Saturday, April 2

Nuremberg after dark

Garry and I spent seven fast and furious days working in Nuremberg at the start February.  We’d travelled to Germany to walk the halls of Spielwarenmesse, the world’s largest toy fair.  The event is huge.  Literally thousands of exhibitors from around the world crowd into 16 enormous exhibition halls located just south of the city’s infamous Nazi-era parade ground.

The volume and variety of toys on show is simply mind-boggling. Entire halls are given over to a single toy genre.  There’s literally one hall for dolls, one for model trains, one for wooden toys and so on.  We spent hours each day literally walking miles up and down most of these halls.  Our time was spent meeting with current suppliers and scouting for new products to add to our catalogue.

We’d originally thought we might get some time off to visit a few of the city’s landmark sights.  However, the days simply flew by and we never ventured far from our hotel or the fair itself.  In fact the only tourist moment we enjoyed was a walk one evening through the cobbled streets of the old town down to the Pegnitz river.  Maybe next year we’ll find time to see a few sights?

Sunday, March 20

Riding the Death Railway

Thailand’s infamous death railway passed through dense tropical jungle and steep, remote river valleys for much of its length.  This route resulted in the construction of numerous trestle bridges, rock cutting and mile upon mile of hillside cuttings (typically called benches).  The work was back-breaking and often dangerous.  Tropical diseases, industrial accidents and malnutrition took a heavy toll.  An estimated 180,000 died during its construction.

The 415 km line was completed on 25 October 1943 and operated under wartime conditions for a further 22 months. During this time it transported more than a quarter of a million tons of food, ammunition and ordnance to Japanese troops in Burma.  Several thousand troops also made the journey. 

However, after the Japanese surrender in 1945 the railway’s value came into question.  In particular, returning British administrators were concerned that it could be used to supply and reinforce rebellious Burmese hill tribes who oppose the return of their colonial administration.  In 1947, last than four years after its opening, the British tore up a section of track and all operations ceased along the line.  

The irony of this decision is hard to ignore.  An oppressive and brutal imperial power (Japan) built the railway to expand and project its control of the surrounding region. Yet when the war was over another invasive imperial power destroyed it in order to stop the locals from challenging its authority.

After severing the link with Burma the Allied authorities agreed to sell the section stretching from the Burmese border into Thailand back to the Thailand government.  However, a subsequent survey of the line resulted in a decision to close it entirely.  In 1957 a section of the railway was reopened from Nong Pladuk to Nam Tok.  This section remains in service today.

Tourists and locals can catch a train from Kanchanaburi (where the train crosses the renowned Bridge over the River Kwai) to the former jungle terminus of Nam Tok.  The journey’s highlights include a slow and winding transit along the Wampo Viaduct built by prisoners of war.  The viaduct consists of wooden trestles that sit on a narrow rock ledge carved precariously into towering cliffs along the edge of Kwai River.  The entire journey takes several hours. 

Garry and I joined a tour that meets the train south of the Wampo Viaduct.  Our tour coach literally chased the train through rural countryside for several kilometres before the train suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere.  It was here we boarded the train where several empty carriages at the back of train had been reserved for us. 

We paid a little extra to secure a window seat on the carriage’s most scenic side, then sat back and watched as Thai village life rolled by.  We knew when we finally approaching the viaduct as rows of tourists and backpackers appeared alongside the track.  The train then slowed to a crawl as we crossed onto the trestle bridge.  The transition itself was rather dramatic. In a single moment a solid and rather lush green lawn that stretched past a quaint local station gave way to a plunging, foreboding rock face.

The sight of the train winding its way along the narrow rock ledge below was equally spectacular.  We could literally lean out of our carriage and see past the edge of the track to the river itself dozens of metres below us.  Once safely back on level ground our train pulled into a local station where we got off and joined the coach taking us back to Bangkok.

Saturday, March 19

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai was an epic Hollywood blockbuster. Released in 1957, it won seven Academy Awards, and has often been lauded as one of the greatest war epics of all time.  The movie’s screenplay is pure fiction.  However, the bridge around which the central plot revolves can be found about 128 kms north of Bangkok.

It was one of two bridges built by allied prisoners of war in 1943 as part of the Japanese Imperial Army’s notorious Death Railway line.  One bridge was temporary wooden structure while other bridge, constructed from concrete and steel is still standing today.  Its formidable structure spans the Mae Klong River near the town of Kanchanaburi.

The bridge's curved steel spans are original, and were brought from Java by the Japanese. However, the two straight-sided spans in the central section both come from Japan.  They were installed after the war to replace spans destroyed by allied bombing raids in 1945.

Kanchanaburi itself is fascinating place.  The original township was built along the river's edge. Each house was built on stilts in a manner that let them rise and fall as the river's level changed. Today the township is split between a land-based community founded in part by the Japanese army and the original water-borne buildings. Tourists are encouraged to make their way to the bridge via the river and thus experience the old township's unique location.

Garry and I visited the township and its famous bridge as part our overnight visit to Hellfire Pass.  Prior to our arrival we’d worked an entire weekend at the Nuremburg Toy Fair and were in need a break before plunging into our next round of business meetings in Bangkok.  To help us unwind we booked a night at a remote hotel floating on the river itself.

The Kwai River Raft Hotel was an amazing location. To reach it we had to travel by long boat about 15 minutes up river.  The venue itself is a string of wooden rafts upon which a series of thatched roof hotel rooms have been constructed.  The facilities were well maintained but relatively primitive.  There was no electricity and hot water.  Instead the staff lit kerosene lanterns in the evening and its more emboldens guests enjoyed refreshing cold showers.

However, despite its simple set up the hotel was well worth a visit.  We enjoyed reasonably civilised meals and found ourselves unwinding as we ventured “off the gird”.  With no television, internet or local entertainment we had plenty of time to rest and relax and soak in some wonderful river scenery. 
The complex is operated and staff by native Mon people from a nearby village.  We actually took a walking tour of the village shortly after we arrived.  Highlights of the tour included a visit to the local school’s open-air classroom and a pristine white and gold Buddhist stupa that sat serenely in the jungle.

However, for me the real highlight of our time on the River Kwai was the infamous bridge itself.  We were surprised, and delighted, to discover that we could actually walk across the bridge and explore its imposing structure first hand.  It was mind-blowing to think that more than 70 years ago allied bombers had been targeting the very location upon which we were standing. 

 Sadly, the harsh reality of war was bought home to us when we subsequently visited the Death Railway Museum.  It sits opposite the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where almost 7,000 POWs, who sacrificed their lives constructing the Death Railway are buried.  The museum itself houses an excellent exhibit on the railway.  It was established in 2003 by an ex-pat Australian who wanted to research and preserve the region’s POW legacy.

Friday, March 18

Hellfire Pass: Least we forget

Ask most Australians to name the nation’s most notorious wartime locations and you’re likely hear three names again and again; ANZAC Cove, the Kokoda Trail and Hellfire Pass. Garry and I visited ANZAC Cove in May 2007. It was a truly moving experience that brought home the total insanity and harsh reality of war.

Hellfire Pass is remembered for the barbaric cruelty inflicted on Australian prisoners of world during World War II. It was part of a long abandoned stretch of railway built by the Japanese Army between Burma and Thailand in less than 16 months. An astonishing achievement - even more so when you consider that remote and muddy conditions meant that heavy machinery was rarely used. Instead most of the back-breaking construction was done entirely by hand.

The entire 415 kilometre track was built using imported Asian labour and prisoners of war from Australia, the UK and the Netherlands. Their Japanese captors were unbelievably harsh task masters. Almost 39 per cent of those who worked on the railway died.

The Asian labourers suffered the most. An estimated 180,000 died. The death rate among the prisoners of war while lower was still an appalling 20% representing almost 62,000 lives. More than 2,800 Australian prisoners died; largely from disease, malnutrition and the effects of harsh punishments meted out their captors.

Hellfire Pass was one of the most brutal locations along the line. Japanese engineers were not particularly skilled in tunnel building. As a result, a decision was taken to route the line through a deep rock cutting at Kannyu, about 150 kilometres from its southern starting point. Over a period of six weeks 400 Australian prisoners of war worked continuous shifts to hand carve a dramatic cutting some 75 metres long and 25 metres deep through solid rock. The sight of emaciated prisoners working through night, lit by oil lamps and bamboo fires, was said to resemble a scene from Hell.

Weary Dunlop, one of Australia’s most celebrated war heroes worked here. His compassion and care as a doctor, nursing the sick and dying was considered exceptional. Many times he put his own health at risk, earning himself physical punishment whenever he protested to the Japanese. At other times his sheer physical presence — he was nearly two metres tall — intimidated his captors while inspiring his fellow prisoners. He survived the war and lived until the age of 86. After his death in 1993, a portion of his ashes were subsequently buried at Hellfire Pass.

Today, Hellfire Pass has been preserved as a memorial, funded largely by the Australian Government. An informative museum guides visitor through the railway’s history and the construction of the nearby Kannyu Cutting. The infamous gully is reached via a flight of stairs which lead you onto a peaceful walking trail. The trail trace the original railway’s track curving hand-hewn bench, carved directly into the steep hillside, until you finally reach the cutting itself.

Garry and I visited the sight overnight while we were in Bangkok for a series of business meetings. I can honestly say that more than 70 years on the cutting remains an impressive sight. Garry and I found hard to believe that this impressive gully was cut by hand in less than two months.

Its rough rocky walls slice dramatically through the hillside. Previous visitors have nested commemorative flags, photos and flowers in various nooks and crannies along its walls. Some of the railway’s original wooden sleepers remain embedded in the ground. At the cutting’s northern end, the Australian Government has built a simple black granite memorial. It’s all very moving.

However, the entire scene is best captured from a small viewing platform at the top of the gully. From here the scale of this wartime engineering feat comes into stark focus. Arriving visitors appear insignificant as the walls tower around them. Sadly my photos barely do it justice. What more can I say. Hellfire Pass really is an unforgettable experience.

Sunday, March 13

Sky high in Dubai

Garry and I have finally made it back to Dubai.  Our first visit to this Middle Eastern metropolis was Christmas 2007.  At the time the city was smothered by a forest of construction cranes.  We were curious to what how this building frenzy has transformed the landscape nine years later.

Our stop in Dubai was brief.  It literally a weekend transit as we made our way to Nuremberg for world’s largest Toy Fair.  When were last here the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, was still under construction, the world’s largest Mall was still tangled mass of steel beams and the first metro rail line was still a year away from completion.

We flew to Dubai on the uber-comfortable Airbus A380 courtesy of Qantas. Garry and I love these giant planes.  Despite numerous flights over the years we still marvel at their effortless, whisper quiet take off.  However, despite the comfortable journey, our arrival shortly before 1:00am was a rather exhausting affair.  Thank goodness an airport transfer car was waiting for us when we finally exited the Arrival Hall.

We stayed at Sheraton Hotel on Dubai Creek, just a few hundred metres upstream from where we’d based ourselves on in 2007.  Dubai is a rather soulless place, filled with shiny glass towers that spring from rather drab dusty surroundings.  However, the old town and the creek that runs alongside it are rare exception.  This broad, curving waterway provides a wonderfully refreshing and tranquil vista both day and night. 

We filled our first afternoon in town with a visit to Burj Khalifa.  At 829.8 metres (2,722 ft) its height exceeds anything erected in all of human history.  For many years the CN Tower in Toronto was the world’s tallest free-standing structure, while Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest skyscraper.  However, Dubai was determined to beat them all – which it did in spectacular style. 

When it opened the Burj Khalifa broke every conceivable height record for a man made structure, surpassing even the most flimsy of guy-masted transmission towers scattered across the mid-western plains of the USA.  When it opened on January 4, 2010, it also boasted the world’s highest observation deck. This was our first destination of the day.

SKY level is located on the 148th floor, a mere 555 metres above the surrounding area.  Its curving wall of windows offer what can only be described as a truly bird’s eye view of Dubai and the Persian Gulf.  The observatory also offers a small outdoor deck where you can literally feel the wind whistle through your hair almost half a kilometre into the sky.

As is typical of so many things in Dubai; tickets to the 124th floor cost an eye-watering sum. However, the locals attempt to justify this with a few exclusive VIP touches. For example we skipped the painfully slow queues snaking their way to the ticket counter and on towards the elevators.  We were entertained with coffee and dates while our tickets were validated.  Then, when we finally arrived at the observatory, we were greeted by waiters welding trays of delicious canap├ęs and flutes of champagne.

As for the view?  Well, you’re soaring so far above anything else that its honestly difficult to appreciate just how high you really are.  In fact, when you look up from the outdoor observation deck and see the building climb another 270 metres into the sky you could be forgiven for thinking you’re still on the ground.

In fact, the building height doesn’t become apparent until you descend to the lower observation deck, At the Top.  This larger observation platform is located a more modest 452 m (1,483 ft) above the ground.  However, you suddenly notice how much larger the same objects appear when you’re 100 metres closer to them.  Only then does the building’s incredible height start to unveil itself.

Having conquered the world’s tallest building, our next stop was the world’s largest mall, conveniently located at the base of Burj Khalifa.  This building is huge.  Four levels of stores work their way around the four sides of a square that literally take 15 minutes each to walk.  The building boasts two indoor waterfalls that soar three floors, an ice-skating rink and a full-scale walk through aquarium.

Garry and I spent most of our time shopping for comfortable shoes to get us through six days of wandering the exhibition halls in Nuremberg.  We eventually found our perfect footwear – only to discover we’d both picked up the same pair of shoes displayed at opposite ends of the store.  After a brief debate we decided that comfort was always going win the day over cheesy “twin dressing”.  We left the store with identical shoes.

Our final day in Dubai was spent largely working from our hotel room.  We had a lot of paperwork to catch up on before we headed to Germany. However, we did break from our routine to walk the Creek waterfront where a flotilla of traditional dhows are still loaded and unloaded each day by hand.