Friday, July 8, 2011

The River Kwai and Erawan Falls (June 26-27)

Since it is my goal to travel around the world by rail as much as possible, it seemed only right that when in Thailand, I visit the site of the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai. Years ago, I’d read the novel and have seen the movie a couple of times. Some background history: In the early 1940s, Thailand gave Japan permission for its troops to operate within its country. As the Japanese was invading Burma and India, it needed a way to supply its army. With the American and British submarines blockading the sea routes, the Japanese set out to build a railroad from Thailand to Burma. To accomplish this work, they utilized soldiers captured in Malaya and the Burma as well as the Dutch East Indies as well as citizens from these countries who were forced into labor. Thousands died building what became known as the “Death Railroad.” The trip I’d signed up for took us to Kanchanaburi by minibus. Our first stop was one of a number of cemeteries along the way where those who died building the railway were buried. This cemetery was close to the Kanburi POW camp, the largest in the area and the remains of 5,000 Commonwealth (British and Australian) and 1,800 Dutch soldiers are buried there. It is a well kept site, with each grave being marked by a granite marker. There were no large flags flying, only a couple of small Australian flags were seen, stuck upon individual graves.

The Bridge
After walking around for twenty minutes or so, we loaded back up on the minibus and headed to the POW museum and the railroad bridge.  The museum wasn’t much and was pretty tacky. Throughout the museum was the quote, “the phenomenon of war brings adverse effects on society,” as if it justified or at least rationalized what had happened to thousands of soldiers and civilians in the building of this railway.  They did show the brutality of Japanese (such as forcing POWs to march out onto the bridge as planes came in to bomb it, resulting in the killing of many POWs by “friendly fire.”  The museum didn’t say much of Thailand’s role in the war (of allowing Japan’s free operations within its borders).  One of the displays even spoke of how well the Japanese soldiers got along with the natives in the region, saying that the women had nothing to fear from them.  It display went on to note that the Japanese had their own women from Korea and Manchuria, but conveniently left out the enslavement these “comfort women” endured.
A stop along the way

The Death Railway
After the museum, I walked across the trestle.  During the war, it was bombed several times, last time being in November 1944, after which it was rebuilt till after the war.  Today, the railroad no longer connects to the Burma (Myanmar) rail system due to the instability of the region.  Instead, the train stops about 10 km from the border.  Later in the morning, we boarded the train at Kanchanaburi heading west.  It was a regular train (all 3rd class) with two cars reserved for tours.  Especially interesting along our 1 ½ hour ride was the long wooden causeway along the Kwai Noi River.  The other interesting part was the number of sellers who came through selling just about everything, from food products (I brought some fried tapioca) to t-shirts and hats.  

Timbered causeway along the river
We ate a late lunch (it was nearly 2 PM when we got off the train.  Afterwards, I’d signed up for a tour to the Hellpass Gap area, where POWs and civilian forced laborers dug a cut through solid rock without the use of dynamite.  But somehow, I ended up with another group that got to float on a bamboo raft along the Kwai Noi River and then ride elephants.  The rafting wasn’t a big deal; I’d seen better rafts made by Boy Scouts floating on the Cape Fear River.  As for the elephant ride, I felt guilty riding the beast and the only thing I could think of after I got done with bouncing around on top is that Hannibal was a damn fool to try to invade Rome with those beast. 

Footbridge seen during rafting trip
Had there been a banjo player up there, I'd been worried!

Yep, that's me...

 Our meals during this trip were all served on a floating raft in the Kwai Noi River and were very good.  That night, we stayed on a floating hotel.  Before dark (and foolishly, before I checked out the plumbing system), I went swimming in the river.  There were signs warning us not to go at night, for there are crocodiles in the river, which was enough to keep most of the group out.  But after I went in, several others joined me.  The river was fast and if one swam at a leisurely pace, one would stay in the same spot.  It took a lot of work to swim up river!   As night fell, so did the rain.  It rained most of the night, hard at times, with some lightning through in for good measure. 
 The group I was with was mostly Irish (from the North and the Republic) and they knew how to party.  But I was tired and decided to head to bed with the plan of waking up early and writing.   Several times I woke up in the middle of the night with the Irish singing and dancing (the last time was around 3 AM).  I couldn’t believe it when they were up and ready to head out the next morning at 8 AM (they were up but not exactly social).  I was up early the next morning, but wasn’t able to write very long as the power had gone out during the night (which also meant the toast for breakfast was just plain bread).  Instead, I did sit out and observe the river.  When it was raining hard, the sounds of the jungle were silenced by the patter of rain on tin, but when the rain let up, you could hear the jungle, the insects and monkeys as well as the drumming from a Buddhist temple that wasn’t far away.
Morning, between showers, on the Kwai Noi River

A monkey at the falls
 The next day we went to Erawan National Park, home of Erawan Falls, a 1500 meter waterfall that cascades down the mountainside.  There are seven main drops along the way, each with a pool at the end.  The climb to the top is steep and over 2.5 km long.  I hiked with the only other American in the group of 30 of us (three vans), a woman graduate student from George Washington University.  I didn’t write down her name and have forgotten.  We had interesting conversations about school, religion (she’s Jewish) and travel.  She is on a four month trip that started in New Zealand and Australia, and will take on to Nepal and to Israel.  The falls were spectacular with the top falls probably being the best.  We came down to the third falls where I went swimming.  She started too, but decided not to when she realized the minnows in the water would nibble at your feet (later, in Cambodia, there were places advertising “fish massages” where you paid to put your feet into water and have fish “eat the dead skin off.”  I figured I didn’t have to pay any extra for my “massage.”

Another monkey...
After everyone got down from the waterfalls, the mood was rather somber as one of the Irish girls had her passport, ipod, money and credit cards stolen from her backpack while swimming.  She was with three other girls and had travel insurance, but it was still going to be a hassle getting a new passport and making a claim.  However, I was pleasant surprised with her character as several folks in the van were encouraging her to “inflate her claim,” and to say that her ipod was really and ipad and instead of a couple hundred pounds that she had 500 pounds (the maximum cash the insurance policy would pay).  She keep saying no and finally she told the group that maybe there was something to this Buddhist karma thing and that bad things happen to those who are not honest!   After lunch, I sat beside her in the van (for the five hour ride back to Bangkok) and we talked a bit.  She is a pharmacy student, having one more year to study and on a four week trip with friends.  Before lunch, using one of her friend’s phones, she already had her credit cards cancelled and a new one being sent as well as money from her parents being wired, so she felt she was going to be okay. 
I got back to Bangkok at 7 PM and checked back in at Sam’s Lodge.  I went out and had a bowl of Chicken Noodles at a sidewalk cafĂ©, then called it an early night, for I was going to have to be up early again to catch the train to the Cambodian border.
The third cascade of the falls


  1. East Asia is a place I've always wanted to visit both for the history and scenery. Thanks for the next best thing.


  2. it has to be pretty amazing and stilling to be at such places along your journey...the railroad and bridge...and a nice little aside about the girl stolen from. glad she followed her own counsel and did the right thing...

  3. What a somber place. But quite beautiful. Did you want to whistle the song from the film about the Bridge over the River Kwai?

  4. That cemetery brings home how horrible that war was, and how so many suffered. Wonderful pics of the critters, though. Amazing stuff.

  5. National flags over this side tend to be the result of class, national or civil war divisions. So they don't have the iconography that goes with a flag being held up with the bodies of the fallen while the English are shelling the shit out of a bastion. They also tend to be the result of compromise. But a compromise that is imposed not one that's organic.

  6. Great post. Was the bridge ever dynamited like we see in the movie? The photos are a great help to picturing what you are describing. Though I've been in Central America, I just don't have a real idea of what it's like to be in a jungle. Having just read HEART OF DARKNESS, I'd have been making that connection if I'd been along. Thanks.

  7. The photos are wonderful, but I can't believe you swam in a river with crocs. Are you nuts??!!

  8. Another great post! In addition to being a narrated tour, your posts are also a lesson in history. You REALLY should put this whole thing into book form. People would buy it! I know I can't stop reading...