At the bridge on the River Kwai


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Asia » Thailand » Western Thailand » Kanchanaburi
January 9th 2007
Published: January 15th 2007
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Wednesday 3rd January

We got up and had breakfast with Clem and Becky before seeing them off to work and then watched some more cricket while packing. We then had an incredibly long trip to the airport including train, bus and finally taxi - after which we felt even more grateful for having been so well looked after during our stay.

Our first flight to Singapore was extremely turbulent throughout its 5 hour duration, especially when you consider that planes are known to come down in bad weather in this part of the world. After watching some lightning flood the sky out of our window we agreed that people who are scared to fly have justification! While I could distract myself with Superman, Simon was also hard done by because his in flight entertainment system wasn't working. After a brief stop of Singapore's swanky airport and a complimentary electronic foot massage we were soon back in the air and had a much more relaxing flight to Bangkok with some space to stretch out in. As it was after midnight by the time we had touched down at the new international airport and passed through customs, we decided to hit a nearby hotel and get our bearings in the morning.

Thursday (My Birthday!)

We woke up early due to slight jet lag and I was presented with a freshly created birthday card, albeit from hotel stationery (aw bless). Following breakfast, which included fried rice with chillis for Simon, for acclimatisation purposes, we went outside to acquire transport into the city. Initially thinking we would catch a bus, we were a bit annoyed to be harangued into getting another taxi, but as the journey progressed we realised just how far out the new airport must be - it was at least an hour before we reached Thanon Khao San. We had a brief look around and picked up a second hand Rough Guide to Thailand to assist us in future communication difficulties (the tried and tested point at a map and gesticulate method). After this we decided to continue to the train station and leave a full exploration of the area until our return, in consciousness of the continued high bomb risk in the city. Getting to the train station proved quite tricky however and we ended up walking most of the way with our packs in the heat after our first tuk tuk driver dumped us after demanding more money and the second wasn't much better. Once at Thonburi Station we could finally shed our packs for a while and pick up some noodles from a nearby market for lunch.

Our train to Kanchanaburi was an interesting experience - at 100B a ticket (about 1 pound 50) we could hardly complain at the uncomfortable seats and spent the 2.5 hour journey watching some fantastic scenery pass us by from the open window: shanty towns, paddy fields, sugar cane plantations and even quite a high-tec rail-side gymnasium complete with the ubiquitous Thai/yellow flags and a picture of the King. In its frenetic street life Thailand is reminiscent somewhat of South America and certainly marks a change from our past few months in NZ and Ozzie.

When we arrived at Kanchanaburi we were of course immediately accosted by a friendly local wishing us to go to his guesthouse and after discussing prices we agreed. However, on turning to look for his tuk tuk we were instead met with an adapted bicycle that did not look fit to transport us. Our new friend was adament however and despite our intrigued faces, gestured for us to squeeze into the tiny seat while he strapped on our bags. It wasn't to be however and soon the right wheel had all but fallen off...to the amusement of passersby Simon then had to help push the unfortunate vehicle the rest of the way! Eventually we did arrive at Sugar Cane Guesthouse and settled into our bungalow hut next to, but not on, the river. We then ventured out for a look around this end of the 5km strip that is Kanchanaburi, finding it filled with guesthouses, bars, travel agencies and establishments offering Thai massage but still with a friendly village ambience. As for the massage establishments - with the friendly girls outside cooing "mass...aaaage" at you as you pass you would think that massage parlour might be a more apt title, but there's nothing seedy at all and it didn't take me long to convince Simon that I needed an hour-long birthday treat. I loved every minute including when my masseuse somehow contrived to stand on my thighs, bend my feet back to my bum and rub my back all at the same time! Simon rejoined an extremely relaxed girlfriend an hour later and we went to a RG recommended restaurant called Apple for dinner which did not disappoint although our throats and lips were still feeling the pain despite Apple giving our curries a 1-2* rating! After a long day we returned to Sugar Cane for an early night.

Friday

After a cold shower then pancakes for breakfast overlooking the river, we set out on foot to explore the town. As well as its tourist strips, it has a large commercial area at its southern end with markets and government buildings befitting its status as a regional centre. Picking our way through the market stalls it was no particular surprise to see that people were still riding their motorbikes even in these narrow surrounds, and we could also see unusual produce such as live horny toads and eels for sale. We made our way to the JEATH War Museum (an acronym of the nationalities represented) which is housed in bamboo huts similar to those the WWII POWs would have lived in during construction of the Thailand-Burma 'Death Railway'. It contained photos, maps and misc artefacts as well as photos of surviving POWs and newspaper clippings. It is estimated that almost 50% of the 30,000 POWs and 200,000 conscripted labourers forced to work on the difficult 415km section of the track perished - largely as a result of the prevailing Japanese view that they had waived their human rights through surrender.

After leaving the museum and making a few small purchases at tourist stalls along the way, we stopped for lunch near the War Cemetery, which was immaculately maintained and extremely poignant. We couldn't stay for long however as the midday sun was beating down and we returned to our guesthouse for a bit of a siesta. Later, having booked our tours/trains we walked north along the river to the bridge itself, which was crowded with tourists and local stall-holders with plenty of attractive crafts to catch the eye.

Saturday

We got picked up by our 'Good Times' tour bus shortly after 8am and got chatting to another English couple from Sugar Cane, strangely enough called Ollie and Michelle, as we drove to the first stop: Sai Yok Noi Waterfall. This was an attractive set of falls that have deposited layers of calcium sediment resulting in smooth cascades of trickling water. After this, we continued northwards and stopped at Konyu Cutting, otherwise known as "Hellfire Pass", the most difficult section of the death railway. This had a modern and interesting museum attached, with lots of information regarding the South East Asian dimension to WWII, something I remember being neglected at school. We then walked down into the pass itself, which brought all the images to life as you could see evidence of the hand-drilled holes for explosive laying ("hammer and tap"). It is said that a man died for every sleeper laid and it's little wonder.

Our next stop was lunch at a little cafe and then we drove on (at breakneck speed since our driver seemed to enjoy overtaking everything in sight) to a Karen Village where some of our group would be having an elephant ride and bamboo raft. After marvelling at the huge but adorable elephants for a few minutes the rest of us continued to some nearby hot springs, which were set out immediately adjacent to a slowly flowing river into which we could dip to cool off - perfect! After an hour or so we returned to pick up the others and then drove south and back to the railway at Krasae Cave, where there was a Buddhist Temple, famous wooden viaduct (some original) and plenty of craft stalls for us to browse. We then hopped on the train to ride the death railway for ourselves, with gorgeous views over the Mae Khlong river and tapioca/sugar cane plantations for 30km. Back on the bus, we were driven to the famous bridge again for a walk across it along with all the other tourists. After returning to our bungalow we went for dinner at VN Guesthouse, which is where Simon stayed last time he was in Kanchanaburi.

Sunday

Another full day, this time at the Erewan National Park, which we reached by local bus - a lot cheaper than a tour but noisier due to the fact that all the drivers appear to have compulsive horn-blowing syndrome. We arrived at the Falls at about 11am and spent the next couple of hours climbing up the seven tiers, stopping for swims at step 5 on the way up and 4 on the return. Although the place was quite busy in patches (predominantly with Thais and Russian tourists - the male variety of which all had sumo-type figures and svelte, undoubtedly money-grabbing, attractive wives) it was still peaceful and shady under another hot sun. With a lot of calcium deposits the water cascaded over into turquoise blue pools which were reasonably warm for swimming. The only disincentive hover, were the large schools of fish in the pools which nibbled on your feet if given half the chance. Although they were only sucking off dead skin the sensation was squeal-inducing and meant that after we slid down the natural shoots in the falls, there was a hasty dash out! We left the national park at 3pm after enjoying the sight of a number of baby monkeys playing in the trees.

On our return we went for another massage, Simon joining me this time, before dinner again at Apple's - a delicious way to round off our time here.

Monday

An in-between travelling sort of day, largely spent at Ban Pong, an hour east of Kanchanaburi, where we waited for our night train south. It did give us a chance to do some people watching and we were impressed at the number of bodies Thais can fit onto a motorbike, spotting 5 or so school kids scoot by during the school rush. At 6pm we boarded the overnight train which would take us south to Surat Thani.

Tuesday

The travelling continued today, so much so that both of us agreed to fly back to Bangkok for the return leg. After our train arrived at 4am we had various amounts of waiting, bus and boat travel to get us eventually to Koh Phagnan by 1 o'clock. The boat was an unenjoyable choppy affair with several people succombing to seasickness. After a stop at Koh Samui we arrived and were pleased to note that in accordance with its description as Samui's less developed neighbour, there were no obvious high rises in Thong Sala to greet us. We were soon in a songthaew to ChaoPhao, having decided to avoid Haad Rin (of Full Moon Party fame) for a bir of relaxation. We checked into a very rustic but character-rich hut at Seaflower Bungalows with our own ensuite outdoor bathroom, hammock on the porch and approximately 10 paces to the pretty little beach across a volleyball pitch. Although it wasn't a particularly sunny afternoon, the sea was warm enough in which to go for a long swim and we played frisbee with some French dudes while people watching an attractive but attention-seeking couple in skimpy speedos (definitely budgie smugglers, Clem) and an interestingly held together bikini get plenty of it! The evening was only slightly soured for me when the same Frenchies' frisbee thwacked into my chin while I reclined under a palm tree and I was left with a bloody gash for my trouble...no doubt to their amusement. After dinner and some reading, we hit the sack.

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