Saphan Mae Nam Khwae

Trip Start Jan 08, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Friday, May 5, 2006

We'd decided that as the bus only took an hour and a half to get us to Auythaya, we didn't need to rush too much to get back. The Cambodian Embassy closed at 6pm. We went to the train station but the next train wasn't until 4pm. We thought that might be cutting it a bit fine so we went back to the bus station. Luck was on our side. There was one there leaving in 5 minutes! Perfect. Should get back for around 4.30. Plenty of time!!

What we stupidly didn't count on was the time we'd arrive back into Bangkok - peak hour!! The traffic was horrendous! Bumper to bumper. We literally didn't move for ages. We were sweating it out thinking that we just might make it. We jumped off and got a cab directly to the Skytrain. As we were changing trains hope was fading fast and we had almost resigned ourselves to having to waste another day just to get our passports. As we were approaching the stop closest to the Embassy we both looked at our clocks, then each other. We were both thinking the same thing - 5 minutes to go, can we make it? We both jumped off and started to run. I thought I would be able to get there easily but how wrong I was! How on earth did I walk the Annapurna Circuit! I almost had a coronary! I had to stop. David threw me his bag, took his shoes off and sprinted ahead. Thank god he's lost all that blubber!! As I rounded the corner and came through the Embassy gates dripping, heaving and panting he strolled out of the doors smiling. Relief!

Next destination - Kanchanaburi. Tonight!! Bugger stuffing around with bloody public transport. We'd already lost too much time and the bus station was miles away. We did the only sensible thing - got a cab. They're actually not too expensive in Bangkok - unless you get caught in traffic! But it was fine. We got out to the Southern Bus Station, grabbed some takeaway pork and rice, got our tickets and headed off into the night.

My tour-guide hasn't been before either so it'll be a first-hand experience for us both.

Off the bus we found a place to stay but after paying and dumping our bags the woman at the desk said, 'Oh, by the way, you'll have to check out tomorrow because we're fully booked for the weekend.' Great. Thanks so much for letting us know at a convenient time for you.

The most famous attraction here at Kanchanaburi is the Saphan Mae Nam Khwae. You might know it as the Bridge over the River Kwai. There is a movie of the same name which I have seen but not for many, many years. It's not an extremely grand bridge by any means but it was very important to the Japanese who were having troubles in WWII getting supplies through South East Asia. The poms had been through and surveyed the area in the early 20th century and had given up as the mountains and jungle were too rough. The Japanese had also been through and decided the same thing in 1939 but they were getting hammered at sea so decided to construct a railway through the previously unchartered dense jungles. They shipped all the materials in from Java as well as a load of locals from the surrounding countries and POWs. They started construction in late 1942 with engineers estimating five years to link the two countries. It only took 20 months. An amazing engineering feat, you might think, but at an incredible cost to human life. To add salt to the wound, the first train along the tracks was a Japanese brothel train. Obviously 'essential supplies' meant something different to the Japanese and Koreans.

Kanchanaburi itself is quite small extremely hot and jungley-pretty with mountains in the distance. It's a relaxing place. We took a walk out to the bridge which, disappointingly has been hit by the tourist market bug. There were loads of people around and lots of shops and market stalls. Lots of Japanese tourists, amongst loads of others!! We took a walk across the bridge over to the other side where there were two young elephants with tusks. They were so cute! On the walk back the original train came back across complete with Japanese tourists right at the front taking pictures!! Back at the station there are two locomotives permanently parked nearby. One is an engine and the other is a truck with wheels that lift to go on to rails.

We then walked back towards town to visit the one of the Allied War Cemetaries. There were English, Scottish, Welsh, Australilans, Kiwi, and Dutch memorial plaques. I didn't realise the Dutch were involved. The movie of course kind of skims around the truth but doesn't represent all those nations whose men died during it's laying. The youngest casualty I saw was only 20 years and the oldest only 45 years. We wandered around just looking at all the names and the ages. There is a memorial plaque for Americans out at the bridge. We also went to see the interesting Chinese cemetery next door.

We continued on into town and through the market where we picked up a couple of big, fat, wonderful donuts to snack on before heading over to the JEATH (Japan, English, America and Australia, Thai and Holland) War Museum. It was started by a monk in 1977 and is run by the temple next door. The collection of the museum is housed in a reconstruction of a bamboo hut similar to those used as living quarters by the PoW's whilst they built the Death Railway. There are lots of photographs taken of the prisoners and paintings and drawings done by the prisoners. There are loads of newspaper articles about the experiences of the survivors. There are also some articles of the prisoners and a few bomb casings. Some of the sufferings described by the interviews in the articles were just horrifying and the implements used by anyone with medical experience to help those that were ill. They had to use amazing amounts of initiative and imagination!! It's a good place to visit and find out about the Death Railway.

There was a huge statue thing across the road at the monastery that we took a look at and then went down through the wat to take a look at the river. Just as we got there a huge storm broke and we were trapped on a little pontoon with a cat and a female monk who was chopping up loads of veggies and feeding all the ugly carp that were hanging around. By the time the storm had passed we were starving so went to hit the street stalls for more pork and rice! Then we wandered round the markets for a while and picked up another fantastic donut for dessert!! Wooooooooo Hooooooooo!!!!!!

There is one main street that seems to cut Kanchanaburi in half and the section leading down towards the bridge is one long string of bars. Some tiny and some large and all empty. It was strange.

Our room was on a pontoon floating on the water and every night they have these floating discos which look hilarious!! A boat pulls along a floating covered pontoon playing loud music. There are loads of people just sitting round staring into space and only a few muppets jiggling round on the dance floor. They don't go for too long either. Packed up and away by about 10.30pm.

We were going to get up early for sunrise at the bridge but sleeping in was too easy. We did, however, get our act together to get the local bus up to Hellfire Pass where there is a memorial museum to the Australian and Allied prisoners of war who died while working on the Thai-Burma Railway. It is a section of the railway that has been cleared of jungle overgrowth so it can be walked. It is run with Thai and Australian funding. You can walk around 4 km of cleared railway (which we did) where there are old sleepers, bolts, rio and cement supports still around. It's unimaginable how these men built this railway. Not only were they malnourished but also filled with disease and exhaustion. They were beaten while they worked and if they didn't. They were beaten when they were in the make-shift infermeries to make them get out and work and beaten when they got there. There was no escape. Everything was done with the most primitive tools such as hammers, picks, shovels, steel tap drills and dynamite for blasting through rock. They had to cut through huge sections of insect and reptile infested jungle and blast their way through massive sections of solid rock. The some sections have names like 'Pack of Cards Bridge'. So called because the bridge collapsed three times during construction. Hellfire Pass was given it's name because of the way it looked at night lit with torches when the Japanese increased the working hours to 24. The conditions are indescribable. It's actually a wonderful walk with views out over the Kwae Noi Valley towards Burma. Some places it was eery with the creaking of the huge bamboo forests and the deafening singing of the cicadas. There are still bomb craters visible and depressions where the prisoners tried to sabotage their own work to slow their progress.

The museum sheds light on the whole project. The PoW's were only a fraction of those that perished. There were approximately 16,000 PoW victims and over 200,000 impressed labourers from India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma and Thailand. They lied to the locals and told them they would earn good money for their families if they worked on the railway. Often they were in worse conditions than the PoW's. A very famous Australian survived and helped countless others during his time there. 'Weary' Dunlop's ashes were sprinkled over Hellfire Pass when he passed away in the early 1990's. These places remind me of the incredible strength and endurance of humans and also of how evil and clouded people can become.

As the sun rose the next morning we were at the bridge. It was wonderfully quiet bar one couple that soon disappeared. We had the whole place to ourselves. Marvelous. We used the opportunity well and snapped away. When I make the effort, sunrise is the best part of the day. Fresh and new.

By 10am we were on our way back to the tourist packed streets of Khaosan Road in the Kok.
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