Kwai Me A River

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

After months of lounging and snorkelling and tanning, it is back on the road and time to do some sightseeing and gathering of factoids! So off we went to Kanchanaburi.  This was only meant to be a 2 hour train journey and after some of our Russian and Chinese trains this was nothing… except it was 3rd class and the hottest train in the known universe.  With the windows open and the breeze blowing in it was still 35 degrees.  What really added to the experience was when we stopped at a station for 1 hour with no breeze for no apparent reason.  So far I am not loving train travel in Thailand.

Kanchanaburi is the home of the Bridge over the River Kwai, just a small part of the Death Railway which was constructed during World War 2.

I have two interesting factoids for you - The Bridge now known as the Bridge over the River Kwai, as made famous in the movie, was not actually built over the River Kwai, it was built over the Mae Klung.  However after the influx of tourism following the movie in 1960 the Thai Government decided to rename the river!  Also the way we pronounce Kwai is actually wrong.  It should be pronounced like square without the S.  I bet you didn't know that!

I think it is a sad tale of education today, that I knew little of what had happened in Thailand during WW2, so as my wise mum says it is better late than never!  In case your schools were as rubbish as mine, here is a brief history lesson for you all.  The war in the Pacific started in 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the invasion of Malay, by 1942 Japanese forces were fighting the British in Burma.  The Japanese quickly realised that they needed a more secure supply route into Burma than the vulnerable shipping lanes between Singapore and Rangoon and so they planned to build a 415km railway through the jungle and mountains linking Thailand and Burma. The Japanese assembled a multinational workforce of 250,000 Asian labourers (Romusha – who volunteered after promises of good accommodation, wages, healthcare and food – none of which were forthcoming) and around 60,000 British, Dutch, Australia and American prisoners of war and construction commenced in October 1942.  The conditions that these workers endured were horrific especially from April 1943 when the rainy season began and with a deadline approaching a faster schedule was required, this was known as the 'Speedo’.  Labourers already exhausted, starving and sick were forced to work 18 hour days.  Starvation, cholera, malaria, dysentery and tropical ulcers tore through the workers.  They were forced to walk for miles to their work camps, they were living in terrible unsanitary conditions, had little food, inadequate medical facilities and endured brutal treatment and physical punishment from the guards and railway supervisors.  It is estimated that between 70,000 and 90,000 civilian labourers and 12,399 prisoners of war died during the construction of the Death Railway.

There are a multitude of museums in Kanchanaburi and the first we visited was the WW2 and JEATH (Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, Holland).  This is possibly one of the oddest museums I have ever seen.  It has part of a temple in it, a selection of very odd wax models, some remnants from the war, but also some weird irrelevant sections such as a wall full of random stamps.  It also had some kind of witch doctor man with jars and drawers filled with bark and leaves and snakes and lizards!  The only good thing about the museum is that it offers an amazing view of the bridge so we sat in some of the random rocking chairs at the museum and took in the view.  All around the bridge there are stalls selling jewellery and fruit, odd combination I know!  However I discovered a new fruit here, called jack fruit.  It looks like a big spikey melon a bit like a Durian and inside has little yellow fruit pods each with a huge seed in the middle, how have I only just discovered this?!

Our big day trip in Kanchanaburi was to see the Erawan waterfall and the Hellfire Pass.  First up the Erawan Waterfall.  After a good 2 hour drive we arrived at the waterfall and were pointed in the right direction and told we had two hours.  We arrived at about 10am so it was nice and quiet and as we worked our way up the different levels there were fewer and fewer people.  There are 7 levels in total but we decided that we didn’t need to go to the top.  The tour guide had told us that there are fish in the waterfall which nibble on your feet so we assumed that they were the same ones that you see in the beauty salons giving you a fish pedicure.  If they are the same fish, they have been on steroids.  No jokes some of these fish were the size of my arm!  As we dipped our toes in the water, the little ones like in the beauty salon were straight over nibbling our feet. This left me squealing on the side of the waterfall for a good 10 minutes.  Tim was straight in, but he was soon out again stood on a rock looking nervous.  I eventually mustered up the courage and jumped in past the little fish, only to be greeted by the big ones, who were straight over for a nibble.  This was horrible.  The water was lush and cold and the waterfall was stunning, but there was not a chance I could cope with a full body fish nibble, I was out of there.  What was fun was standing on the side watching everyone slowly get in and straight back out as the fish surrounded them.  We worked our way up to a busier part of the waterfall assuming that there would be more people so less chance of getting nibbled.  No such luck.  I was in, nibbled and out again.  To make it worse, I could actually see a circle of fish on the surface coming at me! 

Next up the Hellfire Pass.  Also known as the Konyu Cutting, the Hellfire Pass was the longest section of rock cutting required along the railway, a tunnel would have been easier, but by blasting out the rock, work could take place the full length of the cutting, rather than just at either end.  The cutting was complete in 6 weeks, but the long hours, poor conditions and dangerous work tools cost many lives.  The Hellfire Pass was re-located and reclaimed from the jungle in 1980 and is now a memorial funded by the Australian Government.  Standing in the cutting it is almost unbelievable to comprehend how people worked with basic tools to get through such deep rock.  The day we visited the sun must have been 45 degrees.  To get down to the cutting, there is a stairway with maybe 300 steps, by the time we had gone down and back up we were fit to drop.  I have never been so happy to see a fridge box with a sign for ‘Free Water’.  Thinking of how sick, starving and exhausted men worked 18 hour shifts in brutal conditions in these temperatures is just incomprehensible.

On our way back to Kanchanaburi we stopped at the Krasae cave, to get to the cave we needed to walk along a section of the death railway which curved its way around a cliff.  I was hopeful that our tour guide knew what time the trains come as there was nowhere to go to get out of the way?!  In the cave was a large golden Buddha with a temple looking out of the cave over the railway, there was no information as to how long this has been here, but it was pretty cool none the less.  Our final part of the journey before a stop at the River Kwai bridge was a ride on a local train along the death railway, having spent 3 sweaty hours on this very train the novelty was slightly wasted on us, but the view was pretty and this part of the track was the original death railway so at least we can say we did it.

After a hard days touring we decided to treat ourselves, so we rocked up to a roadside bar (literally a bar on the side of the road) and had a Shisha pipe and 20p Thai Whiskies, classy!

Our last day and the one place left to visit was the Thai-Burma Railway Centre which is a museum overlooking the War cemetery.  This was by far the best museum in the area with photos, video’s, survivors stories and diaries and belongings which had been donated to the museum.  It was eye opening and heart breaking to see the pictures of the POW’s with their skeletal frames and bloated bellies striding through their bamboo camps in nothing but a piece of cloth to go to work.  The humidity and heat caused their western clothes to disintegrate so they wore what they called a ‘Jap Happy’ which was nothing more than a piece of fabric tied on like a nappy.  After the museum we went to Don Rak, the Kanchanaburi War cemetery which has almost 7,000 POW graves laid out in straight lines amidst the neatly manicured lawns and gardens.  As a requirement of the Geneva Convention, the Japanese were required to keep records of the dead POW’s, also the other POW’s kept their own records of where their fallen colleagues had been laid to rest, making it much easier to locate the bodies at the end of the war.   Sadly the Asian workers were not given this dignity and it is not known where most of their bodies were buried.  Those who died are were originally buried at makeshift grave-sites were moved after the war ended to Don Rak cemetery, this was designed as a more fitting resting place and memorial to the dead. Lines of identical stone slabs mark the fallen and where the identity of the soldier is unknown a simple inscription states, ‘A soldier who died for his country’. In other cases the names, ages and regiments of the soldiers are marked.  Historians calculate that 38 Allied POWs died for each kilometre of track that was laid on the railway.

Walking around the cemetery and looking at the ages of the men was just heart breaking, there was every age from teenagers and men in their 50’s and so many unknown soldiers.  Such a waste of life; Rest In Peace.

We were both sad leaving the cemetery and on our way home we passed a Chinese Cemetery, the stupas were so pretty and there were streamers, confetti and bangers where loved ones had been to visit, quite a contrast to the cemetery next door.

Our final night and we decided to go to visit the market, it was absolutely huge, they sold pretty much everything from clothes and shoes to satellite dishes and chicken on a stick. You could even pay to feed a goat, now that is the first time I have seen that!  In the middle of the market there was a little market going on where the local girls had a tarp on the floor and were doing their own little car boot sales selling their last season’s wardrobe!

In Kanchanaburi we had decided that we had wanted to stay in a raft house, which was really cool, we had an awesome view up the river and every time a boat went past our house rocked.  The problem with the raft houses was that the walls were made of paper and bamboo, so you could hear everything in the room next door.  We seemed to get particularly unlucky with our neighbours, we had a Thai group who just shouted all the time and played their music pretty much non stop from 6am to 2am, then we had an American girl and an English bloke who decided to talk nonsense all night, Tim tried shouting shut up but that made no difference so to get his own back when we left for the 6am train he turned off the electric to their room (the switch was conveniently located out in the hallway), that would be a nice wake up call when they are sweating into their pillows wondering why the aircon wasn’t working.  We wondered how long it would be before they realised it wasn’t a powercut! Heh heh so childlike, yet so necessary, don’t mess with Tim Currie’s sleep else you will live to regret it!!

Back on the sweaty train to Bangkok!
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