Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Bride Over the River Kwai...........oh, and tigers!

Written by Lynn

From Bangkok we caught a bus to the town of Kanchanaburi. This area has been immortalized in the 1960-ish movie "Bridge over the River Kwai". The real deal is here.

The actually story is a lot less romantic than the movie makes it out. During WWII, the Japanese Imperial Army needed to have a railway built to link Thailand and Burma. Previously they had taken supplies from the east to the north of Asia through the Straits of Malacca, but this route was now vulnerable to attack by allied forces. In 1943 they began the construction of the Burma Railway to connect Bangkok and Ragoon. It was over 400 km long and it was scheduled to be built in just over 12 months at the cost of thousands of lives. They used pieces from a disassembled railway in Java and forced labour consisting of Asian workers and Allied POW's. In total it is estimated that anywhere between 110,000 to 160,000 prisoners and civilian labourers died during the construction of this "Death Railway", the large majority of them Asian. Exact numbers are impossible to obtain as the Japanese did not bother to record the deaths of the "coolies", many from Indonesia, China, Malaysia and Burma.

Today it is possible to visit the reconstructed site of the bridge (which is actually built over a tributary of the River Kwai) and the Kanchanaburi graveyard where 6,982 POW's remain buried, their bodies having been dug up and relocated from the mass graves randomly dug beside the tracks they died building.

The real story here is about the treatment of the POW's and the Asian labourers during the years it took to build the bridge. Many who survived the ordeal and have seen the movie say that it doesn't even begin to bring home the cruel reality of the camps. Over 25% of the POW's who died did so as a result of malnutrition and diseases such as malaria, diptheria and cholera. Building this railway meant hacking through dense jungle by hand and breaking apart rocky cliffs and hills with sledgehammers. Food was limited and the work unrelenting. As one survivor put it.................

"The only food available from the jungle was wild bananas, about the size of your finger and full of black seeds, the young leaves of the banana palms, the red banana flowers and bamboo shoots. Our rations per day for the month of May 1943 were 537 grams rice, 12grams onion, 1 gram towgay, 1 gram dried whitebait and 1 gram of beef per man. Hardly sufficient to maintain anyone let alone men working up to 16 hours a day."

In addition to the unrelenting hunger, the unsanitary conditions and the threat of disease, many of the POW's recall vicious treatment and punishment meted out by the Japanese guards for minor infractions. One sign in the museum we visited posted just such an example. As punishment for stealing a tin of fruit from a red cross package, and that therefore theoretically belonged to the prisoners:

"I was propped against the tree, my arms pulled back and tied together with barbed wire and secured to the tree trunk. After a few more punches in the face they left me alone. The pain lashes your body after awhile. I must leave it to your imagination. When morning broke they put a bucket filled to the brim with water in front of me and left me to it. A sophisticated torture if ever there was one."

The bridge itself is rather unremarkable, you can take a short ride over it in an open aired tourist train. Afterwards the best thing to do is take yourself over to the JEATH war museum to have a look around at this quirky collection. JEATH stands for Japanese, England, Australia/America, Thailand, and Holland, the 6 countries who participated in the building of the railway. Here they have several first hand accounts of the experience of the POW's as well as collections of everything from guns and artillery used in WWII, to stamps and currency of Thailand dating back to the early 1900's. They is also an elephant skull and a monument containing several human skulls found alongside the railway, identity unknown. Several descriptions and displays outline the various torture and punishment methods that were used on the POW's in the camps. Most moving are the photographs, paintings done by the POW's and hand written letters to loved ones on scraps of paper. Many articles in the museum have been donated by the POW's or their families.

We, through pure unplanned timing, landed in Kanchanaburi on April 25th, the Austrlian ANZAC day. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and this is the day they celebrate the bravery of their fallen comrades. Because of the large number of Aussies buried in the Kanchanaburi cemetary, this day is also commemorated here. There were many families and members of ANZAC in town while we were there and on the morning of the 25th several ceremonies were held in their honour.

Our other reason for being here was to visit a temple, Wat Pha Luang. This temple is infamous for its work done rescuing tigers. Since 1999 the abott, Phra Acharn Phusit, has been saving abandoned tigers. Many of them come from private homes, where people who adopted a cute little kitten soon realized that having a full grown, 800lb tiger in your backyard was not conducive to quiet living. Others were young ones brought in after their mothers were killed by poachers. In total the temple houses 11 tigers, all of whom are imprinted on humans and non releasable. Some of them were born here.

The temple does have in the works an ambitious project. They are presently building a "Tiger Island" that will be surrounded by a moat. There they will raise the tigers born at the temple with little to no interaction between them and humans, in the hope of eventually being able to release them back into the wild. Perhaps a bit unrealistic, but never the less, lofty goal. More importantly this island will provide a place for the tigers to spend their days and nights when not on "display" in a fairly natural environment, rather than the sad little pens they are now housed in.

There has been some recent criticism of this temple, fearing that they are "commercializing". They have moved from the realm of asking for a donation to help feed the tigers to charging an entrance fee of 300 baht (about $9). When you get to the temple the first thing you have to do after paying is sign a waiver that says you won't hold the temple responsible if you get eaten, though they are quick to point out that no visitor has ever been injured. The next thing you have to do, if you're Gilles anyways, is buy a new t-shirt. This is because he forgot the warning we had read when looking up the temple that says you are not allowed to wear red for fear of inciting the wrath of the apparently red hating cats.

After changing you go through the gates into a large compound that houses all sorts of beasts from water buffalo to pigs of all ages and sizes to some stray dogs, peacocks and chickens thrown in for fun. Apparently they all live here, or in the land surrounding, and have free rein to come and go. Everyday at 4:30 the monks and volunteers will feed the animals, rolling out a big truck filled with squash and other vegetables that they throw on the ground in order to break them open. A friendly feeding frenzy results, and as you weave between cows and pigs on your way back to the parking lot you can see the monks going around the helping to open up unbroken gourds for the animals. It makes it hard to begrudge them the few dollars you donated, and I truly believe they are doing good work here. As of now it is a fairly "off the beaten track" tourist spot, but I have a feeling this will change quickly as word gets out (we heard of it when watching a Lonely Planet episode on Thailand, though it wasn't mentioned in our guide book).

But back to the tigers. After a short walk through a dusty field you head down a hill into a canyon, where about 10 tigers are lounging about. All of them are leashed and have at least one handler with them at all times. You can give your camera to one of the volunteers and another one leads you over to a tiger, making sure to approach from the rear. You can then sit or crouch down and have your picture taken. As an added bonus, if you stay until 4:30, the tigers are then taken back to their pens and you may get a chance to help walk them there.

The down side to this little adventure is that the temple was about 40 km from our hostel. We had rented a scooter and set out just after lunch (1:30-4:30 is the best time to be there as the tigers are out relaxing in the canyon, and playing in the water, all under the very close supervision of their handlers). Unfortunately, it was likely over 40 degrees and zooming down the black asphalt was hot work. Even more unfortunately, our gas gauge didn't work, so when we turned down the dirt road leading to the temple and the scooter stuttered to a stop, we knew we were in trouble. But as a testament as to why we love the people here, a guy stopped his scooter when he drove by about 10 minutes later and saw us pushing ours back towards the highway. Unable to speak a work of English, he managed to quickly understand out problem. First he tried to figure out how to get some gas out of his own scooter, but was unable to accomplish this. So instead he abandoned his plans, turned his scooter around and rode back into town to get us a pop bottle full of gas. We managed to get him to accept money for the gas plus a little extra for his time, though I'm sure he would never had asked if we hadn't insisted.

Overall, Kanchanaburi is a worthwhile side trip from Bangkok. Not only the sobering history is here, but also a chance to touch a live tiger. As well there are caves, temples, and waterfalls to see. All in all, never a dull moment here.

No comments: