Monday, July 12, 2010

Catching Kanchanaburi

This time it was on a bus. Once again in the wee hours of the morning I asked the reception desk how to get to ... and they pointed me this time in the direction of the main bus station for the city of Bangkok. Here is perhaps where my greatest moment of apprehension occurred: I'm in Southeast Asia relying on the honesty of a local cab driver to take me to a bus station that does not normally cater to western travelers which led me to believe that few if any signs would be in English nor would there necessarily be anyone on staff familiar with my language. Be that as it may, I said to me self, I was going to Kanchanaburi with no more thought about it. At least I wouldn't have to transfer on the way.

There were signs in English and the ticket attendant knew enough to get the foreigner, me, situated. Not knowing how or if services were announced or called for boarding I stood on the platform where my bus was supposed to be, ticket in hand like a two-year old and waited for the number on the bus to match the one on my ticket, boarding when everyone else did. Before long we were all bouncing along Highway #323 heading west out of the capital, across the first of many rivers and into the rice field and cow pasture countryside.

Towns and villages with colorful names like Tha Pha and Saen To rolled past the window with signs for active and ancient Buddhist temples running nearly as close together as mile markers under the rolling storm clouds threatening a deluge if I so much as dared to look at them. I just wanted not to sleep through my stop but I needn't have worried; Kanchanaburi rolled up soon enough and it was the turnaround point for the bus back to Bangkok. Did I mention that it was July, the height of the rainy season?

The Burma Railway is not infamous to many Americans as it is to the Dutch, British and Australians. This 260 mile line was to be the main supply route in to Burma from Japanese bases along the River Kwai during the Second World War but it first had to be built. Some 240,000 local workers and prisoners of war from Thailand, the Dutch East Indies, Hong Kong and Singapore were pressed in to service under vicious task masters in the thick of horrendous conditions through the jungle, mountains and rain forests near the river and, worst of all, through the high country between Thailand and Burma.

Bridge #277 as it was identified by the Japanese at the time is the "Bridge over the River Kwai," the most famous and easily accessed part of this link between Bangkok and Rangoon. Walking steadily towards this goal I chanced upon an unexpected yet compelling part of this history at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Here almost 7,000 ANZAC, Canadian, British and Dutch men rest in peace. Anything from murder at the hands of their overlords to death from cholera, dysentery, starvation and sheer exhaustion felled these men, some in mass graves, some "Known unto God" and others like Private H. J. Lampard of the 2/29th Australian Infantry Battalion at least as young as 21 years of age.

Even more wrenching discoveries lay further up the road to the bridge.

Gotta go.

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