of the group unknowingly ate coagulated duck�s blood (and continued eating after knowing the fact) on the very first day in Thailand and subsequently caught colds. It seemed the Fates were against us, but not by very much, happily. It could have been worse, much, much worse, in a moot sense, if you consider the fractional percentile, if you'd rather remained at home, if you'd rather be comfortable in familiar settings.

As for me I came home, safely, except for the cold, with memories of kind companions who offered medicines for my cold and of course, much of the above. In particular, I had my boyhood beliefs cruelly crushed. I used to think that the River Kwai atrocities were committed by the inhumane Japs on hundreds of thousands of helpless but heroic Pommie and Yankee POWs. I found to my utter dismay, that more than 80,000 deaths (roughly) were those of Burmese and Malayans (my own people) as well as others from Indo-China and Java at a rate of more than 50% of those Asians who worked on the railway. While Allied Western deaths were 12,619 (accounted for to the exact figure) out of 61,811 who worked on the railway (at a rate of about 20%). In fact, even Japanese died at a rate of 1000 in 15,000 (in battle, this would not be considered light casualties). This tells me that the Japs actually FAVOURED the Westerners (after themselves, of course) and were especially brutal to the Asians. It did not make sense to me that among the names of the graves so well tended in the war cemeteries, was not a single Asian name to be found. Asians fought in the Allied armies too. I could be wrong, but are we really that inferior that there is not even a memorial to those Asians who died (including those who served in Allied armies) and that the only memorial was erected by the Japanese army itself (I assume the translation is correct and includes POW and civilian deaths as well as those of Japanese soldiers)? Are the Westerners so self-centered that their cemeteries, films and propaganda do not even include Asian victims? Is there apartheid even in death? Perhaps I am being too negative, for the Allied generals do discriminate against their own soldiers too. Apparently, one of the first exhibits of the museum I visited was a map showing sites of POW ships sunk by Allied submarines and warships with lit bulbs. It looked like a Christmas tree to me. I did not make a count, but I estimate about 30-40 Japanese ships carrying POWs were sunk. Assuming about 800 - 1500 POWs per ship, I estimate about 30,000 - 40,000 Allied soldiers captured by the Japs but killed by their own side. Did the Allied generals know they were killing their own soldiers? Surely there must be survivors to warn the generals they were killing their own soldiers? Were the Allied submarines and warships ordered not to pick up survivors? Was the strategic military decision to stop the Death Railway limited to bombing by airplanes or was it inclusive of sinking of POW ships (to reduce labour reaching the railway)? Did the Japs kidnap Malayan civilians to try and make up for labour shortage on the Death Railway? I guess all these will never be known, but the POW ship sinkings apparently caused a lot more than double the deaths of Westerners on the Death Railway. It looks like none of them have memorials nor are immortalized in films as well in spite of the greater numbers of deaths involved. Their stories are not Hollywood material enough I guess.

I must apologise for putting my thoughts in writing especially to those who may find them offensive. I am probably wrong (especially my estimates) and I myself think that I may be making too much noise about it. After all, this is history, long past or just past. It was a brutal war and conditions were brutal to the extreme. Whatever motives some people had for slanting their stories, the propagandists have reaped their harvests a long time ago. The people who gain from the River Kwai legend now are Thais** who cater to the tourist trade and I wish them well, but would I re-visit Kanchanaburi? Yes I would! In the blink of an eye! Provided of course that bird flu and terrorist bombs are well contained and there are enough bahts in my wallet. (By the way, I did return with an excess of bahts. Forest was right after all).

** Including some people labouring under the fog of propaganda who needed to see things afresh (updating), in short, educational in an indirect and quiet sort of way (the Thai way?).


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All photographs by Forest Ang unless mentioned.
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