A poignant couple of days
16.03.2009 - 18.03.2009
The Bridge over the River Quay is a classic Sunday afternoon movie. The film, but more so the story, brings to life the suffering of the thousands of POWs that worked the Death Railway. We had no idea that one day we get to see the river, and the famous bridge - at least in its current state, for ourselves. The town itself was listed as a chilled backpacker hangout, so we decided to spend a couple of days there rather than visit on a day trip. The town was larger and more developed than we thought. Only one tuktuk driver approached which was unusual and made us feel quite unpopular. He was brandishing a card with the details of a hostel that we had planned to check out, so agreed to go with him. We had no clue that he would be peddling a cyclo, and quickly stopped, explaining that it was not only the both of us, but also our baggage. Smiling, he took our bags, hooked them on and then instructed us in the art of squashed up farang sitting. How he got the cyclo moving, let alone picking up speed, was beyond us. He told us that he had been working the cyclo in Kanchanaburi for 35 years, and his calf muscles were testament to it. No sooner had we pulled up, than Brads was jumping on to have a go himself, barely moving it, even though we had both got out and it was only our luggage.
The Jolly Frog is a large sprawl of budget rooms on the banks of the river. Our room was small and clean, but really, really hot, so we didn't spend much time inside. Although we were weary from travelling all night, and then all morning, we decided to go out and visit some of the sights, rather than falling asleep. It was so much hotter than Chang Mai, it became an effort to walk out of the hostel grounds. Although the museums and the bridge appeared to be in walking distance, in the heat it was looking very unlikely. Instead, we hired push bikes, and as the city is pretty flat, we maintained a speed that didn't cause too much exertion but created a nice breeze to cool us down. We stopped at a 7/11 along the way, to grab a much needed cool drink and a blast of air con. We have found that a good way to get a break from the heat is to spend 5 minutes wandering aimlessly through the aisles of a well air conditioned shop. The only problem being when you exit, it feels like someone has accidently cranked up the thermostat, and the central heating has been left on.
Our first stop was the museum. Housed in a recreation of the living quarters at the camp, a large collection of photographs and newspaper articles, line the wall in the hot and stuffy building. The museum was funded and built by an ex-Japanese army translator, who was so ashamed of the atrocities carried out by his own people, that he returned to lend a hand in keeping the memory of what happened, alive. Paintings by a couple of prisoners depicting life in the camps were very moving. The museum was very quiet, it only seemed to be us there, and as such, the fans that line the walkway hadn’t been turned on. We left it that way and by the time we exited into the bright sunlight, we were exhausted with the heat. We can barely imagine what conditions would have been like while the railway was being constructed. With the suffering fresh in our minds, we peddled towards the bridge, careful to keep that exact balance of breeze and little movement. Just before the bridge, is another museum, dedicated to the building of the bridge and other strange topics. As we were pretty tired, we didn't trawl through the whole museum complex, as only part of it is given over to the bridge. There is a strange row of life sized models of important characters through the war, including Hitler, Mussolini, and Einstein. Next to each is a description of what part they played, but is written in a style that can only be described as 'school project', as the translation does not appear incorrect, just very childlike. In one room there were cases full of weaponry, and pieces of German army uniform. At one end of the room was a tomb, with bones from recovered graveyards, displayed in a Perspex box. We didn't visit upstairs of this part of the building, as it held a collection of photographs of previous 'Miss Thailand's. In the courtyard was a tall white building, holding a bell and various Buddhist shrines. Adorning the outside walls were plates, bowls and cutlery, set into the plaster. Downstairs from the more bizarre rooms, a large part of the museum holds hundreds of articles from the war era. We have both visited museums in the UK and no doubt seen many objects and machines from that time, but in this case it was almost as though everything that had ever been recovered in the area, ended up in these long glass cases. There were four or five of each thing at least, and some very rare things. An army hat claiming to be once worn by Stalin, and even an Enigma machine. Beyond these huge glass cases were trucks and cars, strangely with very life like models at the wheel. Just to finish off the strangeness of the museum, the last room we found, hidden away in a far corner, was a collection of very ancient tools, coins and similar. They seemed to be an after thought to the main attractions, but it was difficult to see why when these predated anything else there by thousands of years.
We left the museum, and cycled a short way up the road, to the bridge. The bridge turned out to be quite a major tourist trap, with vendors and food stalls surrounding the entrance to the bridge. Surprisingly, we were charged nothing to cross the bridge on foot. Although the original bridge was destroyed and this is its replacement, it was still pretty cool to be walking along a bridge that previously only featured for us in a story or movie. At one point there was a ripple of panic amongst our fellow tourists and Anna looked up to see everyone else standing on small platforms to let the train pass. People were practically crying with fear at her dicing with death and remaining on the tracks for seconds longer than the horn was sounded. Catching on to the mass hysteria, Anna quickly ducked onto a platform, thinking she had only just escaped death by a fraction. The train approached, very slowly, all the onlookers looking terrified. It dawned on Anna that this was a mass overreaction and she would have had more than enough time to join Brads on the next platform along, where he was currently beaming down at the absurdness of the panic. The train passed, slowly, and we were soon reunited for a giggle. We tried to take a poignant moment to reflect on what had happened here over 50 years ago, but found it hard with the shrieks of laughter from school children on a day out. We cycled back to the hostel, wondering who had added the extra miles since the outwards journey.
After a quiet night in, the next day we overslept a bit and found ourselves at midday without a plan. We soon hit upon the idea of visiting the Kanchanaburi Safari Park. As Anna has trouble visiting Zoos, as she's too much of a softie to see the animals in cages, this seemed a good way to see some animals. The local tours companies were asking a seemingly ludicrous amount, so after checking it out on the internet, and enlisting the help from the lovely girls at the hostel; we set off to catch a local bus up to the park. We had the name of where we were going in Thai, had looked at the route to ensure we were going in the right direction, and after appearing to find the right location to stand, we bravely hailed down the next local bus to go by. Luckily it was the right bus, we couldn't know until it was along side us, as in a genius design trend, the buses tend not to have the number displayed on the front. From the looks we were getting it was obvious that farang don't really take this, or any other bus in Kanchanaburi. We had to have total faith as we steamed out of town on a never-ending dusty road, leading through small towns and villages. Soon enough, the bus let us off outside the park entrance, and we walked the 50m to the ticket office. After paying our fee, and buying a few bowls of carrots, we boarded the safari bus. The first area belonged to the deer, who clambered at the bus to get some carrots and various other vegetables.
Some even stood on their back legs, unassisted by leaning on the bus, which made it easier to grab the food. On to the next enclosure, and the black bears. Two seemed to be having a bit of a disagreement, so we were treated to a live animal show, with lots of bearing of teeth and standing on hind legs to make themselves appear bigger.
The next enclosure held a few tigers, which were sensibly lying in the shade, relaxing. We next saw the lions, who were doing a bit more pacing and eying the bus suspiciously. As the double gates closed behind us and we headed into the next section, we saw the amazing site of a group of giraffes heading towards the bus. Definitely the main reason we came, the excitement was almost overwhelming, as the huge animals reached their heads right into the bus to find the food they knew was waiting for them. Their large black tongues totally enveloped the carrots, and they had no fear as they literally got stuck in.
They are even more impressive animals up close, their heads are huge. They were really friendly and we had loads of fun stroking them and tickling behind their ears. The zebras were in the same enclosure, slightly overshadowed by the thrill of the giraffes. After a quick sighting of an ostridge we were pulling up outside the petting zoo.
Somehow we managed to find ourselves totally alone in a rabbit petting area. We were able to act like 6 year olds with no one around to witness. The bus kindly took us all the way to the front gate, where we waited on the side of a long, almost deserted, straight road. Pretty much every vehicle that passed gave us a toot or a wave, some just stared, open mouthed. The bus arrived and thankfully pulled over, and we took an equally pleasant return trip to our hostel.
We decided to leave the following morning, and left the room at dawn. Our cyclo rode through the dead streets as the morning light grew stronger. Within a turn we were in the throng of a morning market, with hundreds of stalls lining the streets and equally as many customers. We felt we had jumped forward in time by three hours, and it returned back to dead calm within a few more corners. We were taken to an awaiting 1st class bus back to Bangkok, for another through journey. Rather than taking us straight to the bus station where we had come from, and had worked out or onward journey from, it dropped us on the side of a dual carriageway. Luckily it turned out that the local city bus we wanted to catch to take us from the Southern Bus Station to the West Bus Station. Our second view of Bangkok was from a cramped seat, in a packed bus, crawling through the maddening traffic. The journey took a little longer than anticipated, and we had a little wait before the 12.30 bus to Trat, so we grabbed some breakfast. Soon enough we were back on a bus, heading through the choking congestion. The Government buses are surprisingly comfortable, much more so than the VIP tourist buses provided for regular routes. They're cleaner, there's more leg room, the seats recline further and they're cheaper. We knew we were on a pretty tight schedule to get the last ferry at 7pm. The timings all worked, but it depended on the bus not being too late. Unfortunately for us, the bus driver seemed to be feeding a parasite, stopping hourly to pick up a variety of food. Some times it appeared he had stopped just because he was able to. Finally, after a nail biting last hour, we arrived in Trat, where we needed to hire a sangthaw to make the 30 minute ride to the port. We breathed a sigh of relief as a guy poked his head in the bus and chanted 'ferry, ferry', and seemed to be taking the close timing seriously. We had a frantic, mad drive to the port, and although we were pleased he was making a big attempt to get us there, we started to wonder whether catching the last ferry was worth risking our lives over. True to word, we pulled up with the ferry still firmly attached to land. The other passengers on the boat were calmly waiting, and the night was still and silent, so it was a quick change in pace from our mad dash to the boat, and our heart rates soon returned to normal. Just over an hour later we docked on Ko Chang, and caught a waiting sangthaw to our next destination, Lonely Beach.