It was a special birthday for me on Anzac Day and we had decided to make it more memorable (or distracting!) by attending dawn service at Hellfire Pass. I had arranged an itinerary through Good Times Travel which was to be a 3 day 2 night package including pickup from Bangkok. I am writing this in case others may plan this in the future and also to encourage others to experience what we did.
Pickup from Bangkok hotel at 6am in order to avoid traffic and we also had a busy day. Our guide had stayed the night before in Bangkok. The trip to Kanchanburi (pronounced Ganchanaburi) took a few hours and our first stop was the Chongj Kai war cemetery where the grounds are beautifully kept and the epitaphs are touching to read. There are also numerous plaques belonging to soldiers whose bodies could not be identified.
On to the main war museum which is near the Don Rak cemetery. Admission includes a cup of tea or coffee at the end of the visit. This museum has been well set up and includes a video. It explains well the history and experiences of the prisoners. You can also research a relative who has been a POW on the River Kwai.
We then went to the train station and caught the train. It was very busy but a great journey through the countryside. There were some parts that were part of the original railway but a lot had fallen into disrepair and were replaced or pulled up by locals soon after the war. Ask the guide to buy tickets for the side that has the best photo opportunities, especially when it winds and you can take photos of the train from your window. After 90 minutes (it was a slower trip that day), we arrived at our lunch stop at Tham Kra Sae. The view over the river was breathtaking and you had an excellent view of a few of the bridges built. There was also a cave which was used by the Japanese. It now has a Buddha to "cleanse" the cave.
Our driver picked us up and we went to the Tiger Temple. I will review this separately but suggest you read up on the controversy of whether be should attend or not. Our last stop was our hotel and to bed for an early night.
Alarms were set for 2 am as we were leaving at 2.30 am. It was a 45 minute journey to Hellfire Pass and the car park had already begun to fill. Attendees were taken in a vehicle closer to the entrance and there was extra lighting. We still took torches and insect repellant was needed. Entrance to the service was via steps and there was limited seating. We got one of the last seats. We were given a programme and a bamboo holder for a candle. Water was provided if needed. Lighting the candle almost simulated the lighting conditions that the prisoners worked under. At 5.30am, the ceremony began. Seven POWs attended and the youngest was 90. This made the occasion very special. Speeches were made by dignitaries including the Australian defence minister. The last post was moving and the ceremony finished with bagpipes being played from the top. I would estimate that 1000 people attended.
Once the ceremony had finished, there was a gunfire breakfast of tea or coffee with a shot of rum and an Anzac biscuit.
Congratulations to the organisers who can only estimate the number of visitors and who think of so many details. We spoke to the wife of the founder (recently deceased) who said it took three weeks of work and she had not slept for two nights. This was also under difficult circumstances as this was the first Anzac Service since his death.
We then visited the museum before heading back to the hotel breakfast and a short rest.
The wreath laying ceremony began at 10am and it was very hot. There were some tents but be prepared for the heat. Organisers provided water. One POW gave a recount of his life on the railway. He honoured the 80000 locals who died and those who risked their lives to help. He recognised that the Japs treated their own soldiers badly. A trainload of badly injured soldiers were evacuated from the front in a cramped cabin without food or water. He remembers to this day Allied prisoners sharing their daily water with these men.
We took our own small wreaths to lay. We left some at Hellfire Pass and the grave of a soldier we had a distant connection to. After the ceremony there was beer and a sausage sizzle put on for visitors.
It was disappointing to see a local guide, in a bright orange shirt, ignore the message to turn off electronic devices. She spent her time on a table between two tents answering emails on her iPad, answering calls on her phone and then recharging her phone with a portable charger. She stopped for one minute of the two minute's silence but then started again.
Then it was time for a nap at the hotel before dinner at Peppers restaurant. The next day was taken up with a visit to an elephant place which I will not discuss as part of this JBR. We also wanted to get to Bangkok mid afternoon to beat the traffic.
I would recommend a private tour as you have flexibility in your arrangements and not have to leave when you are told. It is also cost effective.
I had been twice before to Kanchanaburi. The first time I went the JEATH museum was located in some wooden huts. It has sure changed a lot since then. It is interesting to note that Kwai means river so that River Kwai means river river. Its true name is Kwai Noi.
It was good to read some novels before travelling on the holiday. We read 'One Fourteenth of an Elephant' which is a direct reference to the proportion of men the Japs believed had the equivalent elephant power of. Another great read was 'The Railwayman' by Eric Lomax which is currently being made into a film.
I hope this rather long JBR is useful for hose planning a trip to the dawn service.Edited: 29 April 2013, 09:23