(Kanchanaburi – Tuesday December 9th., 2014)
Today was my first real vacation day for this trip, and perhaps my last. I’m in the city of Kanchanaburi. It’s about 140kms almost due west of Bangkok, and lies just to the east of the mountain range that separates Thailand from Burma.
It’s an odd place. It’s famous as the town where you can visit the Death Railway and the Bridge over the River Kwai – and frankly, that’s all rather depressing – but the small downtown area is typical of any well-known Thai tourist town, with its massage parlors and “Get drunk for 100 Baht” signs. So I guess some people come here to get depressed, some to get happy, and some to do both.
Actually, my subject line is misleading, as well groan-inducing. Kwai is pronounced more like kw-air than k-why, but I’m sure you know what I mean.
I began my day at the Allied Forces Cemetery. Line upon line of headstones, all tastefully maintained, surrounded by beautifully manicured grass and thousands of plants. There are 6982 graves, but that’s only the bodies that were found. The balance of the estimated 100,000 men who died are still out in the jungle somewhere. However; the niceness of the place does not detract from the knowledge of the horrors these men were subjected to by their Japanese captors. They died of malnutrition, a variety of tropical diseases, or were beaten to death for not working to some impossible schedule.
I just wandered slowly, trying to understand what these men had endured. Others walked purposefully, looking for the gravestone of a friend or relative. Some people came in family groups with elders trying to make the youngsters understand what they were looking at. Others were there because the stop was part of some round-Thailand, or even round-Asia, bus tour they’d signed up for and they had little interest in their surroundings. But they were in the minority.
I also visited the Chinese cemetery next door before moving on to the adjacent Death Railway Museum. The museum is not large, but if you take the time to read about each exhibit you can easily gain an understanding of what these men were subjected to. A fifteen minute movie features some survivors relating their personal experiences. That was very moving. A guy sitting in front of me had tears pouring down his face. It was hard not to join him. He had perhaps lost a father. It was not the time to ask.
Here are some photos of the cemeteries and museum…
Next I moved on to the railway itself and the famous Bridge over the River Kwai.
Here I had the impression very few people had any idea what they were looking at. To them it was a bridge made famous by a movie. They had to take photos of their family with the bridge. Selfies with the bridge. The bridge plus group photos, all with fingers bent into impossible angles as seems to be de rigeur on Facebook. Very few moved beyond the first half of the bridge, which was nice for me as I could keep walking to get away from the uninformed masses and appreciate some quiet time.
Not all of the bridge is original. Parts were destroyed by allied bombs to prevent the defeated Japanese troops from escaping through Burma, but somehow this doesn’t matter. It’s still easy to understand how insanely difficult it must have been to construct something so large with a minimum of equipment. One ironic thing I learned is that the Japanese engineers who designed and oversaw the construction of the railway were trained at British universities.
I found a way to get below the bridge by the riverside. Here there were no tourists. I wandered around a Chinese temple which overlooks the river. A large statue of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy looks back at the bridge. It seemed somehow appropriate. But a constantly repeating twenty seconds of Chinese music blasting out from the temple and which could be heard from the opposite bank, seemed wholly inappropriate. It was stuck in my head for hours.
Anyhoo, I’ll return to the subject of the Death Railway in a future article, once the whole experience has sunk into my brain. Here are some photos of the bridge and surroundings…
And of course, I had to visit the train station…
Next it was time for lunch. I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere near the get drunk for 100 baht establishments, so I found a road bridge to the opposite bank and a typical local restaurant at the riverside. That was pleasant … and cheap.
Driving has been the dominating feature of this trip so far, so I wanted to keep that to a minimum today. Even so, it’s nice to see outside a city, so I made about a 60km loop to the south. As so often seems to happen in Thailand I found some amazing places, and as usual was alone. Only about 2kms from the city I saw a sign to Kao Poon Caves, and soon found myself descending a narrow stone staircase into a series of nine limestone caverns or “rooms”. It was nothing like as spectacular as the ones I found near Surat Thani, but still quite exciting. There was a lot of bending needed and crawling through narrow passageways. See…
Then in the middle of nowhere I spotted a golden statue set back from the road. I had to stop and go back, but it was worth it. I ended up spending about an hour wandering around a temple complex with dozens of brightly decorated buildings and statues, all looking splendid in the early evening sunshine. The place is called Wat Pothisut Bunpotnimit. Try saying that ten times quickly. Try saying it once!
After which it which it was a slow meander back to the hotel. Here’s a couple of photos of the general area…