The pace of our travels has turned to a delightful treaclish trudge; we’re back in Thailand. Normally our travel environments insist on a rugged attire of clumpity biking or hiking boots. Thailand is like travelling in slippers or, at the very least, a pair of well-worn, comfy loafers. Easy rides on silky roads take you effortlessly to backdrops of beautiful scenery; all you have to do along the way is let your jaw drop at the appropriate sights and these come plenty and often. Evenings bring mouthwatering dinners, bowls full of strange, exotic yet refreshing ingredients all simply cooked and dished. Afterwards a pew on the veranda as a Phuket sunset slides down over a rim of Sang Som rum sloshed with ice and lime. We could stay here a very long time…
So a year on the road and we get to celebrate our travel anniversary through the medium of mundane admin. Insurances and carnets need renewal and, to top it all, our credit cards expire just when we need them. Time to go to Bangkok… Even riding the big city in Thailand is easy. Other road users drive sedately and are generally courteous and well behaved; just slot in and make your way through the congestion. It is congested; traffic lights can sit on red for three or four whole minutes pacing journeys across town at inchworm rate. We hole up in the grandly titled Marvin Suites in the Sathon district surrounded by skyscrapers but at the heart of where we need to be with easy access to the Skytrain, river ferries and close to BKK BMW where Maggie’s bike undergoes surgery for new steering head bearings. While we are there we have the brake fluid changed on both bikes and the mechanic discovers tiny micro-cracks in my rear brake disc. I knew the discs were worn but now we really have to replace them. BKK can only order BMW parts from Europe at £1,000 for the four discs plus a four-week delivery time. Once again Motobins come to our rescue and get us two sets of Brembo discs shipped to us by Fed-Ex in four-days all for less than £400. Emergency over, thanks to great service from the team in Spalding!
A river taxi drops us in old Bangkok where we visit the Grand Palace and several grandiose Wats and on a Sunday we mooch the sprawl of Chatuchak market with over 8000 stalls. We also take time to extend our visas / bike permits for another month to cover the ride south to Malaysia. We say a sad farewell to the lovely staff in the Marvin Suites, one of those places where the overall package of accommodation, location, staff, service and indeed price comes to much more than the sum of the individual parts.
5th July marked the actual anniversary of our first year on the road and, to commence our great ride south, we headed north for a short hop to the ruins of Ayutthaya. From the 14th to 18th centuries Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam until it was sacked and demolished by invading Burmese. Today remnants of palaces and temples adorn parkland interspersed through the little town of Ayutthaya itself and we planned to explore these on bicycles rented from our hotel. We unpacked our bikes at the Old Palace Resort into a cool, shady room set amidst jungly gardens, a marked contrast to our previous city digs and thought no more than of showering and finding a decent place to celebrate our anniversary. At check in, Kittiya, the graceful young receptionist, handed me back the bulk of our hotel bill… “For your charity. Cancer Research? Please we’d like to make a donation…” This was the first spontaneous reaction we’d had to the ‘Cancer Research UK’ stickers that adorn our bikes on the entire trip. To say we were both pole-axed by this kindness occurring, of all days, on our anniversary is something of an understatement.
From Ayutthaya we rode west to Kanchanaburi and a riverside halt on the Khwae Noi River, site of the infamous bridge, made famous by the 1957 David Lean epic Bridge over the River Kwai. Although several spans were demolished by allied bombing in WW2 they were rebuilt and the bridge is still there today. It is a humble black metal structure supported on a series of several concrete pylons and certainly not as imposing as the one in the movie (which was actually filmed in Sri Lanka). The bridge was appropriated from Java by the Japanese who dismantled it and rebuilt it here as part of the vitally strategic link to join the Thai and Burmese rail networks. Before the war Britain, who at that time controlled Burma and Malaya, worked with the Thais to contemplate such a link. Traversing the 400km gap between the two railways would entail cutting a trail and laying new track through mountainous and remote virgin jungle country. Experts reckoned it would take a minimum of six-years to accomplish so the idea was abandoned.
In 1942 the Japanese steamrollered right through SE Asia, landing troops in Thailand (who declared war on the allies) and routing British and Commonwealth forces in Malaysia and Burma including the surrender of 120,000 troops at Singapore, the single biggest disaster in the history of British arms. As we learned on our earlier visit to Kohima and Imphal, the next step was the invasion of India but the springboard for this was at the end of a long tenuous supply trail running through Burma into Thailand / Malaysia and from there back across the sea to Japan. By late 1942 the allies controlled most of the seaways and the air across the Pacific so Japanese supplies had to be routed through Thailand and up into Burma; that rail link now became vitally important. Japanese engineers dug out the old Thai / British plans. Heavy machinery was simply unavailable but there was an abundance of manual labour in the form of POWs and conscripted natives. The entire 415 km link would be completed in eighteen months, a fantastic achievement until the cost in human lives is evaluated.
Today the Death Railway Museum overlooks the main Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Kanchanaburi. It is a fitting and moving tribute to the fallen. There are not that many artifacts in cabinets just a few metal rail ties and recovered teak sleepers but then again it’s not that sort of museum. Instead the story of the railway is explained; why it was built, the engineering marvel that it is and then that terrible, terrible cost all paid for in human lives. From a labour force of some 70,000 POWs employed, some 7000 British, 3000 Australians and 3000 Dutch perished to a combination of disease, malnutrition, overwork and bestial brutality at the hands of their Japanese and Korean captors. The dead lie outside the museum in the tranquil lawns of the war cemetery. Add to this the even more horrific tally of Rǒmusha: Burmese, Malay and Indian labourers (mostly Tamils who had worked the rubber plantations in Malaya) equally brutally worked to death in their droves (an estimated 90,000 perished) and all but forgotten to the world outside the museum.
A few days later we travelled out to visit one of the darkest sections in the history of the whole line; Hellfire Pass. Another museum, another memorial; this time dedicated to the POWs who died making the railway cutting here. The line was worked on from both Burmese and Thai ends and every now and again progress would stall at some natural obstacle. Trestle bridges were used to span gullies, based on a design from a US American Civil War engineering manual. Instead of tunnels, which required elaborate machinery to construct that was unavailable, cuttings were excavated through entire mountains by hand. Hellfire Pass was such a cutting and when the POWs arrived they looked incredulously at the sheer wall of jungle-covered mountain barring the way. It was a task seemingly worthy of Sisyphus himself. The bush was cleared and teams then set to excavate the cutting by means of a hammer and tap routine. One guy would hold a metal chisel and his mate would hammer it into the rock. After each blow the chisel would be turned and the next blow struck. This continued until a depth of around one metre was punched, into which a stick of dynamite would be inserted to blow out the rocks. The rubble would be cleared and progress made until solid rock again stopped play. All of this labour conducted on a diet of much less than 2000 calories a day consisting of watery rice gruel sometimes with maggoty meat or fish.
Aside from the memorial museum this entire section of the railway has been preserved as a 3.5km hiking trail starting with a hike through Hellfire Pass itself. It took its name from the ‘Speedo’ period when the Japanese engineers supervising the line introduced round the clock working, the evening shift illuminated by torches and flares such that the workings resembled a facet of hell itself. We walked mutely through the pass allowing our fingertips to brush the hacked out walls and noting the chisel marks; testament to the graft of the fallen. Overhead, sunlight filtered through the jungle canopy of lush bamboos and tree ferns to a soundtrack of whoops and whistles from the indigenous wildlife. We walked for three hours to the end of the trail and back providing lunch for voracious mosquitos. It was the start of the rainy season and the fetid air was earthy and dank, making for a somewhat uncomfortable hike. Yet we were doing this in modern outdoor clothing in stout hiking boots protected by sun-cream and insect repellant; what must it have been like for the POWs, whose uniforms and boots had rotted away to the point where many went barefoot and were clad only in a Jap Nappy loincloth? The museum provides a free audio guide and along the way we learned the stories of how places like Hellfire Pass, Hammer and Tap Cutting, Seven Metre Embankment and Hintok Cutting were carved in blood. Many Australians died in Hellfire Pass itself and perhaps the most poignant memory of the day was the poem ‘Mates’ by survivor Duncan Butler. I’d like to share it here…
I’ve travelled down some lonely roads,
Both crooked tracks and straight.
An’ I’ve learned life’s noblest creed,
Summed up in one word … “Mate”.
I’m thinking back across the years,
(a thing I do of late)
An’ this word sticks between me ears;
You’ve got to have a “Mate”.
Someone who’ll take you as you are,
Regardless of your state,
An’ stand as firm as Ayres Rock
Because ‘e is your mate.
Me mind goes back to ’42,
To slavery and ‘ate,
When man’s one chance to stay alive
Depended on ‘is Mate.
With bamboo for a billy-can
An’ bamboo for a plate.
A bamboo paradise for bugs
Was bed for me and “Mate”.
You’d slip and slither through the mud
And curse your rotten fate,
But then you’d ‘ear a quiet word:
“Don’t drop your bundle Mate.”
And though it’s all so long ago,
This truth I ‘ave to state:
A man don’t know what lonely means
Til ‘e has lost his “Mate”.
If there’s a life that follers this,
If there’s a Golden Gate,
The welcome I just want to ‘ear
Is just, “Good on y’ Mate.”
An’ so to all that ask me why
We keep these special dates,
Like “Anzac Day” … I answer:
“WHY!? – We’re thinking of our Mates.”
An’ when I’ve left the driver’s seat,
An’ handed in me plates,
I’ll tell ol’ Peter at the door,
“I’ve come to join me Mates.”
We got back on the bikes and rode back to town in part appreciative of the sacrifice that these men made that we might be living the way we do today, in part sad at the way our world is heading. Sometimes it seems that we never really learn any lessons from all that cruelty and hardship. Would that we could exchange every bit of that hellish history for the heavenly geography around us and appreciate this world together for the paradise it really is.
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: Heaven and Hell in Southern Thailand