As I pen this post it is 25 April in Hawaii. Most readers will not attach any significance to this date as it relates to United States history. A google search notes that on this day in 1956 Elvis Presley had his first number one hit on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart with the song “Heartbreak Hotel”. Now it’s not a bad song, don’t get me wrong, but it pales in comparison with the significance this day holds in Australia and New Zealand.
April 25th is ANZAC Day, a national day of remembrance that broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations and the contribution and suffering of all those who have served. ANZAC day is the equivalent of what we in the US call Veterans Day.
So what does this have to do with a travel website? As I travel I focus on learning about other cultures and traditions and I try to make comparisons with the traditions and culture I am familiar with. Having served in the military it is easy for me to make a personal connection with other veterans regardless of which country they served. I have even shared beers with former North Vietnamese soldiers while in Vietnam. Today, I found myself going through some photos and reflecting on my recent travels.
About 16 months ago, I spent 28 days traveling around Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. While in Myanmar, I visited Thanbyuzayat where the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery is located and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWCG). Six member governments make up the Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The Commission cares for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 153 countries. The CWCG is very similar to the American Battle Monuments Commission that maintains all the overseas memorials and US military cemeteries.
The Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery is the resting place for 3,149 Commonwealth and 621 Dutch soldiers. The facility is well-tended but see’s few visitors. It is 65 kilometers south of Mawlamyine at the foothills which separate Myanmar from Thailand. Mawlamyine is 8 hours south-east of the capital of Yangon. It was a beautiful day and I slowly walked through the cemetery reading the names, countries, ages and military service notes inscribed on each headstone.
I am always struck at the young ages of the men who are laid to rest in military cemeteries. In Thanbyuzayat almost all the soldiers were in their early 20’s. I looked for the Americans that were rumored to be buried there but was unable to locate them. I stopped by the caretaker’s house and spent a good 30 minutes with him discussing the cemetery. He pulled out the cemetery records and showed me that the remains of the Americans had been repatriated a few years after the war’s conclusion. He was Burmese and spoke impeccable English and we had a very nice chat. He thanked me for visiting and I was on my way.
I have had an interest in the events that led to the creation of this cemetery since watching the 1957 movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai. All of the men laid to rest here and another 5,084 Commonwealth soldiers and 1,896 Dutch who are buried at the other end of the rail line in Kanchanaburi, Thailand were killed at the hands of the Japanese during WWII.
The notorious Burma-Siam railway, better known as the Death Railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese Imperial Army project built to transport troops and supplies from Bangkok to support the large Japanese Imperial Army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians were forced to serve as slave labor and perished. They were brought from Malaya (Malaysia), the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and also included conscripts from Burma and Thailand.
The Japanese had two slave/POW labor forces, one based in Thailand and the other in Burma, which worked from opposite ends of the line towards the center. The Japanese aimed at completing the railway in 14 months and work began in October 1942. The line, 424 kilometers long, was completed by December 1943.
The graves of those who died during the construction and maintenance of the Burma-Siam railway were transferred from camp burial grounds and isolated sites along the railway into three cemeteries at Chungkai and Kanchanaburi in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar.
Visitors to the Thai side of the railway can walk on the bridge over the River Kwai, visit numerous museums and the well-tended Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The entire railway on the Myanmar side has been completely dismantled and was sold for scrap at the end of the war. The cemetery and a locomotive set on a small reconstructed section of track and a trickle of visitors is all that remains today.
If You Go:
Go There: 12-14hrs from Yangon by train, 7-8hrs from Yangon by bus. Depart Mawlamyine via boat for Hpa An for 10 USD. Arrange transportation at GH. I booked a boat ferry ticket at Breeze Guest House.
Get Around: Car hire is available to visit the cemetery and the Win Sein Taw Ya-Reclining Buddha. Public transportation was around 4500 Kyatt or 5 USD roundtrip.
Stay: Numerous guest houses in Mawlamyine run from 15-30 USD. Breeze GH was 15 USD per night and was very basic, options in Mawlamyine were limited.
See: World’s largest reclining Buddha, 20KM south of Mawlamyine along the highway to Thanbyuzayat