The Bridge over the River Kwai

Trip Start Oct 10, 2011
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26
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Trip End May 08, 2012

Flag of Thailand  ,
Saturday, February 25, 2012

Leaving Vietnam was thankfully a very painless activity, my Hostel in Hanoi ran a taxi service to the airport and bar a bit of a wait at the immigration desk it was a smooth process.  Only forgetting to put my swiss army knife in my checked luggage put a bit of a dampener on things, something else I lost to Vietnam!

Arriving in Bangkok was like a bit of a homecoming, I immediately felt relaxed and comfortable when I got out the Taxi on Soi Rambuttri.  The heat, noise, smells and people were a instant cure to the ill-feelings that I had towards local people over the past couple of days.  Most likely the relief of arriving in a county I'd gotten to known, respect and enjoy spending time in.

I spent a couple of nights in Bangkok, the second in a great Hostel I'm sure to go back to when I fly through to Nepal in April.  NapPark, if you want a great hostel in the heart of the backpacker district - head there!!
I also managed to pick up my Netbook/Camera replacement at the MBK mall; a 6 floor behemoth with one almost solely dedicated to Electronic goods, I was in geek heaven!  After some failed attempts at bargaining I picked up my iPod Touch; combining WiFi and a camera seemed like a logical choice and the thought of carrying around another netbook didn't appeal - it was just something else to lose.

My main aim back in Thailand was to get to Kanchanaburi, the home of the River Kwai and the bridge that made it the famous the world over, well actually most people I spoke to about it had never heard of it or the movie so maybe famous to those interested in WWII.
I was keen to keep away from the travel agencies and the tours after my experiences in Vietnam so caught the local train from Thonburi Station, 3rd class all the way!

If there's one thing my parents installed in me growing up it's the joy of traveling by public transport through areas unknown (mini/sleeper through S.East Asia aside).  Although I spent most of my childhood glued to my beloved Gameboy, and to be fair most likely whinging and complaining about it whilst on holidays, nowadays I love getting on a train and heading off somewhere new.  What better than a train heading towards the Death Railway?

A slow 3 hour journey later, passing through rice fields and small towns, I arrived at Kanchanaburi station and rather disappointingly the bridge a few kilometers away.  The guesthouse I found myself at though made up for that fact as my room was floating on the river, the only thing that would've made it perfect would of been to of had a view of the bridge itself.

Forgetting how unforgiving the Sun and heat in Thailand can be I set off on foot for the Cemetary and Museum, in the opposite direction to the main attraction.  After 10 minutes my shirt was sticking and the recently applied sun cream was stinging my eyes, I had to jump into a french-run cafe on the way (it was one of the only places open as there were a hell of a lot of bars where I was staying) to get some air conditioning and shade - all the better they served crepe's and toasted sandwiches...30 minutes of food heaven!

The Bridge Museum was top drawer, the English was outstanding and just gave the facts and stories of what happened; a relief after being in 'Nam where it's biased and driven by Patriotic emotions.  Parts of it were pretty moving as well as unbelievable, the Japanese and Koreans were brutal to the workers and POW's - the movie only tells a tiny part of the story.  Like most historical events I went in with only a small amount of knowledge that was primarily obtained via a war-time movie and a fictional book, so seeing what really happened during the building of not only the famous Bridge but also the 400km's of railway line was astonishing.
Around 100,000 people died during construction, 6,500 British but around 80,000 were from all corners of Asia.  Again a preconception that I had was that only POW's that built it but the Japanese managed to bring in hundreds of thousands of people from Malaysia, India and their own on a false contract and treated them even worse than the POW's.

Next door was the Cemetary for a lot of the British, Dutch and Australian POW's that died during the construction and subsequent bombing from the Allies.  Again it was in exemplary condition and really felt like a fitting monument to the men and women who lay there.  The locals take great care of it which was great to see.

After these two places it didn't come as any surprise that both were built and designed by Australia, Britain and the Netherlands (though mainly the Aussies).  I may be biased but when it comes to this sort of thing we get it bang on! 

With plenty of time on my hands I decided to walk to the Bridge, still in a determined state to do things my way I hauled myself through the mid-day heat dipping into every 7-11 on the way.  It meant I got to see the Jeath War Museum; rather bizarre with its room for "world war" that covered everything from the late 1800's, wall full of crazy buffalo skulls and a building decorated with a gigantic dragon dominating the entrance.  The best part however was getting my first glimpse of the bridge.

However, before I got to the bridge there was a brief glimpse at one of the other major attractions of Kanchanaburi, the big cat sanctuary.  In this case it was a Leopard chained up to a wooden table on the edge of a local market.  WIthin a few minutes I got to see the cat be man-handled from the table into a cage in a mini-van, the whole time with it severly pissed off but well under control by it's captors.  Rumours are the people who run the "sanctuary" and the monks who live there keep the cats drowsy so tourists can have their photos taken.  It's something that I've encountered a couple other times whilst in Thailand and for the 3rd time running decided against giving them any of my money.

To the Bridge.  My arrivial was a little surreal; you had the standard tourists stalls selling shirts, postcards, caps etc but there was also a large music stand that had Hotel California blaring out of a couple of speakers.  I was expecting something a little more quiet and reflecting given the history of the bridge, but the popularity of it meant that locals were trying to flog anything and everything in the hope one visitor may just need it. 
Unfortantely it was had to get a good view of the bridge without it being swamped by other tourists (it was popular with the Thai's as well) but it was still easy to walk across it and the views of the bridge were still good.  I waited long enough for a train to cross over which deliberately took its time so both the passengers and on-lookers could enjoy the significance and spectacle of it all.  Again they really put in the effort to make it an experience for visitors without it feeling cheap and tacky.

The second part of the Death Railway experience in Kanchanaburi is heading to "Hellfire Pass", something I had never heard of until visiting the Museum in town.  Named after how the people who worked there at night to fire-light looked like skeletons and gave the image of hell, not a particularly nice image to travel with.  Rather than go with a tour group and be told how long I had there and be taken to sites I had no interest in (like elephant riding and another waterfall) I booked a private taxi that would take me to the site and then drop me off at Nam Tok so I could ride the train back to Kanchanaburi and over the bridge.

The Museum was another Australian project that had enough facts, photos and videos to give an accurate account of what happened there but the main draw was the Pass itself, as well as the long walk that takes you along the track route the Allie's tore up after the war.
Seeing the gigantic caverns the prisoners dug by hand was simply amazing, after a good hour of walking the route it became partly clear why so many people died.  I wasn't even walking in the hottest time of year and I couldn't survive without a good litre of water and stopping in the shade every 15 minutes.  How the men worked 16 hour days walking for kilometres each and every day to get to work and then be given a handful of rice as food and barely enough water to whet the lips I just don't know. 

After losing what felt like my body weights worth of sweat I took my ride to Nam Tok station where I grabbed a couple ice cold drinks at the 7-11 and jumped on board the train back into town after relaxing by the local waterfall with a few hundred locals.  It was pretty slow but the ride itself was great, the highlight being going around a mountain edge on a Viaduct that was built during the war whilst getting a great view of the river.
Crossing the famous Bridge was good as well, a piece of history that you can actively take part in - something very rare.  It was strange crossing and riding along something that nedlessly cost so many people their lives, thankfully it's all done with great respect and I never felt like someone was trying to rip me off along the way.

A few beers finished the day off and with 5 days left in Thailand it was time to plan my next destination.


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Comments

Jean Rice on

Hi Geoff
Nice to hear you sounding happier after your recent bad times, suppose to look on the bright side there's been more good than bad. We missed you on 1st March but you were there on the Order of Service in a nice family group photo. We were sad to lose Gwen but the day went well giving her a good send off.
Lawrence is still looking for an interesting job - it's not easy.

givatts
givatts on

Hi Jeanie!

It was a great relief being back in Thailand to be honest, Vietnam's a fascinating country just a shame how it ended really.
So sad that I missed the funeral, would've loved to of been there with the family but really glad she had a good send off.

Finding a job, let alone an interesting one is always a pain! I guess he could always come over to Asia and teach English, but I think for lots of people it's another way to delay making a decision!
Great to hear from you!
Geoff x

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