Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wickham Trolley - The Forgotten Malayan Emergency Hero.

Railway services in Peninsula Malaysia were the preferred mode of transportation back in the days when the country was largely covered in jungle and lacked good road networks.

Trains were the lifeline to move people and produce around the country.

When the Malayan communist insurgency peaked, railway services particularly the railroads became favorite targets of guerilla saboteurs. As the conflict escalated, the terrorists became bolder at blowing up rail tracks and inflicted heavy human cost.

The devastation soon overwhelmed the authority and a quick fix to the problem was urgently needed.

Before too long, the security forces found their answer in the British made armored Wickhams Trolley – a tank look-alike except it ran on train tracks. The trolleys were originally manufactured by D Wickham & Co of Ware, Hertfordshire and brought to Malaya by the colonial administration.

Each of the 2-ton Wickham Trolleys or AWT, was armed with search light and machine guns on the turret. They were immediately deployed in key roles as front guard and to provide cover for interstate train services.

Subsequent insurgent attempts to disrupt railway services were met fiercely by government soldiers in these self-powered Wickhams on steel wheels. AWT quickly proved itself to be a deterrent force and provided all-weather and round-the-clock protection for all trains.

However, when the Emergency ended in 1960, AWT triumphing records were cut short and many of the AWTs were left idle at KTM sheds in Klang. Their formidable fighting tales began to fade with time too.

Recently, the railway authority has embarked on giving the AWT a new lease of life as war relics in various museums and establishments.

For the best view of the Wickhams and to get a glimpse of how AWT was effective in its role, then check out the Armored Trolley No. 60 at the Malaysian Army Museum in Port Dickson.

The Army’s AWT No. 60 spots a grey body and it is parked along a steam locomotive and train coach. The museum has undoubtedly the best display of the Wickham and with a bit of imagination, visitors can see for themselves how the armored trolley protected trains in those turbulent times.

The Royal Police Museum in Lake Garden, KL is the next best bet to see a Wickham. AWT No. 63 is painted in police blue indicating a different ownership but the logo on its side shows KTM with its roaring tiger.

No much is revealed in the Police Museum about the success made by the Malaysian Police on the Wichham but fighting communist insurgency in those days was a concentrated effort involving different parties and strategies.

One can also head to the less conspicuous Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial in KL to see -AWT No. 56.

However, like all the AWT on display, they are exhibited outdoor and their fate is left to the mercy of the weather. Information on the Wickham is sorely lacking and similarly all venues don’t provide sufficient materials about where and how the Wickhams were deployed.

One need to go to the KTM Mini Museum at the Old KL Train Station to find Wickham related materials. In its small gallery, there is brief information on the three Wickham Trolleys and their whereabouts. There are old photographs showing men on the AWT preparing guns and search-light, but unfortunately, this railway museum does not have static display of the armored trolley.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse - The Hidden Treasure of Penang Heritage.

The 19th century Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse is one of the best hidden colonial gems in Penang’s UNESCO heritage enclave.

Many visitors often give it a miss although it is just a stone throw away from the iconic British fortress of the same name.

Penang tourism players fare no better and they too overlook the lighthouse potential and its historical importance to Penang’s maritime role.

The British built the lighthouse in 1882 when harbour traffic began to grow for a prosperous Penang. Now in its advance age, the historic lighthouse no longer served to warn ships approaching the Penang cape.

The lighthouse is now manned by Jabatan Laut, Malaysia’s Maritime Authority, and offers fascinating opportunity to acquaint oneself with a bygone maritime era. Admission is free and it is accessible from a small northern entrance of the historical complex.

Walk inside the lighthouse, and you will learn why it is structurally one of its kinds in this country. Most lighthouses in the Malay archipelagos consist traditionally of a lone silo structure i.e. Tanjung Tuan, Malacca(1880), fitted with warning beacons on the top.

Not the Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse.

It has a white coated light tower which sits on a huge steel frame and next to it, a 21-meter T-shaped mast. Together, they fill the entire landscape and probe the curious about the fate of this ex-guardian of the narrow Penang Strait.

For most visitors, the slow climb, about 15 minutes, to the top of the claustrophobic watch tower and the warning beacon is undoubtedly the highlight of the visit.

Walking up on the steel staircase might prove daunting for the vertical challenged. A wrong step could spell disaster to anyone’s holiday and when the steps are particularly slippery after a drizzle. Parents with small children are best cautioned against taking the challenge.

However the panoramic view at the tower is worth the effort. Visitors will be rewarded with an all-round perspective of the city, strait and the mainland.

In the distance, the full views of multi-coloured Penang ferries come unfold. Catch also cargo laden vessels berthing to take Made-in-Penang goods to the world.

Stretch your viewing canvas and over the horizon, you will find the Penang Bridge fills the background.

On the ground level, a small chamber houses a delightful mini museum and showcases lighthouse artefacts like communication equipments and giant bulbs used before GPS and satellite controlled gadgetries made them obsolete.

Penang State should work on this oversight and promote the lighthouse as a full fledge tourist attraction but more urgently, accord and preserve it with a heritage status.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Imjingak - Korea's Cold War Heritage.

Imjingak Tourist Resort with its 4-storey metallic pavilion and the semi arch observation platform is perfectly located to view the iconic Bridge of Freedom. About 13,000 Allied prisoners-of-war made their final desperate dash for freedom across this wooden bridge at the closing stage of the brutal Korean War in 1953.

Since the new millennium, South Korean authority keen on reunification with its communist North brethrens has embarked on making Imjingak a heritage site. The venue makes an ideal living museum to prepare the uninitiated on the issues confronting the Korean dilemma.
Imjingak is even adeptly lauded by tourist brochures as the must-see venue to witness the only divided country in the world!

Getting to Imjingak is easy and travellers have a choice of car, bus or rail, and it is merely an hour drive away from Seoul.
Tourists will be greeted by its impressive Visitor Center which overlooks the heavily fortified banks of Imjin River and beyond the reclusive North Korea.
Unfortunately, most tour guides would want you to believe that Imjingak sits on the world’s most volatile border in modern history but soldiers guarding on the banks of the Imjin River are mainly South Korean.
Nevertheless, the much feared and trigger-happy North Koreans are in fact positioned a further four km north from Imjingak.

Needless to say, South Korean military fearing a potential large scale strike from its Red neighbors, has designated defence lines in by placing barbed wires and army lookout posts on the edges of the Civilian Passage Restricted Line (CPRL).

Thus, visitors often get the false impression that South Korea ends at Imjingak, and the Imjin River the natural border between these two hostile neighbors.

A quick check on the maps will reveal that the fences at Imjingak are actually the Southern CPRL, with a heavily guarded buffer zone lining parallel to the Northern CPRL inside North Korea territory.

There is also the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) central to the buffer zone and together they cut the Peninsula into halves.
During my visit to see first-hand the cold war frontier in late September 2008, it got off to an unexpected start when we were stopped in our car by heavily armed South Korean personnel and our guide informed us that the army is conducting a drill to detonate two nearby road tunnels leading to the north border. (Naturally no photos were taken for fear of antagonizing the M-16 guys)
The Military Demarcation Line is the de facto border agreed by these two warring factions, amid reluctantly, and explains why Korea is also home to 30,000 plus American infantrymen.

The entire stretch of land within the CPRL is a no-man territory, but is more popularly known as Demilitarized Zone or DMZ.

Interestingly, only foreigners holding valid passports are allowed near the epic center of DMZ or Panmunjum.

Here, one is only a breath away from North Korean guards smacking in their traditional goose attire from the Soviet era. Their Southern counterparts have their peculiarity too. Dark sunglasses and arms folded in karate pose are their choice of instilling fear and awe.

Panmunjum is however, a no-go for Korean nationals. The furthermost point Koreans are allowed to go near their Northern neighbors is the border town of Dorasan.

Today, tourists take the scheduled Korail trains on the reconstructed 4 kilometer long Gyeongui Line to Dorasan Station from Imjingak Station (Train fare - KW2,000 / US$2 return).

For many years, the railway line was the main steel artery for intra Korea travel but the war cut it short at Imjingak.
At Dorasan, one can spy with the coin operated binoculars (KW700) on the North Korean industrial city of Gaeseong. Not to be missed is the guided tour inside the 3rd Tunnel, a must for those who doubt North Korean aggressive ambition.
A rusty steam locomotive outside the Imjingak mini museum casts a vivid reminder of the once extensive railway networks connecting all corners of the Korean Peninsula prior to the devastating war.

Take a few steps towards the museum rear, more war relics and the scales of battles fought greet you – The Sherman that pounded on the Russian T34 or perhaps intrigued by the Sabres that triumphed over the MiGs in the Korean skies.

Even the most bewildered visitor is unlikely to escape the highly charged atmosphere between both sides at the border.

My visit to Imjingak has left me with an overwhelming realization of this long lasting border conflict and how all aspects of border life are teeming with military alertness.

Here, no one gambles with the peaceful existence or risk provoking enemies who have no qualms to unleash the perils of Cold War on all.

While it gives you the impression that human life is cheap at the border area, visitors will be surprised to find Imjingak is also the main venue to celebrate Chuseok - aka Korean's Thanksgiving.

Family members torn by the war come here on an annual pligrimage to express their longing for relatives living across the barbed wires.
Besides the ruined railway bridge and antiqued military displays, the visit to Imjingak offers visitors an everlasting view on the terrible human cost brought by idealogic conflicts.