Changi to Hellfire Pass – in the footsteps of the POWs
Changi to Hellfire Pass in the footsteps of the POWs
Tour Diary 12 February to 28 February 2007
Caroline and Bob Gaden
Changi to Hellfire Pass in the footsteps of the POWs. Would you like to do this tour?
It was September 2006. We’d spotted the advertisement in the NRMA’s “Open Road”, initial inquiries revealed immediate deposits were essential to secure a place but we were just about to head off to Central Australia for a holiday and didn’t have much time to discuss it. Did we really want to visit the POW camps where Bob’s father Capt. E.W. [Bill] Gaden of the 2/20th Bn. and his good friend Capt. R.W.J. [Reg] Newton of 2/19th Bn. had spent years trying to survive the brutal Japanese regime when working on the infamous Burma to Thailand railway?
The answer was a resounding ‘Yes.’
Contact was made with the Imaginative Traveller Tour Company, deposits were paid and we headed inland.
On our return we looked more closely at where we were going.
Caroline was busy transcribing the wartime letters that Bill Gaden sent home to his mother and sisters. She copied his POW diary; she added notes from the 2/20th Battalion’s War diary and daily Routine Orders; she extracted more information from various Battalion histories and other wartime diaries and publications; she visited the Australian War Memorial and obtained more data from their archives.
We had a good idea where Bill had been stationed and what he had been doing. Was the tour going to be relevant?
We were not going to Mersing in the east of Malaysia, where the 2/20th had been stationed, which was a disappointment, but everywhere else looked to be of interest and relevant to the Battle for Malaya and the Battle for Singapore. It was a comprehensive itinerary.
We would see the Alexandra Hospital where both Bill and Reg were patients in March 1941. We would visit Kranji War Cemetery where the memorial to Elaine Balfour Ogilvy was located, the nurse who featured in some of Bill’s letters. We would be staying in the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, Penang, where Bill himself had been in June 1941. Hellfire Pass was quite close to camps Tarsau and Tonchan where Bill and Reg had been located. We would visit Wang Po viaduct and Kanburi, both places Bill had painted on his return to Australia.
The tour looked good; it was very relevant to Bill’s story.
What about the tour leader Stu Lloyd? The author of five non-fiction books, including ‘Gone Troppo’ and the ‘Hardship Posting’ series, he had also transcribed a wartime diary and had followed in the shadow of his scarecrow, travelling north from Singapore to the POW camps. He knew his stuff.
We looked forward to being members of ‘A’ Force, the first of the POW Experience tourists.
Day 1, Monday 12 February 2007
Australia to Singapore
Overnight: The Inn at Temple Street, Singapore
As we’d been staying in Canberra, caring for grandson Lachlan whilst brother Hamish made his appearance into the world on 7th February, we took a flight from Canberra to Sydney. It was delayed by wet weather so arrived late and we just had enough time to transfer to the International Terminus to catch the overseas flight. In the Departure lounge we looked for people with Imaginative Traveller stickers on their luggage and spotted a few. Both of us were each wearing a poppy so it was easy to recognise our intentions.
Singapore Airlines has attractive blue and mauve upholstery, easy on the eyes. The stewardesses are all very pretty and extremely slim… nephew Alex, our Qantas pilot, says they have to retire at 28 or if they can’t fit into the uniform, the sarong kebaya. They’d make a fortune in Australia selling their diet. Plenty of purple socks and cool face washers are distributed and menus for the flight, so at least we feel as if cattle class is not all that bad. Each seat has its own TV screen with a choice of 80 movies and lots of music, to start when you wish. The control has an inbuilt telephone, with credit card swipe facility, for those important calls.
We realised that the person sitting next to us was Stu Lloyd, the tour organiser and POW expert, so we had an interesting chat on the way.
Our luggage did not make the transfer across to catch the flight, so Singapore Airlines gave us each a toilet bag with some basics, a new white T shirt and $240 Singapore dollars to buy clothes for the evening. They promised to deliver the bags to our hotel the next day. Why should Singapore Airlines pay for a Qantas mistake?
At the airport we met others from the tour and our Asian Tour Leader, Pam England from Imaginative Traveller [Code TL0612 for future tour discounts!] and the local Singapore guide Joseph. Pam will stay with us throughout the tour; Joseph will be one of three ‘local’ guides.
The members of the tour group are:-
Stu Lloyd, Tour organiser and POW expert.
Pam England, Imaginative Traveller Tour Leader.
Kevin Bell of Scone interested in the history of the war.
Peter Bertram of Goulburn whose father was a medical orderly when a POW.
Judith Fisher of Canberra who wanted to revisit Penang where she had lived.
Bob and Caroline Gaden of Armidale, interested in Capt Bill Gaden of 2/20th and Capt Reg Newton of 2/19 th, as a POW both were in ‘U’ Bn of ‘D’ Force.
John and Margaret Hamilton of Canberra, interested in military history.
Pat and Allan Harding of Wedderburn
Sue and Grahame Hellyer of Newcastle, particular interest in Sue’s father, I.R. MacDonald of the 2/18th Bn and ‘A’ force when a POW.
Hope Herridge of Wyalong, interested in her brother’s time as a POW.
John and Trevor Hill of Murwillumbah, two brothers one ex RAAF, one ex RAN.
Sandra and Martin Kelly of Terranora whose fathers both fought in WWII but not in Malaya.
David Mitchell of Ballina, interested in WWII history
As we took the Mini bus to the hotel, Joseph gave us some information about Singapore.
<<< Picture shows our three guides
Stu, Pam and Joseph
The Island is 42 km from east to west and 23 km from north to south, 650 sq km in size. Thanks to land reclamation [with landfill coming from Malaysia] it is 41% bigger than when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles established the trading centre in 1819. There are 50 islands making a total of 697 sq km. Population is 4.5 million and is projected to rise to 6.5 million by 2020. It is made up of 78% Chinese, 13% Malay and the rest Indians. All speak English as that is the Administration language, the Chinese speak Mandarin, the Indians speak Tamil and the Malays also speak their own language, each of the four being taught at school. It is a major shipping destination with 20 ports for world shipping, moving 42 million containers annually. One vessel arrives and one leaves every three minutes. A deep sea port with protective concrete barrier to prevent torpedo attack has been constructed for visiting warships.
Singapore is very security conscious especially following the discovery of comprehensive videos of its infrastructure in an Al-Qaeda cave in Afghanistan post September 11th 2001. They have many new and updated planes with air force training bases in several places round the world including America, Europe and Australia. The road from Changi airport into the city is several lanes wide and has large plant pots dividing the inbound and outbound traffic. They can be removed to make the road into an aircraft runway. There are plenty of buses, taxis and subway, so transport is easy. They are closing off the river so they become self sufficient with their freshwater supply. At present it comes in from Malaysia but they want to become independent and already have recycling and a desalination plant producing safe drinking water.
There are nine million tourists each year. Singapore is also selling itself as an education centre; there are many International Schools and three universities, with a fourth to be built soon. There are 23 hospitals, one in the Guinness Book of records for the greatest number of births. There are 28 satellite towns each with complete facilities, shops, schools, churches and all the ethnic and religious groups are fully integrated in each one.
Our hotel, The Inn is located in Temple Street in Chinatown. The local architecture is called ‘Shop-front’ meaning there are terraced shops on the ground floor with a couple of floors above for the family to live. This particular area was built in the 1920s and in a Sino-Portuguese style. The hotel takes about 6 blocks of ‘shop-front’, with one being the reception, a second being the dining room and the others are local shops. The bedrooms are upstairs.
Our room is very small, just enough space for a queen size bed with about 15cm of space round the bottom and side to edge round into the bathroom. Not sure where our suitcases will go when they finally arrive! The plumbing is very erratic. According to the Tour Company’s Country Dossier for Singapore and Malaysia, toilet paper is to be placed in the bin, not down the toilet or it will block the system. That we can truly believe!
<<< Our Hotel is in the middle of this street [its location is shown by the oval sign on the RHS of the street]
We have been told to meet in the morning at 9.00am. We were expecting a group get-together this evening, to meet the other participants and have a joint meal and a good chat. However it seems we are expected to venture out to organise our own meal on our first night ever in Asia… quite a challenge.
Temple Street is right in the heart of China Town in the middle of Chinese New Year celebrations. The streets are jammed full of people and it gets busier as the night grows older. There is a cacophony of sounds to assault the ears and various odours to assault the nose… strange food being cooked, sweaty bodies, dirty rubbish bins and one suspects some raw sewage in the deep drains.
There are stalls everywhere in front of the normal shops. They are selling food, food and more food; cooked biscuits of unknown flavour, sweets and lollies by the tonne, various unknowns of dubious origin, taste and freshness… are they to be eaten, burnt or buried? And red decorations by the thousand, enough to decorate hundreds of Chinese homes and just the same as the ones we see favoured by the Chinese restaurants back in Australia. There is jewellery for sale, handbags for sale and Chinese style clothing in bold bright coloured satin. Stalls are selling coconuts kept in ice with the top sliced off when you buy one to drink the cool juice. Hawkers wearing microphones are shouting their sales patter, all in loud raucous Chinese, all trying to outdo the opposition from the adjacent stall.
Despite being in the middle of Chinatown, there is an Indian Hindu temple at the end of Temple Street, an indication of the good relationships between the Chinese, Indian and Malays who make up the population of Singapore.
We ventured forth and tried a local street stall for tea. We’d been warned to eat only freshly cooked hot food, nothing raw and no salads. We didn’t know the names of any dishes, nor did we recognise their pictures. We watched the cooking at one stall and each decided on an omelette made on the spot with seafood and four eggs; nothing exotic but at least it was freshly cooked and hot. Caroline had to grab places at an outdoor table as soon as someone stood up to leave. Bob went to order. The meal was $S 4 each and a can of Coke was $S 1.50.
When we retired at 11pm the local streets were still getting busier and noisier. Thank goodness we have a room at the back of the hotel, no view but not subject to the full force of the racket. It is very hot and steamy, with sweat pouring off even late into the night. Glad the room is air-conditioned so we have a chance of sleep. Sorry to Al Gore and his global warming supporters, but we think the air con will be very busy whilst we are in this neck of the woods!
Day 2, Tuesday 13 February 2007
Overnight: The Inn at Temple Street, Singapore
Changi Chapel, Changi Museum, Changi Beach, Selarang Barracks, Roberts Barracks, Johore Battery, Sime Road Camp, Secrets of the Red Lantern in Chinatown
Breakfast was almost POW rations, two slices of pale damp toast, a small packet of butter and strawberry jam, a glass of warm sweet orange juice and a cup of tea. Several of the group had problems with the plumbing, the shower was very slow to drain [as was ours] and the toilet didn’t flush properly [ours took two or three attempts every time]. As Judith remarked “I wasn’t expecting the plumbing to be quite so authentic.”
We all met at street’s end at 9.00am, walking past stalls now covered with tarps, people sleeping on chairs at the back on the footpath, the night soil man making his collections. Joseph and the Mini bus loaded us for our tour.
Stu Lloyd told the tour group of his interest in Colonial history, war history, train travel and stories of human spirit. He had met Paul Pilkington, son of Capt. H.P. Pilkington, a POW who had written a diary of his time under Nippon rule. Paul and Stu decided to follow in the steps of the Captain and retrace his route north as a POW, eating similar rations. They had travelled by train through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand and back-packed as far as possible along the track of the infamous Burma –Thailand Railway built by those malnourished slaves of the Japanese.
At Changi we learned that the Changi POW camp was not one building surrounded by walls. It was a general area within the Changi peninsula which was 18 square kilometres and had been developed by the British army as a key defensive position.
We stopped at the current Changi Gaol in Singapore, one dark coloured high wall with observation tower being the only visible relic of the POW camp of 1942. We were not allowed to disembark from the bus to take photographs. It was here that 3500 civilians including women and children were housed during Japanese rule.
Over a period of months the prisoners themselves unrolled the wire which was to eventually confine them. The Changi area had plenty of grassland and trees, ideal for gardens to be planted to supplement diet, if the seeds [and Japanese permission] could be obtained. Up to March 1942 the prisoners could move quite freely within the area but had to make sure they saluted and bowed to the Japanese.
We moved onto what were the Roberts Barracks at Changi, now an air force base, so we had to submit passport numbers and camera numbers to the authorities before we were allowed inside. We were advised not to take photographs from the bus or anything outside. However we were eventually given permission by our accompanying security detachment to photograph the outside of the lovely colonial building.
The Roberts Barracks were converted into a Military hospital for the POWs. The building, block 151, was the dysentery ward of the camp. The prisoners requested that one ground floor room be used as a chapel. It was here that murals were painted by a sick prisoner, Stanley Warren. He found some white paint, added billiard chalk to make blue; terracotta came from bricks and grey came from the nearby naval base. Brushes were made from human hair from the barber’s shop or from coarse brushes.
He used POWs in the ward as models for the faces in the first mural painted, ‘The Nativity’. >>>
<<< The second painting was ‘The Ascension’, the disciple looking out is John, the one covering his eyes is Thomas and the one in blue is Peter.
Those two themes were chosen as Warren didn’t think he would live long enough to complete more and Nativity and Ascension would at least give the chapel an air of completeness and balance.
But he did survive and painted the ‘Crucifixion’ followed by the ‘Last Supper’ and finally ‘Saint Luke in Prison’.
In the ‘Crucifixion’ he drew slaves rather than guards, a reflection on his thought that ‘they know not what they do’; in the ‘Last Supper’ there are sandals, Warren’s signature.
The murals were whitewashed in 1944 and remained hidden until 1958 when they were rediscovered. In December 1963 Warren returned to Singapore to restore the murals. He made further trips back in 1982 and 1988 but did not manage a full restoration of all the murals.
When asked what he felt about war, Warren replied “There is no problem that cannot be solved without war. … War is never good.”
The non restored mural>>>
An alter was set out on small table and there was a carved wooden number holder on the wall for hymn numbers.
Bob signed the Visitors Book
“In memory of my father Capt. E.W Gaden.”
We returned to the bus and headed for the Selarang barracks. This is also a current military base, home to the Singapore Regiment. The country has conscription, all males do two years of military service at the age of 18 years and they continue to do an annual month of training up to the age of 40 years.
Following the fall of Singapore, Selarang Barracks was the main Australian HQ, with 14,792 Australian held as prisoners here. There were no fences, it was low security with passes to go in and out, and the area of 400 acres was surrounded by rubber trees.
In September 1942 the “Selarang Incident” occurred when, under duress, officers and men eventually signed a ‘no escape’ clause. We saw the Selarang bell as we drove in and were escorted to the Officers Mess to tour their small museum. The beautiful parquet floors in the building were being renovated; no OH&S here, the sanders wore no masks and no shoes even though the electric sanding machines were in full flight. The museum had a small scale model so we could see the location of the original Square where the ‘incident’ occurred. In more recent times the regiment has been involved with Interfet, East Timor and there were badges from that campaign similar to those of our son Philip.
From Left: Bob, Caroline, Kevin, Hope, Martin, Sue, Sandra, Stu [with folder], David [back row], Margaret and John behind, Peter [yellow hat] with Judith behind in green, Grahame, Pat with Allan behind, Trevor, John.
Changi Museum There are very informative displays here, with good maps explaining the route of the invading Japanese. The museum guide was an Indian gentleman who gave an succinct explanation of how the country and island were allocated ‘too little, too late’ in terms of equipment and personnel; how the civilian population were complacent to the threats; how Japanese spies, dressed as Chinese traders, were everywhere, reporting back on military numbers and activities; how communication equipment was destroyed by bombing; how the Allied military hierarchy made a number of blunders in their strategy and deployments.
The Indian guide explained that the word Changi comes from the name of a local tree the Chengai tree, Sindora wallichii, used for making furniture and building houses. One used to tower 45 metres above the skyline and was a navigation aid. Sadly it was lost in the Battle for Singapore.
The young tree seen here next to the restaurant [where we had local cuisine for lunch] was planted at the museum on 8th February 1991.
There was a total of 137,000 troops to defend Malaya and Singapore; they included 67,000 Indians, 39,000 British, 16,000 local Malay regiments and 15,000 Australians.
The members of the 8th Australian Division were:-
2/10 Field Regiment RAA
2/15 Field Regiment RAA
4 Anti Tank Regiment
2/4 Machine Gun Battalion
22 Australian Brigade 2/18, 2/19, 2/20 Battalions
27 Australian Brigade 2/26, 2/29, 2/30 Battalions
This is a replica of the Changi Chapel known by the POWs. The original was removed from Singapore Island and re-erected at Duntroon, Canberra.
The Johore Battery was our next stop, the site of a couple of the big 15 inch guns erected to protect the naval base. There were six different batteries of guns and, contrary to legend they could swivel and they were fired. The Sultan of Johore contributed £500,000 for two of these large weapons.
Each of the long 15 inch wide barrels weighed as much as 45 cars. The Johore battery fired 194 armour pierced shells. They did not contain high explosive, so cut straight through ships or buried themselves on land, so in effect they were useless.
The guns were destroyed by sabotage to stop the Japanese taking them over.
The shells were large, around five feet long. They were heavy and required a pulley system to lift them up from the storage area for loading.
There are three storeys of underground tunnels for the supply and accommodation of the battery, the tunnels were only rediscovered in the 1990s. The concrete paths in the background give a plan of the underground tunnels. >>>
We then moved onto the Changi Beach Memorial, site of the execution of thousands of the local Chinese population. In the Sook-Ching massacres, the Japanese admitted to killing 6000 Chinese, in reality 25 -30,000 were murdered here.
This was also the site of the execution of four POWs. Prisoners were considered to be members of the Imperial Japanese Army [IJA]. To escape was to desert; punishment for desertion was death. Four prisoners, two Australians, Breavington and Gale, and two British, Waters and Fletcher, did escape but were recaptured suffering illness and malnourishment. . They were sent to Changi hospital to recover, then some months later were court-marshalled, convicted and sentenced to death. The execution on the white sand of Changi Beach was witnessed by several Allied officers.
We held a small re-enactment of their last few minutes of life, Peter read a poem written by a POW. It was a time for us to reflect on the brutalities of war.
As we were on a beach, Caroline then gave a short, emotional tribute to the nurses who were evacuated on the Vyner Brooke, bombed by the Japanese; those who survived were then massacred on the beach at Banka Island. She spoke in particular of Elaine Balfour-Ogilvy who was mentioned in Bill’s letters home from Malaya, the lass who was good at tennis and golf and was his guest at several social functions. As our poppies were still in the suitcases, somewhere en route from Sydney to our hotel, she was unable to place a poppy in the water.
Our next stop was the former Sime Road Camp. At the turn off we saw an old Chinese cemetery, with large womb shaped tombstones.
The extensive ruins are in the grounds of a palatial Chinese home close to the exclusive and very expensive Singapore Golf Club. The owner of the house was himself ill treated by the Japanese and the family are happy to keep the ruins in place and not remove them. It was easy to glean some idea of the size and scope of the camp, with paths and buildings still intact and other areas with large foundations or relics still visible.
In the evening we were taken on a conducted tour of the Red Lantern district of Chinatown. Our guide was Geraldine, a very knowledgeable lady who had made a study of the old brothels with Chinese and Japanese prostitutes and the Opium dens. There were inevitably several murders to report and we also visited the current brothel area, where Geraldine turned off her microphone so as not to offend the girls or their clients.
<<< Kevin, Sandra, Allan, Pam and Grahame pay close attention to Geraldine’s photograph
Martin and Allan listen to Geraldine’s talk near the Indian temple >>
It has been another hot and steamy day, plenty of perspiration lost and plenty of water drunk. We can now understand why the 8th Division troops originally had an afternoon siesta during their early weeks in Malaya. We would have walked at least 7 km today.
We were delighted that our suitcases arrived intact so were able to have a much needed change of clothes. Dinner was with Grahame and Sue at the restaurant attached to the hotel. Prawns and corn and vegetables and boiled rice went down well with several very welcome glasses of beautiful cold, cold beer.
Day 3, Wednesday 14 February 2007
Overnight: The Inn at Temple Street, Singapore
Sentosa, Fort Siloso, Alexandra Hospital, Labrador Park
Today we visited the island of Sentosa, formerly called Blakan Mati, the ‘island of the dead behind’ and the Fort built to protect the harbour. There is a large merlion statue on the island, a cross between a mermaid and a lion, the symbol of Singapore.
Fort Silosa was the site of more fortifications built pre-war to protect the naval base and shipping lanes. It was self sufficient for water. The gun battlements here give an excellent animated life-size display of loading guns, aiming and firing them.
There were several displays using models to depict the conditions for the men who served here and how they faced the Japanese attack.
In the Surrender Room were wax mannequins depicting the military hierarchy from both sides seated round the table when the Surrender documents were signed. The scene was so realistic and intense, the faces gaunt with worry and lack of sleep. It was a glimpse into the devastation felt by Percival and his officers. It was a very moving scene and one felt almost sorry for the humiliation of Percival who had made some costly blunders in his campaign. The overt aggression of the Japanese was palpable in the room; they had played a superb game of bluff. The Allies did not realise they were out of ammunition; if only they had hung on for another few days. It was here the first poppy was left in memory of all those who fell in the fighting.
We moved onto the Alexandra Military Hospital. Bill Gaden and Reg Newton were patients here in March 1941 when both were evacuated from the Queen Mary into hospital with pneumonia. Dr Ang, the current senior clinician, was our guide; he is the only staff member remaining from 1971 when the local Government took over the hospital from the military.
Alexandra hospital cost £265000 to build in the 1930s when it was the most modern and largest military hospital. Unfortunately fuel tanks, a very obvious military target, were located close behind.
<<< The fuel tanks are clearly visible in this 1942 photograph of the hospital now hanging in the conference room
In the battle for Singapore, a retreating Indian regiment went through the hospital grounds and fired at the Imperial Japanese Guard troops from the roof and verandahs, thus legitimising their return of fire. What was not legitimate was the Japanese response when they finally overran the hospital.
They invaded the wards and operating theatres and murdered 50 local staff on 12 February 1942. They returned over the next two days and massacred more victims. A total of 200 were buried under what is now the soccer field in the hospital grounds.
Dr Ang showed us the memorial fountain built by the British and we found a memorial plaque hidden under a butterfly sign, screened from view by vegetation. We were disappointed that the plaque was hidden from view, but Dr. Ang suggested, the local population don’t want a reminder of the horrors of war.
Here another poppy was left in memory of those who died.
He also showed us the tunnels under the hospital building, to be used for patient care in the event of bombing raids.
We then headed to the Labrador Tunnels. Lunch was at the restaurant where we witnessed a wedding reception for an Indian boy and a Chinese girl.
The Labrador tunnels were only opened in 2005 as their existence had been forgotten until they were recently rediscovered. There is an extensive network of underground tunnels for the ammunition and troops who manned the 6 inch guns located above. They were originally placed here in 1886. Each shell had a range of 9.67 km and weighed 45 kg, and had to be hoisted up to the guns. There was a large fuel tank and a generator for power.
In the display were many 1942 local news paper articles from Singapore’s The Straits Times. One which caught the eye was taken from 12 February 1942 when it was reported that, aided by a ventriloquist, an Australian sergeant accounted for four snipers.
Everywhere we have been the gardens have been beautifully maintained by a legion of people with brooms, small baskets and hoes. Everyone works hard to keep the city litter-free and looking immaculate. We were amused to see that utes and trucks can have people sitting in the back with no seat belts or protection if the vehicle rolls. There are even stickers on the back advising how many people can be transported this way.
This evening we walked from Chinatown to meet the Strangs for dinner. On the way we passed a woman leading two miniature long haired dachshunds [like Penny confined to kennels back home, but these were both tan] the only pet dogs we have seen so far. We walked over the river and past the former Hill Street Police Station, now an Arts Centre and brightened up with colourful shutters.
Chris and Mary Strang are former Kalinda Road residents and former The Armidale School parents. Chris was bursar at TAS and Mary taught Japanese to Philip. They now live at 01-10, 261 River Valley Road. This is a huge complex of high rise units surrounding a central courtyard and swimming pool. Their unit is on the ground floor of block 10, so they have a small private garden to sit out and enjoy the evening. We went to Fatty’s Chinese restaurant and had a good chat about life in Singapore and life in Kalinda Road.
Day 4, Thursday 15 February 2007
Overnight: The Inn at Temple Street, Singapore
Serimbun, Kranji Park, Kranji Cemetery, Bukit Chandu, The Battle Box.
Dinner at Fort Cannings The Legends Club and Poppis Restaurant
Today is the 65th anniversary of the Surrender of the Allies to the Japanese in Singapore. The Japanese plan was to secure the Tengah airbase, then Bukit Timah and finally the three reservoirs; they knew this would win Singapore Island, and it did.
First we drove to the northwest of the island down a dirt road to the water at Serimbun. It was here that the Japanese landed in February 1942. The Australian 22nd Brigade consisting of the 2/18th, 2/19th and 2/20th Battalions were given the task of holding this area. They were exhausted from fighting on the mainland, had lost many men and their numbers had been replenished with newly arrived, very under-trained troops. The fresher battalions of the 18th Division were located on the north eastern shore of the island where the Japanese were supposedly massing. The site we saw was mangrove swamp, no fortifications and an impossible task.
Caroline read two passages from her research:-
It is obvious that withdrawal to Singapore Island was planned to occur during in the next few days. Capt. Frank Gaven recalled that all the 2 I/C’s, including himself, Capt. Maxwell, Lieut. Mudie and Capt. Bill Gaden, were taken by Brigadier Dawkins and shown what was to be their allocated Battalion position, even their company positions, in the Kranji area on Singapore Island. These areas the troops were to hold if the Japanese invaded the Island. The officers were horrified. They had spent months working like beavers to make good fortification in the Mersing area, fencing on the beaches, laying mines, cutting tracks, but here, despite all the promises and money, there was nothing. There were no fortifications, no sign of support, no sign of relief, not a glimmer of hope.
Frank walked to the edge of an impenetrable mangrove swamp. He recalls feeling it was a desperate situation. An experienced soldier, he was full of despair; they were going to be asked an impossible task and Frank thought that “even Richard the Lionhearted would have felt desperate”. He was also concerned that, however much the officers tried to remain positive, these feelings of despair must have been visible and it would then be almost impossible to inspire the troops. Army H.Q. didn’t seem to appreciate the urgency of the situation… the orders coming through were to do with things like arrangements for recreation leave for the troops and laundering of troops clothing. As Frank said “They were in Cuckoo-cloud land. It had no relevance to priority of urgency.”
[AWM S04104 Interview of Lieut. Frank Gaven with Don Wall]
An even more gloomy assessment of their patch was made by Lt. Col. Roland Oakes of the 2/19th “ a scraggy waste of stunted rubber and tangled undergrowth, apparently miles from anywhere, our vision limited to the next rise in the undulating ground and our means of movement confined to a few native foot-tracks winding through the wilderness…
Maps showed that we were a mile and a half from the west coast with … the 2/18 away to the north in a similar desolation of waste and confusion… A mile of single file track led through the belukar [secondary jungle] eight feet high, where visibility was no more than a stone’s throw, to…. where ‘D’ Company looked out on the beauties of a mangrove swamp which was under water at high tide. It was not so much a thin khaki line of Australians but isolated clumps.” [Hellfire, p 156-7]
The site today is still a mangrove swamp with a fishing village floating off shore.
The 22nd Brigade of Australians bore the brunt of the invasion and there was fierce fighting with heavy casualties.
<<< Since November 2006 some fortifications have been erected, a wall of wire to prevent landings from Malaya across the Johore Straits.
We left poppies here for the three battalions, Bob for the 2/20th, Hope for the 2/19th and Sue for the 2/18th. It was emotional to see such indefensible land; poor communication due to the bombing would have been an additional nightmare.
We moved onto Kranji River defended by the Australian 27th Brigade. The Japanese attack by the Imperial Guards was repelled with burning oil. Then ironically, just as they were getting the upper hand, Australian orders were misinterpreted due to the poor communication lines which had been shattered by the heavy bombing… they were told to “defend as long as you can but if you can’t, withdraw to the Kranji-Jurong line” … they only heard “withdraw”. The 2/4th Machine gunners and Artillery support was withdrawn and the Australian troops started to make their way south towards the Tengah airfield, ironically also the goal of the invading forces.
From this site we could easily see the Sultan of Johore’s Palace, a place which the Japanese were seen to be using as an observation post but which the Australians were not allowed to shell.
We left a poppy here at the Kranji Park memorial for the 27th Brigade, and the men of the machine gunners and the artillery.
Our next port of call was the beautifully maintained Kranji War Cemetery. It includes the remains of many servicemen and women who died elsewhere, including victims of the Alexandra Hospital massacre and Cpl Beavington, one of the Australians executed on Changi Beach. Sadly there are many remains unidentified, their stone only saying they were ‘Known unto God’.
As well as the large area of white headstones, 4,500 of them, there is a huge memorial with many walls covered with over 24,000 names of those who died in the fighting in Malaya.
Listed here, at the top of Column 141, were Elaine Balfour Ogilvy, and the other nurses who were massacred at Banka Island. Caroline stuck a poppy on the wall for the nurses, especially Elaine for whom she has developed a real attachment. We shed another few tears.
She placed another poppy on the wall near one of the many names of the 2/20th… so many casualties from the 2/18th, 2/19th , 2/20th, 2/26th 2/29th and 2/30th and more quiet reflection on the savagery and futility of it all
We were at the Kranji Memorial at 12.5pm when the Singapore air raid sirens started. We had been warned that it would happen, a test to ensure all were working properly and that they could be heard all over the island. It was an eerie, gut wrenching feeling to be standing in this huge war cemetery, this place so poignant and heart breaking, on the 65th anniversary of the fall of Singapore when an air raid siren was howling out its mournful warning. We shivered with goose bumps as thousands of ghosts stirred in silent but tangible response.
In 1942 many thousands of local Malayan people were also involved in the fighting for their homeland. Their memorial is at Bukit Chandu; a meticulously kept house now set up as a museum and place for reflection. This was Point 226 on the defence maps. The Japanese had landed in the Serimbun and Kranji areas, moved to the Tengah airfield, then to Bukit Timah and then onto the racecourse area, the Pasir Panyang Ridge then Bukit Chandu. The local regiment ran out of ammunition and there was hand to hand fighting. The fierce resistance so annoyed the Japanese Imperial Guard troops that they went on to exact revenge at the Alexandra Hospital.
There was a frightening audio visual display of the Japanese arrival and impact on the villagers; mind numbing noise, bombs being dropped, gunfire, screams, groans of injured, fearful voices of children, darkness, confusion, fear. It would scare the hell out of any ex-servicemen and was very moving… Caroline slipped outside in tears for several minutes of reflection by the mural and fish pond.
On display was a beautiful poem written by Siti Shaffour by Ismail, the daughter of the Commander of the Malayan Regiment killed by the Japanese:-
Counted and remembered, this land you one defended
The shepherd boy himself found a soldier war made man
You were grit and determination, abounded love and warmth
A memory etched beautiful Bapak, forever deep in our minds.
The plaque at this bronze reads:-
If we do not remember our heroes, we will produce no heroes.
If we do not record their sacrifices, their sacrifices will have been in vain…
The greatest strength we have as a people is our common memories of the past and our common hopes for the future.
For without these memories the next generation will not have the fighting spirit to carry on.
B G (NS) George Yeo, Minister for Information and the Arts, 21 June 1997, at the launch of The Price of Peace booklet, Bukit Chandu
We had lunch today at the Singapore Teacher’s Club where guide Joseph is a member. We were amused that toilet paper was located outside the toilets, you had to collect what you thought you might need before going into the ladies or gents. Lunch was Chak Chaye, a vegetable dish, much needed fibre as the rice and egg diet was playing havoc with innards.
In the afternoon we went to the Battle Box at Fort Canning, the final underground Command Centre of Percival and his team of officers. There are realistic displays of communication and signals and the final hours leading up to the surrender which occurred 65 years ago today. There are life size wax mannequins of Percival, Bennet, Heath and the various generals with a 10 minute audio of them discussing their options… they thought they had so few options left but they didn’t realise how close the Japanese were to running out of ammunition and supplies and how few troops they really had.
In retrospect the overwhelming impression is of poor communication, bickering amongst the leaders, inadequate equipment, no tanks, no air power, and poor leadership. The Japanese had a long term objective to take over South East Asia and had planned their campaign meticulously. From as early as 1917, when they were seen taking depth soundings in the Johore Straits, they infiltrated spies everywhere, barbers, photographers, teachers asking children for information extracted from parents. They had a very detailed knowledge of the country and defences. Churchill and his Allied Command totally underestimated them.
Outside the Battlebox, Allied Command, on the 65th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore
15th February 2007.
From left John, Margaret, Kevin, Hope, Sandra, Judith, Grahame, Trevor, Martin, Pat, Bob, David, Caroline, Allan, Peter
Overall this was a moving, emotional day. Stu described frightening scenarios and set the scene for each visit with excellent clarity about the state of play including the emotions of the troops. Our soldiers knew they were in a hopeless position to defend; they must have been devastated by the lack of artillery support and planning from their leaders.
They were too thin on the shore to repel the invaders and knew it. What a challenge for the officers, including Bill Gaden, to retain their focus.
Australians made up 14% of the total fighting force and 73% of the deaths; so 1 in 10 died compared to 1 in 20 of the British troops.
The day was capped with a tour of the Fort Canning Spice Garden where we were shown a whole array of herbs and spices growing in the Fort Canning garden. Before we ventured into the foliage we were dabbed with lemongrass water; lemongrass contains citronella, a natural mosquito repellent. The Singapore Cooking School is located here, concentrating on the use of these natural flavours.
Our guide and chef explained that turmeric is good for pimples and wrinkles. Someone commented that he’d have to get some and Peter suggested “But you don’t have any pimples.”
We were treated to a sumptuous meal served outdoors on the verandah. It included a green mango entrée followed by roast chicken with basil mashed potato and a lovely desert.
We walked through the manicured lawns of this delightful colonial building, past some of early European grave-stones now set into a wall. We made our way back to the hotel, about 3km.
We like the traffic lights here; they give you a countdown in seconds. You know how much time you have to wait for them to change and also how long they will remain green, to help you decide if you can make a dash for it! All the cars are the very latest model and would have the best possible brakes but jaywalking is a big no-no here.
We had a much needed cooling beer with Sue and Grahame when we arrived back at the hotel.
Day 5, Friday 16 February 2007
Overnight: The Inn at Temple Street, Singapore
Bukit Timah, Old Ford Factory, Singapore Botanic Gardens
We went to Bukit Timah hill today, the scene of fierce fighting as it was one of those strategic locations just 6km from the city centre. We walked up the steep concrete path to the summit. We were surrounded by thick jungle rainforest with chattering, leaping monkeys and squirrels, beautiful butterflies and birds. It’s hard to imagine how the troops would have been able to see and communicate to offer any proper resistance to the Japanese. It would have been hell to defend and so slippery in any monsoonal rain.
This was the location of defensive fighting by Merrett Force and ‘X’ force. Merrett Force was commanded by Major Robert Merrett of the 2/20 th and included Capt. Frank Gaven and Capt. Richardson, friends of Bill. ‘X’ Force was made up of stragglers from the 2/19th and 2/20th battalions whose HQ had dissolved with no battalion structure for the men to return to. It was commanded by Colonel Boyes. Both these groups of men were badly mauled by the advancing Japanese in close quarter fighting near a petrol dump ignited by Japanese grenades, ‘X’ Bn. was almost wiped out.
< We made it! Margaret, Alan, Pat, Sandra, Caroline, John, Sue, Trevor, Martin and Bob who took the photo.
<< After our exertions at Bukit Timah we then embussed [like the military!] to the Old Ford factory.
This was the first Asian plant built by the Company and opened in 1939. It was immediately put to war time use and assembled aircraft. The museum only opened last year and commemorates the struggle the civilian population had to survive under Japanese occupation. On display were lots of photographs and newspaper articles. There was a 25 minute video with superb Japanese footage of the fighting and occupation. They were a very oppressive ruler, there was no encouragement to develop, the locals were forced to learn Japanese, to bow, and were thoroughly exploited.
We had lunch in this food court at Holland Park, great fun to get among the locals. Caroline had white carrot cake and Bob had black carrot cake; in reality they were like potato omelettes with the black being more spiced, certainly nothing carrot coloured! The meals were very filling and very cheap, no wonder the locals don’t cook at home.
After lunch we went to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Bill was here when the Allies surrendered. It is now a beautiful, serene place, peaceful and colourful with many delightful orchids on which to feast they eye. We bought some small gifts in the shop.
<< The stunning national flower of Singapore
In the evening we walked through Singapore to a shopping centre for good food, brisket beef and rice and soup for $5. We also bought a new chip for the camera as we seem to be taking a large number of photos and tomorrow we head away from the city.
We strolled along the river bank, well lit with twinkling lights, past the bungy sling which rockets you into the air, then past Parliament house and some old buildings near a park gearing up for Chinese New Year.
We saw some more glorious Colonial buildings en route to the Recreation club, another colonial building next to a Padang where the cricket team was practising slips catches in the wet between storms and showers.
We found the famous Raffles Hotel, still showing its fabulous British heritage. We ordered a couple of drinks in the Long Bar. One Guinness and one beer and two Singapore Gin Slings cost $74.60 … a once in a lifetime drink!
The recipe for the Sling is:- 30ml Gin, 15ml Cherry Brandy, 120ml Pineapple Juice, 15ml Lime Juice, 7.5 ml Cointreau, 7.5 ml Dom Benedictine, 10ml Grenadie, a dash of Angostura Bitters and garnish with a slice of pineapple and cherry.
Tomorrow we leave this lovely clean city; it’s teeming with people but we feel quite safe wandering round and we know people can speak English and help if we get lost. The Chinese celebrate their New Year tomorrow, it will be the year of the pig.
Gong Xi Fa Cai – a Happy and Prosperous New Year.
Day 6, Saturday 17 February 2007
Overnight: Prime City Hotel, Kluang
Express train from Singapore to Kluang in Malaysia.
Yong Peng, Ayer Hitam, Medan, Batu Pahat and Parit Sulong
We left the hotel at 7.30am to catch the train north. The Singapore Railway station is actually owned by the Malaysian Government. It is a Colonial building in great need of some maintenance and paint. Inside the waiting area are six huge and beautiful tiled murals. The Singapore Government wants to buy the station and modernise it. We farewell Joseph then have to go through Malaysian Immigration at the station. Some 30 minutes down the track we all have to leave the train at Woodlands and go through Singapore’s Immigration as we are now leaving Singapore.
Bill Gaden left this station in a cattle truck for Burma; at least our seats are quite comfortable.
Once over the causeway, we are in Malaysia. The initial impression is of the contrast between the two countries, Malaysia is shabby and there is rubbish everywhere, there seems to be little pride in the houses, poverty and filth abound. From now on we must drink only bottled water and not use ice.
We pass through huge new plantations of palm oil trees; the former rubber trees have been removed. There is an occasional banana plantation. We pass through stations Johore Bahru, Kulai, Rengam and reach Kluang where we disembark.
We join our local guide Daman and boarded a gaudy bright new bus. Daman explained that Malaysia gained a negotiated independence from the British in 1957 and had a good infra structure left behind. Singapore subsequently left to be independent in its own right. The population is 55% Malay, 33% Chinese and 10% Indian. The main religion is Islam and they follow an open liberal Islam rule, celebrating both Muslim and other non-Muslim holidays. It is okay for non-Muslims to drink alcohol in public, but a Muslim would be fined and have his name published in the newspapers. It is also acceptable for Muslims to take up to four wives, but the first wife needs to give permission for this to occur.
Again there is a shop-front style of housing, but shabby when compared to Singapore.
They have excellent joint ventures with British and Australian companies. Rubber was the main crop of importance to the Malaysian economy, now it is palm oil which is used in cooking, cosmetics and will make up 30% of diesel oil. They harvest from the tree every two weeks over a period of thirty years. It is intensive labour and one acre can produce one tonne of crude palm oil. Pineapple, banana, papaya and water melon are also cash crops grown in the first 3-4 years of the palm tree’s life. We were pleased to re-discover bananas, providing much needed fibre and they could be easily carried and were ‘clean’ to eat as long as the outer skin did not come into contact with the freshly peeled fruit.
The area of southern Malaysia is Johore and it is mainly agricultural. It is the area where the Australian troops fought in the Battle for Malaya; anything further north was covered by the British and Indian regiments. Kuala Lumpur, Port Swetenham and Malacca had already been abandoned by the time the Australians saw battle.
Australian Commander Gordon Bennett was given full authority of what went on in Johore. He was an outspoken critic of Percival and he set up Westforce to establish a new defence line, bringing 2/19th troops across from Mersing where they had been dug in to defensive positions. At Gemas there was an ambush of the Japanese by the 2/30th. New defences were set up at Muar. However the Japanese had landed at Muar and threatened the Australian flank
The 2/29th was given the task of holding the Kluang airfield. The 2/19th were sent in support. There were 4 main withdrawal routes, the central trunk road, the east and west trunk roads and the railway line. At Ayer Hitam and Yong Peng the railway, north-south road and east-west road all intersected. It was a very strategic location. Every soldier would pass through here.
There were some big clashes in Johore between the Japanese and the Australian troops. Many times the Allies would find they had been outflanked by the Japanese and they would have to fight their way out to try and rejoin their own lines. The Allies were retreating, their soldiers had to make it across the bridges before they were blown up. The Japanese had been planning the war for years and had hidden stashes of timber so repairs could be affected very quickly. Many times they would catch up with the Allied troops. An excellent, very detailed account of the fighting is found in Singapore Burning by Colin Smith and a very readable, though less detailed account is found in Hellfire by Cameron Forbes.
Stu described several of these battles in detail and took us to the various locations. It was difficult to absorb all the information as the place names were unfamiliar and we had no maps to relate them to each other.
First we went to the ridge at Bukit Palandok, near a Chinese cemetery [with its womb shaped tombstones] where the Australians were defending a defile in the road. They were caught in the middle of a pincer movement, bombed with 36 heavy bombs and cut off. Bennet thought there was 200 Japanese, in fact there was close to 10,000.
<<< Stu describes the detail of the battle
Anderson force was sent to retake the hill. It was an impossible task. The monsoonal rain made conditions a muddy mess, the compasses didn’t work due to the tin mines, and the troops were hopelessly outnumbered. They moved towards Yong Peng intersection and Anderson led a bayonet charge on a low ridge, singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Many were killed.
Eventually three days later the remainder made it to Parit Sulong where Anderson made the decision to leave his stretcher cases behind. Any walking wounded kept going. Russell Braddon was there and the account in his book The Naked Island, makes for harrowing reading. At Parit Sulong the Japanese committed an atrocious massacre that Stu walked us through in detail.
Over 140 severely injured and dying men were herded into this small building for the night. Denied water or medical treatment, next day they were tormented, kicked and beaten then, in a mass execution on the river bank, 145 men were killed, only three survived the bayonet and bullets.
The Japanese tried to burn their bodies, then tossed them into the river. The tide returned them. The locals buried the bodies behind the site, a former Public Works Department bungalow
Three men, Hackney, Croft and Wharton survived, Hackney by crawling under the building and playing doggo. He had a smashed leg and 52 bayonet wounds. He survived to return to Australia to tell the story. Wharton and Croft fled north to Malaya after capitulation, Croft joined the guerrillas and was killed.
The story of the Parit Sulong massacre is detailed in Lynette Silver’s book
Several of our group were unable to get close to the Parit Sulong building as it was across a wet drainage ditch and the ground underfoot near the buildings was found to be rough and potholed under the vegetation. It would have been a long wait for the rest of the group as Stu went through all the details.
We held a minute of silence on the bridge at Parit Sulong and dropped poppies into that red muddy water in memory of those killed.
When this last line of defence was breached the order was given to withdraw to Singapore, to make a clean break. It took 5 days.
Today was a long afternoon hearing about massacres and acts of heroism, bloody battles and atrocious murders. We looked at cross roads and abandoned buildings, bridges and muddy water. It was a day full of emotion and horror that war leads to such acts of inhumanity.
As we drove away from the area Stu encouraged us to sing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in honour of Anderson and his men. It was a very strained rendition; most of us were too emotionally drained to be able to get words out of tear-constricted throats.
It was a day when we ourselves were the objects of curiosity from the locals; there we were, a group of Westerners standing in the rain close to a busy intersection, listening intently to the description of a battle or a massacre, looking at waste land or ruins, clambering through the mud, peering under buildings, holding a minute of silence on a bridge…. they were not the usual designated tourist sites or actions.
After we left the bridge, several of the ladies needed a ‘benjo’ break. The bus pulled into a service station and we all lined up for the squat toilet, no bowl, just a hole in the ground and flushed using a dipper of water from the nearby bucket.
Our queue caused much amusement for the local teenage males who seemed to have nothing to occupy their time.
One question raised by one of the males of our group was “Which way do you face when using a squat toilet?” The inevitable answer was “face into the wind”.
Overnight we stayed at the Prime City Hotel, a large international type hotel in a city with lots of squalor. It is surrounded by scruffy shop houses built in the 1920’s. It was not a place for an evening walk, the park opposite was full of litter and men sleeping on the benches. There are plenty of young men sitting around doing nothing.
We decided not to explore the local market so ate our evening meal in the hotel, the food was acceptable enough with choice of rice and noodles and various other dishes.
<<vv These are the views from our 12th floor room
We were aware of the direction of Mecca, an arrow painted on the room ceiling pointed in the correct direction so we could pray appropriately when the call to prayer came as it did five times per day. Muslims are expected to pray for 10 minutes within each of the prayer times of 6.00-7.00am, 1.00-4.00pm, 4.15-7.00pm, 7.00-8.15pm and 8.15pm -6.00am. Praying rooms or Sural are found at public places like the railway station, men and women in different rooms. The devout have to wash three times to cleanse themselves, if they touch anyone before praying they have to re-wash.
Day 7, Sunday 18 February 2007
Kuala Lumpur /Butterworth
Overnight Sleeper Train to Butterworth
Express train from Kluang to Kuala Lumpur, Batu Road, dinner at Carcosa.
Overnight train to Butterworth
The rice and noodles served for dinner had been left overnight in the dining room and became part of breakfast so we opted for a freshly cooked omelette. Several single men in the dining room were slipping food into their shirt fronts. A couple of staff members brought them cartons of milk or juice. They were not paying guests.
We returned to the station and caught the train from Kluang to Kuala Lumpur. We travelled in air conditioned comfort on business class seats [well Malayan standard business class seats] with plenty of leg room and a place to buy snacks such as biscuits and chips. There were toilets available but we were amused to see the signs warning that patrons were not to try and squat by standing on the seat, they had to keep their feet on the floor.
It was a very bouncy, rough ride for five hours. Imagine the hell for the POWs in cattle wagons, no air con, no seats, no food, no water, no toilets for 5 days.
<<< POW Cattle wagon
We had a brief bus tour of Kuala Lumpur where there are many colonial buildings. We saw Purdu Gaol where one of the Parit Sulong massacre survivors, Ben Hackney, was interred for many months. Friend Reg Newton and author Russell Braddon found themselves here after the battles of Muar and Parit Sulong.
Purdu Gaol entrance >>>
<<< Colonial architecture in KL
We went to the palatial Carcosa Colonial Restaurant for a lovely evening meal but we were far too rushed, almost missed dessert and did miss coffee, as we had to return to the station to catch the overnight train to Butterworth. Such a pity as it was John Hamilton’s birthday and would have been great to be able to relax and enjoy the surroundings as well as the food. Pam scored the quote of the day as she encouraged us to finish the meal and hurry for the train. In her broad Lancashire accent she exhorted us to “Get the pancake down yer necks.” We managed to board the train in time and we took over the dining room for a while to give John a birthday cake and sing ‘that’ song!
The overnight train was quite an experience. The five married couples each had their own first class cabin, two bunk beds, small wash basin and could have our luggage with us. The bunks were quite short and cramped, especially for Bob who was wedged in and ended up with a polished dome. The corridor was so narrow that Caroline could not walk down it wearing her small backpack and the suitcases and bags were too wide to pull along; it was certainly one-way traffic down to the toilet in the next carriage.
The rest of our group were in ‘cattle class’, a whole carriage lined with three stacked bunks the full length for each side of the corridor, no privacy. Our group at least had three bunks between two so the top one could be used for luggage. There was one mixed-sex squat toilet available for the whole carriage [which was filthy between the occasional visits by the cleaners, then became totally unusable].
All night the train rattled and swayed to a rhythm of its own, it clunked and clattered and screeched and squawked and we were too busy lying down to sleep, covered by what felt like sheets of cling-wrap.
Leg cramps have now become commonplace and it’s not just the lack of space.
Several POW diaries recount how a bowl of rice and salt was a real treat, and it was something we could never understand. Now we do… the heat and sweating has meant it has been hard to keep the salt uptake to an adequate level to keep the leg cramps at bay. We will have to make more effort!
It was a relief to arrive in Butterworth around 6.00am, in the dark, and reboard a bus and cross the 14 km long bridge to the island of Penang.
Day 8, Monday 19 February 2007
Overnight Eastern and Oriental Hotel
Batu Muang Fort Museum
Heaven! We checked into the magnificent 5 star Eastern and Oriental Hotel on Penang’s waterfront. On 29 June 1941 Bill wrote home I stayed at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel and there found perfect bliss – no not like that. The pub is magnificent and the accommodation leaves nothing to be desired. My room was large and beautifully furnished. I had my own bathroom and a little drawing room attached. E & O to me sounds like perfect comfort. Penang – a beautiful little city, full of life and not affected by war or troops. Penang is an island one mile from the mainland. When our ferry was taking us across the little town was bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun and the harbour was packed with native fishing boats with flapping sails. Parts of Penang were so like Sydney that once or twice I felt a ‘frog’ in my throat and I am sure the others did too.
We too revelled in the ‘old-time’ opulence of the place. The doorman was in Colonial uniform, complete with pith helmet, the entry was onto a glorious marble floor, the foyer is famed for its echo dome. The bedroom had parquet wooden floor, rich brown teak furniture, with two ¾ size beds, a huge wardrobe with his and hers coat hangers and lights when the doors were opened, a TV unit, the dressing table had lights placed for perfect makeup. The ‘living’ room had a comfortable sofa, coffee table, large TV unit and writing desk and chair. The view was onto interesting architecture and palm trees with the sea beyond.
But the bathroom was something else to behold. Marble floors and walls; a shower in one corner with a shower head at least one foot in diameter; toilet in the opposite corner; two washbasins, one at each end, laid out with his and hers accessories and in the middle a wonderfully huge bath. Slipper and bathrobes were placed ready for madam or sirs convenience. We really appreciate the space and luxury especially after the cramped facilities last night.
An article by Neil Khor and Yvonne Teh in the July-Sept 2006 issue of Heritage Asia gave some history of the hotel. It was founded by three Armenian brothers, the Sarkies; they also founded Raffles in Singapore and Strand in Rangoon. It has the longest seafront of any hotel in the world, 256 metres. Three storeys high, it boasts Moorish minarets on the roof. The grand ballroom was added in 1903 and a new wing was added in the 1920s, and boasting “an English style long bath, running hot and cold water, two water basins and modern sanitary conveniences”. The teak furnishings were made by Messrs John, Little and Co and Messrs Pritchard and Co.
Stars who stayed here include Rita Hayworth, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maughan and Noel Coward. [According to Stu staff still frequently see Mr Kipling with head down busily writing at a desk, a couple in Colonial dress and a small girl who will talk to visiting children…. they refer to these ghosts as ‘uninvited guests’].
In the First World War the price of rubber fell and many former clients were penniless. Arshak Sarkie would waive the bills of friends and even provide them with passage home. The hotel became known as the Eat and Owe. But it survived, even through the horrors of the Second World War. After Malaysian independence in 1957 it declined and was closed in 1996 for extensive renovation over five long years. The meticulous refurbishment was completed in 2001 and the hotel now boasts a large swimming pool, lush gardens and manicured lawns. It has its own web site at www.e-o-hotel.com. Its history is told in The Story of the E&O Hotel, the Pearl of Penang by Ilsa Sharp. Their motto is “We draw from our past to forge our future.”
In the morning we visited the Batu Muang Fort Museum, a place rediscovered and developed over the last 10 years by the proprietor with no government financial assistance. It was a huge fort with guns and tunnels, concrete bunkers and barracks… a mighty effort to uncover it and reclaim it from the jungle. More sign of the thousands of pounds spent on fortification which was abandoned by the British retreat down Malaya to Singapore island.
The Japanese executed many POWs here, the bullet marks still being visible on the walls. The proprietor is very keen to teach history to the local children but war is not an issue many locals want to discuss.
The afternoon was free time, time to enjoy the opulence of our surrounds. Having suffered from years of drought and water tanks always needing another inch of rain, we enjoyed the decadence of a long soaking bath, it was great to be able to fill it so full that we could float!
We joined some of the others round the pool for drinks then retired into Farquhar’s Bar for an English style snack meal where steak and kidney pie, ploughman’s lunch and fish and chips featured on the menu at very reasonable prices.
<<< Caroline, Grahame, Stu, Sue, Margaret, John
Day 9, Tuesday 20 February 2007
Overnight Felix River Kwai Hotel
Penang airport, flight to Bangkok, afternoon tour of Bangkok, coach to banks of River Kwai
Another touch of luxury at the E&O… the daily newspaper was left in a bag on the door. The New Straits Times headlines for this morning screamed Bloody Sunday, explosive start to the New Year, bombing spree in Thailand kills 9, injures 44, coordinated attacks, 49 bombings, shootings and burnings rock the region along the Thai border with Malaysia. Just what we need as today we leave Malaysia and head for Thailand. What must the Allied soldiers and nurses have felt when they had bombs dropping on them, not exploding out of earshot, 500 km away.
We are to fly to Bangkok but it had not been possible for us all to take the same flight due to heavy bookings for Chinese New Year. We were in the first group to leave the hotel at 9.00am so we don’t enjoy a sleep-in at this sumptuous place. We are jealous of the others!
We flew with Air Asia; their luggage allowance is 15kg when all other international airlines are 20kg so we each had the inevitable excess baggage. No seat numbers are allocated; you sit wherever there is a vacancy. We had adjacent aisle seats so no view. No meal was served and we had to buy drinks. The overhead lockers were jam packed with very heavy bags. We were very uncomfortable on this heavily laden plane with an unknown company.
We were booked into a hotel ‘day-room’, one each for the men and women, so we had access to a bathroom and somewhere secure to leave our bags. We ate a sumptuous lunch in the restaurant then went to explore part of the city. It was a memorable afternoon.
We strolled round the corner from the hotel to see a temple, beautiful and ornate, gold wings around the roof, but under renovation so we could not go inside. A local man offered to help us, asked where we wanted to go and then suggested various city tours.
He recommended a ‘tuk-tuk’ transport, a 3 wheeled motorbike taxi. He whistled one waiting nearby and negotiated a sight-seeing tour for 70 baht. Our driver spoke a little English, calling us Papa and Mama.
He dropped us at the Marble Temple, Wat Benchamabopit, amid a traffic jam of visitors and said he would wait. An official looking guide ushered us to the window to buy an entry ticket for 20 baht. He then said in poor English he would guide us through. We accepted not realising he would expect further payment.
The Temple was a magnificent building, designed by Prince Naris the son of King Mongkut. The newest royal temple in Bangkok, it is made from white Carera marble. Inside sits a huge gold Budda. There is ornate hand painted wall- paper; windows, beams and ceilings are decorated with lacquer and gold work and expensive imported materials.
A square courtyard had 52 different bronze Buddas representing various periods of Buddhist art from Thailand, India, Japan, Tibet and China, each representing a different part of life, one for each week of the year. At the end of the tour the guide, who had earned his money by taking several photos of us, pleaded for generous payment for his family and our inexperienced bartering technique left him well overpaid.
Our tuk-tuk taxi was still waiting; we headed straight across three lanes of fast approaching traffic, very scary. We suddenly turned into a small narrow street. This was unexpected and we were not sure if we should be worried. We were relieved to end up in front of a gem shop where he insisted he’d wait whilst we looked round. We decided we didn’t have to buy, so we had a look and didn’t buy… lovely pieces, especially the ear rings, but all for pierced ears and Caroline only uses clips… that saved the bankcard from imploding!
The tour then continued around the Royal Palace to a temple with a very tall standing budda; we spent some time taking photographs outside and again found our driver was waiting for us. We think we know where we are on the map!
On our next trip we made a by now expected detour into a tailors shop and again the driver insisted we should go inside. It was extremely busy, with Indian tailors rushing to serve the many customers; throughout the shop people were looking at material, ordering clothes and being measured.
Caroline bought some silk pieces for her patchwork and Bob decided to buy a jacket to replace the old navy blazer now in its dotage. A quick measure using a partly made coat, a selection of material and buttons, pressure to add shirts and ties and Aman promised it would be delivered to our Bangkok hotel when we returned on 26th February. Caroline told Aman to ensure their tuk-tuk driver received his commission; an embarrassed smile was the response. When we returned to our taxi we told our driver we’d bought some items. He was ecstatic. Caroline advised him that Aman had been told to make sure he received his commission… the driver roared with laughter and showed us the free petrol vouchers the tailor gives him. He then reduced our fare to 50 bahts for the day.
Time was running out so we cut short the tour and asked to go back to the hotel. Rush hour traffic was now its chaotic self and in a tuk-tuk you are very close to the action. We prayed that the buses would stop and let us in; that all the cars recognised that red traffic lights are ignored by all motorbikes including the wider tuk-tuks; that all drivers anticipate that tuk-tuks will do a U turn at any intersection at any time even in front of three lanes of fast approaching traffic.
We were scared for the four and five people on each motor bike, often families with small children usually with no helmets. But we loved the way all the drivers allow traffic to merge and flow with no road rage. We arrived back at the hotel with heart in mouth but in awe of the driver’s skill and we gave him double his fee, 100 baht, about $4 for the three hours.
We returned to the hotel to find there was a delay with the arrival of the second group. They were held up at the airport as Pam had been denied entry to Thailand as her visa expires on 3rd March but her flight home to England was timed for the 4th. They would not allow her to bring forward her flight from Bangkok, she was sent back to Penang to do it. The group had had difficulty finding the bus driver and were also concerned for Pam’s safety.
We also hear that Margaret and John Hamilton would be leaving us, his mother was very ill and not expected to survive the night. We were sad to lose them, people we had known for just a week. We reflected on the feelings of POWs who would have lost many good mates to the brutal authority of the Japanese and to malnutrition and illness… we had just a minute glimpse of their pain.
Eventually a new Imaginative Tour guide arrived, a vivacious Brazilian girl, Deborah, and our local Thai guide, Rudi. We were reunited with our ‘stragglers’ of what we are calling ‘A’ force, the first group Stu has led to see the POW sites.
Around 9.00pm we embussed to Kanchanaburi, a Seven Eleven saw us grab some food for dinner and have a ‘benjo’ stop, the one for the men being open air!
We arrived at Kanchanaburi about midnight, so we were happy to fall into bed and be ready for a late start in the morning.
Day 10, Wednesday 21 February 2007
Overnight Felix River Kwai Hotel
Kanchanburi, walk on ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, site of Kanburi POW camp, Kanburi War Museum
Today we are coming much closer to the location of the POW camps that Bill and others have talked about in their diaries and memoirs. Kanchanaburi, better known as Kanburi, was the place ‘D’ Force was left for a few days. This allowed them to meet with Boon Pong and arrange for food for the Allies to be sent up river by barge. Thus more prisoners survived the railway than would have been the case on the Japanese issued rations.
We walked down to the river and were able to see the Bridge on the River Kwai. The river was the Maeklung, not the Kwai, the word kwai means buffalo, the word Kwae is the word for river. When tourists started to come and ask about the “Bridge on the River Kwai” following the release of the movie fifty years ago, in 1957, the government decided to cash in on the tourism and change the river’s name.
We then bussed to the bridge itself, to walk along the railway track over it and to enjoy the view. There were busy markets set up adjacent to the bridge and Caroline took the opportunity to purchase a pretty skirt and a wooden elephant.
The bridge is a concrete and steel structure over the River ‘Kwai’, there were 90 odd bridges spanning 14 km of wooden bridgework built by the POWs. The original steel spans were curved; the straight edged ones were replacements after the Allied Azon bombs did their work. This particular bridge was Bridge number 277, the Maeklung Bridge. Judging by the number of tourists, and thriving market, the Thai Government made a good move when they changed the name to cash in on the tourist income, no doubt a huge boost for the impoverished local economy.
We saw some of the original rolling stock, a Class C56 locomotive and a Japanese Truck Train known as a Flying Kampong.
We drove to the site of the Kanchanaburi POW camp, Bill and Reg were here in 1943. Now it is a waste area of land used for football, with no marker to remind people of its history.
Opposite the camp site is located the
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery; it is here that many thousand Allied POWs were reburied after their remains were recovered from rail camp cemeteries. It is another beautifully maintained garden dedicated to the dreadful loss of young life in wartime.
Stu found the memorial stone to the batman of his Captain Pilkington, named in the diary, and he gave an emotional tribute, obviously enmeshed in the story.
We left a poppy here on the cross in memory of all those who lie here forever.
We crossed the road to the Thai-Burma Railway Centre [TBRC] set up by Australian Rod Beattie. It is a magnificent display telling the whole story of this railway and the men who have written themselves into history. Rod spent over 5 years hacking through the overgrown jungle to rediscover the many POW camps and he has meticulously mapped and charted it all. He has found burial sites and relics and set up some stunning displays and videos.
Camps were found on flat ground near water. Camp survival depended on whether it:-
- was in a healthy condition
- had a good clean water supply
- had easy access to food supplies i.e. close to the river barges
- was close to the railway construction site so weak men did not have too far to go to work
- what work the men had to do
- had effective administration, both POW and Japanese.
<<< Medical improvisation, something with which Bill would have been so familiar
Food was totally inadequate, with less than 2000 calories a day being issued when it should have been at least twice that amount.
A metal kwali used for cooking over the wood fire, they often broke and the Japanese refused to replace them >>>
The main food issued was white rice which was vitamin deficient giving rise to many of the POWs diseases such as ‘Rice Balls’, ‘Happy Feet’, Beri-Beri, and some forms of blindness. If the Japs had issued brown rice or the rice polishings or more vegetables and meat many more lives would have been saved.
Deaths were also tied in with the Japanese ‘Speedo’ and the monsoon season as the table shows … it is easy to see when ‘Speedo’ was on
|Mch – May ‘43||4||148||418||430|
|June – Oct ‘43||88||1630||1303||4283|
One of the most stunning displays at the TBRC was the sleeper wall, with a sleeper for each nationality who worked on the railway, one metal peg for each 500 men who died. The Japanese co-opted thousands of Malay and Burmese labourers, close to 50% of each died.
The number of pegs was a visual sledge hammer that the local people suffered incalculable losses to the Japanese, and, as no records were kept, not one of them has a marked grave.
The numbers are also recorded in the following table taken from Rod Beattie’s book The Death Railway, a brief history. Caroline bought a copy of the book and also his comprehensive map of the railway.
After the war, death records were collected and collated by the Army Graves Services. There were 10,549 graves in 144 cemeteries near the railway line. The party spent a month in late 1945 searching for POW graves; they failed to find just 52 of them.
A couple of quotes from displays at this museum:-
Never have I dreamt that I would see the day when human life would be held so cheaply Major A. E. Saggers, June 1943.
No man gave his life in vain. Their bodies may lie in a far off field but their spirits live today perhaps in new bodies to inspire and help youthful ones amongst us now.
Leo Rawling from ‘And the dawn came like thunder’.
We then paid a brief visit to Chungkai cemetery. Smaller than Kanburi, no Australians are buried here; they were all taken to Kanchanaburi.
Bill was sent here with ‘Weary’ Dunlop on 17 January 1944 to take over the administration of the hospital, so he would have known many of those who lie here.
Bob placed another poppy on the cross here.
As we reboarded the bus Bob spotted the garbage man making his collection
At one stage of our bus trip we were stopped at traffic lights when a policeman in an adjacent booth came across and spoke to the driver who subsequently made his way over to the booth to make a payment of some sort. As far as we could make out there was no infringement, it was a bribe.
Everywhere we go in Thailand are pictures of the King and yellow flags, all celebrating that this year he has been on the throne for 60 years. He is loved and revered by all. There are thousands of flags along every inch of road and outside every public building and nearly all the homes. Deborah told us of an incident with a French tourist who dropped a coin and stood on it to prevent it rolling away. Immediately he was fiercely set upon by twenty young Thais because he had offended the King by standing on his image on the coin. Many people wear yellow shirts to show their support of the King. Rudi told us that different colours are usually worn on different days; Monday was yellow for the King, Tuesday was pink, Wednesday green, Thursday purple, Friday blue, Saturday was black and Sunday red, the other colours being for the Queen, the Princes and Princesses. This year there is a preponderance of yellow because of the ascension anniversary. The Thais are worried what will happen when this King finally dies…. his son is unpopular, spending most of his time overseas.
Tonight we had a Thai Banquet for dinner with Sue and Grahame, the sauces were a bit too hot and spicy but there was plenty of rice.
Day 11, Thursday 22 February 2007
Overnight Pung Waan Noi Hotel
Morning train on the track to Nam Tok, visit Sai Yok Noi waterfall and Tonchan POW camp site
At 2.00am Caroline woke up with vomiting and diarrhoea but she was the only one of the four of us to be ill so we’re not sure if it was a reaction to the spices or a bacteria; she’s been so careful to drink only bottled water which she’s also used for teeth cleaning, she’s not had any ice, had canned drinks and has only eaten hot, cooked food. She took Imodium to help and carried a plastic bag for the day! [proof that she’d listened to her two RAN sons who’d both sailed on STS Young Endeavour].
We took the bus to the Kanchanaburi railway station, the same place Bill would have arrived in 1943. We boarded an old, very crowded train, wooden seats if you were lucky, full of locals and tourists. We rattled across the bridge we’d walked on yesterday.
Caroline with plastic bag remained close to the toilets. She kept trying to drink water to avoid dehydration, but she had no interest in food and was really stressed by today’s heat.
We stopped at several stations and more passengers seemed to scramble on board than disembark, yet an official marched along each stop with a counter to keep a check on numbers.
A couple of hawkers with cold drinks and food peddled their wares then walked back through the train collecting the empty cans.
The old rattler had a rhythm all of its own ‘da di di daa, da di di daa’ and was jam packed full with locals, for it is their means of transport, it is not just a tourist attraction. Whatever their origin, there were many sweaty bodies crammed into a small space.
The POWs would not have had the luxury of seats, nor the use of a toilet if needed, but they were also jammed into a small space and there would have been hot, sweaty bodies trying not to be sick over their mates. Caroline, looking very pale and wan, remarked to Stu that she’d “wanted authenticity, but not this authentic”
It was a 90 minute ride to Nam Tok. We visited a large cave where sick POWs rested or died. It now houses a Budda. From here we could walk along the track to the Wampo viaduct. Bill had painted a picture of this wooden trestle bridge which was presented to Don Wall of the 2/20th by the Battalion Association in appreciation of his writing the Battalion history, Singapore and Beyond.
Bob laid a poppy in memory of the many prisoners who died during the construction of the Wampo viaduct.
Caroline managed to find some small gifts in the market here, a couple of fan hats and some silk scarves in a variety of colours.
The bus took us from Nam Tok to the Pung Waan Noi Hotel. The complex covers many acres and the accommodation block was built of the actual site of Tarsau hospital, very close to the banks of the fast flowing river.
‘D’ Force arrived here at Tarsau on 30 March 1943. Bill and Reg would have spent many hours here, meeting Boon Pong with the barges and making plans to obtain more food and medicines. Tarsau was a major camp, a Japanese base HQ and also a large POW camp with a hospital where many prisoners were treated. Prisoners marching through came to Tarsau on their way north and many sick prisoners were transferred back down to Tarsau where Bill made sure they were cared for.
In the late afternoon we returned by bus, or walked the 6 km back to Nam Tok and visited the visited Sai Yok Noi waterfall and Tonchan POW camp located upstream, another site where Bill and Reg were posted.
Like the bigger Tarsau site this one also had running water and a beautiful flat area suitable for a camp. We enjoyed a glorious sunset across the imposing, irregular peaks of the Burma Ranges in the west. We left a poppy here in the stream at Tonchan as we reflected on the prisoners who would have been here; those who died are now reburied in Kanchanaburi. ‘U’ Battalion moved to South Tonchan on 1st June 1943 where ‘The Tiger’, Hiromatsu, was in charge, the infamous camp commander with whom ‘Roaring’ Reg Newton frequently locked horns.
Sai Yok Noi waterfall >>
<<< Stream at Tonchan where we left a poppy
Sunset over Burma Ranges, seen from above the waterfall >>>
<<< The Pung Waan Noi hotel is guarded by an impressive looking gateway, complete with uniformed guard.
At the Pung Waan Noi hotel there are a number of scattered buildings, the reception and dining area are 200 meters from the rooms and there is a conference centre separate again. Our bedrooms are on the ground floor just a couple of metres from the river and would have been subject to flooding in the wet season.
In 1985 the Vachiralongkorn Dam was constructed up stream [the resulting lake covers the railway and the joining point of the Burmese and Thai ends of the line is now underwater.] Water is let out once a week for the irrigation farmers, so perhaps they can control the river flow without flooding.
The river is fast flowing; a rowing eight would make very little progress against the current.
In the ‘corridor’ are many frogs and geckoes, some small, others large but all patrolling the posts near the attracting lights, probably competing with each other, but all feasting on a tasty insect dinner.
The frog has laid claim to the top of the post, the geckoes cling to the walls.
It is very dry and rather quiet for a tropical night, the only sound is the glup and glug of the river as it swirls past.
Day 12, Friday 23 February 2007
Overnight Pung Waan Noi Hotel
Visit Tampii, Malai Hamlet and Kanyu2 railway camp sites i.e. Hellfire Pass and the Memorial Museum. Hammer and Tap cutting
Today we left the resort and followed the railway north up the main road Highway 323, the route the troops followed in 1942 when they had to march north as prisoners. We turned left into the “Wat put we ma bee wan nar ram” School located close to a Buddhist temple.
Stu and Paul had become lost here when following in the path of Captain Pilkington; they misinterpreted the handwritten map of the railway that they were using and stumbled in the grounds of this school. They were thrilled to re-find the railway and Stu brought us to discover this section so far from the tourist sites.
The school children came out with their teacher, all very excited and many photographs were taken. We had a quick collection of cash for the school to buy some resources.
We walked down to the old railway line and gained our first real feel for the enormity of the task faced by the POWs. We walked for several hundred metres along embankments and through cuttings, large scale building done with inadequate tools by malnourished men for a total of 415 km of railway line in just 20 months.
The embankments were large, lots of rock has been moved here.
We left a poppy here, in this un-named section of the railway. Attached to a tree, it is a symbol of new life growing from the sacrifices of the lads who died. Yet another tear and moment of quiet reflection.
The bus left the school grounds by a different gate; we drove past the temple and monk residences. Signs in Thai and English proclaimed some of their teachings, the one below reads “Born men are we all and one. Brown, black by the sun. Culture Knowledge can be won alike. Only the hearts differ from Man to Man”
We paid a quick visit to Tampii where cholera claimed hundreds of victims before a vaccine finally arrived.
The camp site was located on the grassed area in front of this building [we are not sure of its current use].
Our next port of call was Malay Hamlet and Kannyu 3, better known as Hellfire Pass.
The displays in the museum here are not as extensive or detailed as the Kanchanaburi one, however this in the museum most visited.
Many tourists make a quick trip north from Bangkok to visit Hellfire Pass but don’t stop off in Kanchanaburi.
Dutch, German and Asian visitors were plentiful. We spent an hour inside the museum.
The displays included the following quote:-
I would say that [the railway] was the most searching test of fundamental character and guts that I have even known. That so many men … came through this test with their heads high and their records unblemished was something of which we … may not be unreasonably proud Major Bruce Hunt AAMC.
After lunch we walked down into Hellfire Pass. It has become an icon of the epic task of building the railway. A huge amount of rock was removed mostly by hand with some explosives. It was incredible to contemplate how bare hands with minimal tools could achieve this in three months. Hammer and tap and carry the rock away in a small basket.
On the northern end of the cutting are memorial plaques set in the stone. There is one for Weary Dunlop and his ashes were scattered here. Stu told us that the night before the official ceremony the museum curator was in the cutting making sure all was prepared for the morning service. He looked up and saw half a dozen figures of prisoners in their shorts just peering down and checking on what he was doing. Weary Dunlop’s plaque reads When you go home, tell them of us and say we gave our tomorrow for your today.
We had our own heart wrenching Service of Remembrance next to the rock where Caroline placed a poppy. Waiting till we had the Pass to ourselves, Peter Bertram gave an emotional reading of ‘The Ode’. We played Last Post and then turned east for Reveille and held one minute of silence to remember and give thanks to all who lost their lives in this hell hole.
Some of us walked north along the line through the Hammer and Tap cutting and along seven kilometres of embankment contemplating the enormity of the task of fitting the railway on the mountainside and filling the many gullies with trestle bridges, the footings of many were still visible.
Much of the ballast is quite new but there are many old concrete pads visible. Most of the railway sleepers and lines have been removed although the odd sleeper is still in place, some blackened by bushfires. There was a small cart on display, as used by the prisoners for taking rock to the embankments. The Japanese guards often would amuse themselves by standing on the brakes as the prisoners struggled to man-handle it along.
As we walked back up to the museum, we contemplated the awesome task done by the POWs, a mighty, mighty job.
There are around 188 steps up to the museum so it gives some idea of the steepness of the slope and the depth of the cutting that is Hellfire Pass.
We bussed back to the Pung Waan Noi resort, on the way we practised the song Caroline wrote to welcome back Pam. She has sorted out her visa and been allowed into Thailand.
We assembled on the reception steps and waited for her to arrive… she was most embarrassed but thrilled with the song.
Where have you been dear Pam? Where have you spent your days?
We’ve been worried ‘bout you, in a proper haze.
We are glad to see you, now you’re out of cell
Where ‘ere you’ve been, we all can say we’re glad to see you well
To the tune of ‘Where did you get that hat?’
Later Bob explored the hotel grounds. There are well manicured gardens with plenty of staff who clean paths with besom style brooms. There is a deer park and an adventure trail, but generally the grounds and paving looks a bit tatty. There are honeymoon suites, staff accommodation, laundry, groundsman sheds and a small shop selling tourist trinkets.
There is some very old machinery still in use, a tabletop truck with no top with a 20 litre plastic drum as a fuel tank on the passenger seat. The irrigation pipes for the gardens are made from bamboo pipes in some areas, blue plastic hose for irrigation in others. There is a large plant nursery and plenty of vegetables grown. The deer park has Chital deer, Barking deer and Thompson’s Gazelle on irrigated green pasture.
Day 13, Saturday 24 February 2007
Overnight Pung Waan Noi Hotel
Sai Yok Yai National Park, Japanese Camp Kitchens, railway embankments, Longtail boat trip
Today was a day Caroline was dreading, the boat ride up the river to the National Park… for someone who hates the Lane Cove River Paddle boat, this would be quite a test!
We bussed to a floating riverside platform and our group boarded the long-tailed boats. Caroline was first to the pontoon and first into the boat, the only way she would have ever have plucked up the courage to climb in!
The boats each take about 10 people, they supplied very dubious looking life jackets, they have a very high nose and are powered by a four cylinder car engine at the back manoeuvred like an outboard, but much heavier, very fast and efficient. The river was flowing fast and it took us 90 minutes to go 30-40 km upstream.
There were soaring limestone cliffs, bare and stark, opening out to irrigated farmland, with the towering irregular peaks of the Burma ranges in the distance. We knew the railway follows the river but it is high enough that we couldn’t see it.
Unlike when the prisoners were here, there are numerous signs of habitation along the river. We pass small boats tied to trees; buffaloes cooling off, raft houses for tourist accommodation, small bamboo huts and the occasional substantial house, one boasting a neglected ski boat on a trailer in its yard.
We even saw deep blue kingfishers darting among the branches.
At the Sai Yok Noi waterfall we disembarked at a floating café. We were amused to see long tailed boats towing raft houses along behind them; it gives a whole new meaning to “house moving”. They could ‘park’ under the waterfall so everyone could enjoy a shower.
We were then faced with a walk across the river on the wooden suspension bridge. High above the water, it swings and sways as people walk over.
Caroline waited for everyone else to reach the far side and she set off with great trepidation… reaching half way she froze and clung to the wooden hand rail so tightly that as she inched forward that she collected a very long splinter in her hand. Muttering ‘I think I can, I think I can’ she slowly edged over to the safety of land and was whisked by Pam to the First Aid post to have the splinter dug out. Surgery without anaesthetic made another claim for the tour’s authenticity, but the surgery failed and part of the splinter returned to Australia in her right hand where it remained embedded for three weeks before finally emerging.
At the Sai Nok Waterfall National Park we see teak trees standing tall on what was the flat camp site.
We moved to the site of the Japanese kitchens, the only remains from this camp site.
We walked a few hundred metres to see more remnants of a large railway embankment and footings of a trestle bridge about 15 metres high across a deep creek bed.
We had a group lunch back at the floating restaurant. It was very expensive, 80 Baht or $3, and 20 Baht for a can of coke. We then took a very quick trip back downstream to the ubiquitous Seven Eleven Store to buy some beer… because it was between 4 and 5 we were not allowed to buy it there, but could make the purchase in the shop next door… not sure why the daily prohibition.
We enjoyed the colourful buses and local vehicle humour parked outside the shops
In the evening we were just about to walk across to the dining room when a monsoonal storm hit. From nothing to torrential sheets of water blowing in horizontally from gale force winds in one second flat. Lightening bolts made up for the loss of lights when the power failed for about 10 minutes. A bus appeared with driver and assistant dropping down the plastic sides and drying the seats. The rain stopped by the time we had clambered on board.
We thought of the POWs who may have enjoyed the occasional monsoonal shower to clean off the sweat and dust of their day’s labours, but they would not have enjoyed the blinding force of the rain in their faces nor the aftermath of wet clothes, cold dripping beds and the mud through which they had to struggle,
We had an enjoyable evening meal together, the staff members were happy to keep everyone’s bill separate. Walking back last night was dry and quiet. After tonight’s rain there is a cacophony of frogs’ chorus. The deep throated solo bull frog can be heard above, or should that be below, the general chorus who joined in the counter melody of ‘geck-ho’ sung by the large reptiles in the local corridors. We hope the smoke in the atmosphere may be not so obvious tomorrow.
Day 14,Sunday 25 February 2007
Overnight River Kwai Jungle Rafthouse
Mon tribe village, elephant ride, massage, Mon tribal folk show
Today we had a sleep in and leisurely breakfast then we explored the site which had been the camp where Bill and Reg spent so much time. We contemplated that they were doing their best to provide for hundreds of men in 1943-44; they lost many to overwork, malnutrition and disease. How lucky we are and hope these things will never be allowed to happen again.
We made our way to the southern side of the camp where the WWII cemeteries were located. It is now surrounded by trees and the adventure trail. We laid another poppy here on a young tree. Bill would have known many who died here. They were all re-located to Kanchanaburi war cemetery.
Later in the morning our group returned to the long tail boats for a trip back up river. We passed more water buffalo en route to the Raft House Hotel, a series of bamboo houses floating on metal pontoons and anchored with many ropes to the river bank and each other.
The rooms have a large bed and a single bed both with mosquito nets. There is no power, light comes from kerosene lamps. There is a ‘bathroom’ complete with toilet, wash basin and shower rose on the wall in the room; no enclosure, the shower floor is the floor of the room and water runs straight into the river below. We also think that’s where the toilet flush ends up. Hmmm! Outside there is a hammock and wooden table and chairs and a floating pontoon to sit on.
Just above the raft house is the Hmong [pronounced Mon] village. The Hmong are from Laos, people who come on a strict work permit for a year of employment. They earn 100 Baht compared with the 25 Baht they’d receive back home and the employer pays only half of what he would to Thai workers.
For many years the Hmong have been in a constant state of fighting with the Laotian authorities and they prefer to live in Thailand. The Thai immigration checks keep them out, they don’t know the very long name for Bangkok that all Thai children learn as a song at school.
The Hmong village is complete with school, temple, tourist shops and houses all open to wander through. People were using traditional skills to build a new bamboo house but ironic to see the same builder chattering on his mobile phone. The women paint their faces white as it is thought to be more attractive.
We felt we were intruding but the people seem not to notice that they are ‘on display’ and the young children were all asleep in their hammocks.
One complete raft house is a massage area and the Hmong women offer traditional Thai massages or Aromatherapy Oil massages. Caroline opted for the Thai one, not wanting an oil one when she knew the shower was untreated river water. She found the pressure points were the same as many acupuncture points and the exercises and stretching were very gentle.
Caroline took an elephant ride [with Hope]. Three elephants have been trained to carry people in a bamboo seat on their back whilst the driver sits behind their ears, or on their head, using his feet on their ears, or a large knife and stick, to guide the slowly ambling beasts. Ropes on the head help steer them to the mounting block. It is a peaceful way to travel but takes a loooong time to go places.
After the ride we did some shopping in the village and bought a stone elephant intricately carved with a smaller elephant carved inside the body. Someone has a real talent.
Dinner that evening was local fare and Caroline managed to eat some despite still recovering from her illness and the oppressive heat. No electricity so no air con tonight.
About 60 people are staying here mostly German, Swedish and Swiss and we all ate together. We then went to the theatre to see traditional Mon dancing, lovely costumes but the dancing was monotonous, the music being a series of melodious clunking with wooden or bamboo instruments.
It turned out to be a noisy night with a couple of our crew deciding to ‘bat on’ and use up the last of their Thai spirits. It was also a hot night with the mossie nets preventing even a gentle breeze through the room
Day 15, Monday 26 February 2007
Overnight Novotel Lotus Hotel
Farewell dinner at Silom Village Thai restaurant, display of traditional dance
We had a leisurely morning. The elephants came down for a bath then some breakfast, they are fed by guests on the left over fruit from last nights dinner. They are so placid and patient, true gentle giants.
Then several of our group went ‘swimming’ in the river … wearing a life jacket they launched themselves into the current close to the upstream houses and floated swiftly past the rafts, making sure they caught the ladder of the last one. [A couple of kids drowned last week, they were not wearing life jackets].
They’re mad, every drop of water is a cholera dose! They’re doing it even through they know where the toilet water goes!
We caught the long-tailed boat back to the bus which took us back to Bangkok. On the way Stu gave out some awards. Caroline received the ‘Two Malarias and a Cholera’ award for being the sickest. Others we can remember were for Sandra, the most elegant, always looking cool, calm and collected, one for Hope, for keeping going with determination, Martin received the surrender award, Peter one for his humour. We presented a signed copy of Stu’s book ‘Gone Troppo’ to Pam by way of thanks and wished her well when she heads to Peru next month.
On the way to Bangkok the traffic was quite heavy so the trip was slow. A couple of the men wanted to use the toilet at the back of the bus… even Caroline had declined to use it despite being in extremis as the driver had made it plain he wanted no one using it… so many excuses, no key, no water … eventually today he had to produce the key and unlock the door. Rudi explained that it was okay for women to use the Happy Room as they sit and make a flower, it was not okay for the men to use it as they stood and splashed!! The men were instructed to sit!
We passed some interesting vehicles; very heavily laden trucks, lots of sugar cane going to the factory; several groups of youngsters having a cheap but uncomfortable trip.
And when the school day was over we saw several overloaded scooters making their way home via the petrol station.
We stayed at the Novotel Hotel in Bangkok and were relieved that Bob’s new jacket was safely delivered from the Indian tailor. In the evening we bussed to the Silom Village to see traditional dancing. Traffic was horrendous and we spent ten minutes waiting at every red light all the way along. Sadly we had little time to browse through the village shops, but it was a real tourist set up.
The dinner was a traditional Thai meal but not too spicy as all the clients appeared to be Western; it was delicious. There was six dishes laid out in a semi circle in front of each person, starting at the left was soup, spring rolls, meat dish, chicken dish, vegetable and finally boiled rice. We were told you started at the left and worked round. It was beautifully prepared and served.
The various dances were explained by a commentator but it was hard to hear him as the microphone was of poor quality and, sadly, most of the audience kept chatting. The band consisted of drums and xylophones and was good if you enjoyed that sort of music. The costumes were lavish but the dancing was very stilted and disappointing; there were plenty of hand movements but little in the way of pace or rhythm.
As soon as the performance was over we made our way back to the hotel for our last night in Asia.
Day 16, Tuesday 27 February 2007
Overnight Flight to Australia
This morning we woke to a helicopter at eye level right outside our bedroom window on the 28th floor, some business executive on his way to work next door!
We went for a walk and saw Bangkok’s tangle of electricity cables draped everywhere!
We had little time to do any shopping, just a half hour wander, then back to the hotel to catch the minibus to the airport. Only one of the two arrived so it was a veritable circus of loading suitcases. Luckily several of the group are going on to other places so we are a smaller group heading back to Australia.
The controversial new Bangkok International Airport is very impressive and we enjoyed this last glimpse of Thai culture before boarding the flight for the uneventful overnight trip back home.
Day 17, Wednesday 28 February 2007
Arrive Sydney, Australia at 7.00 am.
Home sweet home to Australia, a truly lucky country.
The Armidale Express, ANZAC day 2007