This weekend, I chose to stay in Bangkok, as I had a meeting for an internship I'm pursuing here. I won't talk about it too much now, but it includes visiting refugees from Pakistan, Cameroon, and Vietnam at a detention center, basically a prison, where many live for as much as 2 years without gaining an interview. The day after my meeting, I went to a historical park called Muang Boran, or The Ancient City. It's a massive complex, spanning 240 acres, and inside there are miniatures of monuments from throughout Thailand – in fact, the entire park is a to-scale model of the kingdom.
The monuments, while miniatures of the originals, were still huge, with many towering at least 50 feet high. Some of them housed beautiful artworks, mother-of-pearl thrones, and Buddha statues. A river ran through the entire park, complete with its own floating market. It was a surreal experience, made more so by the slight rain that showered down as my friend and I biked through the city. This experience brought up some interesting thoughts.
Muang Boran was founded by a man who wanted to educate Thai people about their heritage. He thought that building a historic park that showcased the wonder of Thailand's monuments would inspire people with respect for their own culture. The park is also open to foreigners, and like many attractions in Thailand, it costs twice as much to go if you're not a local. The park took years to complete; the details on many of the buildings required the work of skilled craftsmen, and the architect, Lek Viriyaphant, visited many of the 116 monuments himself to ensure that the replicas were accurate, while experts from the National Museum helped as well.
During my time at the park, I had lots of time to think about the importance of religious art. In Thailand, religious symbols are everywhere. Museums like Muang Boran are often filled with Buddha statues and other sacred objects. My question is, what makes something holy? Is a replica of a religious statue just as sacred as the original? Every Thai person that I've seen at a museum has reacted to the statues around them as if they were the originals: they often get down on their knees, light incense, and maintain silence. On the other hand, these statues are housed in a museum that's open to non-Buddhists, like me, who treat them like artwork. My friend Tessa said that objects like Buddha statues are important because of the intention with which they were built, and that she has more respect for the originals than a replica on display. I think I agree with her, but it's a tricky issue, especially since the locals seem to respect the object itself, regardless of the situation.
Last weekend, I journeyed to the Kanchanaburi province with my French friend Leo. As soon as we got to town, we rented motorbikes and took off on a 90-minute ride to the Erawan Waterfall, one of Thailand's most beautiful natural destinations. The falls are seven stories high, and the water is perfectly clear. Fish swim around under giant trees where monkeys play, rockslides abound, and the whole scene is one of peace – except that the lower four levels are filled with tourists and a snack bar waits at the bottom. In addition to Erawan, we rode through rural areas, visiting caves, temples, and a great historic city built by the Khmer Empire in the 12th century.
Towards the end of our journey, we stopped along the famous Death Railway. This railroad runs from Thailand to Burma, or Myanmar, and it earned its name during World War II. Thailand fought on the side of the Japanese, who had grand plans to dominate Asia. The Japanese forced 200,000 Asian civilians and 60,000 POWs, or prisoners of war, to complete the railroad in just a year and a half, despite engineers' predications that it would take four or five to construct. The railway was built so quickly because the Japanese forced workers to build in horrible conditions. We now think that about 100,000 Asian civilians and 16,000 prisoners of war died during the construction of the railway.
POWs were forced to live in bamboo huts, where they had little to no food and often suffered from terrible diseases. Cruel punishments were normal for those who refused to work, and many awful stories survive from those days. Leo and I visited a small museum commemorating the railroad. The museum was interesting, but it only spoke of the prisoners of war, not the civilians. We also visited the memorial cemetery, located right in the center of Kanchanaburi. Each gravestone was inscribed with the dates of the soldiers' birth and death, their name, and an epitaph (some words to dedicate the burial). Some were as young as 20 or 21, and many epitaphs read "we're proud of you, son." It was a heavy experience.
There are some strange things about the modern-day memorial sites. If you want to walk on the actual railway, you can – and you'll be surrounded by dozens of people. The path to the railway is lined with 20 or 30 vendors, selling all sorts of souvenirs, ice cream treats, and even clothing. In the museum, there is no mention of Thailand's actions during the war – we even heard a tour guide explaining that Thailand was forced to fight on the side of Japan, which simply isn't true. And, there is almost no mention of the deaths of the forced civilian laborers, even though 100,000 of them passed away building the railway. Many visitors come to the area just because a Hollywood movie, "The Bridge Over the River Kwai," is loosely based on the region's history during the War. So, this weekend gave me lots to think about.
After spending some time in Prague, I decided to head out to a castle that I remembered from my childhood: Karlstejn. This massive fortress towers over the surrounding countryside, perched high on a hill. It is named after Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, one of the Czech Republic's most famous historical figures. The castle is an imposing sight, with tall white walls and a blue stone roof that challenges all who see it. While parts of the castle were taken during different sieges over the years (a siege is when one army surrounds another and tries to defeat it through both fighting and starvation), the tall keep never fell to an invader.
While some castles are filled with beautiful decorations, they are all built with battle in mind. Karlstejn Castle has walls that are 30 feet thick in some places to keep out invaders. Its highest tower stretches up over 175 feet into the sky. Meanwhile, the well is over 200 feet deep. A watch was kept around-the-clock to make sure that no one surprised the castle garrison with an attack. Living in a castle was not fun, but it was very safe. Walking through Karlstejn, I imagined what it might have been like to live there. The stone walls must get very cold in winter.
The castle is now almost 700 years old. It was first built in 1348 in order to protect the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire and the Bohemian kingdom. Over the years, more and more fortifications were added to the castle. Inside, the king and his retinue lived in safety. Beautiful decorations filled a good deal of the rooms. Charles IV was a devout Catholic, and like many rulers at the time, he spent huge amounts of money on the castle's chapels. His own private chapel area is filled with gold, silver, an jewels, as well as incredible paintings of great saints.
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Adam De Gree
I am a senior in college, studying philosophy, and am visiting family in the Czech Republic and travelling and studying in Europe and Asia.