Southeast Asia 2016

Day 11-13 Kanchanaburi

Day 11: Tuesday, November 29

Our hotel got us a cab to the southern bus terminal in Bangkok, and our luck was holding as it only took 40 minutes to get to instead of the estimated hour. And then we were able to walk straight onto a bus, which only left once every hour. What timing! The bus ride was a little over two hours and was fairly warm. Both of us dozed off and on the whole ride. But the seats were for short people and we had no head rests at all, so it wasn't the most comfortable sleeping position.

Our hotel Sabai@Kan seems to be quite well known, which was helpful when we arrived. We got a truck-truck ride that we probably slightly over paid for, and a guy trying to sell us multiple tours for tomorrow on our drive. But we got to our destination, and the hotel is really nice. Our room faces a central green space and pool.

After settling in, we headed out to see the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum and Research Centre. The Australian man behind it has done over 17 years of research on the railway, what happened and why, and has collected memorabilia from the families of those who survived and died on the railway, as well as artifacts from the railways and POW camps, and many displays of their lives and situations. It is a really well done museum that spans two floors.

The aspect I didn't know about was how many civilian Asians worked on the railway and died. Because they were not POWs, no records of them were kept but estimates are that over 90,000 died building the railway, which far outnumbers the POWs.

Right across the street from the museum is one of the three cemeteries for POWs who died building the railway, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Comission. It is a beautiful and peaceful place and we spent some time walking around it. The grave stones all said the person's regiment, name, age, and an optional personal message from their family. We walked down one row, reading these heart-breaking messages, and by the second row we were getting a bit misty-eyed. The oldest age we saw was 41. Most were in their 20s, often about 24-25 at the time of their death. So young.

As we were leaving the museum, we happened to see a sign offering guided tours of the railway sites, so that is what we'll be doing tomorrow.

We stopped at the night market to get dinner. Unfortunately the lighting must not have been great and we didn't realize that two of the dishes we picked were covered in chilies (not green beans). These were by far the hottest dishes we've had so far, and in the interest of not destroying our stomachs and being functional tomorrow, neither of us were able to finish our main courses. Good thing the coconut pudding dish and marshmallow crepe things were good! ;)

Day 12: Wednesday, November 30

Today was one of the days on this trip that Chad & I were both really looking forward to. We came to Kanchanaburi specifically to visit the sites related to the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. Chad's grandfather was a POW captured when Singapore surrendered, and he was sent to work on this railway until its completion. We weren't able to visit the specific camps he lived in or railway sites that he worked at, but Thailand and Australia have maintained one of the most famous sites - Hellfire Pass - as a place of remembrance and for tourists.

Our biggest challenge was going to be figuring out how to get around to all of the sites we wanted to see. We lucked out though yesterday - when we were about to leave the museum & research centre, we noticed a sign advertising full day and 1/2 day tours to the railway sites. They were closing in less than 5 minutes, but we asked anyway what the possibility was of doing a tour the next day. They had a guide and a minibus available, so we booked it!

Definitely a good decision on our part. We ended up with a driver and two guides for just the two of us. Because we had already gone through the museum, they modified the tour for us so that they took us directly to several of the different sites related the the railway. We went to the H&F Hospital camp located in Kanchanaburi itself, which is now a large soccer field, and then to see the other cemetery for POWs who died on the railway in Thailand at Chungkai. This was an original cemetery while the railway was being built, which they moved additional graves into after the Japanese surrendered.

At Chungkai we also walked over to look at a rock cutting made for the railway from a lot of manual labour. We remember Chad's grandfather wrote about seeing the conditions of this camp when he arrived in Kanchanaburi and hoped he wouldn't be assigned to it. (He wasn't. But the other camps were no better).

Our guides explained how there are normally party/karaoke boats that patrol the river these days, but not at the moment due to the king's passing and the traditional period of mourning that forbids it. The sound and light show at the Kwae bridge was also cancelled. On balance we think it was probably a good thing, at least for our own experience here. It would be harder to pay your respects to the events that happened here with such distractions. It is interesting how tourism can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, without tourism, none of these museums, guides, or maybe even the railway itself would exist today. On the other hand there are now crowds of people, kitschy souvenir stalls, light and sound shows.. I suppose to cater to people for whom the history is not enough. Still something doesn't quite feel right when I turn to Alex to say "wanna take a selfie on the Death Railway?"

We then went to one of the other museums in the city, the JEATH museum, which stands for the different countries involved (Japan, England, Australia, Thailand, Holland). This didn't have very much information in it, but it was set up in a bamboo structure the same as those built by the POWs. It had a lot of photos and artwork depicting scenes from the railway buildings and camp life, and the injuries sustained by the POWs.

After this we headed to the most famous tourist attraction in Kanchanaburi: the bridge over the river Kwai. Apparently when the movie was filmed in the 50s, the river under the bridge was not actually the river Kwai, it was the Meklong. The Kwai joined the Meklong nearby to the bridge. But once the movie took off, not only does everyone now mispronounce the name of the river (should be Kwae not Kwai), but the setting was wrong. So the Thai government renamed the river. There is now a Small Kwai (the original) and a Big Kwai (which the bridge spans). You can walk across the bridge, even though it is in regular use, and you used to be able to look down while standing on it and see the original construction. But it is such a popular tourist spot that they have laid walking strips on the tracks to avoid anyone getting hurt so you can't see down into it anymore. It was quite busy when we were there.

While waiting for the train we asked our two female guides why they were wearing long heavy sweatshirts on such a warm day. To keep their skin whiter, they said, which is a desired trait here. Aren't you hot, we asked. "Yes, hot!!" was the answer. Sounds crazy but then on the other side of the world we tan ourselves to avoid being too white. Maybe one day people will chill out and embrace who they are, and live a free and happy life. One can only dream..

From the bridge, we hopped on a train that runs along the segment of the track laid down by the POWs and Asian labourers (called romusha) to its end. After Japan surrendered, the British pulled up a chunk of the railway because they didn't want Karen separatists gaining reinforcements from Burma. And then when the railway was handed over to the Thai government, they felt the railway was too long to sustain so they shortened it some more. The stretch we rode was about an hour and a half long, and the scenery was lovely. This was the flat portion of the railway, that passed through what are now largely farmers fields, but back then were likely mostly jungle. Nice green mountains in the background.

It was definitely a ride meant for tourists. There were separate prices for tourists and for locals. They handed out certificates to the tourists for having ridden on the Death Railway. We were dubious about the idea of certificates, but actually it had a poetic inscription that was quite beautiful so we kept them.

When we got off the train, our minivan was waiting to take us to a restaurant that our guides knew would be less crowded with tourists. They were right, and the food was delicious (although our guides added extra spice to their meals because we ordered plates to share and our choices were too mild). It was probably the best fried rice Alex has ever had, and the veggies and fish in pepper sauce were also very good.

The guides also bought us pomelo from a street stall when we asked what the big round green fruits were. It was nice, a bit more sour than an orange. Tasty.

Suitably full (we couldn't finish all of the food) we headed back to the van for the half hour drive to Hellfire Pass. This place got its name for a few reasons. But basically, the POWs working there named it this because it was like Dante's Inferno and was hell on earth. It was the longest cut that they had to make into solid rock for the railway line. At this point, the Japanese timeline for completing the railway had been sped up and they were now in what was referred to as the "speedo" period, where everyone was being made to work up to 18 hour days, and people were always working, so the lights of the torches and the constant banging and clanging of the men's tools made it look like Hell. The cutting of the stone and laying of tracks through this pass was completed in 12 weeks. The only tools were metal poles, which were hit with hammers repeatedly, then the small dust was cleaned out with a bit of water and wire, and this process was repeated until the hole created was long enough to stick dynamite into. After it was blown up, the stones were moved away and this process started again. It must have been back breaking work. This was not a small cut into the rocks. We walked through it and it dwarfed us. There was also an excellent free museum here to explain things.

That was the last of the WWII history for the day. Overall, apart from the bridge, we found all the railway sites very peaceful. It seems like Thailand (with support from others) is doing a nice job of honouring those who suffered here. We were very grateful for the chance to walk through the peaceful jungle, beside the calm river, in the cemeteries, and reflect on everything that happened here.

On the way back to Kanchanaburi, we stopped for a few minutes to admire the Saiyok Noi waterfall and get our feet wet. It was an interesting spot. It seems to be partially artificial (there is a pool where the bottom looks like cement) and the water seemed to be running down stalactites, but upon closer inspection it was actually water running off of clumps of dirt attached to tree roots. So it must be slowly eroding away.

We finally made it back to the hotel around 5:15pm. Our longest day yet I think, but definitely a really interesting and rewarding day.

In the interest of relaxing for the rest of the evening, we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. The food was excellent! Alex had a pork steak (never seen this in the West for some reason but it was delicious). Chad had a papaya salad and Tom yum soup that was finally as good as Kanata Noodle House (different flavour though)!

Day 13: Thursday December 1

We finally slept in today! Just kidding. Don't know if it's the jet lag or what but we can't seem to sleep past 7am. We sat outside on the patio chairs enjoying the early morning sun from our "superior pool view" room to kill time.

After breakfast buffet at the hotel we walked back to the railway museum to browse the gift shop that we hadn't had a chance to look at the other day because the museum was closing. Ended up walking out of there with $200 worth of books and paraphernalia!

After that we caught a tuk-tuk back to the hotel and felt good about bargaining his price down to a good level. Chad showed off his bargaining skills - the driver asked for 80 baht for what we knew was a 5 minute ride. Chad said 30. The driver said "30 each?" And Chad said "no, 30 for both". We settled on 40 and appreciated the ride in the heat.

It was a blissfully uneventful bus ride back to Bangkok and then takeaway dinner of pad thai from the street restaurant by our hotel called Leo's (complete with coconuts) to cap off a restful day.

Next: Day 14-15: Bangkok

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