Museum Month: JEATH War Museum, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

bridge on river kwaiHistory has never been my favorite subject, but once I began traveling in earnest, I discovered something. If I visited a destination, I usually became obsessed with its history or indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover this in time to save the downward trajectory of my GPA when I was a student, but it’s made me sound infinitely more worldly in daily life.

I found the JEATH War Museum in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, purely by accident. Anything historical pertaining to war is a subject I normally avoid – I’m a girl like that – with the exception of the “Platoon” soundtrack. Thus, the most I knew about “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” which is located in Kanchanaburi, is how to whistle the tune. The town and bridge are actually located at the confluence of the Rivers Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai, at the headwaters of the Maeklong (Mekong).

I ended up there because I had a few days to kill prior to flying home, and it’s less than a two-hour bus ride west of Bangkok. Kanchanaburi sounded peaceful, and is a popular getaway for backpackers and Thai urbanites. The main activities are dining in the many “floating restaurants” on the river, taking cooking classes, hiking in beautiful Erawan National Park and sightseeing (more on that after the jump).

I ended up meeting two fun Australian girls at my riverfront guesthouse, and we proceeded to spend the next three days together. On our first afternoon, I asked them how they’d ended up in Kanchanaburi, and they told me they were there to visit the JEATH War Museum and pay tribute. I looked at them blankly.

“The what?” I asked. They looked at me with pity, thinking, like millions of Aussies before them, that the American educational system is an abysmal failure (no argument there).

“The Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, Holland War Museum,” one of the girls said patiently. “Y’know, it’s dedicated to the thousands of Allied POWs who died while constructing the Bridge and Death Railway from 1942 to 1943.”

Cue crickets chirping.JEATH war museumThe girls, to their credit, didn’t make fun of me, but instead explained that the JEATH Museum details a tragic episode in Australian (and, to a lesser degree, Kiwi) military history, and it’s something that schoolchildren learn about at a young age. Within the hour, we’d rented bikes and were pedaling through stultifying heat and humidity to the museum.

The JEATH Museum is located at Wat Chai Chumphon temple, and is housed in an exact bamboo replica of a POW sleeping hut. Inside is a horror house of relics, photos, letters, and descriptions of events and forms of torture carried out by the Imperial Japanese Army, as well as depictions of daily life for the POWs. We spent hours there, alternately sickened and fascinated by how 60,000 Allied prisoners and 180,000 Asian laborers were tortured and forced to labor under unspeakable conditions. Sixteen thousand men were worked to death or perished from starvation, dysentery, or other disease.

According to the museum’s website, the photographs on display were taken of “real situations by either Thai’s or POWs. There are also many real accounts written by former POWs, their relatives, friends, and authors that interviewed the many prisoners that suffered at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army.”

Like the Holocaust and other genocide museums and concentration camp memorial museums, the JEATH museum is testimony to man’s ability to perpetrate atrocities against his fellow man. I suppose it’s also a tribute to man’s ingenuity when it comes to inventing new and exciting ways to torture other humans, as well as a nod to the resilience of the human body and man’s will to live. Ultimately, I believe museums such as this are also about man’s capacity to forgive: we saw visitors of all nationalities at JEATH, including many veterans.
death railway
In the days that followed, I grew obsessed by the story of the POWs. I took a ride on the famed Death (also known as the Thai-Burma or Burma) Railway, and visited Hellfire Pass, a cutting through sheer rock that earned its name due to the fatalities its labor incurred. It’s said that by night, the flashlights of toiling POWs resembled a scene from hell.

I’ve since told dozens of people about the museum and the events that occurred in the region during the Second World War. While I’ve obviously met Americans who know about the Bridge and Railway, none have been aware of the POWs and loss of life that occurred. My assumption is that because only 356 Americans died – as compared to over 2,800 Australians – it’s not considered one for our history or schoolbooks. It’s a shame, because despite the tragedy, it’s a part of human history that should be remembered, both in tribute and as a warning.

The JEATH War Museum is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Click here for more information on visiting Kanchanaburi; you can purchase inexpensive bus or mini-van tickets at many guesthouses, backpackers and travel agencies in Bangkok. On a more pleasant note, Kanchanaburi is a lovely town, and the region is definitely worth a visit for its more bucolic charms.

Click here to watch an episode of Gadling’s “Travel Talk” on Kanchanaburi.

[Photo credits: bridge, Flickr user David McKelvey; sign, Wikipedia Commons; train, Flickr user nova031]