Thailand travelogue!

The Death Railway and the Canadian Fish Buffet

 
I’d decided to finish off my Thailand trip with a visit to the Kanchanaburi area. The region is probably best known to westerners as where the death railway made famous (though not particularly accurately) in Bridge on the River Kwai.

Starting from Sukhothai it was a brutal bus ride, especially since I was trying to immediately hop from Bangkok out to Kanchanburi. What was supposedly a first class (though not “VIP”) bus was very much not. We zig zagged a bunch in the first two hours out of Sukhothai picking up all kinds of random folks until the bus was full. What was frustrating about it was that often these pickup points were within a 10 minute walk of the bus station we’d subsequently visit (or had just stopped at) but what with the u-turns and traffic it involved for the bus it was adding 15 minutes to our trip. It makes one wonder why they even have the stations. As a result by the time I’d been told we’d be at the Bangkok station we were already 2 hours behind and then were delayed a further hour by an absolute typhoon type rain and some sunday night traffic. When I finally did get into town it was to find there was a traffic jam around the Bangkok northern bus station so the final approach took forever then getting a cab to the other bus station took even longer. By the time I was on my way out of Bangkok again it was after dark on probably the rattiest bus of the trip.

Arriving into Kanchanburi fairly late I had a fairly good idea of where my guesthouse was and started making the walk. My guidebook and one of the websites I’d read had warned that feral dogs were a bit of a problem and sure enough there were more than a few as I made my way through the town and especially down the back lane that led to the place. In truth though the most aggressive dog I ran into was a noisy brat barking at me through a gate as I passed his house.

I checked in quickly then ran off to get some food as I hadn’t had time for a meal in Bangkok and was more or less running on a bag of lay’s I’d snagged on the bus trip. Kanchanaburi is very stretched out along the river and isn’t very convenient for walking. Even the more tourist centric area is a 4km stretch between the highway and the famous bridge.

I decided to head to the other big draw of the area a gorgeous waterfall/hiking area called Erawan National Park. It’s a series of tiered waterfalls/associated trails where you can swim at the various levels. Thank goodness too as it was a ridiculously hot day again with the humidex spiking it to something like “feels like 45C.” I followed some advice I’d seen to take the first bus out there and to climb higher early and make your way back down. The trail was reasonably well groomed and was a mix of steep stairways and gentler bits. The local parks service did a pretty great job keeping things clean as well with food/drink banned above the second level and with a deposit required to bring a water bottle with you (they drew a number on your bottle and to get your cash back you had to show it again.) It certainly worked as I saw basically zero garbage.

Each level was a different kind of gorgeous and I eventually found a pool at tier five that I couldn’t resist. I’d forgotten completely about being warned that these waters were also home to something else. I’m sure most of you have heard of the thai foot spas that involve you placing your feet into an aquarium filled with fish that nibble and exfoliate you as they nibble bits of dead skin off you. Well this is their natural habitat and I nearly fell over startled as the first one nibbled me.

This is before I got in and they were all over me at this density, so weird

I sat there for a while letting them nibble my feet but eventually the heat made the cool water too inviting and I hopped in to the deeper water. The water was crystal clear and you could clearly see the nibbly fried swarming on their pale Canadian fish buffet. There were some bigger fish swimming about as well, all clearly used to human intruders as they came very close. The falls themselves were not tall as they dropped down about 18 inches at each step in the tier I was in but still felt nice on my tired shoulders. I ended up hanging around in that pool almost an hour as I had it to myself. Occasionally the nibbles on my arms/legs would get to be a bit too much so I’d go for a more active swim, but they’d always eventually come back.

Level 5

As I started back down it was definitely much more busy. A chinese tour bus or two had obviously shown up and they were hilariously all wearing bright orange lifejackets as they climbed the trails (there were plenty of pools you could safely wade in if you were unable to swim, particularly at the bottom tiers.) I stopped at tier four where there was a natural waterslide down a rock and went down it a couple times. The water here was a particularly gorgeous shade of blue and there was more of a crowd hanging around. In the end it was thunder that made me start heading down for real. After the rainstorm I’d seen the day before I had zero desire to be stuck waiting for the last bus of the day with a large number of drowned rats hoping there was space.

The rock slide: This guy took so damned long to finally slide

Correct decision… about 45 minutes later mid bus ride back a rain so intense that it came in through closed windows hit the bus. We all tried to focus on being glad we were in the rain and less on the fact that the bus had no wipers and the driver was occasionally clearing off his view with a t-shirt. Oddly enough I ran into one of the couples from my Chiang Mai cooking class on that bus. Happily we got back without incident and there was a brief window in the storm where I got back for a shower and sat writing a blog post while the storm raged again for an hour and a half.

The next morning I got up early and hopped a tuk tuk to the bridge on the railway. To be safe I wanted to be back in Bangkok that night and not at the mercy of a rural bus on whether I made my flight or not. The center two spans of the bridge are post-war (built by the japanese as war reparations apparently) the originals having been destroyed by an allied bombing raid towards the end of the war. The pylons and the end sections are original to the wartime bridge. At one point during the war there was a wooden bridge as well.

The Bridge (real one) on the River Kwai (the two squarer sections are post war replacements for the sections bombed out by the allies)

The railway was built to link Thailand and Japanese-controlled Burma to support the army’s planned invasion of India (which ended up not going very well.) In the process of building the line through ridiculously rough terrain, disease ridden conditions and terrible rations particularly as the japanese war effort lost more and more ground roughly 100,000 people lost their lives. Many were allied POWs brits/aussies/dutch captured during the fall of Hong Kong/Singapore and other colonial outposts and various Allied crew survivors of various ships/lost air crews. Less talked about are the tens of thousands of malays, burmese etc… etc… convinced to come work on the railway through misleading contracts or just flat out kidnapped/pressganged by the empire.

I took a long walk over the bridge and looked out over the fairly placid water that I imagine is much more quickly moving and rather intense come the rainy season when the monsoon rains are filling the mountains. There are other sites visited by some of the tours (such as hellfire pass) but unfortunately my time was running out. The nearby museum is notoriously terrible. It calls itself the world war 2 museum but is apparently a random and small collection of thai history, a tiny ww2 section and a large random collection of objects the owner finds interesting and a collection of paintings of Miss Thailand winners for some reason.

On the other hand there is a pretty great small museum overlooking the main cemetery that shows more about the entire story. Oddly for a British museum while it focuses on the allied troops there is significant discussion of the Asian losses as well. To be fair a part of the lack of info is just an actual lack of info. Most of the Asian grave sites are unknown, the Japanese kept few records of them at all etc… The allied experience is collected from a combination of official japanese records, records kept by the pows approved by the Japanese and records kept secretly by the POWs and hidden, often buried in the graves of prisoners who had succumbed to injuries, famine or disease. After the war the british fairly quickly ripped up a section of the track as they didn’t want various Burmese rebel groups to supply themselves using it. More of it was covered by the floodplain of a dam built later on but the section from Kanchanaburi to the next and last town on the line is still ride-able though sadly not at convenient times of day during my visit.

The cemetery next to the railway museum is immaculately kept by the commonwealth war graves commission staff. The Dutch/Australian/British (and several Canadians) are mostly here or another local cemetery, the smaller amount of American bodies were repatriated.

The main cemetary for the POW dead. Immaculately kept by the local staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

It was in a resulting somber mood that I rode back to Bangkok a couple hours later, checked into the old standby and started packing my bag a bit more thoroughly to head out for Hong Kong the next evening. Interestingly when I grabbed my last dinner later that night I went to the same very good restaurant near the hotel as I’d gone to at the start of the trip and after another good meal the owner said “You were here a month ago yes? At that table?” which I confirmed with a laugh. She asked me how I’d liked thailand, what I’d seen, would I be back…

After thinking about that I couldn’t help but think about some of the things I’m going to miss about Thailand.
-Amazing cheap food
-Incredibly friendly people
-The beautiful varied countryside
-Fresh pineapple and golden mango
-The weather
-Elephants
-Beaches
-Cheap smoothies everywhere
-New places and the freedom to choose where I was going next on the fly

Some things I won’t miss about the trip:
-Horribly aggressive touts
-Being yelled at in Thai loudly either by the above or by massage parlour ladies or various others
-Always being sweaty because I’m not built for +38
-Chinese tour groups (less because of their ubiquity and more because they appear to be filled with people who always talk with volume set at 10, screaming across places that should be dedicated to quiet contemplation)
-The rudeness of the large groups of Russian tourists
-The truly ridiculous number of thai people that clearly suffer from having broken legs badly set as children, it’s really distressing
-Firm guest house beds, things were definitely better overall than last big trip’s mostly hostel experience but still.

Still lost in these thoughts the next morning I ran into yet another thing that confused me. For the umpteenth time this trip there were mothers with small children hanging out in the restaurant. I don’t really get bringing small children in general on a trip like that… I mean from here to mexico or whatever when you’re just chilling on a beach most of the time and want to get away why not, but a trip that takes multiple long flights from almost anywhere and is generally about moving around exploring? I mean to each their own but this pair of moms stuck out because of their particularly young kids, both at most 9 months old I would guess. I mean if nothing else if I was travelling with children that young I’d probably want to do so on a budget where I wasn’t having to stay at my guesthouse. I mean it’s fine for a few nights but not really for dealing with an infant.

As I was puzzling that out I got some breakfast theatre in the form of a British couple who appeared to be the model for the Queen of the Harpies couple from the couples retreat episode of the Simpsons. They got into a barely restrained screaming match at one point over something to do with their backyard and a neighbour and after she eventually him a “Useless festering pile of boring shit” the man took off for about half an hour while she sat there eating pancakes. They got back into it when he returned but it was time for me to begin my journey to the airport via the airport train this time (mostly because it worked out to be a bit cheaper as a solo traveller and I didn’t want to take out more money since it would have been a $6-8 transaction fee to take out the extra $20 for a cab.)

With that it was farewell to Thailand. I don’t think there’s any question in my mind that I’ll be back before too much time passes.

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