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The Long Ride Home training ride along the Thai Burma Death Railway during the 75th anniversary year of the line’s completion - 1943-2018.
Route: Tong Pha Phum to Upper Songkurai (Kami Songkurai) via Lower Songkurai (Shimo Songkurai), my father’s POW camps close to the famed Three Pagoda Pass.
Weather: No rain today but intense rainforest humidity and little wind.
Day 3 objective: To finish my training ride at Upper Sonkurai then return to the Suphunburi and Hua Hin regions for further training until my big Thai Burma Death Railway ride from Singapore to Myanmar in September/October this year.
Plenty of rolling hills to cope with today but some wonderful scenery through this beautiful Thai national park and glimpses of the giant Khao Laem Dam.
With directions provided by Sir Rod Beattie at the Thai Death Railway Museum and Research Centre in Kanchanaburi I was able to establish the exact location of my father’s camp, which I’ve passed on many trips up here before but have never been able to properly locate given encroaching farmland and lost sections of the original railway line. This time I’ve also been able to find other old F Force camps, including one just below an escarpment that yielded up WW2 tunnels built by the Japanese and shown to me by locals during my 2005 walk along the line.
Research by Sir Rod found the tunnels to be part of a defensive system that included machine gun emplacements covering the pass and providing interlocking fire across the valley to my fathers POW camp, just in case exhausted prisoners found the will and energy to try an escape. On my 2005 walk I was able to photograph the inscriptions on the earlier visit and have included some in this blog.
Around the area of Shimo Songkurai was the infamous Cholera Hill known for the deadly disease that wiped out so many POWs and Rimusha on the line during 1943. Lack of proper food, over work, poor hygiene and deplorable camp conditions especially in the wet season brought on high levels of dysentery, malaria, typhoid – and the deadly blue death disease.
So, three days after setting out I stand on an overgrown stretch of line at Upper Songkurai and reflect on the pain and sorrow the POWs and their Asian forced labourer co-worker colleagues had to endure 75 years ago, my late father and an uncle among them. I can remember the deep tropical ulcer scar on Dad’s leg from those times, and his medical records show he suffered from heart-weakening beriberi disease from lack of vital vitamins in their boiled onion and rice diet. Dad also came down with PTSD on his return to Australia, and was stuck down by a heart attack during family holidays in Goondiwindi 1963. He was 56 years of age.
Uncle Jack lived into his 70's but deteriorated suffering from PTSD as well.
Extra information on the ordeal of these F Force soldiers can be viewed at https://driandemellow.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/the-battalion-story-of-the-2-26-infantry-battalion/ and http://www.2-26bn.org/fforce.html.
Truck Sams at the close of The Long Ride Home training ride along the Thai Burma Death Railway, Thailand.
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The Long Ride Home cycling along the Thai Burma Death Railway during the 75th anniversary year of the line’s completion - 1943-2018.
Route: Kanchanaburi War Cemetery to Tong Pha Phum, 135km.
Weather: Continuing light rain and humid conditions but a steady tailwind providing valuable assistance today.
Before relating highlights of the ride I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge another team about to tackle the railway for the same cause as ours. Antony Zahra, an-above-the-knee amputee, plans to walk on his crutches along the line from Three Pagoda Pass to Nong Pladuk over 25 days. Supporting him is ex-SASR vet Kev Otway and his Perth-based Warrior Racing Team. Antony aims to reach Kanchanaburi for the annual Anzac Day service there on April 25, a goal well within his capability given his record-breaking walk along the formidable Kokoda Track on crutches almost two years ago – see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-12/homecoming-defence-veteran-one-leg-kokoda-track/7622728
My day 2 objective is the small town of Tong Pha Phum in the district of the same name. Tong Pha Phum is notable as a junction point at the halfway point on the Death Railway line from Nong Pladuk in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar), a distance of 415km.
Riding out of Kanchanaburi I reflect on my visit to the town’s Death Railway Museum and Research Centre with its Australian founder/curator, Sir Rod Beattie OAM, MBE, an ex-Army Reservist whose work running the Commonwealth War Cemeteries in Thailand for 18 years and commitment to keeping the memory of the railway alive are themselves legendary. With a father and uncle who toiled as POWs on the railway as part of the infamous F Force and having twice walked the line myself I thought I had a reasonable knowledge of the line’s history. But a couple of hours with Sir Rod yesterday added a whole new dimension – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nL4yR_U-yuQ and my museum and war graves interviews with Sir Rod.
Approaching one of the F Force camps on the River Kwai at Takanun brings back a flood of memories from my second walk in 2005 – the chat I had with a 95-year-old Thai woman who described how she defied execution to repeatedly smuggle food into the Australian POWs in their makeshift camp near Tong Pha Phum, and the Australian POW who related how he was almost bludgeoned to death by a Japanese guard who had taken a dislike to him and began hitting him with a barbed wire-capped pick handle. The POW believed a passing Japanese officer stopped the beating only because he somehow managed to throw him a bloodied salute as the blows rained down on him. Such was the brutality of the Japanese and Korean camp guards.
Residential and other developments have invaded much of the line but for those wanting to experience graphic stretches of original sections I would recommend the suitably named Hellfire Pass or the longer run from Nam Tok station (Sai Yok Noi) to Kanchanaburi, a distance of about 130km. A notable feature on that run includes the Wampo Viaduct, an impressive prisoner-built contruction that runs around the side of the mountain and is well worth a visit.
More than 85,000 forced Asian labourers and some 12,000 Allied POWs died in the construction of the line, giving rise to the popular local saying “a life for every sleeper”.
Additional information about F Force and the railway at https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/history/conflicts/thaiburma-railway-and-hellfire-pass/locations/camps-f-force.
Truck Sams On The Long Ride Home along the Thai Burma Death Railway.
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The Long Ride Home cycling along the Thai Burma Death Railway During The 75th anniversary year of the completion of the line - 1943-2018.
Nong Pladuk to Kanchanaburi.
Departed Nong Pladuk Station via Ban Pong to follow the line early hours today (day 1). Light rain and humid conditions along the way.
My day 1 objective is the war cemetery at Kanchanaburi on the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai – one of 688 bridges built along the length of the line. The Bridge over the River Kwai may have been made famous in the movie of that name but it was just one of 688 bridges and crossovers built by our Allied POWs and the thousands of forced labourers, the so-called Rimusha, pressed into service by the Japanese on the line.
Plenty of visual reminders today of F Force’s forced march to the area of the Three Pagoda Pass so many years ago now.
After arriving in Kanchanaburi I’m looking forward to an interview with a local icon, Sir Rod Beattie, a former Australian engineer who set up the amazing Death Railway Museum at Kanchanaburi after many years running the Commonwealth War Graves here. Sir Rod’s contribution to unlocking and preserving the history of the line has earned him a knighthood from the Dutch, a Member of The British Empire (MBE) and the Order of Australia (OAM ).
Interesting that on arrival in Kanchanaburi the local newspaper is running photos of unexploded WW2 bombs that were discovered four days ago on a construction site in Bangkok – another grim reminder of the Japanese Imperial Force’s presence in Thailand during the war and for two years after the completion of the railway.
Further information about F Force is available at https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/history/conflicts/thaiburma-railway-and-hellfire-pass/locations/camps-f-force.
Truck Sams on The Long Ride Home along The Thai Burma Death Railway in Thailand
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The Long Ride Home Moves to Thailand for the 75th Anniversary of the Completion of The Thailand Burma Death Railway - 1943 - 2018
Training rides through the beautiful hillside country around Hua Hin/Prachuabkirikhan ended at the weekend an I’m back in Suphunburi-Kanchanaburi region for about a month of solid build-up for my big Singapore-Myanmar pedal to mark the end of construction of the Thai Burma Death Railway 75 years ago this year.
The training rides will take me west from Dan Chang towards the infamous Bridge on The River Kwai along roads and tracks that will keep me as close as possible to the original line in preparation for my main 2500km ride in September/October, start and finish times to be advised.
They will take place during the Thai New Year (known as Songkran), which marks the start of the rainy season, summer and the rice growing period that is such an important part of Thai life, and extend on into April and the annual ceremonies conducted by the Australian and New Zealand governments to mark April 25 Anzac Day. Included will be the traditional ANZAC dawn service at the Hellfire Pass War Memorial Museum 80km from the town of Kanchanaburi followed by a memorial service at the Commonwealth War Graves in Kanchanaburi. Information about both services can be obtained on the Australian Embassy website at http://thailand.embassy.gov.au/bkok/events.html
Then comes the main ride itself, which will be timed to coordinate with the official end of the construction of the so-called death railway line in October.
This ride will in fact be my third expedition along the 315km stretch of the line, having completed walks back in 2002 and 2005 after losing my left leg in a parachuting accident in 1995. But this time the route will begin at Changi Prison on Singapore Island where the journey that was to take so many WW2 prisoners of war – including Brits, Indians, Dutch, Kiwis and Australians - began after the tiny island fell to the Japanese in 1942 and will continue up the Malaysian east coast into Thailand and on to Thanzbuyazayat, just across the border in Myanmar, an all up distance of 2500km.
I have a personal connection to Changi Prison because my father Private William Sams and an uncle, Private John Butt, were incarcerated there after their units were overrun by the Japanese and they joined Allied prisoners in the hastily-extended prison grounds. Those chosen to work on the line were sent by train and joined by an estimated 180,000 so-called Rimusha, forced labourers from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and anywhere else they could be relocated from - some shipped to Burma to start on the northern end of the line.
What followed has filled history books and become one of the most brutal chapters of WW2.
At the completion of the railway, some POWs returned to Changi in Singapore, some remained on as railway maintenance crew and some were sent onto other work camps and factories in Japan. Many POWs endured being torpedoed by allied forces whilst being shipped to Japan and others died back in Changi Prison Singapore and are now buried in the nearby Kranji War Graves cemetery.
I’ve since discovered the exact location of my father’s POW camp just this side of the Thai Burma border, but am yet to find my uncle’s camp on the other side of the border inside Burma. I hope to do that before I set off on the big ride from Changi Prison in September.
My father served with the 2/26th Australian Infantry Battalion and was part of F Force, railed in steel box cars from Singapore to Ban Pong near the start of the southern end of the line at Non Pladuk.
Made up of Australians and British POWS, F Force was forced-marched some 300km up country from Ban Pong to northern Thailand (note this was not the infamous Sandakan Death March), before being spread across at least six camps progressing toward the Burma border.
It is hoped I’m joined part of the way by British, Dutch and Rimusha riders who had relatives working on the Death Railway.
You can read more about the Burma Railway at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma_Railway
Truck Sams On The Long Ride Home, During The Year of The 75th Anniversary of the end of The Thai Burma Death Railway construction phase.
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Early hours riding for me now leaving at 3.00 am before the hectic traffic around Hua Hin and to avoid local Thais streaming to the markets on their motor bikes. Heading North to the beachside town of Cha Am and back giving me more kilometers than I need at this stage of my training.
Seaside humid temperatures in the early hours are bringing in the ocean mist and on passing Fort Naresuan home of the Police Aerial Reenforcement Unit (PARU) Thai Border Police, I couldn’t help notice a famous icon worthy of a photograph - A Caribou aircraft that I had parachuted from many times when training here in Hua Hin with the Thai Border Police back in 1982.
The old Caribou aircraft stands in an unkept part of the base close to the main road that I’ve ridden on many times. It reminds me of a monument of the days when it was the main jump aircraft for PARU and a work horse inserting border police patrols units along the borders of Thailand during its time in service.
I returned again with a team of para rescue jumpers from the Australian National Safety Council of Australia in 1987 for an emergency services Parachute demonstration at which time the team jumped into the Gulf of Thailand from the same Caribou before a long swim into shore to where now lays the main tourist centre of Hua Hin.
PARU is an active border police unit who have seen their share of action around the borders of Thailand. The old Caribou needs a new paint job and hopefully will stay there in years to come as a reminder of the Police operations and the ultimate sacrifice paid by some of them.
The Caribou cargo aircraft (also known as freight aircraft, freighter, airlifter or cargo jet) is a fixed-wing aircraft that is designed or converted for the carriage of cargo rather than passengers. Such aircraft usually do not incorporate passenger amenities and generally feature one or more large doors for loading cargo. Freighters may be operated by civil passenger or cargo airlines, by private individuals or by the armed forces of individual countries (for the last see military transport aircraft).
Following the end of WWII, there was great concern of a Chinese invasion of South-East Asia. Pro-communist radio broadcasts directed at the Thai Government were being heard over the radio in Bangkok. The remains of the anti-communist Nationalist Chinese forces has already fled into Burma and Northern Laos. Because of this fear, a decision was made by the United States government to support the staunchly anti-communist Thai Field Marshal Phibun Songkram.
As part of this support, the newly opened CIA station in Bangkok worked with the Thai government to form contingency plans in case of a Chinese invasion. Part of these plans involved the creation of a local guerrilla force. A choice was made to use the Thai Police as the source for these guerrilla fighters since the Thai Police were viewed as more flexable than the Royal Thai Army. In addition, Thai Police were already distributed around the country and could provide a faster reaction to events than the Thai Military. Strong support for the plans was given by the Director-General of the Thai National Police Department at that time.
The Border Patrol Police (BPP) is a Thai paramilitary under the jurisdiction of the Royal Thai Police, responsible for border security and counter-insurgency.
The Thai Border Patrol Police was organized in the 1951 with assistance from the CIA. Although technically part of the Royal Thai Police (RTP), the BPP has always enjoyed a great deal of autonomy within the national headquarters as well as in its field operations. The royal family was a principal patron of the organization. This traditional relationship benefited both the palace and its paramilitary protectors. Many BPP commanders were former army officers.
Truck Sams on The Long Ride Home Hua Hin Thailand
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I’m now back in the area of Hua Hin to keep the bike wheels churning. There are a few different route options in the region - cycling West from here into the National Park along the ocean, North back towards Bangkok, or along the Southern beaches towards Prachuabkirikhan. Now , if you thing that place is a mouthful, did you know that Bangkok’s real name has the world record for the longest name in the world?
Bangkok - In Thai, it is often called Krung Thep Maka Nakhon, or just Krung Thep. However, the full name is “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.” Now that’s more than a mouthful, and I don’t think I could pronounce the name over the length of one of my long distance rides .
It’s Chinese New Year here over the next few days so there’s lots of visitors to the town, parades, lights and festivals to see. Firecrackers blow off on a regular basis with locals burning their incense and lookalike money for good luck.
Red is the colour of the Chinese and local Thais who most probably of Chinese heritage are wearing red clothing whilst going about their business or simply spending up on shopping sprees around the city of Hua Hin.
Traffic comes to a standstill as a parade of beautiful young Chinese girls march toward the market end of the city to the sound of beating drums and bells as the Chinese dragon comprised of dancers take up the rear entering shops and business establishments for good luck as they perform the Wu Long.
Dragon dance wǔ lóng is a form of traditional dance and performance in Chinese culture. Like the lion dance it is most often seen in festive celebrations. The dance is performed by a team of dancers who manipulate a long flexible figure of a dragon using poles positioned at regular intervals along the length of the dragon. The dance team simulates the imagined movements of this river spirit in a sinuous, undulating manner.
The dragon dance is often performed during Chinese New Year. Chinese dragons are a symbol of China, and they are believed to bring good luck to people, therefore, the longer the dragon in the dance, the more luck it will bring to the community. The dragons are believed to possess qualities that include great power, dignity, fertility, wisdom and auspiciousness. The appearance of a dragon is both fearsome and bold but it has a benevolent disposition, and it was an emblem to represent imperial authority. The movements in a performance traditionally symbolize historical roles of dragons demonstrating power and dignity.
We have now entered the Chinese year of the dog, In other words, experts on cultural matters say this year of the Dog may see people fighting for the causes they believe in. This influence could manifest itself as large-scale political movements or something as simple as local community work and small acts of kindness. We're inclined to believe we'll see more of the latter than the former, due to this year's representative element: earth.
"The earth element makes this a gentler dog than other elements." This element encourages us to take a cooler-headed approach to problems, rather than letting our emotions flare up and get the better of our reasoning. With that in mind, our activist spirit may be tempered slightly, but we'll have enough objectivity to see where our efforts would be best directed.
According to a widely held belief, those born in previous years of the Dog including 1994 and 1982 might be in for a rough (ruff) time this year.
Generally, the year of your birth is known to be a more difficult year than others, again some experts say, explaining that your birth year may present you with a string of bad luck or additional hardships, adding that the sign of the Dog is so good-natured that you might fare better than other signs during their respective years. "Dogs tend to play well with one another." But it never hurts to be cautious and especially generous during your native year.
They also say whatever sign you may be and if you don't know the year of the Dog it is a great time to reach out to those around you and become a friendly presence in their lives, if not a true friend. And, if you're already speaking out for your values, you just might get an energizing boost this year.
Truck Sams on The Long Ride Home Cause for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during Chinese New Year in Thailand
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Training in Thailand - Locals Eating Betal Nut
During all my years as a soldier traveling the Pacific Asia rim I’ve always been fascinated by people eating what is called Betel Nut or known as Maak in Thailand.
During my cycling in Thailand, I’ve occasionally dodged the gooey black or red remains along the roadside. I’ve nearly been hit by the flying matter as I’ve ridden up behind a motorbike carrying old women in a side cart chewing and casually spitting out the remains as they traveled along unbeknown that I was in their slipstream.
So what is Maak?
Betel nut chewing has always been an important part of Thai culture and tradition. In the past, Betel chewing was a popular daily activity among Thais all over the country. Betel comes from the plant known as Areca catechu, which grows wild all over Thailand.
In order to chew Maak the traditional Thai way, three main ingredients are needed: Betel leaf, Betel nut and red limestone paste. Before a Betel chew, the Betel nut is boiled, sliced and dried. A popular method is to cut the Betel nut into four smaller sections before solar drying, since Betel nut can be very strong. After the Betel nuts have dried, they are normally laced on a string (usually as long as 50 cm) and hung around the house to use as needed; this is a popular method because the dried Betel nut can be stored longer. Additionally, other ingredients can be added such as Plai (Zingiber Cassamunar) or Tobacco.
Before chewing on Betel, most Thais would mix all the ingredients together. Interestingly, many elders with no or weak teeth would mix and pound all the ingredients to use without it being wrapped by Betel leaf.
Maak also plays a major role in Thai traditions and ceremonies such as:
- Life prolonging ceremony: There is a belief amongst Thais that Maak can prolong life; this is done by taking a small Betel tree and casting spells on it before planting it at a temple or a public area.
-Kan Tung is a decorated tray that consists of maak and other offerings in a ceremony where students show respect and gratitude toward teachers from both past and present.
-Buddhist rituals: Maak is used as an offering for spirit houses, and used during ordination of Buddhist monks. Only leaves from male betel palm are used in buddhist offerings.
-"Kan Maak" (Wedding ceremony): According to Thai tradition, a couple becomes engaged during a ceremony called "Kan Maak" which is held during a wedding. Kan Maak is a decorated tray where Maak is the key item on it.
Truck Sams on The Long Ride Home NOT chewing Maak in Thailand