Tip on : Kanchanaburi - 5 years ago
I had to be up at 6.00 this morning to get the coach, as I wanted to get to Kanchanaburi in time to pick up the train that was to take me along the infamous "Death Railway". The train also crosses the Bridge over the River Kwai, which was added incentive to drag myself out of bed. Breakfast today was sliced Banana (a little more exotic, although not much), toast and tea, served by a gentleman who had obviously been taking bowing lessons and wanted to practice the art. Not a lot has been going on in Asia over the last twenty-four hours, as The Nation today is primarily focussed on the Clinton impeachment hearings in America - something which will probably continue to dominate world news for most of the time it takes me to get there. It's not just the news here that seems to have a western theme to it, either - The "Funnies" page in The Nation consists of Calvin and Hobbes, Hagar the Horrible, The Far Side and Dilbert. And no, Dilbert still doesn't make any sense. Even in Thailand. As we were setting out before the rush hour, there was slightly more than sod-all chance of getting the coach out of Bangkok through the traffic jams - Not that the concept of rush hour means much here, since there is usually only just about enough room to squeeze a bicycle through anywhere at the best of times! Going out of town, I saw for the first time another side to the city, which quite took me by surprise, and that was the sheer beauty of the temples. Driving right through the center of the city, all the shanty towns and disused buildings gave way to miles and miles of incredibly ornate buildings and gold covered temples in intricate designs which I would be hard pressed to describe without you thinking I was exaggerating. Tall spires of gold rise from facades of golden Buddha images and intricate artwork which glints in the morning sun. For a moment, it is even possible to forget the fact that, 200 yards further down the street, the city is covered in a dense smog; that large sections of it's population seems to be begging on the streets or working in Go-Go bars over in Patpong; or that the only way the traffic police can remain healthy is to walk around all day with pollution filters strapped to their faces. This is what really draws people to Bangkok (The temples, I mean, not the pollution and begging), and it is exactly what I will be coming back for after my brief excursion to Kanchaburi. Kanchanaburi is a different story entirely. One hundred and Seventy Kilometres north-west of Bangkok, Kanchanaburi War Cemetery contains the remains of sixteen-hundred soldiers from the Japanese, English, American, Australian, Thai and Danish armies who died here in POW camps between September 16th 1942 and December 25th 1943, building the 415 Kilometre "Death Railway" which the occupying Japanese forces saw as their way of getting stocks to their army in Burma (1) who were attempting to hold back the allied forces. In a large commemorative garden outside town, the graves are all laid out neatly in rows, a simple headstone naming each soldier resting within. In the Kanchanaburi War Museum, photographs are on display showing the full horror of what happened here, and you can walk through a reconstruction of a Bamboo hut that would have been the living quarters of the POWs. Many original artefacts are on display at the JEARTH museum, including pistols, knives, and the bomb which was dropped to destroy the Bridge on the Kwai and the railway - to prevent transportation of Japanese troops between Thailand and Burma. You really get a sense of the scale of the treatment here - The original Japanese engineers estimated that the railway (303 Km on the Thai side, 112 Km on the Burmese side) would take five years to build. The prisoners were forced to complete this task in sixteen months. During this time, sixteen thousand POWs and one hundred thousand labourers died from various diseases due to lack of facilities. It is possible to cross the Bridge on the River Kwai by foot, and many hundreds of tourists do just this every day - Myself included. There is no handrail and nothing between you and the river below but a large drop. Nevertheless, tourists flock here every day to peer over the side into the jaws of death before boarding the famous "Death Railway" which still runs between here and Wang Po on the border with Burma.I finally gave in to all of my touristy instincts this morning, buying a Tee-Shirt from a vendor at the station. It had a gold picture of the Bridge on it, and said "River Kwae (Thailand)" - This last disclaimer obviously designed to avoid confusion with the other, little known River Kwai which runs through Watford! Notice, also, the proper local spelling of Kwae - As opposed to the one everybody else uses. Anyhow, it only cost me 200 Baht, which is a little less than four pounds sterling. The "Death Train" isn't much more than a rickety old carriage that runs along a single track between Kanchanaburi and Burma. The windows are not filled, so a cool breeze blows throughout the journey, and the passengers can stick their heads out of the window and enjoy the splendour of the Thai countryside without any risk of being decapitated unexpectedly by a passing Intercity express. The journey to the Burmese border at Wang Po takes around two hours, and I happily sat with my head out of the window watching the fields and mountains go by, farmers waving from their little shacks and kids sitting by the tracks without a care in the world. My companions on this trip included a young Australian couple from Melbourne, who had been married for all of three weeks and were on the last step of their honeymoon before returning to wedded bliss in the country of Neighbours and Shrimps on the Barbie! Lisa and Matt had spent the last two weeks in Phuket, which is where I shall be next week if all goes to plan, and couldn't recommend it highly enough - Beautiful beaches, crystal clear waters, the stuff of honeymoon dreams. They also visited nearby Phi-Phi Island, which they say is absolutely incredible if I can survive the ferry crossing! Among the other travellers to Wang Po were a couple of girls from Devon, who were making their way across the vast expanse of heat which is Thailand: This certainly seems to be the place to come to relax and take in the scenery, one thing you can always say about travelling is that there are always plenty of other like minded people around to swap experiences with. Every ten or twelve seconds, I was snapped out of my admiring gaze through the windows by a salesman trying to sell me a souvenir, Sandwich or some other useful accessory: They wander up and down the length of the carriage, endlessly assuming that if they come back often enough you may finally cave in and scream "Oh, go on then. I'll have two photos of the king and a Tee-Shirt with "my friend went to Thailand and all I got was this crappy Tee-Shirt' scrawled across it!". In fact, it is entirely possible if you are not careful at the beginning of the trip, to be so caught up in buying souvenirs that you go straight over the River Kwai bridge without noticing and miss the whole point of your trip in the first place! I am reliably informed by an American tourist on the train, however, that if you hold out your hand towards the salesman palm-upwards, they look offended and don't come back again. Having no idea what such a gesture might mean out here, and imagining that I might want to be allowed back into the country at some point in the future, I make do with a cheery "No, Thanks." Towards the end of the journey, we hit the reason why so many people take this trip: Crossing the Death Valley Gorge on the way into Wang Po is quite an experience even for the well seasoned explorer. Rising from the most magnificent view of the River Kwai, with its floating homes and miles of surrounding countryside, is the most dangerous looking river crossing you will ever see. Crawling along at about 3 Mph, the train crosses the gorge at a height of several hundred feet - there is nothing to support the vehicle other than the single narrow track which is held up by girders jutting from the cliff face. Out of one side of the train, nothing but rock-face can be seen: On the other, it appears that you are flying through the air hundreds of feet above the river. People race to the windows, cameras poised. The braver souls among us climb down onto the steps of the train, sitting with feet dangling over a quick death. Then, as quickly as it appears, the gorge is gone... And it's on to Wang Po. My fascinated gaze out of the train window all the way from Kanchanaburi seems to have been something of a mistake. Every insect and bug known to mankind has hurled itself kamikaze-style at my face, and now my eyes have blown up to three times their normal size and the conjunctiva has turned to jelly. I look like Gomez Adams from the Adams Family. I knew something was wrong because my eyes felt like they had been pricked by a thousand needles, but when I looked in the mirror on the way out of the train I nearly fainted.