…Isla and I crossed the concrete towards the original Museum (which also features exhibitions on archaeology, watches, coinage, bank notes, and the Miss Thailand competition – all on floors 1 and 2 which I couldn’t access as Isla had decided to fall asleep; the stairs being too narrow to go lugging a Bugaboo up). There was no entrance way, per se. It is a collection of rooms and areas around a sunken central atrium that contains reproduction bamboo huts of those used by the workers on the Burma Death Railway. As we crossed the expanse towards the “entrance” you can see on the left we passed by a small Wat. Its entrance was almost entirely blocked by a huge golden bell. In front was a single guardian, behind it was Buddha and various other objects, this vase being particularly eye-catching. The Wat had been consecrated in 2006.
To the right of the “entrance” a masked and industrial clothing-attired Thai was working; blowtorch in hand as he welded a steel frame together, glancing every so often at an A4 booklet of instructions. I have no idea what he was building. As we entered you can see in the first photo a row of about four waist high glass cabinets. Each was displaying some of the shells that were used during the War.
Immediately this part of the Museum had the kind of reverent air you could feel on the bridge. This wasn’t necessarily a history lesson, it was more a vivid and stark reminder of the tools of war. All of it running the length of a pseudo-balcony around the bamboo huts. On the walls flags of every nation hung, providing a break between the endless black and white photos of the period. This wasn’t some glossy photo shoot. Rather, it was the grey, grim reminder of mud, sweat, blood, anger, hate. It was one thing to walk on the Death Railway, it was quite another to gaze at the pictures of so many men and women whose unblinking, hollow eyes gazed accusing back at you.
Moving on into the depths of the open air building I came across cavernous displays of items linked to the Japanese camp. There were clocks, typewriters, shells, helmets, pots and pans, guns, motorcycles, jeeps, cars, horse-drawn carts, gramophones, even an anchor. It was everything you could imagine form an active living environment cloaked in the robes of war. Here are some examples:
All of it displayed around the sunken atrium with its bamboo huts and life-size depictions of POWs and captors. These left nothing to the imagination. The former were emaciated, bent under back-breaking loads as they worked the railway with its intense heat and humidity; the “statues” alive with tiny nicks and cuts from hard stone, scarred and burned. On each a grim expression of futility or anger. I have to say, it is at moments like this, when the sum of human suffering is rendered so completely by an artist, that to witness others who stand in front of it for smiling group photos taken, gives rise to speechless irritation. You do not need a photo to prove you have been somewhere; in this case a single word on the matter is worth a thousand pictures.
As Isla slept peacefully I wandered further. A long wall gave the narrative of the bridge; it spoke of a different story away from the novel of Pierre Boulle, of the film starring Sir Alec Guinness and William Holden. Instead this was a story of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters directing its army to build in 14 months a single line, one meter gauge railway of 250 miles from Thailand to Burma, designed to carry over 3000 tonnes from Ban Pong to the Burma Railway at Thanbyuzayat. It was to be an alternative to the sea route to Yangon via Singapore and the Strait of Malacca (which had been closed down by the Allied navy) that cost the lives of over 16,000 POWs and over 100,000 press-ganged labourers.
To service this endeavour, camps were built at Kanchanaburi and Ban Pong in Thailand, at Thanbyuzayat in Burma. The Museum gives a lengthy description of the conditions of the camps, from their inception to their worsening finale. It speaks of fairly humane conditions at the onset, speaks of rife disease, despair, epidemics, deprivations by the end.
“Crosses and Tigers” is the story of the railway, written by Nagase Takashi and Watase Masaru. The former saw service as a Kempeitai interpreter at the Kanchanaburi camp; after the war his first-hand experiences of the building of the bridge over the River Kwai profoundly changed his life course, this book being one result. His relationship during the building of the bridge and subsequent reconciliation over many years with Eric Lomax, a British Officer who survived the camp is also depicted in Lomax’s book “The Railway Man”.
It was from this point I entered the most profound room on the ground level of the original Museum. It is a simple rectangular room, every square inch of wall covered in black and white photos of WWII, as known from a Thai perspective. One section is given over to pictures of famous leaders – George Washington, for example. Outside the room the wall is lined with statues of all the major “players” of WWII. Emperor Hirohito of Japan, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler…and several others. Each with a small biographical piece.
Yet, amongst all these pictures what really captures your attention, demands silence and profound respect is the simple glass cairn with the bones of 106 men who died at this place. To see the remains of two of them on prominent display, to understand the sealed box contains 104 more means that this Museum can never become a glossy 21st century, glass, escalator, and digital screen building. It is more than a Museum, it is a place of Remembrance. In a society where dignity, honour and loyalty are so highly prized, it is no surprise to find this place pays homage to those who died. It is not so much as about lecturing you on dry dates, dry facts. It wants you to understand what happened in this place.
And it does.
But it is this final photo I leave you with that says it all. It is Museums like this that are the final testament to the consequences of our failed attempts at diplomacy….
Is this what diplomacy is all about?