Kanchanaburi

 
In Kanchanaburi, David Whitley looks beyond the Bridge Over The River Kwai tourism industry to learn of the horrors suffered by Allied POWs in World War II 

The carriage is crowded. Those standing are lurching over those sitting, angling for the best view out of the window as the train appears to fly over the river. The wooden trestle bridges that carry the train around the hillsides at Thamkrasae are engineering marvels – but they’re ones with a dark past.

The railway line was constructed during World War II. The Japanese wanted to connect Thailand and Burma properly, so that they could get troops and heavy weaponry over the mountains that divide the two countries in preparation for an invasion of India.

The 415 kilometre rail link should have taken five years to build, but the Japanese tried to do it in a year-and-a-half. And they did this by putting prisoners of war to work in brutal conditions. The men were forced to work 16 to 18 hour days, slogging away in camps that were riddled with tropical diseases such as cholera, malaria and dysentery.

The most famous site along the line, however, is the Bridge Over The River Kwai in Kanchanaburi. Made famous by a largely preposterous book and an even more ludicrous film, thousands of people every year flock to Kanchanaburi to take photos of the bridge. Even though it wasn’t built in Thailand, most of it is a reconstruction, it’s not over the River Kwai, and there’s no river called the Kwai in the area.

The bridge is originally from Java. It was brought over because the Japanese lacked raw materials to build new ones – it was better to strip less important regions of the new empire. That bridge was repeatedly bombed by the Allies during the war, and very little of the original remains. The river is actually the Khwae – pronounced like the ‘quare’ in square – and the bridge isn’t over it. It’s over a tributary that was called the Mae Klong at the time and has since been renamed the Khwae Noi as a sop to confused tourists.

This doesn’t mean Kanchanaburi isn’t worth visiting, however. To the contrary, it’s the best place to learn about the whole Death Railway project. The cemetery for the Allied and Dutch soldiers who died during the construction is just outside the Thai-Burma Railway Centre.

This has long functioned as a research hub, trying to find out as much as possible about the POWs who were forced to work on the railway. It’s also a superb museum.

It covers the backstory – Japan’s 1930s incursions into China and imperial ambitions that set off World War II in the East – but focuses on the conditions the POWs had to put up with. Some of the pictures of the emaciated men, every rib of the cage clearly visible, are horrific. There was no modern machinery. Most of the digging was done by hand, and there are photos of malnourished men having to push huge carts of rubble away from the construction site.

The brutality involved is also covered, but it’s the reasoning behind it that’s often more interesting than the descriptions of the punishments. In the Japanese Army, anyone could inflict corporal punishment on those of a lower rank. The guards were often at the lowest rank (and were often Korean rather than Japanese). Much of the beating and depriving of rations would be about taking out their own frustrations.

As often with war, it’s the personal rather than the widescale that brings a lump to the throat. At one point there is a list of the members of a single Australian platoon, stating matter-of-factly what happened to them. One died of cardiac beri-beri, another of a fractured skull, another at sea on a Japanese ship because the Japanese refused to tell the Allies which ones were transporting POWs and it was bombed by friendly fire.

Elsewhere, there’s a case full of beautifully engraved cigarette tins. They weren’t originally like that – the POWs did the engraving themselves. It was one creative outlet in a world of despair and squalor. Humanity is at its most affecting when it is desperately clung on to.

 

You can get Bangkok, Chiang Mai or the Islands included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW

Malaysia

The Jigsaw City - Kuala Lumpur

 


 

Arriving at KL’s ultra-sleek international airport you pick up a city-bound shuttle-bus ticket from a well-signposted, well-ordered and well-run ticket counter – or you catch a taxi with a meter that works! – and struggle to remind yourself that you have arrived in Asia. The hour-long drive down a smooth highway, edged with manicured gardens and crowded with luxury 4x4s, bypasses the technological wonderland of Cyberjaya. By the time you catch sight of the gleaming twin spires of Petronas Towers, presiding over a skyline that has been described as ‘Manhattan of the East,’ you are further than ever from understanding how this impressive metropolis could ever have deserved the name Kuala Lumpur (Muddy Estuary).

 

 

Returning after a long absence – and fresh from much humbler Asian ‘boondocks’ – Malaysia’s newfound confidence struck me with a kind of reverse culture-shock. Everything works, shines, happens on time and is done in English. Things even taste the way they are supposed to. In short, KL clicks! Not content with working quite successfully to get themselves the best, KL-ers also seem to be driven by a burning ambition to have the biggest. The brochures that I grabbed at the tourist office were full of boasts that the city is home to not one but two of the world’s tallest buildings; the world’s biggest freestanding sculpture; the tallest flagpole; tallest mosque minarets… These, often spurious, claims are to be seen everywhere and the tourist office itself was currently exhibiting a sculpture of the Shah Alam Blue Mosque; it was labelled ‘The World’s Largest Chocolate Sculpture’…and was chilled by what was probably the world’s coldest air-con system.

 

Apart from being a mind-blowing engineering challenge and an awe-inspiringly elegant architectural sculpture, the Petronas Towers is the symbol of modern Malaysia’s obsession with Progress. The sky-bridge on the 42ndfloor offers a view over the broad, tree-lined avenues of KL’s ‘Golden Triangle’ business district to the jungle-clad hills of the untamed Malaysia. In this self-consciously modern capital the betel-nut spit that speckles the pavements of other Asian cities is banned. The sacred banyan trees are dwarfed by soaring glass, steel and marble skyscrapers betraying Japanese minimalism, classic Malay or Islamic motifs, stark Western lines and Chinese Feng Shui. The karaoke bars that once offered the city’s only nightlife still exist but they have now been sidelined by a clubbing scene that is as dazzling as the nocturnal skyline of this Oriental Manhattan.

 

Shopping seems to have become the main obsession of the growing privileged classes of KL. Anybody who thinks that Malaysia is suffering an economic slump should tour some of the chic shopping malls where, at weekends especially, people queue to play ATMs as compulsively as slot-machine addicts. Many KL-ers seem to migrate to the (sometimes frigid) air-conditioned malls in much the same way that the old colonials gratefully retreated to the cool of the hill-stations. Steel bridges and space-age monorails now shuttle shoppers and commuters where once only a muddy estuary carried jungle flotsam.

 

The area around the confluence of the two modest rivers, where the British administration built their official buildings and played their polo, is now predictably known as Merdeka (Independence) Square. Until the skyscrapers usurped the limelight the immaculately kept colonial buildings with their shiny copper domes were the quintessential KL icons. It is still the downtown areas that visitors feel most drawn to. If the Golden Triangle seems brashly adolescent then Chinatown and Little India could be described as wisely venerable. They came of age when pioneering rubber planters were riding into town and were already middle-aged when KL became a tin-fever boomtown.

 

Chinese traders with string vests and abacuses still preside over ‘go-down’ wholesale stores that overflow with dried seafood and mysterious, unappetising ingredients that will nevertheless end up flavouring wonderful dishes. Behind the stalls of Petaling Street, stacked with ‘same-same cheap-cheap’ gear, temple gates are perpetually misty with burning incense. Rows of shophouses carry signs that are at times intriguing (‘Tubes, Rubs & Bras Trading Co’) and at others deadly serious (‘Fook-Hin Coffin Shop’). In Little India there are dozens of garishly decorated stores that are, almost without exception, called ‘Palace of the Sari.’ Bollywood stars beam at you from storefronts and the facades of Hindu temples are strung with ritual offerings and brightly coloured garlands. At the night-market the entrepreneurs of the world’s largest overseas Indian population sell mobile phones (another national obsession), Hindi cassettes, bicycles, prayers mats, sacks of basmati rice and, of course, saris all from the same tiny stall.

 

The ‘hawker centres’ of Little India and Chinatown still offer some of the best (and most affordable) food in the world and even the sleek Golden Triangle malls have tipped their hats to the old town by adopting this concept as the best way of dining. In some of these ‘food centres’ you could spend a year breathlessly working your way around Malay, Chinese, Bengali, Western, Tamil, Singaporean, Thai, Japanese stalls, and trying seafood, vegetarian, meat, noodles, rice, roasts, soups, stir-fries, pancakes, burgers. They are a sensory revolution and even when you are already full are worth browsing; the flash of a Malay satay grill, or an Indian cook spinning a frisbee of naan dough, catches your eye across an acre of clamouring tables. An undercurrent of clicking chopsticks reminds you of the cicadas in the banished jungle. The spicy tang of tandoori, biryani, ‘kari’ and ‘teryaki’ hang over the dense vapours of Chinese steamboats and dim sums…while in one (usually remote) corner the drain-like stench of durian fruit overpowers them all.

 

Most intriguing of all those ‘World’s Biggest’ boasts – to a frustrated surfer in a country with several thousand miles of wave-less tropical coastline – was KL’s wild claim to being home to a surf-spot that Sunway Lagoon theme-park calls ‘Jeffrey’s Bay.’ In the shadow of ‘Asia’s largest fibreglass volcano’ and under ‘Asia’s longest suspension bridge’ I surfed left-handers that peeled neatly across the ‘world’s largest wave-pool.’ Paddling out of the J-Bay lineout I wandered off to find some post-surf munchies among the eateries – Cape Town Café, Zanzi Bar, Botswana Burgers – in the Zulu Walk food-centre. Unexpected it certainly was. But then the brochures had, of course, warned me that I should be prepared for ‘a world of contrasts’ in the new KL.

 

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