An iconic railway journey

2 hours west of Bangkok is the provincial town of Kanchanaburi. Here we visited the museum of the infamous Death Railway.

In 1885 a survey conducted by the British advised against the completion of a Siam-Burma Railway due to technical difficulties and a lack of labour. In the Second World War Japan however, had other ideas and very much needed a rail link to be able to move their army around Japanese controlled South East Asia by connecting all the existing rail networks. They had a brilliant young engineer and a labour force of 61,000 POWs and 250,000 conscripted Asians (romusha) or forced labourers. It was a project, the completion of which, defied all the odds.

Work began in September 1942 and was scheduled to finish in December 1943. The project required the building of 600 bridges in total and 9 of those were long span. We have the film to thank for immortalising just one of those structures- The Bridge over the River Kwai

And having seen the film, it was a special moment when we stood on the actual bridge itself. The two end spans are original but the middle section was bombed and so is a renovation. What was fascinating to us was the documentary in the museum where an elderly Japanese man was quite indignant about the film’s portrayal of the Japanese needing British engineering assistance to complete the bridge. He said that was not the case AT ALL. The Japanese knew exactly what they were doing. But… hey ho the victors write the history…

Apparently although the conditions were hot and humid the now infamous brutality from the Japanese did not begin immediately. In the first year there were 243 allied deaths as compared to over 4000 in each of the subsequent years. It was only when pressure to complete the project was exerted from the Japanese High Command that the pressure was passed down the ranks.

This extract below brought home the conditions of the men …

It was an interesting point that no army uses its best soldiers to guard POWs. It tended to be brawn not brain or in this case, conscripted Korean soldiers who were treated brutally themselves and who took their revenge on the prisoners.

The cemetery outside (one of three in the area) had nearly 7000 headstones and was where we had a few moments of quiet reflection. Some of the graves simply said ‘A soldier’…

We left the museum inspired by the beautiful stained glass art work reinforcing the message that we should learn from the atrocities and live together in peace

The Railway itself runs for 258 miles and we travelled to its termination point at Nam Tok, a journey which took 2 hours.

The views from the open windows were stunning and well worth being wind-swept for.

At the end of the war the Allies removed the last sections of the track so that the line would not stand as a testament to Japanese engineering and Hellfire Pass is now maintained by the Australian war graves commission as a monument to those who died during its construction. Again this was a somber and moving place to be. Original sleepers and tracks can be seen in our path as we walked along through the jungle.

And dotted along the track were original tools

The cutting was constructed without any power tools or machinery. Men worked in pairs one held the spike & the other hammered it into the rock. Quarter turn then hammered again until there was a hole big enough to put a stick of dynamite in. After the explosion others carried the debris up the embankment which got steeper & steeper the deeper the work went.

Men had to carry their tools to & from the site so tried to get the lightest hammer even though it was less effective. As pressure to complete was brought to bear men worked 15-18 hours a day on only one meal. They batted malnutrition and disease under the threat of severe beatings. By the end of the war 12,800 Allied soldiers had died working on the railway but what we don’t often hear about is that 90,000 of the Asian workers also perished under the same conditions.

Historians have calculated that 38 POWs died for each kilometre of track that was laid.

We will remember them.

A year in…

Thanks to big changes at UoC, a year ago Kevin and I bid farewell to our friends and family and boarded the BA flight to a new life

It was something of a leap of faith. A step into the unknown and one so very far away.

So, how have we coped? I thought our first anniversary would be a good opportunity to reflect:

Things we have missed:

1) Family – we do Skype and FaceTime regularly (although less so with Inigo who forgets and is hard to get hold of!!!) but it’s not the same as being there when they need us. And we were gutted to have to miss a family wedding.

On the plus side though Mother and the boys have already been out here to visit and the girls are booked for a trip this Nov. Kevin’s sister and brother have been this summer and we took the opportunity to explore northern Thailand with them.

It was a great trip!

Several friends have already scheduled holidays out here and i am ridiculously excited about showing them around our new world.

On the plus side we will be back to visit you all next year so we are looking forwards to that.

2) Cheese – yes it is available here but it is imported and expensive and comes in small portion from only a few outlets which are a bit of a journey away for us!!!! The same goes for butter and wine The near-by hotels do ameliorate our addictions by providing a monthly cheese night where you pay approx £34 each then have as much cheese & wine as you can manage in 2 hours. It’s a cheese binge night! however, it was a challenge we rose to! And a great social night out with colleagues but not something we do every month. On a routine basis we either go without or pay the exorbitant prices. Tough decisions. What would you do?

3) Mince pies and all things Christmas

Although the shopping malls here do wonderful large scale decorations on the whole it is difficult to get basic Christmas things. I wanted to buy Christmas books for the library but only a paltry few were available and most of those featured Mickey Mouse!!! Of the ones I did have it was difficult reading stories about sledging, snow and ice to children who have no frame of reference for winter conditions! I spent as much time explaining what being cold was like as reading the stories! They then left into the scorching heat…

The school put on a lavish staff party which was wonderful but it was the ONLY thing which felt Christmassy. I think I had 1 mince pie and not a single Quality Street. Simple things like buying some wrapping paper we had to go to special shops where the selection wasn’t great. I am planning ahead for this year and having things brought over.

4) Winter

And a related thing we have missed are seasons in general. Obviously we don’t miss the dark, damp perishing cold days but here being so near the equator the temperature is fairly constant all year round. Seasons here mean either hot and wet or hot and dry. Again, it brings home how much teaching and learning especially in the Early Years uses seasons. It’s quite hard when it’s the same all the time.

Temperatures here average in the low 30s all year round but in The Thai ‘summer’ March – May the humidity levels need to be factored in to create a Heat Index (I have an app for that). So today for instance, whilst the U.K. is experiencing a heat wave our temperature is 33 degrees but the humidity is 79% which makes the heat feel like 44 degrees and whilst nice for a holiday it gets a bit relentless all year round!!! I do get fed up of being slick with sweat every day. I have never much been a fan of large shopping malls but here they are a god-send. You can manage the dripping heat as long as you can escape into the cool for a while.

On the plus side washing dries really quickly.

5) The BBC

Ok, so we can get the BBC world service and tons of American or Thai channels but it’s not the same. I’m having to adapt to mainly getting news online, although I have to say I am not a fan of Fox News.

6) Knowing exactly where to go when you need something

It’s hard but we are slowly building up local knowledge for the location of life’s necessities. As an example we have struggled to find a dentist, a picture framer, a hearing aid repair shop or battery disposal points. All things which I took for granted back in the U.K.

7) A responsible attitude to recycling

Thailand is plastic crazy. Everything is double if not triple wrapped in plastic. I have been so used to being careful about waste but here there are trash mountains and it seems as though the country is slow to realise it’s global responsibilities. I take my canvas bag to the shops but initially got some very funny looks. However, I am pleased to say that Topps, our local supermarket, has just introduced reusable shopping bags at the counters. Maybe my little actions helped but I think largely is was the publicity of the dead whale on a Thai beach with its guts filled with plastic that did it. There is quite a way to go here.

8) Seat belts

Not having a car we use public transport or taxis. Taxis are comparatively cheap but the quality of the driving is variable. It’s hit & miss as to whether you get seat belts or not and then a bonus when they actually work. I tend not to look at the roads as driving here is crazy & erratic. I think that lines in the road are only a ‘suggestion’. To my surprise though we have seen very few accidents in Bangkok itself. Partly due to congestion which slows everything right down but also because they all drive like that and are used to people cutting in & out without signalling!!!!

Things we have NOT missed:

1) Snotty noses & all things flu related.

Yes, we have had the odd sneeze but nothing like the severity of the annual wracking cough and debilitating colds that we were used to. Yay!

2) Sleeves and Scarves

It is wonderful to spend a whole year without the restrictions of boots, trousers, jumpers and big coats. Even when the temperature here dips to below 30 and my Thai colleagues wrap themselves up we have been fine.

3) The stress

Working in cash-strapped HE was more stressful than I had realised. It is only when you move away to somewhere different that you unwind and you realise just how stressed you were. The school day is extremely busy and noisy but do you know what, it is great fun. The kids are the best and I get to read fun stories (product knowledge)

4) My kitchen

I wasn’t sure what to bring with me and so only selected a few things but with hindsight I wish i had brought more. I have had to buy duplicates here which seems such a waste! I guess that originally I thought we would eat out most of the time and indeed we did in the beginning as food is so cheap. But… as time went on we started to crave a roast dinner or a shepherds pie and so I have started to cook more. My bug-bear is that the stove here is electric and the oven pretty useless so some of my tried & tested menus have not worked that well.

5) Cost of living

Imported products (cheese, wine, chocolate etc) are extortionate but local items are remarkably cheap. You can get a meal out for 200 Baht or £4.50.

Taxi fares too are ridiculous compared to the U.K. for instance a 40 Min trip to the airport costs approx £10 including highway tolls!!! You can’t get IN a taxi in London for that never mind the journey. Taxis however have baffled me somewhat. There are lots of times when they won’t take you if they don’t fancy going in that direction!!!! Drivers will often claim that they don’t know where you want to go or they try to charge a higher price without the meter on (illegal here but they think we are tourists so don’t know). I have always assumed that a taxi will take you where you want because that is their business. One day we flagged down 4 before we found one that would take us home!!!

So instead we often use public transport. An average Sky Train journey into the city centre is approx £1.40. There are some destinations which aren’t on the BTS so you have to use the ferry. There are hop on hop off tourist boats where a Day ticket costs £4.15 but if you take the regular ferry it costs only 35p to travel however far you want!!! Mind you it is cram packed with locals and doesn’t look as if it’s seen any refurbishment in decades! Still 35p per journey!!!! It’s going to be a massive shock to our wallet when we get home

Things which we have enjoyed most here:

This is hard because there are so many.

1) Our apartment is great. I did wonder how I would feel about downsizing but actually without most of our stuff/clutter it has been quite liberating. We have great views over the city which are especially magical at night.

And once the car park beneath us has been constructed the noise and dust will stop.

I am particularly enjoying having a maid and not doing any ironing!!! That’s a real bonus. Miss Roma is Burmese and a real gem. Oh and a swimming pool is also nice.

2) The opportunity to travel

This has to be the biggest plus of our adventures. In one year we have visited 5 new countries and have had a multitude of amazing experiences. It is so cheap to travel once here and we are making the most of every single school holiday.

Our favourite highlights have been:

– fireflies in Borneo

– the prayer wheels & giant stupa in Kathmandu

– the sea swing in Gili

– washing elephants in Chang Mai

– sunset in Bagan

– afternoon tea in The Author’s Lounge

Our lives have been enriched by these amazing experiences and we realise how lucky we are to have been given these opportunities. We have been dazzled by amazing art and stupendous architecture

We often sit & look at each other over a cold local beer and say

‘ just how did we end up here?’

We find it hard to believe how fortunate we have been.

When asked Kevin added that early retirement is the best!!!!

3) The people

Although it is daunting starting a new job this one was made easier by the fact that so many of us were new & settling in at the same time. I have struggled remembering everyone’s names. There are 1700 kids and I have only learned a few!!!!

My new colleagues are on the whole very welcoming and I havej made some good friends. It is a strange situation when you know that some people will only be around for a couple of years then they move on. The turnover of staff is very high but that is normal in the International School field. It just takes a little getting used to. The new staff are setting off from the U.K. now so I am looking forwards to making even more friends. FB is fab for keeping in touch across the continents.

4) The food

Obviously Thai food is amazing and prolific and cheap but we have also been exposed to a great variety of cuisines from all around SE Asia. One of my favourites are steamed buns

These cost 50p each but a slight smaller version is also available from our local 7/11 for only 20p. They can be filled with pulled pork or a sort of custard for a sweet version.

But eating out is always a delicious adventure.

5) School holidays!!!

Unbelievably long. For the first time in my life I have had more than 3 consecutive weeks off. It’s amazing & so restful. Mind you teachers do deserve the rest (did I mention the noise levels in term-time?)

6) Salutes

I regularly get saluted as I go to and from school or on and off the boat. When I return I am so going to miss that. No one salutes me back in the U.K. at all.

Travel is a blessing and one which I would encourage for everyone. Seeing new sights, smells and sounds broadens horizons and helps to encourage tolerance of other people’s and cultures. But a 2 week visit can only give a superficial glimpse at the lives of others. Living in another country really let’s you get to know people and their cultural practices. Even after a year here I still feel that we have only scratched the surface and I have so much more to learn.

Here’s to the next amazing year..,