In 2006 Francine and I broke the winter monotony with a most enjoyable cultural trip to Thailand. Towards the end of it we visited Kanchanaburi, notorious site of The Bridge on the River Kwai, part of the Thailand-Burma railway, the so-called Death Railway, constructed by allied prisoners of war under the brutal conditions imposed by their Japanese captors. Seeing the sites of a railway that cost so many needlessly lost lives, and the pristine memorial graveyards of those who didn’t survive was, of course, a deeply emotional experience. Taking photographs when you can’t see through the viewfinder for tears is very difficult.
Today we were off, I suspected, to repeat the emotional experience at the Singaporean east coast village of Changi. Now, Changi is known for being the home of Singapore’s international, spotless, well decorated and delightfully modern airport. During WW II, Changi was known for the prisoner of war camp following the Japanese invasion of Singapore. The British defenders expected a Japanese attack only from the sea thinking that the forests of Malaya would stop any land-based attack from the north. Wrong! I recall a similar error featuring the French, the Maginot Line, the (supposedly impenetrable) Ardennes forest and Hitler. When will we ever learn?
Changi still has a prison today but now for Singapore’s criminals. Given the penalties meted out in Singapore for offences, you probably don’t want to be in this one, either. Some years ago, an American diplomat’s youth was beaten for “keying” someone’s car, despite American diplomatic protestations that, “you can’t do that”. “Good for Singapore”, say I – no wonder crime is very low here.
Changi Village is now a seaside resort for Singaporeans wanting a weekend break. It is also a boat quay where so-called bumboats take passengers over to the nearby island of Pulau Ubin. [It’s on our Bukit List 🙂 ] We began with a wander along the shore which netted us our first sight of a 1m/3ft Monitor Lizard lurking in some shady waterside tree roots, though this poor individual had a mangled tail so a head shot had to suffice.
There’s was something for the botanists here, too, with a definite white and yellow theme emerging. Along the shore were several Frangipani trees with their intriguingly propeller-shaped petals – we’d seen these in Thailand, also – and a flowering Ginger plant, which was new to us.
It was time to get the tissues out when we dropped in to the Changi Chapel and Museum. Here there were old photographs and story boards together with a series of five religious murals painted by one of the prisoners of war to offer comfort to the inmates. Most emotional for me, however, was a reproduction of the simple wooden chapels constructed by the prisoners, the altar of which was surrounded by scribbled eulogizing notes of relatives of many of those interned. [Photography not allowed, even if you can see through your tears, so you’ll have to be content with the official shots. They’d be better anyway – Mr Emotional couldn’t see!]
After an excellent spot of lunch with our genial host, David, he drove us to see the so-called Monster Gun at the old Johor Battery. These monster guns (there were three) fired 15in/38cm shells but, as intimated above, were pointing out to sea away from the Japanese who sneakily attacked from behind down the Malay peninsular through all that impenetrable jungle. Fat lot of good they were, then! (One only partially accurate replica gun is behind the green building on the right.)
Beneath the battery underground was a labyrinth of tunnels connecting to the ammunition bunker. The tunnels are now mapped on the surface by the low-level concrete troughs you can see in the photo above. Delight of delights, these troughs get frequently soaked by Singapore’s regular downpours and their low points accumulate water. Guess who had taken up residence. We spent a happy half hour or so, baking under the unusually clear sky, stalking six species of Odos. The most interesting and photographically cooperative was this curiously shaped Trumpet Tail (Acisoma panorpoides).