Monday, 2 May 2011

ANZAC Day in Kanchanaburi Thailand 2011

"You'll be lucky to git a seat, eh," said Bungy, a Kiwi motorcycling mate of mine from Chiang Mai, when I told him I was going down to the ANZAC Day dawn service at Hellfire Pass.

I was a little taken abeck. I mean aback.  It's been only 3 maybe 4 years since I was there last for the service and it was something of a country derby then. Maybe 400 or 500 people on a good day (of which there were precious few for those poor saps working on the Thai Burma Railway, of course).

And so it was that was great unpleasantness that we knocked our little karaoke session at Pung Waan Resort on the head uncharacteristically early -- although some in the audience would say not early enough! -- and requested a wake-up call for ... gulp! ... 2.30am.

After a quick coffee, we hit the road, Route 323 the former Japanese marching trail, up to Hellfire Pass, arriving around 3:30am. The torches were already lit, flaring red against the bare rock face which gave the notorious cutting its name.

The hush was eerie ... I could almost sense the ghosts of ages past still hanging around this deathly gorge. And near the end of the cutting, I saw the first signs of progress: large screen TVs, with their geometric test patterns glowing incongruously in the pass. Then at the end,  where the cutting evens out and the track moves north into the jungle, temporary stands had been set up.

(Why do they call them stands when they're designed for sitting?)

We aced it. We got a seat on the rock steps adjacent the plinth where the ceremony was held. But the bad news was we now had about two hours to wait for the service. I got talking to the lady next to me. A Kiwi who had just visited the Kanchanaburi war cemetery the day before.

"Tregic, tregic, they were just kuds, gee whuz," she said.

I asked her about the clutch of medals that adorned her right chest (signifying medals won by someone other than the wearer). She told me the incredible story of her grand-father, Major Reginald Stanley Judson, DCM, MM and VC. That's right -- he won a Victoria Cross in the 1918 (and all the other medals in the short space of just 3 weeks).

I sat gob-smacked as she regaled me of his heroic deeds in essentially storming and capturing three enemy machine-gun nests, virtually single-handed (not literally single-handed like Lt Cairns in Burma who won his VC attacking the enemy with a sword even though one of his own arms had already been chopped off).

Before I knew it, it was already 5:30 and a few of the original PoWs from the railway were wheeled in and made their way to their VIP seats supporting each other, raising a spontaneous clamour of admiration from the crowd.

In front of us were a big group called Anzac Day Riders, mostly Aussie and Kiwi expatriates from Bangkok on an annual motorcycle pilgrimage. We gave the Kiwis a bit of a rubbing, I mean ribbing.

The pass filled up. 1500 was the best estimate of the crowd by most sources. Big enough, but certainly not crowded and distant as you might feel if you attended the Shrine in Melbourne or Cenotaph in Sydney.

"Those buggers died in a bloody beautiful place," said Ken afterwards, surveying the stunning valley of teak and bamboo. He could hardly stand upright for the weight of his own medals. He'd served in the Malayan Emergency, Borneo Konfrontasi and Vietnam. But he wasn't raving about the service he'd just attended: "Too much God," he said, fixing me in the eye. "Why can't they just tell a few uplifting stories about how they triumphed over this place ... it means more than a hymn and a prayer."

With the service over, it was then up to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum for the traditional gunfire breakfast. This involved a shot of rum. I think there was also coffee and Anzac biscuits served.

I bumped into Cyril Gilbert, who had been with A Force up the northern reaches of the Death Railway, which reminded me of the story he'd told me for The Missing Years of how he 'celebrated' his 23rd birthday. He was one of eight mates who had 9 herrings ... and spent half an hour dividing up the extra piece of fish so everyone got exactly the same amount, no more, no less than anyone else. Jing jing!

Then many boarded their buses, taxis, mini-vans and motorcycles, and headed the 60-odd kilometres south to Kanchanaburi to attend the 10am service there, and wander through the many excellent museums (see, memorials and of course over the Bridge on River Kwai.

By midday the heat was blistering. Can you imagine those poor PoWs slaving shirtless in this summer sun day in and day out?

However, Kanchanaburi today offers a few creature comforts today that were not so readily available during the war. Crisply chilled Heineken in a row of fun bars, for one. "It's turning into rather a naughty town," confided one Aussie expat. (There were actually some creature comforts available in this very street during the war --  a great story told by Eric Lomax* of his Japanese guard handing him his rifle to hold while he ducked inside a little brothel for a short time!)

Soon good-hearted rowdiness oozed from pubs such as the One Mar bar, the Round the Corner Bar, and Ning Bar. Beer was drunk as quick as the girls could pour it. Even quicker sometimes. The stories came out. The yarns. The escapades. The laughter. The tears. The good mates made. The good mates lost.

I spent the afternoon and evening with the Anzac Riders who were brewing up their own brand of mischief, involving burn-offs with their thumping great gleaming chrome steeds out front, roaring down the road standing in the saddle, etc. Someone call the police! Oh, I forgot, the bar is owned by a policeman.

As an emotional release to the solemness of the morning service, this was perfect. Kanchanaburi is certainly a great base for Anzac Day celebrations for that reason alone, let alone that you're in the shadow of the historical railway running through the town.

Lest we forget.

* Read Eric Lomax's brilliant little book called The Railway Man, about his time as a PoW in this area. You can also check out The Missing Years - A PoW's story from Changi to Hellfire Pass by some bloke called Stu Lloyd.

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