A wise man once said....

A wise man once said
"When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen you may learn something new."
Dalai Lama

Monday, 22 June 2009

A Humbling Day… Hells Pass and more.

Course it was humbling to go and visit a place notorious from the 2nd World War. Where over 7,000 allied POW’s were used as slave labour until driven to their deaths, not to mention the 100,000 plus locals who also follow suit.
We spend Sunday on a fabulous trip to Katchanaburi which is situated about 90 minutes west of Bangkok. Martin, Kevin, Wanna and I had decided to have a day trip of visit the famous Bridge over the River Kwai and Hells pass.
My Dad has a friend who was a POW on the bridge. He is one of the fortunate ones to come out alive, Syd Aylott, is his name and he’s still alive a kicking, in Thetford, UK. When I was young he taught me all I know about car mechanics, and was the one to buy me my first beer. I mention this not because of the trip, but as a realization after the trip to know and only partly understand what he must have gone through. Syd never mentioned it except to say he was off again each year to the memorial dinner in London. I never gave it much thought then, but now I can only begin to understand what he went through.
I am not writing this as a miserable monolog on POWS and their keepers but to let you know whilst we had a fabulous day out and I mean tremendous fun, there was a great and very sad historic reason, in the first instance that even gave us a thought that we would go to the river Kwai. If not for this history why bother? For its sustained infamacy we need in no small part to thank the makers of the old Movie “Bridge over the River Kwai”. I’m sure that are other places with a bad if not worse history of human atrocities which have just not been immortalized as this.

Anyway enough of the emotional stuff, on with the story.

We set off in high spirits leaving Bangkok west on route 4. Our driver was pepped up on a couple ‘Red Bulls’ a local ‘health’ drink. Fortunately he did not wash it done with Vodka or similar. Mind you, I’m sure he was trying to impress to us that he could give Lewis Hamilton a run for his money. And I would have taken odds either way. Add in the bonus we did not sleep on the way, to busy watching the road!!!! Missed most of the scenery.
Katchanaburi, which appeared very shortly after leaving Bangkok,… (Lewis did well…) is a small country town. As you leave the flat flood plains around Bangkok and head west you come up against a mountain range which forms the boarder between Thailand and Burma. Its all still jungle and agriculture, so 50 years ago there were no dual carriageways, no 7/11s just lots of mosquitoes, and I suspect it was sparsely populated. Now a thriving little town.
Our plan was to view the Cemetery, Bridge on the River Kwai and Hells Pass, in that order. Entering Katchanaburi we passed almost immediately along side the cemetery and made our first stop. Stretch the legs, Stop the knee trembling from bracing myself in the car the whole way… Relief. I’m beginning to thing Lewis really does have competition…..
The Cemetery, accessed through a stone arched entranceway is a beautiful place, serene and well cared for. It’s adjacent to the main road but as you enter, all road traffic sounds seem to fade away. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after it and clearly does a good job. The visitors along with us are from all countries, and while there I noted many Europeans and Asians including Japanese.
One of the most notable things about walking through and along the rows of head stones is the age of most of the dead. Reading the head stones they were all such young men. Anywhere between 20-30 years old. Not sure how I would have coped when I was 20 years old, being stuck in a jungle, building a railway. I’m pretty certain I would not have chosen Engineering as a profession afterwards…

“Alan you’ve got to lighten up here…..you’re writing a Blog not an epitaph”…

We past over the adjacent museum, as we had heard it was not really worth the time, but instead should head for the Bridge and Hells Pass.

Next stop ‘The Bridge’. It’s a small bridge by most standards spanning about 100 meters of river. Originally it was a timber bridge and then rebuild with circular steel trusses. Two or three of the original circular steel ones had been blown up by the Allies during the war. Hence the newer lattice girder sections as more recent additions having been installed by the Japanese after the war. It was a busy stop over with all of Katchanaburi hawkers out in full force, offering us the ‘worlds best’ deals on guide books and hats and souvenirs. Taking no for an answer was also something they were not used to. First thing to do, having forced ourselves through the armies of hawkers was to get the photo. Yes, us in front of the bridge. Second thing was to fight back through the hawkers to reach the bridge. Exhausted already.
The bridge was packed with tourists. I assume they had fought their way through the hawkers to get here as well. There is main rail line on which runs the daily train, so on the bridge there were side areas to stand aside as it passes. Not the most comforting of feelings if you are at all nervous of heights and are one of those people who require 100% safety on everything. No worries there for us, we had left the 100% safety ‘Mantra’ back at work, a slight lowering of standards would be acceptable in this case, so we all set off. About 20meters along the bridge, the hoard of people disappeared, from what can only be described as having been full crowded to empty. Seems everyone was happy just standing on the bridge to say they had ‘done’ the bridge. We, having come all this way were not going to be so easily defeated. On we went, with open rail track to the end. And we were rewarded.
At the end was an old chap playing the Violin. Clever move on his part. As we approached he played ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’, ‘When the Saints go Marching in’, and The theme to ‘The Bridge over River Kwai’.
Of course he got a good tip from us. He would have made a small fortune if the other 10,000 or so visitors had bothers to come across, as it was, he only got us….. Might just have made enough for his dinner.





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Adjacent to the bridge are the remains of old railway train engines and a converted Japanese truck. Converted to run along the track. The train engines were made in 1919 in Glasgow, Scotland.
This excursion was followed by some cold coconut juice and then a Brunch.
SomTam and various Thai snacks were ordered and within a few minutes the exhaustion had fallen away and the tummies full. Ready for the next step. Hells pass. Well almost.
I did not mention that Katchanaburi is also very famous for sapphires. Place is full of them, and of course retail outlets…
Never one to give up a good opportunity I left ‘her in doors’, Wanna to go shopping. I did manage to take a quick snap of Martin, giving expert advice on which items, not item, to purchase…. And the advice was followed. Wanna got a couple of beautiful items.
But before we move on. A short toilet break Difficult to miss the place given the number and size of the signage! It’s 5 Baht to use the ‘public’ bog. Might add that you are expected to remove your shoes before you enter! Imagine that back in UK in a public toilet. You’d more like expect to be given a pair of wellies and find your shoes missing when you got back. Best I’ve seen in Thailand so far.

Next stop Hell’s Pass. Need to struggle through those Hawkers one last time.

Now where exactly is it? Hells Pass is about 55 kilometers north of Katchanaburi. Not far in a car, but going back to thinking about the POW’s. It would have been one hell of a walk. (Excuse the pun, not intended). Although I doubt such walking was done with the jungle being so dense, each group of POW’s would be positioned in one place until the rails were completed.
Hells Pass is not so easy to find. We drove past the entrance to the place and carried on for about 50 kilometers. Quick U turn and we found it. The sign’s clear enough. For most people looking for it, probably clearer that the toilet signs we left behind near the bridge…. Just us being a bit stupid…Or Lewis going so fast…..
The Australian Government had funded a good modern museum with audio visual etc. Well laid out and with free entrance. We spent a bit of time in there and then off to see the Hells Pass. A real feat of engineering, more so given the fact it was all done by hand and no machinery. Blast holes were made by hand using a hammer and drill rod. All excavation by hand and cane baskets. What made it all more impressive was the solitude and it let you imagine what it must have been like for all those poor Bastards working under the Japanese. There did seem to be minimal commnuication with the outside world by using a small home made radio.




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It was quite a walk for us and we were only there for an hour or so. Imagine what it was like for the POW’s in the old days.
Enough of the walking. We needed a cold beer after being just an hour down there. Not to worry. as I know our Driver is still trying to impress, and we’ll be back in Bangkok for a cold one in no time….In fact possibly quicker that I can say Lewis Hamilton! Well not quite but good enough. And we were.

What a great but humbling day. Thanks to Martin, Kevin and Wanna.

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