A cemetery is a strange place to visit on a road trip with your girlfriends. But, I am glad that it was one of the places we chose to visit in Taiping. It was a short stop - yet, poignant and humbling.
The hotel we stayed in is located at the foot of Bukit Larut, also known as Maxwell Hill, its name in the old days. From the main road, we need to make a right turn to go to the hotel. And just by the road side, on the left, is where the War Cemetery is. So, we would see the cemetery every time we leave or come back to the hotel. It soon became a curiosity.
I did wonder why is there a war cemetery in Taiping?
During WWII, Taiping was the home to a battalion of the Indian Army Infantry of the British armed services, a part of the Allied forces. With the impending Japanese occupation, the small town became the line of retreat on the west coast of the Malay Peninsular, a sort of transit point for re-fitment purposes, before troops moved southwards to Singapore.
The war cemetery was erected and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The cemetery is well kept, tidy and has an air of tranquility about it - a reflection of respect and gratitude to the war heroes.
The cemetery is made up of two burial grounds separated by a small road. On one side of the road is the Christian burial plot, while the non-Christian soldiers were laid to rest in the other burial ground, across the road. In addition to the WWII casualties, the cemetery is also the resting place for army personnels who were killed prior to the Malayan Insurgency.
The non-Christian burial plot is identified by the Stone of Remembrance, inscribed with the line "Their Name Liveth For Evermore". Looking at the tombstones, I saw Muslim and Indian names as well as names written in what I thought was Tamil or Urdu. I found out later, that those were the tombstones for the Gurkha soldiers.
Over on the other side of the road, at the Christian burial plot, a Cross of Sacrifice stands tall. This is where the British and Australian servicemen were laid to rest. For those who were identified, their tombstone display their regimental crests.
All in all, 850 soldiers had been interred at the Taiping War Cemetery. But, only 329 of the casualties had been identified. For the rest of them who were unidentified (more than 500 soldiers), their tombstones were inscribed with the famous phrase from Kipling - "Known Unto God", which means, "unknown, with exception to God".
It was a poignant visit for us. These men were somebody's father, son and brother. Most of the men were barely in their '20s, and most of them were unidentified. One wonder if the folks who were waiting back home for them, had ever had their closure.
It is humbling to know that if it were not for them, we would live in a whole different world today.
It is ironic to think that a place that felt so tranquil, is a product of a destructive event, a product of a war.