This is part of an extensive trip through SE Asia in February 2013. By the time I got to Thailand, I had already been to Seoul, Korea and to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Part one is the first four days, starting with my flight from KL to Bangkok. This post continues the trip at the fourth day. You can jump to the final section, Part 3.
I’m up early again for a tour today. My pick up is at 7a and I am honestly not sure what I’m seeing today. I’m signed up for an elephant camp, but if I had known I would ride an elephant at the earlier tour, I would not have signed up. Still, I will probably learn something new and see something different. It is paid for and these things usually work out. I just hope that I don’t spend hours sitting in a van. The van is 10 minutes late and this gives me a chance to down a glass of orange juice while they set up for breakfast.
Observations & thoughts during long van ride.
- The sign in the hotel reads “Stop Global Warning” I see this several times around the city with the same poor translation.
- Another in my bathroom tells me to leave the towels on the rook (rack?).
- There are shrines in the middle of major intersections. With the heavy traffic it would take divine intervention to get to them and back without injury.
- Most every building and business has a small shrine. Businesses and houses have them out front, but several apartment complexes have one or more on the roof.
Last night I passed storefronts. Though closed for business, they were being used as a living room. People obviously live and do business there. At night you can see through the glass windows into their life. The front doors (most are sliding glass doors) are wide open, music playing. Many have a folding table, half on the side walk or carried into the street, in place of a dining room. If the family is finished eating they sit at the table and chat or do handwork. One man was working a stationary bicycle and watching TV. In a storefront with a particularly high ceiling, there is a wide upper shelf near the ceiling with a sleeping mat. The “shelf” is less than 18 inches wide. It’s stretched from the top of a bookcase on one side of the room to the top of a solid piece of furniture on the other. A ladder is built into the wall. The shelf is open on both sides and, with the addition of a blow up mat, makes a narrow bed near the ceiling. I hope the sleeper does not toss and turn at night!
- I wonder what type of grass grows in the parks? It has fine, short leaves, covers the ground completely without sticking up and takes high sun and heavy foot traffic well.
- I see a store selling necklaces and rings, but marked “Jewry”.
The young couple seated near me in the van are Bulgarian. They live in Vienna and generally speak French to each other. Their English is good and I assume their Bulgarian and German are too. How many languages do they speak? It is embarrassing to me to be so limited.
Our guide’s name is Aoy (oy) and she is very funny! I think it must be difficult to be funny in another language. She explains there are 3 vans and she will not be riding with us. Among the guests is a mother and daughter. They have 2 huge suitcases and are here for 3 days. Everyone has a slightly different tour package and there is much shuffling about. We have a toilet stop and Aoy gives the itinerary for me (I don’t remember signing up for all this, but I guess I did?):
- River Bridge
- Train ride
- Elephant ride
- River raft ride
This is the worst toilet stop yet. There are foot prints on the toilet seat where someone stood and squatted on the seat. Their aim is questionable. There are signs in many bathrooms telling people not to do this. There is no toilet paper and you flush by pouring a ladle of water down the bowl. The insect life is extensive. Many species are individually and severally represented. It makes one believe that the study of entomology is a very serious science. There are more than a million ants. I am not exaggerating. They are minute in size and a group of over a hundred are carrying off a large, dead beetle. If the smell was less oppressive I might stay and watch. And for this extra show I pay only 5B!
Back in the van, we are told will be 1.5 hours to our destination. It isn’t. I’ve been in the van 2 hrs and am ready to be out of here! Unfortunately, day trips take the entire day and half the time is spent sitting in a van.
Kanchanaburi World War II Cemetery: One of 3 cemeteries in this area, all WWII dead are from forced labor camps. About 1,000 graves here, mostly UK, Australia & New Zealand. Approximately 15,000 prisoners of war died to build the Burma to Siam railroad (now Myanmar to Thailand). Most bodies were thrown in the river, however, so the cemeteries are small compared to the death toll. The Japanese considered this railroad to be strategically important and worked the men hard with little food or medicine in the extreme heat and dense jungle. The cemetery is beautifully kept and the inscriptions are painfully sad. “Gone but not forgotten” or “Here lies our son who made us proud.” They are in long rows, very close, and there is barely room to imagine a body lying under the grass. We are asked not to step over the headstones, a rude gesture.
The Death Railway Museum is across the street from cemetery, but we are told we will go to a different museum.
A British couple on the van ride tells me his uncle was in the death camp here, building the railroad. He was rescued by the Americans, but his ship was sunk as he made his way back home. He was rescued, but by Japanese. As a prisoner of war again, he was taken to Nagasaki, Japan to work in a factory. He survived the atomic bomb and the US managed to rescue him again, but kept shuffling him about. First to a hospital in Hawaii, then California, then New York. It was almost 2 years after the end of the war before he made it home. His family had thought him dead. By the time he got home, no one wanted to talk about the war so he didn’t really share his experiences. He died 5 years later because his body was so worn out, but managed to marry and father 4 children before his death. He was only in his early 40’s when he died. (They mention that one of the men who was in this group recently wrote a book about the experience. I found it on line: The Forgotten Highlander.)
The museum we come too is beside the river Kwai Bridge. It is labeled “Jeath Museum“. The photos are very faded and it is not well laid out, but they have several artifacts. It’s housed in a former Japanese Headquarters. The displays are graphic, leaving little to the imagination. I walk across the River Kwai Bridge. The area was once a dense jungle but is now a tourist trap. I wonder what the prisoners who built this railroad would think of it today. Most of the sections of the bridge are curved, but the middle section is square. This was the part bombed by the Americans and rebuilt.
On the way back to the meeting point I have my photo taken petting and feeding a leopard. Really. Only 100B and I still have all my fingers–though my thumb did get chewed on a bit. His name is Neptune. And though it seemed risky, the handler had all his limbs and did not seem clawed up, so I risked it. He was raising money for a wildlife preserve, or so he said. (After I get home I read an article about a zoo where people feed large cats. One woman was killed and eaten.)
To celebrate keeping all my digits, I ask a woman behind a jewelry counter if I can try on a ring. It’s only after she speaks that I realize this is a man. Transvestites are very accepted here and I have noticed a few so far, but only after hearing their voice. All have been very beautiful.
We board the train and take the old Burma to Siam Railroad. If you want deluxe accommodations you can pay an extra 200B and you are guaranteed a seat and will be served tea. Hot tea in this heat? Only the English!
We cross the Kwai River and go out into the countryside. We see farms: rice, sugar cane, bananas, papaya, corn, guava, goats, thin cattle and thinner chickens. We are on a flat plain, but the Mountains in distance are such jagged peaks. It is standing room only and I don’t get a seat for the ride which is just short of 2 hours. I meet a lovely Canadian couple and we pass the time, standing directly under the fan. There is no air conditioning, but the windows are open. He is originally from Jamaica and can identify most of the plants. She is a geologist and has traveled all over the world, mostly alone. I’d estimate she is not much over 30. The train to very overcrowded and at each stop people get on but no one gets off. People keep passing in the aisles and food and drink sellers go from car to car. Though I’m glad to be able to say I’ve taken this trip, it’s a cattle car and I’m delighted to get off!
I run into the lonely man from Iowa again! We compare notes since we met 2 days ago. He went to a temple yesterday and was wearing shorts. Men must wear long pants, but he is a big man and none of the clothes for hire were big enough. He searched the nearby market and found a single pair of cotton pants that would fit. He says they are hideous, but at least comfortable, served the purpose and they only cost 100B ($3).
We are taken to a “cafe” on the river, actually a flatboat tied to a tree on the shore and a long, springy plank to walk. It is rustic, a floating restaurant with tables and pews cobbled together from loose boards. Lunch is rice with stir fried vegetables, sweet and sour chicken (with very little chicken), egg omelet, and fresh pineapple for dessert. I should eat like this every day! I had a Chang (local beer) as liquid courage for after lunch.
Three of us are put in a speedboat. It is the young Bulgarian couple and me. Sophia is 20 and her boyfriend (can’t pronounce his name) is 24. They live in Vienna and are charming, adventurous and funny. We are taken up river about a mile and dropped off on a simple Bamboo raft. It has a sitting platform with a shade in the middle. A few sections of bamboo are missing so we don’t walk around much. Sophia dangles her feet in the water. We have both bought local conical hats, ngob, to protect us from the sun. They are light, practical but a difficult fashion accessory to pull off. I suspect it will be too fragile to bring home, but might make a good lampshade if I could. Our raft “captain” speaks no English, but it is very pleasant floating down river. We are let out beside an old rope bridge with a wooden foot bed. Many of the boards are missing and the ones that remain look rotten. This is not the place for a fat American woman to cross the river! For a full minute I think that’s what they want me to do and I’m trying to figure another way around. Fortunately the van is up the hill on the same side of the river and I don’t have to cross.
We are driven to an Elephant camp beside the river. I am going to ride an elephant for the second time this week! Her name is Guay Kai. She is smallish and only 20yrs old. My driver looks to be 12, though I suppose he is older. He speaks no English but is following closely behind another elephant, named Germany, with the young couple. Their guide speaks English pretty well. The drivers live on the compound in houses with rattan walls, wooden floors and steep thatched roofs. At one point the elephant sneezed on me. These pants will never be the same. It was a better experience than the earlier ride and I’m surprised I enjoyed it so much. We walked through narrow jungle paths and the elephants picked greenery as we went. My elephant investigated my hands and feet with her trunk. She was surprisingly gentle.
It is just the 3 of us for the ride home and we are told it will take 3 hours! Since the times are usually under reported I wonder how long it will really take?
The toilet stop is another adventure! Only squatty potties, and they are very tall, with a narrow, foot bed raised about 18 inches off the floor. You have to step up, turn around, plant your feet on the porcelain foot beds, balance, drop you pants and squat. I maneuver all this but find it difficult to “unclench” enough to finish the job! After I’m successful I feel a bit like an Olympic gymnast.
Back at the hotel by 6:30p to take a shower. It is not as hot now and my feet are well rested so I plan to walk to a temple that I want to visit tomorrow to make sure I know the way. I also decide to have just a few pieces of laundry done. I will leave myself at least one extra of every clothing item. Things happen that you can’t foresee. Today, I had an elephant sneeze on me. Who knows what could happen tomorrow?
Oh yeah, Happy Valentine’s Day!
My reconnaissance trip was enlightening. While my hotel map is pretty good and easy to read, it’s not to scale. It makes sense to hire a taxi. The best price is from metered ones (not a tuk tuk, 3-wheeled cabs, one of the symbols of Thailand).
But that’s not all I learned. At night, women wave down taxis with a flashlight. I never see anyone use it to see with. (I later learn than this is also a way for prostitutes to wave down clients in a car.)
I decided to walk along the canal because it is the less busy side of the street and well lit. At first I can’t quite pinpoint where the high pitched squeaks are coming from. Then I see them. Rats. Two here. Three there. I jump like a little girl, but at least I didn’t scream. I start walking in the middle of the sidewalk because I can see they are interested in the trash at the sides. After a dozen, I stop jumping, but the squeaking is unnerving. When I come to a section with large, overflowing trash containers, the rats are too close for comfort. I go back to the busy side of the street.
The reason I stayed as long as I did along the canal was because I was watching the bats. Completely silent, half the size of a mouse, with long, gossamer wings. I thought they were moths until I saw them skimming the water.
At one point I stop to read a sign at one of the bridges that cross the canal. Because the light was good, I pulled out my map to check how far I still needed to go. I’d been studying it for a couple minutes when I realized a lizard, a house gecko, was on the edge of the sign watching. But he lost interest in me when an insect landed near him. He grabbed it and ran to the back of the sign to eat.
Some assorted photos: