Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Back in 1943, the building of the Burma Railway, aka the Death Railway, took the lives of about 90 000 civilian labourers (rōmusha) and more than 12 000 Allied POWs. The Allied POWs (British, Dutch, Indian, and Australian) are buried in the two war cemeteries in Kanchanaburi. The Americans were taken home. And the civilians, one would imagine, are buried locally.

There isn’t much about the Chinese Cemetery in the public domain. Some have it that it’s a Chinese-Thai War Cemetery. Others say it has nothing to do with the war at all. It sits next door to the Allied Cemetery and yet doesn’t feature on the tourist trail as such. One side is open to the street, no fence or wall to mark the border. It’s a stunning mix of numbered Chinese burial mounds and Thai chedi reliquaries. Looked at from above, it’s quite spectacular.

Wandering through it, I was struck by how different it is from the one next door. It seems a little all over the place, no orderliness to it at all, other than the numbered Chinese mounds that face the main street. Some of the columbaria are empty and it doesn’t seem as if they’re waiting for ashes, more that the ashes that were there have been removed. There are newer graves to the back – a different style – but without reading the inscriptions it was hard to say how new or old they might be.

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

Chinese Cemetery Kanchanaburi

 

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery Thailand

We’d come west to Kanchanaburi to learn about the Burma Death Railway and to pay our respects to those prisoners of war who had died building it by visiting the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. I’m no stranger to Commonwealth Cemeteries and marvel at the dedication of those who maintain them…

…thanks in no small part to Sir Fabian Ware, who founded the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Too old for active service at the age of 45, he went to France with the British Red Cross in 1914. It wasn’t long before he noticed that there was no system of recording the graves of those who had died in battle. He convinced the War Office that if the dead were properly looked after, it would boost the morale of the living. [I’m still trying to work that one out, but I suppose in an odd way, it makes sense. So much of what we see today still testifies to the need for closure; that need to know where the bodies have been buried.] His motivation? Common remembrance of the dead [of the Great War] is the one thing, sometimes the only thing, that never fails to bring our people together.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

It is quite military in its layout, with straight lines, evenly set markets, and well-tended graves. The British are buried to the right, the Australians and others to the left. Locals crouch, on their hunkers, weeding underneath the hot sun. A peculiar penance I thought. I’d have worked early and later rather than in the heat of the afternoon.

The graves of those who died during the construction and maintenance of the Burma-Siam railway (except for the Americans, whose remains were repatriated) 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. KANCHANABURI WAR CEMETERY […] was created by the Army Graves Service who transferred to it all graves along the southern section of railway, from Bangkok to Nieke. Some 300 men who died (most from a Cholera epidemic in May/June 1943) at Nieke camp were cremated and their ashes now lie in two graves in the cemetery. The names of these men are inscribed on panels in the shelter pavilion. There are now 5,085 Commonwealth casualties of the Second World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. There are also 1,896 Dutch war graves and 1 non-war grave. Within the entrance building to the cemetery will be found the KANCHANABURI MEMORIAL, recording the names of 11 men of the army of undivided India buried in Muslim cemeteries in Thailand, where their graves could not be maintained. The cemetery was designed by Colin St Clair Oakes.

As is usual when I visit such cemeteries, I wonder at the loss of young life, the denial of potential, the sadness of it all. What they must have felt in their last days. How their parents and families and friends much have suffered, never knowing if they’d see them again. When we visited Hellfire Pass, we heard accounts from POWs who survived to tell the tale and what struck me was how they tried to find some humour to share. Some funny incident that perhaps helps them to remember.

And those sons and daughters who grew up without their fathers. What must it be like for them to come to visit, to pay their respects at a marker of a life given for the betterment of other lives?

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

I was moved. I was beyond moved. I can’t begin to imagine what it would have been like to have lived through a war. I wonder if I’ll ever know. I hope not. I checked the registers and saw that some mothers had lost two sons, not just one. Brothers who fought together, imprisoned together, died together.  Beyond sad.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

What can we do but continue to visit such places, to take the time to pay our respects, to say thank you for the sacrifices they have made.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is open 08:00-17:00 Monday to Friday and 08:00-12:00 Saturday. Entrance free. Located on Saeng Chuto Road, the town’s main street.

Wat Phutthaisawan, Ayutthaya, funerary stupa

Funerary Stupas at Wat Phutthaisawan, Ayutthaya

Noting the marked scarcity of cemeteries as we travelled around Thailand, I did some research. I checked the demographics.

According to the latest available census data, approximately 94.6 percent of the population self-identifies as Theravada Buddhist.

That sent me on a quest to see what it means to be a Theravada Buddhist.

The teachings of Buddhism are based on the fact that one’s life does not begin with birth and end with death. Instead those events are merely seen as links in a chain of our lives, each conditioned by volitional acts (karma) that were committed in previous existences. The very concept of karma (the law of cause and effect) in the Buddhist tradition suggests that self-serving acts, such as selfishness, gluttony, greed and craving, will ultimately lead to pain and suffering. On the other side of the coin, positive acts, such as love, tolerance and compassion, will eventually lead to happiness and well-being. The enlightened one teaches that it is only by eliminating desire that one can reach the penultimate goal of Buddhism: peace of mind. The highest and most revered ideal in Theravada Buddhism is the attainment of self-perfection through Nirvana (Nibbhana), an inexpressible and incontrovertible state unconditioned by desire, suffering, or further rebirth, in which an individual is completely at peace with his or her surroundings.

More reading told me that cremation is traditional in Buddhism but I wondered why I’d not seen many columbaria. Then a Thai friend told me that ashes are generally scattered in the ocean or on a river. It was all becoming clear. But then I visited Wat Phutthaisawan, one of the working temples in Ayutthaya. 

Wat Phutthaisawan, Ayutthaya, funerary stupas

Wat Phutthaisawan, Ayutthaya, funerary stupas

Here, in Wat Phutthaisawan, tucked away in the back, I came across what looked to me like a cemetery. What I took to be grave markers were actually funerary stupas.

Burial stupas hold relics from the funeral pyre. Commemorative stupas mark the place of an event or occasion in the Buddha’s life. And, votive stupas are erected to make a dedication of good will or to accumulate merit.

Whatever shape or form they take,

The essence of all the stupas remains the same: to symbolically show practitioners the path to liberation and enlightenment, to give them an opportunity to make offerings and to help them purify negative impressions and increase positive ones, thus accumulating merit and wisdom. All this creates the conditions for reaching the state of a buddha.

I’ve searched and searched and searched to no avail. I can only assume that these funerary stupas were built by relatives to contain the ashes of those interred. Building such a memorial would be good karma. Visiting it and bringing flowers and other offerings, would stand one in good stead in the next life.

Wat Phutthaisawan, Ayutthaya, funerary stupas

Funerary stupas - plate

There’s a curious mix of old and new at Wat Phutthaisawan, Ayutthaya. The newer funerary stupas are ornate, colourful, stylish, while the older ones appear to be more serviceable. Simple. Plain. Functional. Many are crumbling; perhaps there’s no one left to visit and take care of them.

Wat Phutthaisawan, Ayutthaya, funerary stupas

There’s also what I’ve taken to be a columbarium. I can’t think what else it might be. A repository for the ashes of a family perhaps? Or a community? Or just a group of random strangers who find themselves neighbours in death. All the inscriptions are in Thai so impossible for me to read.

Wat Phutthaisawan, Ayutthaya, columbarium, funerary stupas

A pack of dogs ran wild through the place. None looked too friendly. It was almost as if they were standing guard over their dead, their howls and barks providing compelling background music to a strangely beautiful place.

The  funerary stupas at Wat Phutthaisawan are worth a visit. Just turn left by the prayer bells instead of going to the temple. Walk past the prayer hall and you’ll see it straight ahead.

 

 

Chinese cemetery in Bangkok

Chinese cemetery in Bangkok

Wanting some respite from the living while in Bangkok recently, I checked to see what cemeteries were open for visiting. Two came up in my search, just two. One Protestant and the other Chinese. The former I can see almost any day of the week; the latter is a little harder for me to find. So we spent the morning bussing out to Pa Cha Wat Don, as it’s known by the locals: the graveyards of Don Temple. Perhaps more commonly known as Teochew Cemetery, this Chinese cemetery in Bangkok dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century when the Teochew Association of Thailand opened it as a burial ground for Chinese immigrants (Teochew is one of the five Chinese dialects. The Association was formed to offer Chinese education to Chinese descendants of immigrants to Northern Thailand.)

Chinese cemetery in BangkokAs we wound our way through the neighbourhood, we came across a rather sizable Chinese Temple, presumably Wat Don. To the right and left of the main entrance ran high walls, encompassing what turned out to be a 24-hectare compound. We went right. We should have gone left, to the entrance that’s open.

I was expecting a cemetery. I found a park, with a large fitness centre, a café, and a running track. Almost as an afterthought, to the left of the main gate, is the cemetery itself – or what’s left of it. That said, judging by how overgrown it all is, they’ve been there far longer than the treadmills and the punching bags.

Chinese cemetery Bangkok

Chinese cemetery in BangkokThe spirit houses of Alaska came to mind as I looked out over the hillocks that marked each grave. The stones stood as doorways into the raised caverns to which I imagined the souls could live.

A fascinating article in the Bangkok Post tells of how locals are sure this Chinese cemetery in Bangkok is haunted. And given that during the time of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (a Thai officer who staged a coup in 1957, replacing Plaek Phibunsongkhram as Thailand’s prime minister until his death in 1963), it was an execution ground that would later become a popular place for suicides. I was glad I was there in the morning although by all accounts I’d have had difficulty convincing any TukTuk or taxi to take me there after dark.

But as the piece in the Bangkok Post said:

[…] in this age of non-stop progress, it is easy to come to the realisation that it is not the ghosts who invade the living world, it is the living who invade the ghost world with our fancy concrete jungle, burning spotlights, and sordid excuses for progress. Changes are unavoidable, especially in this era of scientific advancement and zero physical frontier, but if there is anything to be scared of, it should be humans and their power to erase even the past and the unseen.

Chinese cemetery in BangkokWe wandered around the section to the left and it was only later that I realised there was far more to it. This is indeed where the bodies are buried. Three organisations share charge of the place: The original founder, Teochew Association of Thailand; the Poh Teck Tung Foundation, and the Hai Nan Dan Family Association. It’s said that the Hai Nan Dan bodies number around 10 000.

Today, though, the graves show signs of being forgotten, or perhaps, like the old Jewish Cemetery in Budapest, relatives are thin on the ground and there’s no one left to care for those who have passed. It wouldn’t take much to cut the grass and tidy the place up – and it would be nice.

Chinese Cemetery in BangkokAs it is, the park is now more concerned with the living than with the dead: apart from the fitness centre, there’s space for martial arts practitioners, chess players, and basketball fans. There’s also a reading corner and school. And a rather nice café.

If you’re looking for something different to do in Bangkok, and fancy getting away from the hustlers, the Chinese cemetery in Bangkok is the place to go.

Chinese cemetery in Bangkok