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Published: December 13th 2008
Apologies for the very late publishing of this blog!
From Ayutthaya, we headed to Pak Chong by train for one and a half day trip to Khao Yai National Park
(Thailand’s oldest, created in 1962). There is a wine industry around Khao Yai where Chenin Blanc grapes flourish. It is a huge place, where we spent all day where we saw deer, elephant, crocodiles, wild butterflies and gibbons. Also in the park is the waterfall from The Beach
, where we had a swim.
We sat about in our hostel for a few hours (including catching up on the blog!) before our grand departure to the Park. En route Tuk, our guide, took us to the clear waters of a nearby spring - the pool was about 3 metres deep with the clearest water we've ever seen. During our next stop at a Buddhist temple, Tuk taught us about some of the customs associated with Buddhism in Thailand: in order to learn the teachings of Buddha, most Thai males become a monk at some time during their life (if only for a few weeks or a month); it is an honour for the family to have a son who
Bats asleep during daytime inside cave temple, Pak Chong
is a monk; no killing, adultery, lying, no drugs (but we concluded these rules are adhered to varying degrees since we spotted a monk smoking a few minutes afterwards!!). If a son becomes a monk it is believed he will help not only himself but also his parents reach heaven. Elder monks tend to favour isolated forest temples because it is easier to meditate there whilst younger monks and novices prefer more urban temples, for obvious reasons.
At dusk, we saw a group of hundreds of thousands (no exaggeration) of small bats (that sleep inside caves during the day) emerge from the hiding place and fly across the fields in search of food. It was quite a sight (see the photo).
We travelled across the country to the west, to Kanchanaburi. The Thai Burma Railway Centre
(also known as the Death Railway Museum
) tells of the harrowing experience of Allied POWs captured there during the Second World War. A near-impossible logistical operation across difficult terrain and previously impassable roads, the Thai-Burma Railway Link
was built entirely by forced labour of allied prisoners captured by the Japanese. Its total length was 415km which meant over the relatively short period
Here we are
Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi
of building as much as 890m of track was laid on average every day. Various parts of the exhibition showed how inhospitable the terrain was to work on: for example, heavy artillery had to be left in Bangkok and the approach to Kanchanaburi made on pack animals. In the early 20th century many Japanese studied engineering at British universities and since Japan’s land is 70%!m(MISSING)ountainous they were well experienced in building tracks through difficult terrain.
By capturing such a large number of allied soldiers, the Japanese are said to have aimed at reducing the Allied threat since large numbers were held as their prisoners. Later, the Japanese tied some POWs to the infamous River Kwai Bridge to deter Allied Forces from bombing it.
The Bridge over the River Kwai
was originally a bridge in Java (another of Japan’s occupied lands at the time) which was transported and reassembled in Kanchanaburi.
The Japanese were depicted as “excellent planners and improvisers” and the project was part of their determination find a shorter transport route between Burma (now Myanmar) and Siam (now Thailand) to further Japan’s growing Empire towards India.
In the 58 POW camps pitched along the train line,
the captors and captives sometimes conversed in pidgin English/Japanese: ‘yasumed’ meant ‘rested’ (Yasumu
is the Japanese verb ‘to rest
). The camp conditions left a lot to be desired: inadequate and rotten food, some injured prisoners lay in the river and let fish nibble at their sores to soothe them. There were no mechanical drills, just sledgehammers and dynamite. 100,000 civilians and 15,000 POWs died before the track was complete.
Still at the museum, two of the most moving sights were 1) a letter dated 1942 to the family stating their husband and son had been listed as “missing”…”this does not mean necessarily that he has been killed, as he may be a prisoner of war…” and 2) a box of possession kept by a British POW who made it back home which was only discovered by his widow 60 years after the war ended: it contained an Army Prayer Book, cigarettes and soap.
There was no paper to hand so the artists among the prisoners engraved images depicting daily life on mess tins or table legs. POW accounts state ironically that although their captors may have treated them cruelly whilst alive, they paid the dead great respect by arranging
formal funerals and burials. Survivors took advantage of the situation to bury papers alongside the dead so that if later found, people would read them and know what really happened.
Across the road from the museum is the immaculately-kept Allied War Cemetery
on the site of a former POW camp and is now home to the remains from many graves alongside the tracks. The words written on the gravestones were extremely moving, and were especially poignant as so many were aged the same as us or younger.
At another site, the Jeath Museum
(JEATH is an acronym for the primary nations which participated in local action: Japan, England, Australia, Thailand and Holland) displayed more photos and related articles from the period.
Cycling out of town past towering sugar cane
, we noticed they was being harvested by hand by people wearing long sleeves, trousers and balaclavas - presumably to block out the sun but, given the heat we felt in our T-shirts and shorts, they must have been melting inside. On the other side of the road we spotted cows grazing on a football pitch before reaching the serene Chong Kai Cemetery
where mostly British soldiers are buried; every
gravestone was sparkling and each grave decorated with bright and healthy flowers.
As we returned to our bungalow at dusk, there must have been hundreds of croaking toads in the bushes which produced such a din - the nearest sound I can imagine is a group of plastic machine guns being fired. As sun rose next morning it was the birds’ turn, fluttering cheerily around outside the bungalow’s rattan walls and roof, which were so thin I thought at first I’d woken up inside an aviary!
Thai noodles were the best thing on offer for breakfast (when in Rome…). We then trained from the River Kwai Bridge station along the infamous Death Railway to the end of the line nowadays, Namtok, and back. We sweltered in the scorching heat merely sitting in the carriage, never mind having to build the track with bare hands and elementary tools, as so many were forced to do.
One section of the track was named the Pack of Cards
because it collapsed three times during construction. Another is known as Hellfire Pass
, where prisoners worked day and night, and onlookers remarked that torches shone on their emaciated frames after dark cast
National Elections = no alcohol
Shop fridge handles tied up so none can be bought during election time...
images like ‘the fires of hell.’
On the return journey a monk was seated across from us and one time the drink-selling lady walked by with her ice bucket of canned drinks, he ordered a coke. He got out his (very small) wallet to pay, but she refused and instead placed her hands together and bowed deeply to him. What great respect is given to monks here: specially designated seats on trains and in waiting rooms and (as mentioned before) parents consider it an honour for a son to spend a period of weeks, months or years living as a monk. Monks are always very visible out and about; their orange/saffron-coloured robes often caught my eye and left a lasting visual impression well after I’d left.
It would have been rude not to breakfast on the terrace overlooking the big garden of our residence, Bamboo House
; the lush green grass reminded us of picnics back home (it is not often we are reminded of home where we are). We enjoyed a bit more sitting around before having to huff and puff to the not-so-near bus stop for our onward journey to the floating market
at Damnoen Saduak
, our penultimate
Breakfast in the garden...
...before hauling rucksacks in the heat to the bus stop!
stop before Bangkok and home.
The last and smallest of several buses saw all passengers lending a hand to unload several metre-wide and deep baskets filled with chilies, ginger, cucumber and coriander. The seat widths and legroom are perfect for your average Thai but a bit on the small side for us…Just as we were willing our arrival, the conductor lady made us move seats to (admittedly more spacious ones) behind the driver although we had no idea why. She pointed at Nick’s legs and said something to a passenger in front and smiled, and we presumed she was making a joke about foreigners insisting on wearing shorts in winter (note that this wintry day was a breezy 30 degrees! The driver was certainly taking no chances, donning a long-sleeved woolen number under his work shirt). We eventually worked out that out of the kindness of her heart she had moved us to give Nick more legroom, and perhaps didn’t think Nick’s attire as odd we thought she did!
Arriving at Little Bird Hostel
, the entrance was bare and concrete like a big car park, but there was a tropical garden and benches in the centre. The building
Enjoying the River Kwai
Outside our bungalow on the water, Kanchanaburi
was square and imposing which reminded us of the Soviet-style blocks that made up many of the hostels we stayed in on our first trip around Eastern Europe in 1998 with Allan and Louise. Speaking of whom, many congratulations to both Allan and Kelly, and Louise and Pete on their respective engagements!!
It was not long before we’d sniffed out the open-air food stalls of the night market
for dinner. Often when abroad, the guide books warn you away from street food
, but we agreed that doing so in Thailand would mean foregoing a big chunk of your holiday enjoyment. Food is often noodles and fresh veg served in a piping hot soup, and even from a stall 1m square with one pan they can cook up a storm (-mmm, the mouth waters). It seems that locals here were aware of foreigners’ hesitance to dine here, thus this particular group of stalls displayed an official sign ‘Food Safety Street’
We were obliged to be up and out early doors if we were going to experience any of the Floating Market
before it became overrun with (other!) tourists. Some stalls on land jutted out onto the river but most
Marrow offering to Buddha
Restaurant shrine, Kanchanaburi
were on canoes piled up with products from vibrant fresh fruit and freshly-made coconut pancakes (stove and pan onboard!), to photo albums and T-shirts at the touristy end. As we purchased said pancakes (irresistible!), the lady placed them in a leaf shaped into a bowl (stapled at the sides!) and placed them on the end of a long stick in a basket so we could reach them from the shore and pop our money in return. Although this floating market has inevitably become a tourist attraction (not least because the development of roads has made this method of trading largely unnecessary), the traditions could still be felt in a bunch of flowers, a flower necklace or a ceramic vase containing a single rose placed at the stern of nearly every boat, however small, to denote where the sacred Buddha lives; the offering of flowers is to ask for divine protection (and presumably lots of punters). Whilst I took a breather and sat writing this diary, Nick was befriending some fruit sellers and saw it fit to purchase a bunch of about 20 bananas. Can’t be left alone for a minute…
Although we could’ve got in a boat to see
Selling wares by the boatload
Floating Market, Damnoen Saduak
the action from the river level ourselves, it certainly wasn’t necessary as you can walk easily along the banks and the river is only a few metres wide. In fact, as time went on the water got gridlocked with so many boats and in places it was far smoother to walk along the banks anyway!
As across the Thai nation, food stalls galore continued to sprout up in the market area, and it became so thriving that the place looked almost unrecognizable compared to the solitude we experienced upon arrival a couple of hours earlier. We gave into the temptation of various cooking aromas resulting in a (sugar loaded) breakfast of banana fritters, coconut dumplings, and mango and sticky rice cooked in coconut milk. Despite the small area - but true to the Thai love of massage - foot masseurs were also on hand (or foot?) to soothe any shoppers’ aching limbs.
***** Nick writes...
At the time of Thai elections, the country officially goes dry and alcohol is prohibited from sale in bars, restaurants and shops. Some places take it very seriously and post signs outside saying "No alcohol for sale", whereas others take a more broad
interpretation of the law, as we found out in Kanchanaburi
: one place, the Jolly Frog ("Rooms aren't the cleanest but neither are the guests" ) served me a beer in a plastic cup and at another place it came in a ceramic mug; i.e. as long as the bottle's not on the table, it's ok. We also heard of beer being served in teapots elsewhere! Walking back from town, while buying water, I saw a shopkeeper top up his glass with beer. "Iced tea!" he grinned, offering us a sip.
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