The bus drops me off just outside the busy terminal. Braving the searing heat of the afternoon sun, I trudge across Kanchanaburi. It is a typical Thai town, its streets lined with delicious street-food, uniformed schoolchildren, and bustling shops hawking their wares. Slowly, I continue walking. Then it comes into view; a walled-off oasis, sequestered from the hustle and bustle of the modern day. I enter, and travel back into history.
Rows upon rows of marble plaques present themselves along the perfectly manicured grass patch. This is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, the final resting place for thousands of soldiers who had been worked to death on the Death Railway. The Perpetual Resting Place of the Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen who are honoured here, the plaque at the entrance says.
A barren tree towers above these graves; nature’s fitful attempt to shield them from the searing heat. Several hoses sprinkle water throughout the cemetery grounds. They are doing their best to make up for the great injustices of history, for the owners of the graves have already experienced so much, too much.
I walk along the rows of plaques, stopping momentarily to glance at the engraved names. Some were English, others Dutch, a few American. There are many adorned with crosses, others with the Star of David, while some have no religious symbol at all. Some were privates, others sergeants; others were commissioned officers. Many were in their 20s, while others in their 30s and 40s. Some remain still close to the hearts of surviving friends or family, as evident from the freshly-laid flowers laid alongside their tombstones. The graves of some are more bare, but no less poignant. Known Unto God, one says.
At the back of the cemetery there is a wall. It carries the names of those whose bodies cannot be found, or positively identified. Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out, the wall proudly proclaims. In more ways than one, I think, as a stream of visitors snap photos of the wall. Their names will live not only as markings on this wall, but also in the minds and photos of those who have come to pay homage to those who shall not be blotted out.
I stop next to a series of simple wooden crosses. In Remembrance, they state. From the family of a survivor who sunk aboard the HMS Repulse, and was at Changi Prison. And with that, I leave the cemetery, and step back into town.
A few days and a few thousand kilometres later, I drive past the gates of Changi Prison on the way home. And I cannot help but think that just sixty years ago, I would have seen trainloads of these men exiting these gates on a one-way journey to Kanchanaburi. Had they known that their time on Earth was up when they turned back to see Changi behind them? Had they lived the life of their desires? Did they have any regrets?
The lives of these young men had been cut short by the brutal outbreak of war. They would have had dreams of their own back home. They evidently had not lived the life they had envisioned. Who wants to spend their time imprisoned, beaten, and worked to death?
But therein lies the paradox. The cemetery tells a story of men who had lived, worked, survived, and ultimately succumbed together. If they could come back to life, I would think that they would have no regrets on how they lived the final stage of their lives. For they had lived with dignity and with utmost humanity to the best of their capacity.
And so, for those of us who are blessed enough to have the opportunity to chart our own lives – we must learn to cherish it, and live it to the fullest with no regrets.
About the Author: Zhe Xu Lee is a University student in Singapore.
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