There is a small panoply of Places You Never Knew Existed at most major tourist destinations. They may garner a small cameo in the Lonely Planet or on Wikitravel, but they are un-visited for a reason: far away, of limited interest to the non-profoundly nerdy, of a nature somewhat unappealing to a person mostly interested in a pleasant escape from the norm.
Currently, Rangoon’s remarkable Taukkyan War Cemetery is such a place. If you make the trek out here by taxi from downtown Rangoon, you will have it to yourself. And it is terribly, terribly sad.
Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it is beautifully maintained — by far the finest landscaping I saw anywhere in Rangoon, and completely empty to boot. Burmese life in its dilapidated color swirls on around outside, but in here, it is entirely feasible that one might be walking around an English cemetery on a particularly balmy day. Here is a place perfectly set up for deep contemplation the wretched cost of war.
6,374 men lie here in the green grass of Taukkyan, and it is the largest of Burma’s three WWII-era war cemeteries.
First begun in 1951, Taukkyan contains bodies and ashes from the Akyab, Mandalay, Meiktila and Sahmaw cemetaries, the last of which houses the remains of some of the famous Chindits who died in the battle for Myitkyina— or so writes the British War Graves Commission on their very useful website.
A good 867 of the interred dead have not been identified, and it may be a small marvel that this number is not higher.
The World War II Burma campaign was a horrible and bloody business, infamous for the topical horrors the soldiers experienced as they battled against the Japanese.
My friend Terry wanted to go because she had heard about it from our guidebook and because she likes cemeteries.
“I like them too,” I said when she proposed we go out there, which was good: it is often that you find yourself traveling with someone who does not quite understand either the taxi expense or the natural motivation for hauling yourself out to view a somewhat remote cemetery as an afternoon’s diversion.
There we saw white wreaths with black ribbons, sent by all the countries that had embassies in Burma. Of course: Remembrance Day had just passed, commonly celebrated in England to remember the signing of the 1918 Armistice.
I occupied myself for a good hour and a half walking down the rows of graves and reading the little inscriptions, which are brief and full of the wrenching sentiment of the war-bereaved. The inscriptions come from fathers and mothers, from wives and children. They proclaim they will always remember. I am sure they kept up their end of the bargain.
British men are buried here, and Indians, and British-Indians as well. Even a few Assamese soldiers are scattered among the dead, whose headstones are decorated with a picture of their national animal, the Indian rhinoceros.
Here’s a few examples….
828502 L. Cpl (Lance Corporal)
Corps of Military Police
14th April 1943
Age 27 In Loving Memory of Arthur, Beloved Husband of Joan and Daddy of Diana
I was able to dig up some background information on the fate of the obviously much-loved Mr Hall.
Arthur Earnest Hall was born and raised in Abertillery, Monmouthshire, they say, and had at one point served in the Royal Artillery. His parents were named Fred and Maud Hall, and his wife’s full name was Joan Verona Hall.
He died as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, who famously used their captives to construct the infamous Burma Railway, which ran from Yangon to Bangkok — though we haven’t any idea if Hall suffered this fate.
Hall was one of the lucky ones: his body was retrieved and was able to be identified, unlike most of the men who served in Burma.
Often referred to as the “death” railway due to the slave labor used to construct it, it’s estimated that over 94,000 died while working on this monumental project, carried out in notoriously disease-ridden jungles.
Diana had recently come all the way to Burma to see her Daddy on Remembrance Day, as I discovered when I turned over the little note-card left with the poppies, thoughtfully sealed up in plastic.
Here’s what the back says. It’s a happy ending. Arthur would, I think, be content.
Time is but a candle and one day we will meet again.
With much love to Daddy from Diana.”
As we prepared to leave, an elderly Burmese man sat beneath one of the cupolas near the entry way — burning with heat in the afternoon sun — and sold lovely little watercolors of the cemetery and various Rangoon landmarks, as well as bottled water and 2012 and 2013 calendars. There were also plastic-wrapped pages with old Burmese currency on them, which I did not buy and am currently regretting.
Sadness and tourism do not always mix.
Sometimes they do: I am reminded of the enduring popularity of Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, or the Killing Fields (Which I still have not visited — my rationale somewhere in between discomfort with the concept itself, and discomfort with the notion of gap-year kids in Angkor Beer tank-tops padding meditatively around the grounds).
However, the Taukkyan War Cemetery is somewhat singular for its lack of crassness, the quiet, calm ambiance of the place. It’s made for quiet contemplation on cool green grass, and reading sad stories under the burning heat of a Rangoon day. This is all it was made for.
Getting to the Taukkyan War Cemetery: You are advised to take a taxi, one of those white jobs that patrols Yangon incessantly. We paid about $11 one way, which was about as well as we could manage after negotiating with 6 different cabs on a hot sidewalk and then finally giving up.
The drive takes about 20 minutes through some interesting bits of the Yangon suburbs. You will be surprised at how much pastoral greenery still exists not far from the city. How long this will last is doubtful, so do go see it now.