The ‘War is Over’ Festival in Thailand

 
The Bridge Over the River Kwai in itself isn’t captivating; the story behind it is.

In the second world war, the Japanese army ordered allied prisoners to build the Thai-Burma Railway. It was intended to supply their soldiers fighting in Burma with ammunition, and would be thousands of kilometres shorter than the alternative sea route. Over 20,000 POWs were worked to death, not to mention over 100,000 Malay, Indonesian and other Asian slaves. Today, the most notable remnant of the railway is the Bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by a movie of the same name. Towards the end of the war, British RAF fighters bombed a large section of it, but the destroyed spans were later rebuilt and it has subsequently become a major tourist attraction, flooding the nearby town of Kanchanaburi with business.

Morbid depictions of slavery on the Thai-Burma railway.

Once a year, the Thai government celebrates the end of the war with a festival: ‘The War is Over’. Amy and I were lucky to catch the first night of this week-long celebration:

I’m back in ‘Noble Night Guesthouse’ after an eventful night that ended abruptly at the Bridge on the River Kwai. Amy and I caught one of those popular side-cart motocycles northward to the bridge and, struggling to find a decent menu close to all the fanfare, we veered into the quieter side of town and found a restaurant with about forty tables and ourselves as the only customers. The serenity was a welcome contrast to the crowds just a few minutes walk back toward the bridge.

Dinner it itself was pleasant enough, but uneventful – the most interesting part of the evening happened when we had made our way back into the crowds and, quickly scoffing ice-creams like the overindulgent westerners that we are, found ourselves at the very front of a growing audience that had surrounded a DJ. Ten mic-checks later and the performance was underway.

Beat-boxer extraordinaire. Didn't quite capture the atmosphere with this shot...

Exploding into an impressive beat-box routine, he moved cockily around the stage, wooing the crowd with vocals that sounded remarkably like artificial drum and keyboard tracks. Everyone had smiles on their faces and clapped when he prompted us with a small gesture of his hand. Three hundred or so onlookers under the spell of a skinny Asian dressed entirely in white, with stupid white sunglasses to match – a trade-off between practicality and style that reflects one of the popstars he started to impersonate: Lady Gaga.

Now would be a good time to note that, in this audience of three hundred or so, Amy and I were, quite conspicuously, the only white people. The DJ capitalised on this early in his performance, drawing the crowd’s attention to us by shaking our hands and welcoming us to Thailand in mid-performance. He made jokes in Thai that were clearly at our expense. The embarassment culminated when he plucked Amy from the safety of the masses and dragged her on stage. Just picture it: a tiny, hesitant, 19 year old white girl – the focus of the attention of three hundred Thais. I felt her nervousness and my heart raced. He asked a couple of questions – easy ones to answer with little opportunity for embarrassment.

“Where are you from?”

“Australia.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Amy.”

Simple enough. The crowd laughed as he asked Amy to free herself of the excess bodily baggage that hallmarks a white tourist in Thailand: water bottle, camera, small handbag. Now the DJ made a slightly more challenging request, involving Amy in an improvised tune.

“Say with me, like, 1, 2, 3, 4,” he shouts the numbers to a beat, then:

Kan!”

Amy shouts “Kan!

Then, in unexpected rapid succession, he says “Chanaburi!”

Amy falters. Of course, he had simply connected parts of the town’s name together to form the whole Kanchanaburi. Amy struggles with the unfamiliar, disconnected syllables and stutters a nervous, “Kan… Kan… a buri?” The DJ, acting quickly, resorts to something easier for Amy to shout into the mic: Thailand. The shout echoes rhythmically as he fiddles with the buttoms on his machine and turns a single word into a catchy electronic tune. Meanwhile, he switches sunglasses and hands a pair to Amy, both of which suddenly light up around the edges in tacky Thai style. The lights signal the start of improvised dancing. I think to myself, “Thank fuck he didn’t choose me.”

Amy follows his gestures, which gradually become more wild with the building intensity of the beat. Amy does well to follow, letting herself go and dancing freely in front of a mass of foreign strangers. I’m impressed. The crowd, too, show their appreciation at the end of the performance with loud clapping and smiles.

And this leads me to where I began: the abrupt end to the night. After the performance we escaped from the stage and the crowd as quickly as possible to save ourselves from further public humiliation. We retreated to a quiet bar, downed some incredibly alcoholic cocktails and made our way back to the floating raft where we sleep. I began writing this as tipsy and foggy-minded; I conclude equally as foggy-minded but slightly more sober. Amy just turned over so now I better read this to her.

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