Friday, November 07, 2008

Kanchanaburi - The resilience of this little town amazes me.

Death, deplorable working conditions, war-stricken monuments are all part of a sad and dreadful history that allow for Kanchanaburi (a little known town) to go down in history books, to be included in the making of post world war II films, to lend to thriving tourism etc.

It is also a place where the story (of many years gone by) lies, as if cast in stone, with decaying mold all around it, in a dark, dingy misnomer of a museum called the Jeath Museum of War history.
Brace yourselves before you go here...even though, in appearance, it's a shack-like dilapidated structure, within its crumbling mud walls are plastered photographs and pictures that tell stories about the atrocities, violence and crimes committed by the Japanese forces against the POWs during the world war. It's gruesome, shocking and ghastly articles often times send chills down your bones. It is not something for the faint-hearted for on these decrepit newspapers and rundown picture frames, are displayed in-human acts of terror and treatment, of punishment and torture, or savagery and slaughter. The treatment of thousands of POWs and locals is beyond comprehension. So many lives lost for a bitter and indescribable cause.
Most deaths (more than 100,000) were caused during the construction and re-construction of the Death Railway (between Thailand and Burma), including the infamous Bridge over River Kwai. The one silver lining (of little consequence to those who lost their lives), is the beautiful and peacefully meandering River Kwai along the banks of which, the museum is reconstructed. As you step out from this surreal experience, you almost ironically need a breather from it all. The river flowing alongside offers a calm solitude and much needed respite from thinking about the horrors and degree of war crimes.
If you are anywhere close to the river, you cannot help notice, what could be the most visited section of the Death Railway, the large iron construction of the Bridge over River Kwai. The bridge was known simply as "Bridge 277," and while the Allied forces tried to destroy the bridge several times, it wasn't until mid-1945 that they finally managed to render the bridge over the River Kwai in-operable.
Popularized by a novel and later an Oscar-award winning film, the iron bridge you visit today is actually the second to span the river; the first was made of wood and lasted less than six months. Of course, it's partly because of this gruesome history that it's such an important World War II monument and such a popular tourist attraction.

While the Death Railway itself was only in operation in its more than 250-mile entirety for two years, today, a 47-mile stretch still sees regular train traffic and visitors can either traverse the famous bridge on foot or via a little tourist train which runs a 15-minute round-trip across the bridge and back.
The lives of thousands of war prisoners (mostly British, Dutch, Australian and American) who were victims of the Death Railway are laid to rest here. Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves commission, the cemetery catalogs, via engravings on memorial plates, the deaths of young and brave soldiers forced into labor camps to work on the bridge and the railway line to Burma. The cemetery is very well maintained and tended to by local staff. Going through the rows of plaques, is a sober moment well deserving of our respect and recognition.

After all this history, death and would imagine the town to be anything but alive and up-beat. Well, I was amazed at the resilience of its people. How quick they are to embrace the benefits of trade and tourism. There are those notorious floating raftels (raft hotels) with discos that play way into the early morning hours. If you love your sleep, make a note to not take up a room anywhere close!

Quaint little shops and stores offer all the good eats and buys. Tourists flock to them to buy souvenirs, T-shits, music CDs, you-name-it! The Thai people once again maintain a perfect balance between respect for their history and culture, and the prospect of the future which they look forward to with great anticipation and vigor. 

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