Changi War Museum

wpid-img_20140504_133242.jpgThis Sat morning I went back in time to a (fun) World War II GCSE History class, curtacy of The Original Singapore Walks. Their 3 hour tour stops at The Changi Museum, the beach of the Sook Ching Massacres & outskirts of Changi Prison.

For an enjoyable way to brush up your 1930/40’s, Noel Barber’s novel Tanamera is a great read for anyone that knows or loves that era of Singapore. The rest you can piece together from the backpacking trail of The Death Railway or Hiroshima.

It’s not only useful to learn about Pearl Harbor from a South East Asia (not American) point of view. They also share nice myth busting like whether Singapore really did have her guns pointing the ‘wrong’ way. Most intriguingly though, is where your Kaya toast is baked and your 5* hotel laundry washed every morning….

 

JSA, Panmunjom, (Almost) North Korea

Photos from the Joint Security Area (JSA) from the Southern side of  the infamous North/South Korean border.

Technically you can ‘cross over’ to the North by hovering down the middle of the JSA conference room Military Demarcation Line (like you can by jump through air  east to west on the equator.) Venture any further than that however and you’re guarantees to be snipered within seconds. (No joke, there have been several tragic incidents including the famous 1970’s Axe Murder.)

Panmunjom is the furthest point civilians can venture from the Republic of Korea, and only on a pre -arranged tour booked at least 3 days before. The 9am – 5pm tours are all padded out with visits to Camp Bonifas, The War Memorial & The Freedom Bridge at Imjingag Park. I booked via Seoul City Tour.

The JSA itself (minus all security faffing) is literally only 10 mins.  Yes it’s a little over-scripted, photos are limited, & everyone’s facebook pics look the same.  However at the same time it’s  unique, surreal, and particularly interesting if you get a bit of ad lib chit chat from the USA solders.  (He fully admitted the North can hear everything that’s said, with their bugs 800 meters away.) The whole North/South guard patrol face off  is almost comedic – if it’ wasn’t one of the most armed places on earth!

Probably the most fascinating 10 secs of the day are the  glimpses of Kijongdong; The Propaganda Village 1km away on the Northern side.  Again it verges on the ridiculous with their ‘our flagpole is bigger than your flagpole’ contest (the North rebuild theres to double the height.) Shame it’s a sham and no-one lives there to see it.  Chillingly creepy!

 

 

 

Warsaw & Krakow, Poland

Warsaw
A 6h train ride East and we arrive into a drizzly 11pm Warsaw, with warnings of mafia taxis and residents that resemble the cast of Lock Stock. It’s not quite as daunting in the daylight. We stay in the chic-est of apartments along the Marszalkowska, for the best £25 between two I’ve ever paid.  We saunter around Saxon Gardens to catch the changing of the guards, and to the Hansel and Gretel-esq old town Castle Square. The tall green, terracotta and blue miss-mashed houses look like they’ve been dropped and squeezed into place from a great height, similar to Prague or Amsterdam. It’s everything you expect; pigeons in a cafe filled square, souvenir stalls selling faberge eggs with the distinctive ‘Heidi’ folk pattern, and super plump horse and carts trotting around cobbled streets. Cliche-ville but definitely lovely for 24h. It’s possibly my favorite of the two.

Krakow
Only a 3h train away and sporting the exact same market square as I’ve just described. Except add the old Cloth Market that sells a few more souvenirs; three-way chess boards, polish dolls, red and white football scarfs left over from the summer’s Euros. Here however our apartment on the Westernplatte was slighty more war torn chic. Think Adrian Brody’s hideout in the Pianist. Exposed brick, wooden floors, your granny’s furnature and soviet like stairwells. As it was pouring down with rain we had a lovely excuse to buy local Polish beers and watch the Olympic closing ceremony on our 1940’s TV. It was so twee we secretly liked it.

The sobering rain was only fitting however for absolutely obligatory day trip to Auschvitz-Birkenau. The most infamous of concentration camps,  it’s about 1.5 hours from Krakow in Oswiecim. This means one of  the most harrowing hours you’ll ever spend on a tour bus watching an as disturbing as you’d expect documentary to get everyone into the mood. Tours last about 6h for 100 Zloty, and include all the audio guides which you really need to get the most out of it.

Where we stayed: Warsaw Residence Hostel / Finger Guestrooms Krakow.

Liked: 1) Falafel kebabs 2) The most extravagant apple crumble & afternoon tea from Warsaw old town square 3) Polish Zloty – getting so much for your Euro and listening to Mark’s daily attempts to pronounce it.

Berlin, Germany

This one was practically free thanks to a years worth of air miles.  Gotta love British Airways! So it would be a sin against travelling not to squeeze in a little 10 day Eastern European city jaunt. Any excuse.

Berlin is another SanFran/Melbourne/Luang Prabang, i.e I challenge you to find a single person who doesn’t love it. Given most of them at some point mention famed techno superclub Berghain/Panoramabar – it opens at 12pm Fri and goes right through until Sunday morning, attracting Israeli and European weekenders. And yes I know to write about Berlin and not be all up on the nightlife scene is major blogging faux pas, but your clue really is in the word ‘techno.’ Best left for the cool kids.

Instead I spent a slightly more sedate Wednesday evening watching a duo of Scottish buskers charm the crowds under the railway arches of Alexanderplatz – the central plaza from the Bourne Identity, which in real life is just crying out as a meeting point for Jason Bourne to leap a tram. It’s a tiny bit retro.  It’s flagship store is a C&A, last seen in England in about 1985. However even this can’t dint a Berliner’s reputation. They are undeniably cool, aided by either: A dog, a bicycle, or a skateboard. Dont even think about living here with out at least one.

I stay about 20 mins from the central TV Tower icon, along trendy Schonhauser Allee which alternates organic delis, frozen yoghurt shops, and intriguingly, a store that sells cobwebbed 1920 typewriters. It’s one of those – still light at 10pm August evenings – hence everyone (and their skateboards and dogs) line the streets on Parisian style cafe furniture and British seaside striped deck chairs. It’s kitsch heaven.

One & a half packed days was enough to see the major sights: The East Side Gallery – A 20 min section of the Berlin Wall which still stands. Cue some graffiti appreciation.

Checkpoint Charlie – the old East/West Army checkpoint that divided the city. It’s home to the famous ‘You are now leaving the American Sector’ sign, which comically is now impossible to photograph without McDonald’s golden arches glowing in the background. Oh, and this next bit excited me greatly. For a 1 euro you can get a ‘checkpoint Charlie’ passport stamp. Is this legal, I’m not sure? But I of course I did it, most likely leading to some future drama on a far South East Asia border where they will no doubt be confused by my 1945 time travel.

Whilst wandering from CC to the super modern Potsdamerplatz, you pass the Topographie des Terrors –  a free outside photography museum of the Nazi rise to power. Except heading West along Niederkirchner street I managed to read from the 1980’s fall of the wall, backwards. So it’s possibly advisable to approach it the other way. There’s interesting sections in there about the German Resistance, and various Hitler assassination attempts, if like Mark and I you are obsessed with the film Valkory (watch it!)

To round off the wartime theme we touristed it up on Tour One of Berlin Underground Tours. Tour 1 takes you underground to abandoned tube station wartime bunkers. Much like being transported back to a GCSE History lesson, it’s striking to see it from a German perspective. Plus there’s a really cool bit with glow in the dark paint and shadows. I won’t spoil it!

Well worth the hassle of pre-registering via email is the Reichstag Dome. It’s free but you have to sign up for a time slot. It’s open skied dome is designed to let in water when it rains, but on a cloudless day you can just lay and stare out a while.

Where I stayed: Pfefferbett Hostel / Agon Litchtburg am Kurfurstebdam

Liked: 1) Lush delis with salad rolls for 3 euros, the food is great & so cheap. 2) The Agon hotel, really decent despite mixed Trip Advisor reviews 3) The bars around Oranieburger, especially cheap Desparado beers in the sunshine.

Xieng Khuang Province,Laos

Yep, I’m going all Amnesty on your asses again. But some of this really is shocking, and that’s quite a statement when the last country was Cambodia.

So technically Xieng Khuang covers Phonsavan and the surrounding area, but is worth a post of its own purely for the two harrowing documentaries we watched at MAG; the Mines Advisory Group; one of the main Government organisations in Laos which runs a local community cinema in Phonsavan to educate, raise awareness and run outreach projects.

‘Bombies’ and ‘Harvest’ both about The Secret War and Laos’ UXOs. (unexploded Ordinance = bombs)

They were 2h docs, but I’ll keep it to the five most shocking bits we took away:

*Laos still remains the most bombed country in the world, with over 2 million tons of bombs dropped by the USA between 1964 – 73. This is despite the US breaking every rule of the Geneva Convention – whereby Laos was declared a neutral nation, in the neighbouring war with Vietnam, hence The Secret War. The bombing of Laos was widely denied by the US Government and undocumented for years. They still refuse to offer anything but minimal aid in the clear up operation.

*Around 30% of bombs never exploded, meaning 40 years on, the country is still plagued with unexploded cluster bombs that mame and kill.

*Although North Vietnam was often the primary target, weather and their defence strategies often means attacks couldn’t go ahead. This meant US aircraft often couldn’t lose face by returning to base with ‘un-dropped amo’as safety checks were too much admin, so they simply off loaded bombs into Laos villages just to save on the papwerwork, as well as sometimes finding secondary targeting with the supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail which extended into Laos.

*A third of all UXO casualties at present are children, who often know the risks but are actively encouraged by their parents to hunt for and dig up ‘bombies’ as the skyrocketing process for scrap metal can feed a family for 3 months.

*Despite the essential work done by organisations like MAG & COPE, If clean up carries on at current rates, it will take Laos 100 years to be clear of UXO.

Previous Older Entries

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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