Descending through the lush tropical bamboo forest we hear the gravel crunch underfoot. We walk quietly through a twenty-meter-high rock cutting that’s carved out by hand. Bamboo lanterns throw eerie shadows, as people quietly make their way along the dark path. This is how Anzac Day at Hellfire Pass in the Kanchanaburi region of Thailand started for us, this 25 April 2018.
Reaching the ceremonial clearing we joined many hundreds of Aussies, Kiwis and people from all parts to await the Dawn Service. Some speak in hushed tones, others reflecting in silence. A young man proudly wears his grandfather’s medals and we all wait patiently. The uniformed Catafalque party approach, their crisp footsteps distinct, and take up traditional guard positions around the central memorial. Padre Cornelis Bosch leads us in thanks and prayer, followed by a Statement of Remembrance by the Chief of the Australian Army.
As dawn breaks, leaves gently rustle, and melodic bird songs compliment the soft, sombre tone of the ceremony. Ears are peeled as 96-year-old Australian ex-POW Neil MacPherson OAM speaks:
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
“Lest we forget”
The Royal Thai Army Buglers further captivate the gathering and pierce the soft morning playing the Last Post. We all stand silent, reflecting on our own thoughts. Proudly we watch the flags slowly raised; the bright, cheerful call of Reveille, helps lift our spirits to a new day. Beautiful wreaths are placed by Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand officials in memory of so many lost Prisoners of War.
History to be discovered
The province has strong WW II links as the occupying Imperial Japanese Army decided to construct a link to connect existing railways in Burma and Thailand. Work commenced in 1942 even though the terrain was mountainous, equipment lacking and with a 4-month monsoon season, conditions were extremely difficult.
Harrowing stories of what life was like for the POW’s under the Japanese is told effectively in the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre and other local museums. The two War Cemeteries provide clear evidence of the ultimate sacrifice suffered by many. Sadly, more than 13,000 POW’s and some 80,000 of the 200,000 forced Asian labourers died while working on the railway.
Reflecting back on our Anzac Day experience – we have mixed emotions. We feel sadness for the loss of life, impact on loved ones and the destruction of land and countries. But more so, we found it uplifting and heartened that so many brave people stand for their country, displaying such resilience, dedication and commitment. ANZAC day is an important part of national identity for Australia and New Zealand. This Anzac Day experience will stay with us for many years!
Dawn Service on Anzac Day, in this setting at Hellfire Pass, is something worth doing if you happen to be in the region around April 25 in coming years!
From our home base in Hua Hin, on Thailand’s Gulf Coast, it’s an easy 220km drive (NNW) to Kanchanaburi city. From Bangkok, it’s around 150km west – so easy to get to and worth the trip.
Anzac Day was the purpose of our trip though we decided to spend 5 days in the region to discover what else greater Kanchanaburi offered. Coming soon, another blog post tells about ancient skeletons, cascading waterfalls, quirky exercise routines for cats, riverside Chinese cemeteries, and click-clacking on the historic railway – all that and more were uncovered during our Kanchanaburi travels!