As calm as a chameleon in Kanchanaburi

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Asia » Thailand » Western Thailand » Kanchanaburi
February 28th 2011
Published: March 5th 2011
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The two hour bus trip from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi was fascinating! While I am always compelled to sit and absorb the countryside on bus and train travel, I could not pull myself away from the on-board entertainment. A large LCD screen at the front of the bus was playing Thai pop film clips, which were really mini musical soap operas. Each song ran for at least 15 minutes. The acting and background music were terrible and the plot in each song was repetitive - two lovers, man has affair with another woman, betrayed woman discovers affair by secretly flicking through man’s mobile phone, great fighting and wailing prevails. If I was visiting from another planet, I would conclude that the mobile phone was the maker and breaker of relationships (well, I suppose it is). Anyway, getting back to the music - when I blanked out the atrocious backing, the guitar was 80’s glam/pop rock, so I found myself tapping my fingers subconsciously. I was totally into it - this was riveting stuff. I gasped too loudly when one of the female protagonists was run over by a car - she got up (crying profusely), pushed her nemesis down a flight of stairs and shot her lover in the arm. Fantastic!

We arrived in Kanchanaburi around 4.30pm and jumped straight into a bicycle rickshaw for a ride to the Allied War Cemetery. It was hard sitting in the back of a rickshaw and having a man pedal us (with full packs) through the town. It was harder still arriving at a place that has such implicit sadness for some and yet no real connection for us. About 6000 prisoners of war were buried here. Young men lost to mourning families, and the messages on the headstones were incredibly sad. Some died nobly; some died nobly and fearlessly; some died with no message at all from their family. On one headstone the message read “One day, my husband, I hope I will understand”. He was 41.

The cemetery closed at 5pm, so we continued our rickshaw ride to the Death Railway Bridge (Bridge over the River Kwai). Again, this was a hard place to visit as a tourist, especially as it has become so tourist driven and focused. We wandered across the bridge and then jumped in the rickshaw to head back along the river to our accommodation (where the shower was very welcome).

The sun burned red in the evening sky as we walked to the restaurant for dinner. The meal was incredible - fried banana flowers and then neua phad ta krai (stir fried beef with lemongrass, chilli and cashews)! This was an incredible setting and an incredible place - the restaurant was right on the bank of the river.

We breakfasted on the banks of the River Kwai too and left at 9am for Erawan Waterfall in a songthaew (small pickup truck/ute) with two long bench seats with the seat backs to the road. We arrived at 10.15am and set off to conquer the seven levels of the waterfall. Our quest was to reach the top level, which was 1.5km up. The track itself wasn’t tough, but the heat made the walk exhausting. I didn’t bother swimming in the small pool on the seventh level, but I dived into the fifth level pool on the way back down. The local carp loved to nibble your toes, and they were not small fish (or at least not all of them). The one that latched onto my big toe had visions of lunch! I decided to float on my back and to keep moving my feet - it kept the carp at bay…

We dressed and continued our descent until we reached level two. We dived in with the throngs of other tourists to cool off and then walked to the restaurants in the car park for lunch. We shared som tum (Thai spicy green papaya salad) and larb moo (spicy minced pork salad), which were sensational - I was starving! We jumped into the waiting songthaew and headed back along the river. Six of us were dropped off at a vantage point on the river bank were we got into three open top kayaks to paddle down the last few kilometres of the river. Ren and another traveller stayed on the bus and headed back to the hotel for a well-earned shower.

It was idyllic on the river - we just drifted and guided the kayak with the strength of the current. We drifted under the bridge over the river and pulled into the riverbank, where we jumped into another songthaew which took us back to the hotel. As always, the shower was welcome, and we kicked back and relaxed into the late afternoon before heading out at 6.30pm for dinner.

We ate at a family food stall in Kanchanaburi that specialised in pad thai (rice noodles stir fried with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, tofu, chillies, fish sauce and peanuts), it was their only dish. The mother cooked on the footpath outside the family home, and we all sat at a makeshift table that was placed between the house and her cooking area on the edge of the footpath. While we waited, she prepared take-away meals for locals who pulled up on motor bikes, ordered and then left with their meal in a plastic bag. This was a highlight dish so far - we’ve had pad thai in Australia and paid exorbitant prices for it at trendy Thai restaurants. This meal cost 25 baht (80 cents), and the flavour was nothing short of sensational.

We then headed to the bustling local Night Market to wander through the maze of food stalls, where you could easily become overwhelmed for choice. The smell of this market was incredible, and the variety of dishes would send those prone to option anxiety into a total meltdown. On the way back we stocked up on provisions for the following day, dropped into a local bar for a nightcap and then headed back to the hotel. I know I’ve used the expression liberally in the past, but on this night I really was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

We woke at 5am to catch up on writing and packing. We headed down to breakfast at 8am and then caught a minibus to the JEATH War Museum at 9am. The museum has been built to resemble the bamboo huts the POWs were kept in, and the paintings around the walls were poignant in the way they sacrificed realism for impact. They were certainly more powerful than the photographs, but this was a time in history that words and images will never fully depict.

At 10am we walked a few hundred metres to our river raft and settled in. This was a fantastic vessel. It was divided into three sections - a dining area that doubled as a disco at the front; a sleeping area in the middle and a sunbaking area at the back. It was great! We set off at 10.45am, and within no time we were swimming off the back of the raft. When the current got too strong we climbed into rubber tyres that were attached by rope and basked in the warmth of the sun with water streaming through our fingers.

We arrived at the Ban Tum Temple around midday. We docked on the river bank and had the most amazing lunch on the raft that comprised cold chilli sardines, stir fried morning glory, Thai omelette, chicken green curry and chicken in garlic and pepper, all served with steamed rice. It really is becoming difficult to describe the taste of the food here - it is simply incredible. After lunch we rested for 30 minutes and then headed up to the temple. We walked into the mouth of the dragon and up into the hill cave that housed an impressive Buddha. It was hot work walking up the many stairs, especially in the heat of the day.

We got back around 2pm, jumped on the raft and headed back out onto the Klong River. It didn’t take long for us to slip off the back of the raft and just float with the current in the rubber tyres again. We arrived at another temple in the mid-afternoon - walked in from the river bank, climbed many stairs, stood in front of an even bigger Buddha and were swamped by a Russian tour group that decided every drum and bell they could find had to be played as loudly as possible. We descended from the temple, boarded our raft and headed back out into the river to drift aimlessly with the current. We anchored around 5pm and swam off the back with no drifting current to contend with. This has been the most relaxing and majestic of days.

A storm had been threatening most of the afternoon, and the lightening started late in the day. We sat with drinks on the sun deck and watched the lightening show in the horizon. It was a great way to end a great day, but we soon realised the lightening was approaching fast - very fast. We were called to dinner around 7.30pm, and by then the storm was upon us. The lightening was all around the boat and wind gusts were fierce - they were blowing rice from my fork as I ate. The crew were panicked and decided we couldn’t stay anchored in the middle of the river as planned, so the anchor was pulled and a small tug tried desperately to tow us back to shore. As we ate dinner amidst the wind gusts and lightening, the tug tilted almost vertically as it zigged and zagged its way (and ultimately our way - we were attached to it) back to shore. When we eventually docked, the rain hit hard. We were in an open sided raft, so the wind and rain howled through. We had hung up our bathers and towels on the rope used for mosquito nets around the sleeping raft, and they were now blowing horizontally in the wind. We tried to secure everything as best we could while the crew pulled blinds down to cover the open sides of the raft. This meal will be hard to forget - we ate while the crew were trying to save the boat. It was reminiscent of bands playing while boats sank, and the jovial conversation around the table seemed to conclude that this would be a good way to go (if, of course, we did all die on the Klong River that night). We didn’t. It is a surreal experience to eat exceptional food while you are in potential danger, and one that we will treasure for many years. We were useless to the crew and our fate lay in the skill of a tug boat driver we had never met.

While the food was fantastic, I’ve forgotten what we actually ate. When a fierce storm is breaking around you and the crew is panicking, your memory focuses on the experience itself, and all the culinary details take a back seat. I vaguely remember tofu and bean sprout stir fry, vegetable stir fry, pork stir fry and coconut chicken curry.

When the rain and wind subsided, the night drifted into a party on the raft. We had no choice really - the crew were intent on showing off the raft’s sound system, so we all willingly obliged. We danced, sang and eventually crawled into our mosquito nets around midnight and fell asleep to the gentle movement of the river current. The storm that hit us five hours earlier was now a very distant memory.

We woke at 6am (when the tug from the night before arrived to start towing us back to Kanchanaburi) and strolled around the deck to watch the sun rise and the river come to life. I settled down on the front deck to catch up on a few notes in the dawn sunlight before breakfasting on khao pad kai (egg fried rice), toast, jam and coffee.

I really love Bangkok - it’s a very large buzzing city with so many experiences to offer. However exactly because of this, it can be almost faceless in its lack of extended people contact. It’s not until you move into regional and rural Thailand that the friendly smiles and warm hospitality of the Thai people became really apparent.

It took us about two hours in the afternoon to travel the 130 kilometres west to Kanchanaburi by local bus. We moved through corridors of satellite suburbs punctuated with picturesque fields of corn and sugarcane, and farms with mango, papaya and banana trees. And then finally to Kanchanaburi, home of the infamous 'Bridge on the River Kwai' and the Death Railway built in the Second World War. The bus was very comfortable and the on-board music video entertainment was superbly cheesy and tacky. Andrew really got into the clips while I decided to read, but I couldn’t help but look up every so often when both Andrew and Lee (sitting right behind me) would giggle or gasp in unison. 😊

We took a saamlor (bicycle rickshaw) from the bus station. It was the perfect way to take in the vibe of this city and also see two war monuments - the World War II cemetery and the Bridge over the River Kwai. The very well taken care of cemetery has over 6000 POWs buried there, and while it was a very sombre reminder of the many lives senselessly lost, it also made me agitated. War makes absolutely no sense to me, but what makes even less sense is that we resolutely refuse to learn from the past! Maybe if there were more women in charge of ‘war or no war’ decisions...?!

The building of the bridge over the River Kwai was a major and very tragic event (it was also made famous by the 1957 film Bridge over the River Kwai), but the present day bridge is also a tourist trap. The background story in a nutshell is that the Japanese troops used Allied prisoners of war during World War II to build this bridge. The bridge is part of the Death Railway which was built under appealing conditions and in record time. The Japanese engineers predicted a five year build time but the POWs were forced to build it in 16 months so that the Japanese could use it to gain access into Burma. Being here made me think of ‘Uncle Fred’, a family friend who was an Allied POW here. His stories of torture and endurance are still remembered and spoken of by Mum and Dad. I don’t remember much of him accept that he was a large Dutchman who took a brilliant photograph of my siblings and I when I was five (that now sits in a frame on my desk).

Anyway, back to the bridge...we got there, took some fantastic sunset photos and started walking over the still working rebuilt bridge (the original was bombed a few years after it was built)...when Golf happened to casually mention that if a train came past we should make sure we move into the side ‘safe spaces’. Yes, there were a few allocated ‘safe’ places on the bridge but I wasn’t convinced that we would - a) all fit into the safe spots, b) not fall through the gaps in the metallic structure in the rush to the safe spots, or c) not fall over the not-so-high rails in the safe areas...hmmm. Happily none of the above happened and we walked to the Burma side of the bridge and back safely. I have to mention here that I was very amused to find out that as a result of the American film mentioned above; the whole western world pronounces the name of this river incorrectly. We pronounce ‘Kwai’ as ‘why’ with a ‘k’; it should be pronounced like ‘square’ without the ‘s’.

The saamlor then took us to Apple’s Retreat which was a very comfortable and homey place on the river and away from the main drag. The rooms were hardly posh, but very cutely furnished in minimalist old Thai style with AC and fans, and also come complete with cute house geckos. We opted for the AC during the day and the fan at night. Apple’s Restaurant is across the road from the rooms and very picturesquely set right on the river bank. The food and service were very good here and this made me wish that we had an extra day to undertake Apple’s renowned cooking classes. We had a beautiful group meal on the first night. I had gai phad ta krai (stir fried chicken with lemongrass, baby corn, cashew nuts, green peppercorns and chilli), and Andrew had the beef version. The lemongrass dishes were especially recommended here as it is one of the main local products; and according to Apple, lemongrass is also a good natural repellent of mosquitoes. I would highly recommend this dish even without its medicinal properties. The setting was perfect, the food beautiful and the company was fun and entertaining. That night we really noticed that we had left the big city noises behind - all we could hear through the whirring of our fan were frog song, crickets and geckos. 😊

After an early breakfast at Apple’s Restaurant of pineapple pancake for me and muesli with yogurt for Andrew, the group headed off to Erawan National Park which is just over one hour from Kanchanaburi. We got there by songthaew - which is a small pickup truck/ute with a row of seats on either side of the tray, it has a roof but the sides are open which was very refreshing on muggy days. The main attraction at the national park was to explore the famous seven-level waterfall. We had the option of climbing to the top or simply swimming and relaxing at the bottom. The whole group wanted to do both, so we hiked one kilometre or so to the top, past a tumble of inviting limestone pools with hazy green water and refreshing waterfalls. The walk was pretty but very hot and muggy work. We walked right to the top first and on the way down decided which levels looked inviting enough to stop at. We ended up stopping at levels seven, five and two. The refreshingly cold water was brilliant but stepping into any of the pools was slightly unnerving at first. There are carp in the pools that swim up to you and nibble at your feet and legs. Strangely it’s not as disgusting as it sounds and ‘fish massage’ has become quite popular in Thailand as a kind of pedicure. I dangled my legs in the water and having a swarm of fish nibble my feet relentlessly was a tickly but not unpleasant experience.

We had a well-earned lunch in the national park, and as nice as the curries and soups on the menu sounded, Andrew and I really wanted salads so we ordered larb moo (spicy minced pork salad) and som tum (Thai spicy green papaya salad) to share. Golf had suggested a two chilli (medium) hotness for the papaya salad and we agreed. But when the salad arrived and I announced that it was the perfect level of chilli for us, Golf admitted that he had knocked our chilli down to one! Cheeky, but perceptive. By Australian standards, Andrew and I can eat extremely hot food, but here we sit somewhere near the mild level!

On the return journey to Kanchanaburi, there was the possibility of grabbing a kayak and paddling down the River Kwai under the infamous bridge. Unsurprisingly Andrew being the water baby that he is took this option as did the entire group except for Julie-Anne and myself who opted to stay on the songthaew for the direct land route back to the hotel for cold showers and a dose of full AC.

Dinner that night was a wonderful surprise by Golf, we took us to a street stall in town that specialised in the old traditional version of pad thai (rice noodles stir fried with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, tofu, chillies, fish sauce and peanuts). I know this is not an inherently Thai dish (originally Chinese), and it has been bastardised globally; but it is still one of my top five comfort foods. It is crucial in traditional Thai cooking to balance flavours of sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter. The western palate doesn’t favour bitter much, which is probably why I have never had pad thai with a side of hua plee (fresh banana flower) before. Other side accompaniments were pork crackling, bean sprouts, garlic chives and fresh lime. All noodle dishes in Thailand are served with four condiment choices: white vinegar (sour), fish sauce (salty), dried red chilli (hot) and white sugar (sweet). I’ve watched the locals and it seems you add a teaspoon of each of the condiments. I have a massive sweet-tooth but still found that any additional sugar was too sweet for a savoury dish. So anyway back to the street stall - all nine of us squashed onto a small table behind the mama cook who was juggling two massive woks on a single burner gas stove. She first had to serve the back log of take-away customers who were lined up on their motorbikes, and then we proceeded to have possibly one of the best versions of pad thai I have ever had (and I’ve had my fair share of it!). 😊

After this we walked to the Night Market for Thai desserts and Golf did a point and yell tour of all the stalls in the market as about 80%!o(MISSING)f the food stalls had food we did not recognise. A few of us got a few different dessert options to share, but we were not very successful in finding anything we loved. The desserts had a curious mix of salty and sweet that our pallets were not used to yet. Then the preparations for our next day and night on the Rice Barge began with buying water, snacks, and alcohol. We were all very tired from a full day and long evening, but we still found the time and energy to sneak in a round of cocktails before bed. The group has indeed turned out to be as cool and fantastic as we had thought when we first met. And even with, or maybe because of, our very different personalities we seem to be all balancing out quite nicely. 😊

The only other noteworthy issue here is that a few stray dogs have adopted the local bridge between the town and our hotel. Tim and Paul had been ‘barked at’ the night before, so we were careful to avoid the footbridge the dogs were sleeping in and walked back on the road part of the bridge. It’s a relatively car free area so it wasn’t a big drama.

The next day I had a very good breakfast of poached eggs and a banana shake, and Andrew had muesli with fruit and yogurt at Apple’s Restaurant. We then prepared for spending the day and night on a Rice Barge. On the way the minibus took us to the JEATH War Museum, which is a memorial to life in the POW camps and gives details of the building of the bridge and the POWs who died during its construction. The Museum building is a replica of the bamboo huts the POWs lived in. The experience was actually very good, and a lot more meaningful and a lot less pro-war than other such Museums we’ve been to.

We then boarded the Rice Barge and spent the day cruising down the Klong River. It was so relaxing! The barge was basically three floating open rafts linked together and pulled by a speed boat. The very large front raft was our dining room and lounging area during the day, and our disco at night (I’m not kidding); the middle raft was our bedroom with big mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets, and it also had the bathroom and kitchen; the last and smallest raft was the swimming and sunbathing spot, where inner tubes were tied to the raft and people floated along in them behind the raft. The crew consisted of the captain, his two assistants/DJs and the cook.

Andrew braved the water and swam alongside the barge in raft 3, while this more slothful soul lay around soaking up the atmosphere drinking and chatting. As I was lying on the barge idly taking in the river life and the village life on the river banks as we floated past, I felt as far removed from our everyday life as humanly possible. I was so happy we decided to leave our world behind for a month (as much as we love it) and follow the sun on this trip in Thailand!

We anchored at lunch time and were spoilt with a lovely spread of gorgeous home cooking with a cold salad of sardines in tomatoes and chilli, chicken green curry with green eggplant and pea eggplant, stir fried morning glory with garlic, salt and pepper fried chicken, and steamed rice. The cook on board is seriously good! We then visited Ban Tum Temple which is an amazing looking dragon shaped cave temple that clings to the side of a rocky hill and is dedicated to the spirit of an unborn child; and then later visited Wat Tum Sua which looked stunning from the river but disappointing on closer inspection as it seemed to be more interested in tourism that in being a temple. Both these temples had 100s of steps to reach them and after being a sloth for a few hours on the barge and having also indulged in a massive feast on board, walking up the steps to reach the temples was bit of a shock to my system.

Later we watched a beautiful sunset while reclining on the deck of the sunbathing raft, and as night fell around us a massive and beautiful thunder storm hit. It was fascinating to watch the storm until we realised that the roof of our raft was metal. I went inside to have a quick shower and during the five minutes it took me to do that all hell had broken loose. By now the wind had really picked up and we were being pummelled around quite a bit. The crew quickly served us dinner and with us out of the way, they scurried around us lifting anchor from where we were in the middle of the river and trying to move the rafts closer to shore for shelter! This was a good example of the power of good food and hungry tummies - we continued eating without missing a beat even though we were sort of aware of the danger we were in. I got a bit worried when we heard the engine of the little speedboat that was pulling us stretched to its limit but still not able to navigate us. However the easy banter at the table helped to keep things in perspective! We were very well fed with a banquet of stir fried vegetables, stir fried beans and tofu, stir fried pork, coconut chicken curry, deep fried chicken drumsticks and steamed rice. Even Golf who is a self proclaimed connoisseur of Thai food agreed that our talented cook was brilliant. Dessert was a platter of watermelon and pineapple - both in season and very fresh and sweet. 😊

The storm had passed by the time we had dessert. We tried to return to the bedroom raft after dinner but the crew were setting up our mosquito nets, so we returned to the dinning raft for a few drinks and while we waited the DJ started up! Even though Andrew and I had no inkling of it at the time, the night on the Halong Bay sailing junk (when we drank too much too-strong Vietnamese vodka and embraced karaoke) was now to become the inaugural entry on our list of ‘nightlife on random Asian waterways’. At some point we found ourselves in the alternate universe of ‘raft disco’ complete with disco lights, disco ball, laser show and smoke machine! As always, everyone plays coy at first but it didn't take long to get the group going. It turned out to be a big night and after much much drinking, dancing, singing and laughing (and a group rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody in there somewhere), we had the lights out at 11:30pm. We all crept into bed but not before being thoroughly entertained by the more inebriated amongst us trying to navigate mattresses on the floor and mosquito nets which had been carefully tucked in around every mattress. After a few cries of ‘cobwebs!’ and the reassuring answers of ‘no that’s your mosquito net!’ and a few giggles later, all was quiet. A brilliant but most bizarre night!

It was a warm dry night, so we were very happy to be able to sleep under the stars on the open deck. The mattresses were surprisingly comfortable, and apart from one 4am torch-lit trip to the bathroom (the generator gets turned off at night), I slept quite well to the sound of lapping water, frog song and the occasional barking dog on shore. Andrew and I were up by 6am and watched the new day begin with a misty sunrise on the river. Breakfast was a lovely khao pad kai (egg fried rice), and toast with butter and jam.

The next morning after settling our alcohol bill (we ran out of our own supplies and had to raid their stocks), we said goodbye to our new mates on the barge and loaded up into the back of a songthaew to pick up our luggage from Apple’s Retreat and use the bathroom before heading to the bus station for our four hour journey east to Central Thailand.

See you amongst the ruins of Ayuthaya!


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