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]

The Athens War Museum

Athens War Museum
This is a Heckler & Koch MP5 9mm submachine gun with gold plated parts. It was given by the Defense Minister of Kuwait to former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, probably as a thank you for his nation’s help in liberating Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. It’s one of a case of Papandreou’s personal weapons on display at the Athens War Museum.

Greece has a long and proud military history stretching all the way back to when hoplites met Persian invaders and chariots were the latest thing in military technology. This museum starts right at the beginning and goes up to the modern day. While the section on Classical Greece is large and well detailed, I’d seen this sort of thing in other museums. The other periods of history were much more interesting to me.

One hall is devoted to the armies of the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately all the weapons here are reproductions, but there are some detailed dioramas of fortresses and troop formations that show just how advanced the Byzantines were. They even had “Greek Fire”, an early form of napalm that played havoc with the sailing ships of the time.

The largest amount of space is devoted to Greece’s two wars of liberation-first against the Ottoman Empire starting in 1821 and again against Nazi Germany during World War Two. This is when the Greeks really showed their fighting spirit-outnumbered, outgunned, and under occupation, they nevertheless fought against the superpowers of their day and eventually won.

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The images from World War Two are especially sobering. The Nazis systematically plundered Greece and many people starved to death. The partisans kept fighting, though, using captured weapons or those smuggled in by the Allies. They even devised homemade ones, including a gun hidden in a cane. Elderly Greeks say the current economic meltdown will never make Greece suffer as much as the Nazis did, but they do worry about the younger generation that has never had to face serious hardship.

There’s also a section on the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, complete with uniforms, equipment, and walls full of detailed paintings and photographs. Greece managed to double its size in these conflicts and reduce the threat of the Ottoman Empire ever retaking the region. It was during this time that the Greek Air Force got started. Hanging outside the museum is a reproduction of the Daedalus, one of those early planes that looks more like an oversized kite. As flimsy as it is, it flew into history when it went on a reconnaissance mission on December 5, 1912, the first day of the Balkan Wars. The Ottomans sent up a plane the same day. These two missions are tied for second place in the history of military aviation. The year before, an Italian pilot dropped bombs over the Ottoman province of Tripolitania, modern Libya.

The basement is full of curiosities such as African weapons, and outside are several tanks and artillery pieces. The ground floor has a variety of weapons from all over Europe.

My only two criticisms are that the lighting on the glass cases made it difficult to take photos without them being obscured by reflections, and that sometimes the labels were too vague, with some cases being marked with signs such as “swords, 19th century.” Still, it’s a must-see for any fan of military history or anyone who wants to know just what the Greeks had to endure to earn their independence.

As I got my jacket from the coat check, I browsed through the books they had for sale at the counter. I pointed to a title on the Balkan Wars.

“How much is this?”

“Sorry,” the man behind the counter said, shaking his head. “They’re only for sale to veterans.”

“Why’s that?”

“We’re almost out and we don’t have any money to print more.”

I must have looked disappointed because he rummaged around in his desk and brought out a pamphlet about the museum.

“Here,” he said, handing it to me. “You can have this for free.”

“Oh, thanks.”

The soldier manning the ticket counter hurried over and handed me a DVD.

“This is a documentary about Greece’s struggle against the Nazis. You can have this too, and take this map,” he said, handing me a reproduction of a 17th century map of Greece that I’m going to hang on my son’s wall.

“Glad you liked the museum,” the soldier said.

The Greek economy may be in a shambles, but Greek hospitality and patriotism are doing just fine.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Sparta!