Day 315 – 10 Jan, 2016
I fully admit to being naive as to Thailand’s involvement during World War II. When it was suggested that I visit the War Memorial in Kanchanaburi, I remember thinking, “Which war?”
Kanchanaburi is only a short drive west of Bangkok. I was running out of days on my 30 day Thai visa so I only allowed myself two nights for a visit. At first glance, this town revealed nothing special. It was typical of Thai towns that are caught somewhere between progress and the past, with massive supermarkets competing with the local night market. I still prefer the authenticity of the market in the street.
The main attraction in the town itself is the Bridge over the River Kwai, which was also made famous in the movie and book by the same name. During WWII, the Japanese engineered the construction of a railway line, using POWs and Asian slave laborers, to transport supplies in their assault against India. The ensuing work was so difficult, under unfavorable conditions, that it later earned the name of Death Railway. It is estimated that 16,000 POWs and more than 90,000 slaves perished during this one year project. The bridge was ultimately bombed by Allied Forces and destroyed in 3 different places. It has now been rebuilt as a tourist attraction and a tourist train runs the route three times daily.
It didn’t take long after I arrived to wish that I had more time. There was so much history and so many sites to explore, I would have to make some difficult choices on what to miss. The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery was right near the center of town and it seemed like a fitting place to pay respects and begin this walk back in history. The site was nearly deserted and I took my time wandering up and down the hundreds of rows of names.
I would have liked to visit Hellfire Pass, the site and museum with the dark story about the lives that were lost on this particular stretch of railroad, but on my scheduled day, Hellfire Pass was closed. Even though the alternative had little to do with WWII, Erawan Waterfalls was a sight to behold. After 6 months in South America, I had grown quite tired of cascading water, especially when it is more like a trickle passed off as a waterfall. I didn’t know at the time, but during the dry season of Southeast Asia, almost all waterfalls come to a trickling halt so I was very lucky to witness Erawan still bountiful with rich mineral water. There were 7 levels, each with sea green pools, icy cold and perfect for such a warm day. And as an added bonus(?), the pools are full of the flesh-eating fish from the fish spas found throughout Asia and the world. People often pay a lot of money for this service and here was a fish mani/pedi combo for free! The sensation is bizarre, but I find it strangely addictive and I kind of love it.
The second part of my tour took us to an embarkation of Death Railway itself. Clogged with tourists, we all piled on to only a couple of train cars and in spite of instructions to “even out the weight” on the right and left sides of the car, nearly every person, young and old, thin and not, were piled four deep to try to get a glimpse out of the right-hand side where there was a precipitous drop to the valley below. The interesting part was that after only two stops, the masses all piled off the train and rejoined their tour vans, leaving the rest of the train car virtually empty. I had decided to ride the entire way back to the city, even though I had been warned that it would take three times longer. Time was of no consequence to me that afternoon and the resulting train journey was a treat when I was able to enjoy the beautiful scenery in quiet reflection. Kanchanaburi had secured its place in the past, but in true Thai style, they have learned to smile through their pain and have shown the rest of us how to put it behind you in a rickety old caboose on the edge of the world.