Walking in the brave footsteps
YOU can never quite be sure where a stroll into history might lead. One minute, you're on a path of beauty and serenity; the next, you have been thrust head-first into the ambers of Dante's Inferno.
Far from a trip in a magical time machine of wonder and awe, history sometimes takes you by the hand and pulls you back to a not-too-distant past of death, destruction and, finally, defeat of an enemy.
As you stumble from one gruesome fact to another, one hellish event to another, one distant and unpronounceable place to another, your eyes open to how soft, small, and peaceful your world is compared to what others had to endure. You realise you have nothing to complain about.
And as tears roll down your cheek, you give silent thanks to yesterday's heroes who, through their ultimate sacrifices, helped create a better today for us all.
A day spent in Thailand's Kanchanaburi province - visiting the Bridge over the River Kwai, Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and Kanchanaburi (Don-Rak) War Cemetery - is an emotional journey but one that should be experienced by all Australians.
We could be standing on a dusty bush trail in the Australian Outback in the middle of summer.
The heat is stifling, the stones underfoot require solid footwear and our mouths are parched.
But the occasional bit of shade thrown on the path by the tall native trees and the mid-afternoon birdsong make the trek slightly more bearable.
And the peaceful, serene setting in the bright sunshine makes you glad to be alive. The flat walking trail to Hellfire Pass in Thailand's Kanchanaburi province is only 300m long and takes visitors mere minutes to complete at a brisk pace. But history tells us the journey for Australian and Allied prisoners of war and Asian labourers from 1942-45 was relentlessly longer, insanely slower and unimaginably more difficult.
Following in the footsteps of these brave men is a walk worth taking for any Australian, if only for an afternoon in the company of their spirits.
The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum complex, 80km north of Kanchanaburi town, consists of the museum, a boardwalk leading down to the walk trail and a memorial site within Konyu Cutting (Hellfire Pass).
The complex receives more than 80,000 visitors a year.
The joint Australian-Thai project was opened on April 24, 1998 - the day before Anzac Day - and is dedicated to PoWs and civilians who died while working on the construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway.
Japan decided to build the railway in 1942 to create a land route between the two neighbouring Asian countries to ensure supplies and reinforcements to far-flung Japanese forces - especially those fighting in Burma.
The route - connecting Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma via the Three Pagodas Pass - was surveyed and marked out by Japanese engineers, with 304km of track to be built in Thailand and 111km in Burma.
Work parties of PoWs and Asian labourers (Romusha) spent months in clearing the jungle, constructing kilometres of embankments, creating cuttings through solid rock and bridges over rivers even before tracks could be laid. Most of the work was carried out by physical labour using handtools.
Due to the tough terrain encountered in various sections and some subtle sabotage by the PoW labourers, construction began dropping behind schedule.
Fears of a British counter-attack in Burma saw the Japanese bring the desired completion date of the railway forward to August rather than December 1943. This time, known as the Speedo period (the word the guards shouted at prisoners to complete their frenzied work demands), also coincided with a major cholera outbreak and early monsoon season.
The PoWs were forced to build the railway in just 16 months despite initial predictions it would take five years. The railway was completed on October 16, 1943.
Of the 60,000 Allied PoWs forced to work on the railway, about 16,000 died including 2815 Australians.
Conditions for the Romusha were even more appalling than for the PoWs. As many as 90,000 Romusha died as a result of disease, starvation and beatings from in excess of 200,000 recruited from Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the Netherlands East Indies who had initially been promised high wages, good conditions and the allowance of families in work camps.
The Hellfire Pass/Konyu Cutting is the longest and one of the deepest along the entire 415km length of what is known as "the Death Railway".
The shiny hard rockwalls of the cuttings bring home the enormity of the task - one that would be difficult even with the modern-day tools, heavy machinery and explosives knowledge. The infamous cutting earned its name after the POWs and Romusha were kept working up to 18-hour shifts and long into the night by the light of fires, bamboo torches and diesel lamps with the constant sound of hammering to meet construction deadlines.
Look all around on your walk through the cutting and along the railway bed and you'll spot rails, sleepers, spikes and the occasional crude, rusty tool and bamboo lantern.
The trail leads to the black marble memorial that has been set into the stone railway ballast and surrounded by a symbolic circular railway "track" of pavers. A set of timber, perfectly spaced "sleepers" leads to the small pyramid-like structure.
Many visitors leave poppies, crosses, miniature Australian flags, even koala keyrings here - a little piece of home as they pay their respects to the brave souls in whose footsteps they walk.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
The unknown Australian soldiers lie side by side - brothers in arms under a huge poinciana tree.
These graves in section 9A-F and parts of 10 bear a simple cross and the same wording on their plaques: "An allied soldier of the 1939-1945 war. Known unto God".
The largest of three war cemeteries on the Burma-Thailand Railway houses 6982 graves of mostly Australian, British and Dutch.
As you walk slowly and reverently past the plaques, separated by miniature roses, frangipani, allamanda, and white and lavender periwinkle, you can't help but wonder about each soldier's story.
Fathers who would never again hold their children. Sons who would never again kiss their mothers goodbye. Lovers who would never again lay beside wives or girlfriends.
Mates who would never again share a drink and a joke at the pub.
Every now and then, an Australian flag or poppy will catch your eye, placed tenderly by a loved one. Or a tribute will say so much more than mere words: "Duty done … ever remembered" or "A brave little soldier at rest".
The land was given as a gift by the Thai people to honour all the sailors, soldiers and airmen who gave their lives.
And perhaps as testament to the true meaning of the sacrifice these allied troops made, life goes on outside the cemetery walls and leaves them all to rest in peace.
JEATH War Museum
I find myself alone and lost in history, staring at pictures of the walking dead in loincloths as they trudge through their laborious tasks.
While their heads are disproportionate to their skeletal bodies, they still possess a defiant, determined air.
Apart from the whirr of fans inside and the Sunday traffic outside, all is quiet - except for the silent screams from the faces of these once-handsome men of my parents' generation.
They scream from behind plastic in copies of original artwork and pencil drawings, and from the fading historic photographs that paint the grim picture of life and living conditions in prisoner of war camps.
They tell the story of starvation, overwork, lack of sleep and recuperation. They tell of crude amputations using primitive equipment and no anaesthetic, maggots in latrines, punishment and atrocities at the hands of Japanese soldiers. And they tell of the pain and suffering from a range of diseases - jungle sores, skin disease, eye problems, cholera, beriberi, malaria and dysentery.
The JEATH War Museum at Kanchanaburi, built by monks in 1977 inside Wat Chai Chumphon temple, at first looks like a simple tribute to lives lost in war during construction of the bridge over the River Kwai and the Burma-Thailand Railway.
JEATH stands for Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland - the nationalities of those who worked on the two huge projects.
But the quaint bamboo hut in the shape of a U is much more than the sum of its parts.
It is a memorial to the depth of what the human spirit can be exposed to, endure and in many cases overcome to return, spent but alive, to loved ones at home.
Inside, visitors also will find newspaper clippings with real accounts written by former PoWs, their relatives, friends and authors who interviewed the many prisoners.
Worth a look are the aerial shots of the camp and bridge under construction, pictures of the RAF destruction of the iron bridge on March 22, 1945, and moving photos of ex-PoWs who were courageous enough to return to Thailand and visit the JEATH Museum.
The complex is built on the bank of the Mae Klong River on the site of the original wooden bridge, 200m downstream from the iron bridge built by the PoWs.
The monks emphasise that the museum does not aim to perpetuate hatred among human beings but to teach how terrible war is.
The JEATH War Museum is open daily: 8.30am - 4.30pm.
Entry Fee: 30 Th.Baht
Photos are not permitted in the museum.
Many of the copies of paintings are from originals by British ex-POW Leo Rawlings.
KANCHANABURI WAR CEMETERY
The cemetery on Saeng Chuto Road is one of three where PoWs who worked on the Burma-Thailand Railway have been laid to rest. It lies 129km north-west of Bangkok. The Kanchanaburi Memorial is found in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, and honours 11 Indian soldiers from British regiments who were buried in local Muslim cemeteries.
On the western side of the main Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre - an interactive museum, information and research facility dedicated to presenting the history of the Thailand-Burma Railway.
The eight main galleries use state-of the art display techniques.
The centre includes a merchandise shop and café and is open every day from 9am to 5pm.