Monday, March 22, 2010

The River Kwai

This past weekend I went off to Kanchanaburi to check out the (in)famous Bridge over the River Kwai. As an Australian I felt duty-bound to visit this place. The town lies approximately 129km west of Bangkok; with “good” traffic it can be reached in just 2.5hrs travel time. We set out at 8am on Saturday and arrived, thanks the Red Shirts and some problematic traffic jams within the city limits, around 11am. We straight away head to the main backpacker headquarters of Sang Chuto Rd, where all the cheap’n’cheerful guesthouses along the river can be found. After finding suitable digs, T&T Guesthouse, eating lunch and deciding upon our schedule we head off at 2pm to begin our adventures. Me, Jerome and Agota opt for kayaking; Kati and Celine for the Tiger Temple.
The kayaking is really lovely, you can do either a shorter 2-3hr/7km run [Bht 250] or a 3-4hr/15km [Bht 350] one, we chose the latter. A truck takes you and you, along with water, boat, paddle, life jacket and ‘dry’ bag, all the way up the river, dumps you and agrees to pick you up again at the Chinese temple at the other end. Really you cannot go wrong or get lost; just let the stream carry you forward. We stopped about 1/3 of the way along and jumped overboard for some swimming. This was truly fabulous; you can easily glide downstream for several kms by exerting very little energy in the calm, warm and crystal-clear water. Just keep a good hold of your boat’s rope! The timing depends on your speed, skill and energy levels; we took just under 4hrs because we stopped for swimming, photos and frequent breaks. Only I won’t lie, it IS hard work and by the latter ¼ your back, arms, neck and shoulders will be feeling the strain. For those of you not too fit or competent on the water, better to do the shorter 7km option (although for myself the first half was actually nicer as the river is narrower and quieter; by the end it gets crowded with house-boats, speed boats and other tourists).
On day two we were all five of us up early to meet our tour guide. We booked the night before to do a ‘new offer’ itinerary with Toi’s Tours. For Bht 800 this included: elephant trek, bamboo raft, Sai Yok Noi Waterfall, lunch, Hellfire Pass and museum (or Hindat Hot Spring), Krasae Cave, Death Railway and the Bridge over the River Kwai; slated to take from 8am to 5:30pm. Our first stop was the Bridge over the River Kwai. For those of you who don’t know or have forgotten their high school history, I’ll now give a brief re-cap about why the bridge and its associated railway are significant. The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway and Thailand-Burma Railway, is a 415 km (258 mile) railway between Bangkok, Thailand and Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar), built by the Empire of Japan during World War II, to support its forces in the Burma campaign. Forced labour was used in its construction. About 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died as a direct result of the project. Death was due to poor nutrition (only meagre rice and salted vegetable rations twice a day), disease (malaria, cholera, dysentery, pleurisy, beri-beri) and torture (beatings, whippings) and hard-work (from 12-18 hours a day) by their Japanese overseers. The dead POWs included 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians.
The bridge (a newer replacement) is nice but overrun with tourists so there is a lot of noise and jostling for prime photo positions even at 8am; far better was the day before when I glided under in my kayak. Still, the iconic bridge, which was completed in 1943 and bombed to smithereens in 1945, is testament to the blood, sweat and tears of the armed forces personnel who slaved away on it and is well worth a visit. It really is amazing to contemplate who such a thing was built in the searing heat without modern equipment and with barely functioning labour force. From here we headed straight to the Hellfire Pass Memorial. Only re-located in the 1980s, Konyu Cutting (known as Hellfire Pass by POWs and Asian labourers who cut and blast through rock by hand to clear this pass for the Death Railway) has been reclaimed from the jungle as a profound war memorial funded by the Australian Government. Excellent museum and self-guided walking tour facilities are available [donations welcome]. The descent through the jungle down to the Pass (listening to oral histories through audio headsets) is a moving experience. Visitors can do a 500m/45min trip to the Pass and back or continue further along for the complete 4km/3hr walk. We opted for somewhere in-between, doing a 1.5hr/3km walk to the ‘Pickup Point’ just past Hinktok Cutting. This really was a very ‘moving’ experience, only by walking along the track in the searing heat (albeit with shoes and not lugging a heavy load, so not 100% authentic!) can one really begin to imagine what it would have been like. The audio guide (English and Dutch) is really excellent with the history of the railway interlaced with real POWs recounting their personal stories.
After this we went for lunch and then for an elephant trek and bamboo raft ride. The former was abysmal and I’m loath to give the spectacle any publicity. In a nutshell, you a plopped aboard a bedraggled, sad looking elephant who then proceeds to walk you slowly around a parched Thai farm for 20 minutes. The only ‘highlight’ for me was seeing a cute baby elephant standing guard over its chained mother. The latter was great, you basically hop aboard a makeshift bamboo raft and float down the river for about half an hour. If, like us, you’re bloody hot, strip off and jump in. The current easily sweeps you along so you need not paddle hard or have fear of losing the boat. There really is no more refreshing and exhilarating way to travel! As I forgot to mention it earlier, I’ll quickly interject here with a brief synopsis of the Tiger Temple (Bht 500 entry). For “humane” reasons I chose not to go there, so for this account I’m relying on my friend Kati’s description. I believe the words she used to describe her experience were horrific and despicable. In the past, reports from Tiger Temple volunteer workers have claimed that the tigers are maltreated and abused by the Abbot of the temple and his staff. The British conservation group Care for the Wild International (CWI) has also revealed disturbing evidence of animal abuse and illegal tiger trafficking at the temple. So, that’s what you can expect. Kati confirmed that when you take a "special" photo with the Tigers – meaning one of the handlers yanks your arm forward, plops it on a tiger’s back and leaves you perched their precariously – they seem incredibly drowsy, as if they've been drugged, and do not acknowledge your presence at all. To take a really, really special photo up close and personal it’s an additional Bht 500, and to cuddle a tiger cub, another Bht 1,000. I’ve since read online that the easiest way to explain these tigers' docile behaviour is that they been hand-raised by the staff and monks since birth, technically speaking they have been conditioned (think Pavlovs' dogs) to go and sleep in the show arena every day as part of their routine. Tigers are also nocturnal, and sleep 16-18 hours per day, plus they are fed 4kg of food before being put on “display” during the hottest part of the day (1:00-3:30 pm). So there you have it. Apparently no sedation involved, just strict routine. I’m still not buying it, but hey, make up your own mind. Even if it is “routine” they are still wild animals who should be allowed to do as nature intended and not be subjected to gawking tourists 365 days a year. So personally I will never ever go there and don’t want to support such an operation, but if you’re game, stop by some day. Just remember, trained or otherwise, they are still fierce tigers, so if you don't follow the instructions you are given (not loud noises or clothing), you put yourself and others at risk.
After that we attempted to dry off as we made our way to our last stop, Krasae Cave and Tam Krasae Railway station. First we take a walk along the track to take photos and admire the stunning view of the river. There is also the cave, a snug hideout with a gold Buddha that was once a POW camp and hospital. And then, finally, after reading and seeing it all day long, we board the legendary “Death Railway” at 4:10pm sharp and head off. We are jostled along a 20min section via four stops. The first part of the ride is very slow and precarious as the somewhat decrepit train chugs around the cliff face. The ground then levels off, the track heads inland, and the locomotive picks up speed. From here it’s an enjoyable and rattling 20min ride towards civilisation (you can take this train all the way to Bangkok). My only advice would be don’t stick your head out the window as there are many trees overhanging the railway line and their branches have a tendency the swish in the windows and slap unsuspecting people in the face!
Getting there: From Bangkok the easiest way to reach the River Kwai is to take an air-conditioned mini-van from Victory Monument. These leave every half hour and are quick ‘n’ easy, costing only Bht 110. Alternatively, trains [Bht 100] leave Bangkok's Thonburi Train Station at 07:45 and arrive at Kanchanaburi at 10:20, also at 13:45 and arriving at 16:35.

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