The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Monday, 17 October 2011

Kanchanaburi - Hell Fires and Peace.

The desire of traveling is sometimes fuelled by the images we see on telly or in print and of course by the stories our friends tell us.  Stories of sun-kissed beaches, idyllic wanderings,  or adventure packed experiences, like lunching at a head-hunters village after rowing up crocodile infested waters.  When we hear these stories and see the images, oh how we hanker for a bit of that life. 

How many times have we seen in the movies a woman in some far off country, on holiday, a life changing experience, wandering through a market place, a cane carry-all hanging casually from her shoulder, her ethnic print skirt swirling around bare brown legs, her white top - pristine, her hair glossy and carefree, the sun kissing her gently as she banters with the stall holders and haggles with a dazzling smile.  No, the movies would never let on to you that her shirt hasn’t been washed for a couple of days and smells of BO, that her hair isn’t greasy and frizzy because she can’t find decent conditioner or that the ‘freckles’ on her legs are really the love bites of jet-fighter mozzies with undetectable stealth bomber capabilities, that she’s hanging on for dear life to her carry-all after passing umpteenth signs declaring a vigilance against bag snatchers and  that showing even the slightest bit of interest in a trinket is an invitation for hoards of touts to descend. Or for that matter, the sun is actually burning her to a crisp and it’s so muggy she’s really a puddle of mush….and of course if she was your friend, she wouldn’t tell you any of this either, after all, she’s on holidays, having the adventure of a lifetime.  

And what about the rugged hero of ‘boy’s own’ travel adventures striding effortlessly without a care in the world, or for that matter without an aching bone in the world.  There’d be no mention of the wasp lash to the eye leaving a red welt looking strangely like eyeliner; nor the suspected slipped mickie in a drink whilst watching Bathurst at some bar… making the one beer feel like it could have been a case and resulting in some porcelain kissing before passing out (thank god he was back at the room!); nor would there be an indication that  boots made for intrepid hiking can’t handle a wet stairway and compliments of the 25kg mampacca, 10kg pack, 7kg day pack and two brollies all landing on-top, the red faced hero staggers away with a sore back and very bruised bum.   These are not the stories we tell, after all, holidays and adventures are about being footloose, fancy free and having not a care in the world.  And twelve days prior, that’s exactly how we felt. 

We had rolled into Kanchanaburi , a small, sleepy, dusty but delightful town about 130kms west of Bangkok and free of the impending floods that were creeping further south.  This is a town with a dark past and a bright future, its history not only interwoven into the fabric of Australia (along with other countries) but also into popular culture.  Its most famous landmark is the Bridge over the River Kwai. Its saddest - Hellfire Pass.   
Within hours of arriving Big M and I were standing (and whistling the movie tune) on the small but impressive iron structure that straddled the Kwai (pronounced Kway as in ‘way’ and not ‘eye’) along with a thousand other tourists, mainly Japanese.  We all jostled for position on the railway tracks and just as Big M and I had found a spare girder to straddle ourselves for a photo, the toot of a train had us all scurrying for the bridge sidings.  Turns out the railway line is still used as a regular passenger route. 

The bridge sits just on the edge of Kanchanaburi’s city limits and is surrounded by a couple of floating restaurants, a war museum and a huge… no massive, gem market.  The bling was blinding. Rows upon rows of glass cabinets showcasing enough glittering gold and precious stones to light up any girl’s heart, and not a security guard in sight.  What I found particularly intriguing was, it wasn’t so much the tourists who were shopping in the gem market, but groups of orange robe monks wandering around the cabinets, pointing out various pieces and discussing with heavy intensity amongst themselves. 
After tucking into a fabulous meal whilst floating under the bridge which was now giving a psychedelic light display, we headed back to our ‘resort’ room in eager anticipation of catching some blissful slumber.  The previous nights luxurious private train cabin hadn’t actually come with the luxury of sleep.  Sleep also wouldn't be coming this night either. Somewhere close, echoing across the Kwai, someone was strangling a cat and then using it to beat a doof drum…. in otherwords, it was Rave Karaoke mics at ten paces or I should say ten furlongs.  Floating karaoke bars towed by long boats with very noisy engines made their way up and down the Kwai as patrons belted out their excruciatingly noisy songs.  This went on into the wee hours of the night and hence the very next day we went in search for a room with soundproofing.
Our new guesthouse became our home for the next eleven nights and by the end of our stay in Kanchanaburi we had almost local status.  In the mornings we would wander out on to the street and be greeted by Mr Sor, a moto driver who would zip us around the town and sometimes further a field….and when he wasn’t driving us, he was always up for a chat. Further down the street  was the gorgeous Charlie from Good Times Travel  always with a beautiful smile and cheerie wave for us - her recommendations for look-sees were always spot on. Every afternoon the ‘mad pommy’ from the ‘One More’ Bar would yell out to Big M “G’day Mate” or “Crikey” or “Cooee” or some other inane Aussie slang salute. Just down the road was our favourite restaurant, Bell’s Pizzeria and the owner who looked like a blond surfie dude, spoke like a Frenchman, cooked like an Italian but was really a Swiss was always eager to hear where we’d been and what we’d done that day.  With all this easy going friendliness, it wasn’t hard to find ourselves lingering on for ‘another day’.  

During the day the town is a filled with history buffs eager to pay homage to the fallen.  For an Australian, Kanchanaburi is up there with Gallipoli, Fromells and Kokoda.    This was one of the reasons I’d earmarked it for a visit. My Great Uncle Bill had been a Changi POW and assigned to the Death Railway and although I’m not sure which part he worked upon, as I walked through the hundreds of graves spread across the immaculate lawn of the Don Rak War Cemetery in the centre of Kanchanaburi, I can’t help thinking some of these men would have been his mates; working side by side, witnessing each other beatings and starvation, trying to look after each other, watching each other die.  I was sadden to read so many of these men had been in their 30’s and early 40’s and seeing these ages brought to me the realisation so many families lost not just a son or brother, but for many a husband and a father. Along with the cemetery and bridge there are a number of museums in Kanchanaburi dedicated to the war and the railway – during our time here, we visit most of them.
At night the sleepy little town purrs awake as the many bars open and the kittens of the night strut about in their tiny shorts and high, high heels.  This is also where the old men - expats and the blow ins venture to.  Mostly English and Australians, many are well into their 60’s, and they tantalise and tease the kittens with their cash and crude speech.  Night after night we see the same men, they move from bar to bar, pawing and groping like tomcats that should be castrated.  I’m disgusted by their sleazy patheticness.  They are the dregs of society and I feel intensely sad for the girls.  Big M and I make a point of not frequenting any of the bars that support this sleaziness, instead we find ourselves drawn to the markets and food stalls where the strange, the exotic and the ‘downright-you-gotta-be-kidding’ is cooked and eaten.   Big M tries his tastebuds on the exotic and munches away on silkworm lave and maggot. And no it doesn’t taste like chicken!  “Like a hollow chip” he tells me before picking up another and scoffing it down.  I can’t bring myself to try it and I have to admit, the deep fried whole baby bird sitting beside the ‘chippy’ silkworm is turning my stomach, not to mention the fried giant cockroach.

Everyday is a new adventure and we delve into the many ‘tours’ and ‘treks’ on offer.   The very first we do is to Hell Fire Pass.   I have no idea what to expect; a railway line, wild overgrown jungle, perhaps a neat tidy timber walkway.   The pass is about 70kilometers outside of Kanchanaburi and is  reached by a wide, well maintained highway surrounded by hills, farms and resorts.  We pull into a neat expansive lawn with a big modern white building, the museum.  I’m a little disappointed because although I didn’t know what to expect, I thought it might be a bit more rugged and wild.  Inside the museum the displays are well laid out and very interesting. In fact, the photographs and lithographs are incredibly moving and later I find the images haunt me a little.  We leave the building and are taken via a well built foot bridge and walkway down  a hillside, in front of us jungle stretches out across a valley.  It’s quite cool, very peacefull and well, pleasant.  So pleasant in fact that one of the other tour goers remarks that he can’t understand how it could have been that strenuous.  The walkway soon stops and we find ourselves on a narrow gravel track, on one side a sheer rock face, on the other a drop down into the valley below and thick jungle.  As we walk along the track the air becomes thicker and muggy, the vegetation creeps in, huge vines drape down and cross the path.
There are remnants of sleepers, worn smooth and bits of rusted jagged metal.  Along the cliff face are holes where the picks had hit and dynamite had been placed to blast into the rock. The scaring is everywhere.  The further we go the hotter and harder it becomes and we are sucking down our waterbottles, the air exhausting us.   Then we arrive at Hell Fire Pass, the size of the walls leaves us in awe. Either side the sheer rock face towers above us and in the middle is a lone tree, not a pine  but a small fig. There is also a smell, a decaying stench that instantly brings the images of men dying to mind.  We look around to see what is giving this smell but there is nothing dead at all on the ground or near the walls or tree. It’s as if the Pass has entombed the stench of death.  With the smell and the heat and the intensity of the areas ‘soul’,  I find myself crying, the essence of the men who dug this pass is right here in these rock walls. It is one of the saddest places I’ve ever been to.

Later we visit the wooden via duct at Tham Krasae where the POW’s  dug out, cut down and built this bridge from start to finish in three weeks.  The size and scale of the Thai-Burma Railway is enormous and we learn that the whole railway was built within sixteen months.  Despite the emotion of the tour, it was not all seriousness.  

Along with visiting the Pass and Viaduct, we also enjoyed an elephant trek and bamboo rafting. 
Our guide took us to a small Karen village where three elephants awaited.  I couldn’t believe the ‘seat’ we were about to climb into.  It was little more than bamboo slats held together with twine and a bar either side for us to hold on to.  Holding us onto the Elephant was just two pieces of rope, one around the tail and another around the neck.  I spent the whole ride laughing with hysterical nervousness as we slid about on the bamboo and almost slipped through the rails.  After being slapped in the face with various jungle foliage, pricked in the backside with bamboo splinters and slobbered on by the elephants who eagerly gobbled up the bananas we gave to them at the end of our ride, we then jumped (with great wariness) onto bamboo rafts and were whisked down a  small but fast flowing river. 

I sat at the back and for some strange reason every time we hit the rapids, I was the one who got drenched and Big M remained completely dry.  In fact out of the five of us that took the tour, I was the only one who got drenched…. upon which I then had to board the ‘Death Railway’ train looking like I’d failed to find a loo.  

The train ride back to Kanchanaburi was immense fun.  Thoughout the day we had bonded with the other three tour goers – Chrissy and Richard, a couple from England and Calvin, a guy from Taiwan.  Big M and Calvin really hit it off and played up like naughty children on the train, hanging out the windows and the doors, pretending to disembark the train whilst it trundled along a full speed – photographing each other at the same time whilst doing this, and playing up to the conductors - stealing their hats.  Then upon arrival back at the Bridge,  Big M jumped on the back of a scooter and with one hand holding down his hat and the other hanging onto the back bar for dear life, hurtled off in a cloud of dust to a sports bar to catch the Rugby League Grand Final.   He missed it!!


Another day we did ‘elephant camp’.  We were initially going to spend two days and a night at the camp, playing with elephants and having a wild jungle time.  Unfortunately, as the week was progressing, the news about Thailand’s flooding was getting worse and it had also started to rain in great swathes at Kanchanaburi.  I was nervously watching the River Kwai as it slowly rose in height and become more and more turbulent.  The camp, "Elephant World" was a rescue and old-age home for elephants, located outside of Kanchanaburi, about 30kms into the country side near the big dam and on a major river.  The morning of our departure found me in an absolute state of panic as the TV broadcasted scenes of absolute destruction in Thailand.  Drawn into the intensity of the disaster, the thought of spending a night in the jungle meters from a possible flooding river sent me into overdrive.  So it was decided that we would only do the day events and I found myself coming back to earth. 

When deciding which tours we were going to do we thought very carefully about the ethical issues attached to them.  Kanchanaburi has many natural and animal related attractions, it’s most controversial being the Tiger Temple.  Initially I had wanted to do this, after all how often does one get to walk a tiger or have at tiger lay its head in your lap.  After investigation into the attraction, we were less inclined to do it when we heard rumours that the tigers were drugged and that the temple was possibly involved in breeding and trading the tigers.  Our decision not to visit was firmly made when we saw a small cub chained to a table outside the gem market (the chain was so short that the cub couldn’t stand up).  The cub was being used to promote the attraction and we were horrified to see the terror and distress in the cubs eyes as it tried to move around on the table.  To make matters worse people trying to pet and photograph it surrounded it and stressed the animal even more.  This confirmed to us that we needed to make ethical decisions in regards to animal base tours. 

The moto of the elephant camp was “We work for the elephant, not the elephant for us and to work we were put -  making sticky rice, collecting banana stools (this took Big M back to his childhood) and feeding and bathing the great animals.  There are 10 elephants at the camp, 9 of them aged 50years and above.  The tenth is a 4year old elephant, rescued from the streets of Bangkok.  He was staying at the camp for just a month whilst the organisers either find him a good home or find the funds to buy him, and to watch him was a delight as he ran about the camp trying to disobey his mahout, steal food and generally act like a cheeky teenager. Most of the other elephants were quite ancient in age, had no teeth or strength in their trunks and so have to be fed by hand to mouth.  One sad soul had had his tusk removed, the process leaving him with a severe infection which in turn went to his eyes and sent him blind.  Because the infection has failed to heal he has a bad smell of which the other elephants won’t allow him to be any where near them, so this poor old boy will spend the rest of his life isolated from the ‘family’.

During our day at the camp, Big M found himself having to work more than the others.  Whilst we were in the process of collecting the banana stools and leaves for the elephants, the old truck (which had to be push started each time) failed to go any faster than walking speed. Eager to feel the slime of grease upon his hands again and put his head in some dark dirty spot once more, Big M called for a 12inch and happily banged away under the hood.
Of course our stay at Kanchanaburi wasn’t going to be without visits to temples.  We scooted around checking out some very bizarre temples.  One temple has a Buddha with enormous breasts. Another temple was competing with a neighbouring temple as to which one would be the biggest and most ornate, this one included an almost vertical funicular carriage which had us lying back in the seat (as if about to go to nirvana in a  rocket). Going up wasn’t too bad, going back down…backwards was absolutely terrifying!   Another temple promoted a floating nun who mediated in a deep pool in a cave…. but only if you paid her 200baht. Then there was the temple that had a stone the shape of woman inside a cave, however after the ‘Monkey God Footprint’ debacle in Penang a few weeks earlier, I decided I’d be pushing my luck with Big M if I insisted on seeing this.

In the beginning we enjoyed beautiful weather, but as the days passed the rains came and the weather forecast became more and more gloomy. With the rains came the mozzies and many an afternoon found us doing the ‘dance of the swat team’.   

There were days where we decided not to venture out and on one of these days, Big M decided to go to a sports bar to watch the Bathurst V8’s.  He had earmarked this day on the calendar so it would not have matter one iota if it was raining or not. At 5.30 in the morning off he trundled to the bar that was showing the race.  He spent the morning drinking coffee and at the turn of noon, ordered one beer.  Within in half an hour of drinking his one Chang, he came back to the room – his head spinning, speech slurred and head down the porcelain checking out the plumbing.  If I didn’t know any better I’d swear he’d been spiked.  The next day he was back to his old self, but we felt it was time to move on.  The flooding was getting closer to the capital and if we didn’t move now we would find ourselves going from almost local to long term resident.
On the morning of our departure my planned ‘showing gratitude’ goodbye to Dewy, the guest house owner, was completely unhinged when the mini-bus driver, another sargent major wantabe, had Big M in a tizz about getting the bags to the vehicle quickly.  In his haste to meet the drivers demands Big M slipped down the stairs and landed squarely on his backside, of which now sports one very black cheek!   As we drove towards Bangkok our spirits sank lower. Outside, puddles became ponds and gutters were turning into canals, one chap was fishing from a driveway and many side streets were like small rivers. Yet the traffic still drove though the waters. In a country where motorbikes can be trucks and utes are busses, then it’s possible cars can be boats.   As we watched the rain get heavier we mused on wether we should be flying back to the Gold Coast instead onwards to the Golden Triangle.
Postscript: I found this picture in The Bangkok Post (17/10/11) (10 hours after writing the blog)  of a chap whose turned his car into a boat in preparation for the flood. 

More pics of Kanchanaburi