The lighter side of Kanchanaburi

We spent about a week in Kanchanaburi and as much man-made history as there is to experience, there is plenty of beautiful God’s Country too. So, between the times we spent exploring historical WWII sights, we did some more recreational exploring as well.

We traveled by train from the Thonburi station in Bangkok to the Kanchanaburi station. It’s an older, slower train that makes several stops along the way but there’s no better way to travel. The train even has vendors walking through the cars, selling fruit, Thai meals, beverages, and, of course, beer. It’s an eventful ride as the track goes through overgrown vegetation that hits the windows and explodes into tiny green leafy pieces. We thought it was a riot and had no problem simply brushing ourselves off. The ride took about 3 hours, after which we walked a fairly short distance to the riverside neighborhood.

The historical and backpacker section of Kanchanaburi lies just on the east side of the Kwai River. We visited a few temples (Wats) on the south side of town right near the river. They don’t compare in size to some of the Wats in Bangkok we have previously posted about, but their aesthetics are just as pleasing. Many of the intricate ceramic designs are made from recycled dish ware, which seems to be a common theme. We also came across some boyscouts and girlscouts doing some activities including a small zipline. The kids were all very friendly and outgoing – Thailand earned the name “Land of Smiles.”

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Another day, we decided to join up with an affordable group tour. Every traveler wants to take the “road less traveled” and we are no exception, but, upon weighing out the costs, we decided that it was a worthwhile endevour. We climbed aboard a Toyota van with several new European friends and set off for a big days’ adventure. Our first stop was the Soi Yak falls, a very pretty waterfall close to the original Death Railway. Along with the waterfall, there are some other Death Railway exhibits and caves to explore. From there, we traveled to Hellfire pass where we walked a small part of the trail and checked out their excellent museum. After an excellent lunch, we continued on to do something very new to both of us: Elephants.

Erin and I, along with 4 Polish kids, hopped in the back of a truck and took a bumpy 15 minute ride to a compound. The compound is the home to several large elephants whom invited us to take them for a spin. On our way to climbing up to the elephant “dock,” we were tickled to see an elephant hounding its trainer for a drink of his Coca-Cola. The trainer poured some into its snout and, after a few seconds, the elephant sprayed it into his mouth. Noticing that the bottle still had some soda, our new large friend politely asked for the remainder, drawing a chuckle and compliance from his trainer. We decided this would be the best one to ride – the one all hopped up on caffeine! The elephants wear a saddle with a small, 2-person wooden platform attached that we sat on. The trainer (all rather small Thai man) sat on its head to “steer” the animal with a series of grunts. I’m not sure how one learns to drive an elephant but it seems to require deep vocal chords.

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After about 15 feet of bumpy ride, the elephant was ready for a snack to top off his soda. He reached his trunk out to grab some vegetation and no deep grunt in the world was going to stop him. After chomping some leaves for a minute or two, he finally gave in and continued the short journey up and over a hill towards a stream. I don’t really have words to describe what its like, aside from bumpy, slow, and exilherating. With each step, the four quadrants of the elephant seem to move in different directions, forcing the riders to hang on. This is especially true going downhill. Once we reached the stream, the elephant got excited for a drink of water (soda does leave one feeling a bit dehydrated) and he sped up a bit, putting our platform at roughly a 45 degree angle. We did the best we could to hang on, let alone take any steady pictures!

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20131128-191410.jpg(we’re on an elephant!)

Upon reaching the stream, (this section is not intended for an immature audience – or a mature audience for that matter) we saw the elephant in front of us seem to brace himself. The next thing we know this elephant relieves himself with the force of a fire hose. I mean you could hear this tinkle from Laos. We were speechless and in total awe, until plop plop, he relieved himself in a #2 fashion. Size of a basketball, I swear. He left his member out for a nice walk in the stream, like he was using it to troll. I can only imagine how refreshing it must have felt. Once everyone was feeling springy again, we continued our journey for another few minutes until we came upon the second elephant dock. We disembarked and the trainers took our elephant and the trailing elephant off to the jungle, while the lead (and recently relieved) elephant stayed back to preform a bit. He walked over to a banana tree and laid down while our Polish friends fed it bananas for its troubles. It really was amazing to see such an incredible and large animal acting just like our family dog. After a bushel of bananas and a nice photo-op, he was off to join his friends in the jungle. Hope he doesn’t forget us.

From there, we climbed onto 2-person rafts made of long bamboo shoots and slowly floated our way back down the river to camp. This seemed a tad disconcerting to us considering what we had just witnessed in the same stream, but I think it qualifies as “off the beaten path.” We swapped emails with our Polish friends in hopes that somebody got a decent photo, and soon joined up with the rest of our tour. The others had chosen to spend time relaxing at a hot springs while we were riding elephants – I mean really? Well, to each their own. We headed back to Kanchanaburi, spent a little more time at the River Kwai Bridge, and then back to our hostel, tired yet ecstatic from a busy day.

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Kanchanaburi Wats:

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Soi Yak waterfall:

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Elephants:

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The Death Railway

After spending several days in Bangkok, it was time to move on and explore new places. We decided to head west to the city of Kanchanaburi, the capital of the Kanchanaburi province. The area is a mix a beautiful rivers, mountains, and jungle. There is a great, very low-key backpacking community along the riverside, and the locals couldn’t be more friendly.

The most noteworthy part of this beautiful area is its anything-but-beautiful history. This town is the home to the River Kwai Bridge, made famous by the 1957 film ‘Bridge over the River Kwai.’ This infamous landmark marks the beginning of the Death Railway, also known as the Thailand-Burma Railway.

In 1937, 2 years before the official start of WWII, the Japanese Empire was ambitiously trying to colonize its surrounding Asian neighbors, and had invaded China. By 1940 they had occupied all of coastal China and had invaded French-controlled Indochina (Vietnam) as well. In 1941 they joined the Axis powers and attacked Pearl Harbor (on December 8th local time), declaring war on the US. Simultaneous attacks of several European-controlled Pacific territories, including Indonesia and Thailand, soon gave the Japanese full control over Southeast Asia and much of the Pacific.

In 1942 the Japanese empire had taken control of British-controlled Burma, and had their sights set on India. They found great difficulties supplying their front lines by merchant ship, as Allied Naval forces had a large presence in the Andaman Sea. So the decision was made to build a railway linking Thailand and Burma (via Bangkok to Rangoon). There was a reason no such rail line had exisited – years earlier, while still under British controll, surveyors mapped out such a line, but decided that the mountainous jungle terrain protected by crisscrossing rivers was too brutal and dangerous of a landscape to begin the work, and gave up on the idea. But the Japanese were ambitious and determined, and in 1942 set out to build the Thailand-Burma Railway.

Such a project was going to require a great amount of manpower, so the Japanese brought 60,000 Allied POWs to Thailand and Burma to begin this impossible task. The prisoners were transported by boat and train in miserable conditions; conditions that only got worse and worse upon arrival. Brithish and Australian troops made up the majority of the prisoners, while there were notable amounts of American, Dutch, Indian, and Canadian soldiers as well. Construction began during 1942 on both fronts, with the idea that they could build it faster if they started on each end and worked towards the middle. The Japanese soon realized that they would need many more laborers, and employed another 250,000 asian workers. At first they recruited willing indigenous workers with the promise of good pay, safe conditions, and even a promise that they could bring their families. This of course was not the case and once word of the brutal conditions leaked back to potential laborers, the Japanese employed a new method of recruitment – slavery.

Laborers would work up to 18 hours a day, cutting their way by hand with inadequate tools through mountainsides and dangerous jungle, while extreme heat or unrelenting rain, depending on the season, as well as brutal guards trying to meet an unrealistic deadline, made life unbearable. One particularly unimaginable stretch of the railway, known as Hellfire pass for its brutal conditions and the silhouettes of the men working by torchlight, saw an incredible loss of life in a relatively short amount of time. POWs and Asian slaves alike would die from malaria, cholera, malnurishment, and being beaten to death by cruel gaurds.

Fearing death yet despising their captors, many brave POWs set out to secretly sabotage the efforts. They had to be crafty to not be caught or risk more loss of life by simply having to redo the work. Such methods included using hollow/weak timber, filling in already-inspected post holes with soft dirt, or my favorite – leaving termite nests near wooden bridges. Despite these efforts and the massive loss of life, the railway was actually completed in 1943, only 18 months after construction began.

The Japanese thought they had their key to success in Asia, but constant allied bombing resulted in the railway being repaired more often than actually being used as planned. In 1945 the famous River Kwai Bridge was bombed by RAF and US planes. This campaign also saw the first successful use of a new radio-controlled bomb by the US – our first “smart bomb.” In August of 1945 Harry S Truman ordered 2 well-known attacks against Japan, eventually culminating in surrender onboard the USS Missouri, ending WWII and dismantling the Japanese Empire.

The atrocities committed during construction of the railway resulted in the world’s first warcrime trials, seeing several death sentences and even more prison sentences handed out to high-ranking Japanese officials. In total, of the 60,000 Allied POWs, 12,399 lost their life – 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians and New Zealanders. Thousands of these fallen soldiers are buried in WWII cemeteries in the Kanchanaburi area, while the rest were taken back to their home countries. Of the 250,000 Asian workers, it is believed that more than 90,000 lost their lives. In one final act of inhumane cruelty, the Japanese did not keep any records whatsoever of these deaths.

Control of the railway, which had been heavily damaged, passed over to the British. They dug up the railway on the Burma side, and sold the remaining Thailand section to the Thai people, who still use it today. There are several museums and other related sights around the Kanchanaburi area, and the cemeteries are among the most well-kept I’ve ever seen. Additionally, as friendly as Thai people are to tourists, I have noticed a heightened sense of comradery between the local Thais and tourists/expats from Allied countries. This was a horrible time in human history, and despite how painful the stories are, we found the museums and memorials to be very powerful and moving.

Thanks for reading, and I promise our next post will be much more lighthearted!

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River Kwai Bridge

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Up-close look at a train crossing the River Kwai Bridge

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Still-visible blast marks from Allied Bombing. The round trusses are from the original construction, and the larger squared trusses are the rebuilt section.

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Hellfire pass. From this angle you can get an idea of how much rock men had to dig through – by hand.

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Hellfire pass

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Original tools/materials from Hellfire pass

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Hellfire pass

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Tools workers used to dig through mountains and clear out jungle.

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Prisoner transportation

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Wooden truss bridge on the Death Railway – still used today.

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Riding a very crowded train on the Death Railway

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Japanese word-burning locomotive used to transport ammunition in WWII

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Original bomb fragments from WWII

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What a run we’re on! (Wat Arun)

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. We’ve been on quite a run over the past week or so (thanks to Louie for the punny title). We’ve left Bangkok and headed into the countryside along the Burma/Myanmar border, but more on that later. Before we left Bangkok, we headed over to west side of the city to checkout the stone pillars soaring into the sky. We hiked over from our hostel near Kan San Road (about 6 miles round trip), wandering through the Thonburi district’s canal lined neighborhoods. We tried to check out the National Barge Museum, but sadly it’s closed for renovations through the end of the year. We did get to peek through the gate to steal a glimpse of the incredible golden ships (sorry, too dark for photos).

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Wat Arun Ratchawararam, or Wat Arun, is a Buddhist temple honoring and greeting the dawn. The grounds consists of the iconic 250 foot tall prang, or spire, surrounded by smaller prangs one such of the cardinal and ordinal points, a beautiful temple surrounded by a peaceful courtyard, and the surrounding gardens.

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The main prang has a four very steep staircases (only 64 steps!) leading up to incredible views of the city. While it was difficult battling the hordes of tourists, the sweeping panoramas were well worth the climb.

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The prangs are made of white stucco intricately decorated with inlaid ceramic. While the walls were originally white, Bangkok’s smog has taken its toll. You can see the black pollution stains in some of these detail shots. There was a repair team working on two scaffolded pranks scrubbing the stucco back to white. Many of the flowers are made of donated dishes that have been broken and formed into petals. Each prang is topped with a delicate wind chime.

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In the shadow of the towers is a small market with stalls selling woven handbags, refreshments, and trinkets. The best, perhaps, was the stand renting out traditional clothing and accessories for ladies (and a dude or two) to play dress up for photos below the monument.

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Through the gardens scattered with stone statues and past the replica Emerald Buddha, we managed to lose most of the tour groups in the courtyard surrounding the temple. On the exterior, the entrance was guarded by two comically fearsome guards. The interior was lined with rows of golden Buddhas.

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The temple itself was built with incredible with pediments and column capitals intricately decorated with gold and gems. The interior was plastered with detailed murals depicting historic Bangkok. While we were admiring the murals, a saffron robed monk came in and settled down on a long platform for a prayer session.

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When we were done exploring the grounds, we decided make the 20 minute walk back to the public commuter ferry, which drops off a block from our hostel (only 15 Baht or $.50 each). The alternative was to pay six times as much to join the crowds on the tourist ferry shuttling between Wat Arun and the Grand Palace/Wat Pho sites across the river.

More photos below.

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20131124-210115.jpg(you made it to the bottom, so here’s a cat for you)

Alleyways.

One week in and we’re starting to get a solid grasp on the city and particularly our neighborhood. We’ve switched guesthouses to a much cheaper place (B240/night, or about $8, compared to B778/night at our first place) right in the Kao San Road district. Our new room is a bit more cell like than our last which had bright purple walls. We gave up the friendly desk agent, puny breakfast, free toilet paper (really!), a TV, and A/C, but we have a balcony almost to ourselves, a very effective ceiling fan, and transoms that allow the air to move through the whole building.

The best part of our new digs is the location. We’re in a cluster of alleys (Rambuttri Village) squeezed between the main riverbank road and a small Wat/monastery and lined with various street stalls and semi-permanent food stands selling everything from jewelry and t-shirts to electronics and pad thai. While just a few blocks removed from Kao San Road, the long established backpacking hub, our little village is much quieter and more pleasant. It’s difficult to walk more than ten feet down Kao San without being hassled by someone selling custom suits, sightseeing tours, fried scorpions on a stick, friendship bracelets, or drink specials. With just as vibrant a shopping and eating scene, Rambuttri Village notably lacks the touts and peddlers.

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20131121-130522.jpg(View of Wat Chana Songkhram from our balcony)

The alleys, or ‘soi,’ really seem to house much of the life around the city. We’ve wandered about several different neighborhoods around Bangkok and the alleys offer distinct comparisons between each. Downtown, where the sidewalks bustle with young professionals dipping in and out of office buildings, the alleys are filled with stands selling breezy silk blouses, sweaters and skirts.

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Kao San and its neighboring alleys offer distinctively hippie and tourist wear, ballooning pants, flowing sundresses, lewd t-shirts, and the like.

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(Khao San Road)

Chinatown’s alleys are full of tea sets, lanterns, and cheap toys.

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The alleys around the Grand Palace (home of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Pho are lined with stalls hawking leis, engraved coins, and other trinkets for the religious to leave as offerings at the nearby holy sites.

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The one staple of these various alleys is the food. Every neighborhood seems to have a combination of the same types of food stands including freshly sliced fruit, barbecued or fried chicken (sometimes whole), noodle soup, pad thai, and sausages that vaguely look like hotdogs. I guess no matter the different tastes of shoppers, everybody’s got to eat.

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Well, that’s all for now.

A hairy tale

Lee’s shaggy coif was too hot for Bangkok so I gave him my first buzz cut. Not too shaggy shabby?

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He doesn’t look very impressed, but I’m relieved he still has ears.

Bangkok

I thought that maybe I should detail just a bit how the trip has been thus far, as we have only posted a couple of quick posts.

We left Dulles at about 18:30 on Sunday the 10th, flying in the esteemed Boeing 777, and arrived 13 hours later at the Dubai International Airport. I haven’t watched that many movies consecutively in my life! I was as giddy as a schoolboy (I guess – does that really even mean anything?) when I looked out the window and saw the Burj Kahlifa, the world’s tallest building. At that point I had already been instructed to stow away all electronics, so unfortunately there is no picture. But believe me when I say how impressive it is. It is literally twice the height of all the buildings surrounding it, and that is saying something. We spent about 5 hours at their beautiful airport (also their old airport – they are just printing money out there) before boarding our flight for Bangkok. We flew an Airbus A-330 and much to the delight of all passengers, the extra-wide aircraft was about 25% full. We moved to the front row of coach where the leg room is most ample, and my how I was gratful. 7 hours later we touched down in Bangkok, roughly 7:00 local time on Tuesday. The plane taxied to what could best be described as a parking space, and passengers loaded into buses for the trip to Arrivals. It was then when I realized that they drive on the left here – a happy reminder of my time on STT. After successfully navigating customs, picking up our luggage (a relief we all know too well), and changing out our $USD for THB (called Baht and converting at roughly $1 to 30 Baht) we were on our way. We took the sky train from the airport to essentially downtown, and grabbed a tuk-tuk from there. A tuk-tuk is basically a golf cart converted into a taxi. I was smitten. Upon arriving at our hostel, we made a bold and often frownd-upon decision: sleep away jet lag. Jet lag can mess with people for several days, and since we don’t have any time constraints, we slept somewhere between 12-16 hours. A genius decision, as we awoke energized and feeling great on Wednesday, and have been on local time since.

The day (Monday) before we arrived, there had been protests and demonstrations in Bangkok over some proposed legislation, and activists had called for a city-wide strike lasting the whole week. After discussing our options just in case this turned into a big deal, we were relieved to read that the demonstrations had died down and there would be no strike. Something to remember about Thailand is that the party currently in power got there via a coup in 2006. This aint Kansas anymore! (Thank God)

We have spent the last couple of days walking around different parts of the city, acclimating ourselves with navigation and seeing some terrific sites. We have begun sampling the local food (nothing crazy – yet) and beer, and have traveled via sky-train, underground train, tuk-tuk, canal boat, and of course the New Balance Express. Erin estimates, using some neat app, that we have walked about 12 miles in the 2 days thus far. Coupled with 90 degree heat and high humidity, we have expelled much sweat. Although I will take it in a heartbeat, knowing what winter drudgeries most of you are about to face.

I suppose that is good for now. You’ll be hearing from us again soon of course, and as always we welcome any comments or questions (moderator willing). I will leave you with a few pictures from our last couple days. Until later!

L

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A travel tradition

I have been told that in Erin’s youth, while traveling with her folks, she was allowed to temporarily ‘adopt’ a stray cat. And who doesn’t love a nice stray animal? So in keeping with tradition, we found her a nice wild ‘kitten’ to adopt. And for your viewing pleasure, I have attached a picture of said lucky pet. Hope you enjoy!

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I think she named it “Terrifying Monster.” Cute huh?

More soon….

L