15th - 19th December 2011
After finishing up in Bangkok, the next leg of my journey has me heading north where I plan to spend my Christmas and New Year in the city of Chang Mai before making my way to the small town of Pai, which by all accounts sounds like the ultimate traveller's paradise. Was debating whether or not to head to the south islands for the new year but it sounds incredibly expensive there at the moment (plus all the guest houses are now fully booked) so will save full-moon shenanigans for my final two weeks in South East Asia after Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia have been tackled. With that in mind and as New Year's Eve is still two weeks away, I plan to make a few pit stops on the way up north and the first port of call has been the lazy riverside town of Kanchanaburi. Made famous by the 1957 war film 'The Bridge Over The River Kwai' the small town rests in a limestone landscape and is dominated by the mighty River Kwai Yai. After getting off the two hour bus ride from Bangkok, I was approached at the exit of the bus station by a fellow Brit who introduced himself as Ed. After an awkward opening exchange (both being terribly British and all) and not really having a clue what we were doing - which is often the case upon arrival at any new city - we soon broke the ice with a few Chang beers and since then we've become good friends exploring all that Kanchanaburi has to offer together. On our first night on the old river Kwai, having checked into the the Jolly Frog hotel, we headed to the main strip which runs south from the bridge and ended up in one of the lady bars at the shady end of the street. Many of the bars on Thanon Maenam Kwai are now run by ex-pats who have retired to Thailand and each of them employ a congregation of local girls - many of whom are of indeterminate gender - to stand out front and try to entice passing punters inside. Following Ed's lead we literally got dragged into a fine establishment by the name of Holland House and was greeted by the bar's eccentric Dutch owner and the legions of excitable local girls who must view us farangs as walking ATM's. After shooting a few games of pool got talking with an older Brit by the name of Phil who had been sat in the corner chatting with his "girl", the kind of weird old man that you see walking along the street in Bangkok with a young Thai bride in tow. The whole concept of coming out to South East Asia to obtain a wife in my opinion seems very sleazy and creepy but I was curious to talk to someone who was doing it, mostly to find out what kind of person does it and what their reasons for doing so are. Turns out Phil was an unemployed IT worker from London and with no job or family back in the UK he had travelled to Asia searching for something he could not find back home. As we talked it became increasingly obvious that he was lost in his life, he didn't feel that he belonged back home in England and so was now wandering in Asia living a hedonistic lifestyle which can be easily accommodated for in Thailand if you have enough Baht. I was also curious about the arrangement he had with this woman who followed him everywhere, he told me that he paid the bar £300 every week and in return this woman was assigned to him for whatever purposes he wanted.... I was abit taken aback by this notion as he didn't even know the name of the poor girl he had spent the past few weeks with, referring to her as 'angry bird' instead. The whole thing made me feel a little uneasy and after asking him if he was having a good time out here with these girls he said 'Well you've got to try eating cockroach now and again haven't you?' Charming fellow. With that last sentence ringing in my ears I decided that I had seen and heard enough from this moron sat before me and after prizing ourselves away from the girls at the bar we spent the rest of the night chilling in some of the more laid back farang hangouts further up the road.
The following morning after shaking off our hangover with a mouth watering English fry up under the disapproving eye of the fantastic Jane..., we hired a scooter and set off in search of a nearby tiger temple. Although the notion of coming face to face with one of these amazing animals is undoubtedly appealing, I had slight reservations as I had heard all the tigers were drugged, so as to subdue them whilst snap-happy tourists gawked idiotically at them through the lenses of their unnecessarily large digital SLR's. Maybe it's fine though and the tigers are well looked after but I always get an exploitative vibe from these kind of attractions and tend to wonder how happy these majestic animals really are. After riding around for well over an hour looking for the place, it soon became obvious we were lost and after seeing a sign for the Erawan waterfalls we changed our plans and made our way their instead. Erawan national park is made up of seven separate falls and a path winds its way through the forest connecting them all. An initial gradual walk up the first couple of tiers was easy enough but the incline soon increased and by the time we reached the seventh and highest waterfall it had been necessary to wade through small pools of water, hop over fallen tree trunks and scramble up muddy slopes. The place was absolutely stunning with each waterfall having crystal clear waters which you could swim in. In addition each pool was inhabited by small black fish which darted here and there and if you remained still for long enough they would tentatively approach and gently nip at your legs and toes. The fourth tier was particularly great as it was possible to climb to the top of a large smooth boulder upon which the cascading water flowed and slide down the smooth limestone rock into the cool refreshing waters below. The perfect remedy after a long sweaty climb. As we had dawdled so much in the morning we unfortunately only got a couple of hours at the waterfalls and a park warden soon came round to clear everyone out.
As Ed had left to head back to Bangkok, on my final day in Kanchanaburi I got up early and made my way to the railway station so that I could ride the infamous death railway over the bridge and all the way on to hellfire pass. To give some history here, the Death Railway was the nickname given to the 415-kilomtre Thailand-Burma railway which was built by the Japanese in 1942-43 in order to link Japan's newly aquired territories in Burma (the capital of Rangoon was an important trading city) with the rest of South East Asia. Through almost impenetrable landscape, a railway line was hacked through solid rock terrain. These sections which were divided with pick axes and dynamite were referred to as 'cuttings' and a heavy price was paid by the prisoner's of war who were made to work on them. By the time the track was finished in 1943 16,000 POW's and 100,000 Asian labourers (Romusha) had died. After jumping on the train at the bridge, we slowly chugged our way over the old River Kwai and then made the two hour journey all the way to Nam Tok. The train cantered along through beautiful countryside under an intense midday sun, through the ninety foot solid rock cuttings at arrow hill and then onwards over the Wang Po viaduct where the train coasted along a three hundred metre high trestle bridge mounted precariously to the side of a cliff face. Getting off at Nam Tok, managed to find a local bus and made my way to Hellfire pass. The dramatic name refers to an area 18km from Nam Tok where seven cuttings were dug over a 3km stretch. The section labelled Hellfire pass was considered to have the worst working conditions and many people died there due to exhaustion, starvation, disease, lack of medical supplies, beatings and executions. The name came about as the ruthless Japanese guards made the prisoners work 18 hour days and when nighttime fell, lit 'hellish' fires so that work could continue through the night. After strolling through a very moving and informative museum which explained the history of the site, strolled down to the pass which couldn't have been more contrasted with the dreadful images depicted in the memorial museum up the hill. With the place entirely to myself I sat in a clearing at the end of the pass and enjoyed the peaceful and relaxing atmosphere whilst birds sang their afternoon songs and the bamboo trees, which sheltered the memorial ground, swayed in the cool breeze. After making the steep climb back to the main road, hopped on a local bus and made my way back to Kanchanaburi. Tomorrow I head to Ayutthaya, the former ancient capital of Thailand.
What the devil are you doing Holmes?
Why its a lemon-entry my dear Watson!
|The countryside surrounding Kanchanburi.|
|Kanchanaburi rests west of Bangkok.|
|Biggles action slide.|
|The view from our guesthouse.|
|On the bridge over the river Kwai!|
|On the precarious trestle bridge.|