Saturday, 13 November 2010

My Flirtation with Burma

I've been nursing my poorly Alyson these last few days. She's been getting better but today she's been struggling with dizziness. As a result, she's currently sleeping on the sofa in the living room.

This means I've been watching BBC News 24 and have been able, completely through luck, to watch the joyous scenes of Aung An Suu Kyi's release this morning in Burma.

She has spent some 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest after her 1990 democratic election win was quashed by the military junta who have kept a secure grip over the country ever since. It feels like a 'Mandela' moment and it's wonderful to watch her long-suffering supporters showing so much enthusiasm for her long-awaited for release.

I've been a scholar of history since I can barely remember. Recent history tells us that Burma is one of the most reserved, closed nations in the world. It's up there with North Korea in being one of the most mysterious of nations in the world at this present time.

My Thailand Odyssey
In early 2008, I found myself a matter of miles from Burma on my trek to Thailand.

Thailand is a wonderful country and on my 2 week stay there I travelled through as much of it as possible. I visited Bangkok of course (not recommended), the wonderful Chiang Mai in the north, the spell-binging Koh Samui on the Gulf of Thailand in the south and then finally Phuket.

During the middle of my holiday, I made a one night stop-over with Kendal who I was with at the time, at Kanchanaburi. Or to give it its more prominent name-check - to the Bridge on the River Kwai.

It remains one of the most mind-blowing experiences of my life. When I made the not small decision of going to Thailand (having never left the 'western world' before in my life), I checked the 'Rough Guide' to see what there was to see. Kanchanaburi stood out to this historian as the one 'must see' location and I persuaded Kendal to stay there overnight instead of just seeing it on a day trip.

The Death Railway
Why? Because the 258 mile Thailand-Burma Railway, built by the Japanese during WWII saw some 106,000 POWs die as a direct result of their strenuous efforts to build this 'Death Railway'. Some 6,318 of the 16,000 Allied POWs to die in the building of this railway were British. It was built to protect Japanese advances in Burma by giving them a more stable route to supply their new territories from Allied attack. The construction of the railway began on June 22nd 1942. The two ends met some 11 miles south of the Three Pagodas Pass on the Thailand/Burma border on October 17th 1943.

'Bridge 277' was bombed 3 times by the RAF and US Army Air Forces before the war came to an end with Japanese surrender. After the war, the British Army removed some 3.9km of the track on the border with a report showing that the railway, in poor condition, would not support commercial traffic. After the war, an 80 mile section of the railway between Ban Pong and Nam Tok (either side of and going through Kanchanaburi) was reconstructed - finally completed in 1958. Beyond Nam Tok, the track was abandonned with the steel rails salvaged for other use.

So it is now impossible to reach Burma from Thailand, via the old railway. I should know, because I've travelled it.

My Flirtation with The Union of Myanmar (Burma)
We stayed in a semi-detached tin hut on the banks of the River Kwai. From our veranda, we could see the Bridge. It was an awe-inspiring experience.

We walked across the bridge (see photo above) and when the time came, took a trip on the train itself from Kanchanaburi, over the bridge itself and up to Nam Tok. It's a haunting journey as it was only initially made possible by the toil, sweat and ultimately, the blood of Allied and Asian POWs. Some of the stretches of track stretch the imagination such is the incredulity of the engineering feats that these prisoners achieved (see photo on right). As the crow flies, there could have been little more than some 20 miles between our railway ride from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok, to Burma to the south west.

I had wanted, on arriving at Nam Tok, to go further and to travel to the Three Pagodas Pass on the Thai/Burmese border where it's possible to obtain a one-day pass to Payathonsu on the Burmese side of the border. But it was too much extra time required out of what was an already packed 2-week schedule.

My Burmese Hopes
So I've never been to Burma - but I have been bloody close.

Until I went to Thailand, I had never had any interest in going to the Orient. It would be too hot. I wouldn't like the food. How silly was I? Of course, I absolutely adored it. The food was incredible and the heat was something you'd quickly get used too. The landscape was beautiful and the history of the region absolutely fascinating. I've always said since that one day (when I can afford it!) I'll re-visit this wonderful part of the world. Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam.

Also, hopefully in the future when Aung An Suu Kyi and her supporters take the democratic reigns of government in Myanmar, I will visit Burma too.
There's a long road ahead and this is merely the small righting of a bad, bad wrong. But, it's a small step forward for Burma and for the Far East.

For today at least, we rejoice. Tomorrow is another day and hopefully, it will be brighter still. For, without hope, what else is there?

No comments:

Post a Comment