Warheads, Tigers and Wild Brogs. Oh. My.
Last night I awoke to the pounding of the tin roofs around my guesthouse. Startled and helpless,I thought the worst. Transient looters? Back-alley bandits preying on the seclusion of my rented room? Drunken tourists? Emerging in the morning, the noisy culprit was clear. Mangoes. They were all over the place at Sam’s River Rafthouse. Arriving in the evening I saw nothing of the grounds but the many scurrying frogs and lizards navigating the terrain. In the morning I see I am right on the river: the River Kwai.
My location: Kanchanaburi, home to the Bridge of the River Kwai or Death Railway Bridge. During World War II the Japanese pushed construction of the original bridge from a predicted 5 years to 16 months in hopes to transport weapons into Burma, resulting in the death of their forced laborers: 16,000 Allied P.O.W.s and 96,000 local Asians. The British destroyed the bridge 3 years later in air raids. The new bridge that was built in its place is the central draw of this town and the many WWII memorials and museums within it. My first historical stop here was to the Art Gallery & World War II Museum on the way to the bridge.
The museum was an odd place with a random collection of goodies: stamp collections and dead animals once used as forms of currency housed within an ornate 3-tiered building covered in Buddhist murals.
The small amount of WWII artifacts were housed in a bamboo hut facing the river. Rusted and aged pieces of the destroyed bridge, weapons and warheads peered poignantly out of glass cases. War, in my experiences, has always been through glass: display cases and television screens. Seeing these pieces of history, the laminated stories of the families of those who died during the construction of the bridge brings me to a somber and reflective place.
In the front of the museum, one of the actual trains that road to Burma along with the Japanese intentions of stocking their military camps there. The museum’s only other inhabitant, a young Japanese man, snapped my picture on it. During our brief interaction, I couldn’t help but think of the timing that brought us both there at the same moment, straggly and unlikely representatives of our respective countries, the enemies we once were and tacit acknowledgement of both.
With the bridge only a few minutes away, I thought I’d join the masses I saw taking a closer look. The usual vendors and motorbike taxi herds lined the perimeter of its entrance. With a train secure in River Kwai station, visitors were safe to walk the length of the tracks on the bridge and they did so en mass, with their stationed AC mini-buses waiting strategically after the many shops. The visitors were mostly Asian at this hour.
There was something about watching families and friends excitedly smiling brightly for their snapshots on the bridge’s tracks that was unsettling. I pictured backdrops slideshowing behind them: the Grand Canyon, Egyptian Pyramids, etc. Their same joyous expressions remaining.
On the way back to my guesthouse, I spotted another small memorial. It was erected by the Japanese army in 1944 to honor those who had died constructing the bridge. Volunteers from Japan gather at the memorial annually to pay homage to the victims and hope for a peaceful future.
Mid-day I found private transportation to Wat Luangta/Mahabua Foundation, or Tiger Temple, a wild animal rescue center housed on a Buddhist monastery. The grounds hosted a wide selection of animals roaming free: wild boars/brogs, peafowl (peacocks and peahens!), deer, roosters, water buffalo, cows are the ones I spotted. My favorite were the boars. Such strange animals.
But, like the name suggests, tigers are the temple’s claim to fame, the offspring of the 8 original tigers adopted by the temple in 1999. The tigers were all raised by the resident monks so they are mostly tame (although still chained just in case… like the waiver I had to sign… just in case) and used to be touched by humans. The first tiger to arrive at the monastery had a wonderful tale of survival. Her mother killed by poachers, she was sold to a rich Bangkokian who hired a taxidermist to kill and stuff her. The cub miraculously survive the lethal injection. The cub arrived at the temple in terrible health, barely able to eat. A compassionate monk raised her and subsequently established the rescue sanctuary within the forest monastery. The temple asks us doting tourists for 300 baht admission fee as they are in the process of constructing a new home for the tigers but lack funds. Included in this fee are the numerous photo ops with the sleepy tigers, only offered to afternoon visitors as this is their nap time and the most controlled opportunity for the interaction. The process was very automated and involved being dragged by the hand to each tiger while staff snapped pictures. The experience was over very quickly. Reality only setting in at the last tiger, the biggest, whose huge tail whapped my on the leg as he stirred in his sleep. Thump!