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March 12, 2007

Across the River Kwai

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Japanese Train

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Japanese Train

 

I got up early, 5:15am (30 minutes before my alarm was set), and was out of the hostel at 5:45 so I could catch the train up to Kanchanaburi and see the river Kwai Bridge and surrounding area. I knew exactly what to do to get to the train station and was feeling confident. I took the skytrain to the river and then the ferry upstream.

The ferry didn’t stop at the landing on I wanted, but got me one away. I could see right where I wanted to be. The lady on one side of the landing was telling me to go to the other end and that lady sent me right back. Finally after a bunch of pointing at maps I was pointed at a ferry to cross the river to a landing a little ways upstream and then that one would take me over. I still had 45 minutes before the train left and was still doing fine.

I got on the ferry and kept waiting for it to turn and go upstream, but we went to the next landing down on the other side of the river. Now I was further away and on the wrong side. I decided to walk to the correct landing and try again. I had to weave my way through all the monks out on the street collecting their offerings from all the locals while carrying everything I have with my on my back and trying to hurry. How would like that if instead of going to church and giving offering they just came to your work place first thing everyday and you had to give it over then. Anyways after looking down all the alleys I made it to the landing and saw signs to go to the railway landing. Good news!

The guy there told me to get on the boat waiting and we’d go across. As soon as I sat down someone else there started waving for me to get off, telling me I didn’t want that boat. I decided to believe him and got off. Soon I saw the official ferry making its way over and the other boat had to get out of the way. The first guy got on it and just kept staring at me and grinning, “Damn we almost had him”. I just wanted to push him and his grin into the river.

Thats what makes travel tough here. He would have taken me over and tried to get 20 or 40 baht out of me when it costs 3 on the proper ferry. $$Faranga$$ is the Thai word for foreigners or specifically white people. The $$ are silent, but you are allowed to say them with your eyes every time you see a white person anywhere near your place of business.

So I got to the right place and pointed in the right direction. I still had maybe 15 minutes to catch the train and expected the train station to be right there, just like on the map. After turning in circles for 30 seconds wondering what I was missing. More pointing and walk down the road, the train is down there. Ok walking, walking, walking, lots of markets no train station.

Finally I see a train creeping along to the right of me and get the fastest walk you can before running going while trying to work my way over to it. Eventually I saw a station and sign saying tickets and realized another train was there and stopped. I made it on and it is one of those things that run on time so 2 minutes after I sat down we were off. Good thing I woke up early!

The train ride itself was a nice way to travel. I didn’t have to worry about what bus station they would be taking me to, when we would stop to gas up, and they had people going up and down selling food and eventually drinks which was good because I didn’t have anything with me. I actually took the train to the end of the line, over the Kwai river bridge, and then came back to Kanachanaburi where the bridge is. Lots of tourists got on and off once we got there and it looked like one of the more built up tourist sites I had seen.

The New Bridge

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The New Bridge

 

I guess I should explain the the bridge was made famous by the movie in 1957 depicting the building of the railroad by the Thai people of POWs of the Japanese during WWII. The Japanese were invading Burma and after first invading Thailand they reached a truce agreement with them, which included the rights to build the railway so they could get supplies for their invasion. The built nearly 400 km of rail in 16 months through a jungle and over mountains. Over 60,000 people died while building the bridge. I’ve been surprised to learn that over 70% of the deaths were not the POWs, but Thai’s and other Asians that were involuntarily put to work on it. Over 50% of the Thai’s who worked on it died, while no POW country had a rate above 25%. Deaths were mainly due to the cruelty of the Japanese guards, malnutrition, and poor health conditions making them susceptible to diseases.

I learned most of this today after getting over an apathetic morning where I had to convince myself to go out and wasn’t expecting much. All the war sites are spread out around town and it was either going to be a lot of walking in the heat or lots of taxis. As soon as I started walking I remembered how easy renting motorbikes is and 15 minutes later I was all set, best thing I did all day.

I should also mention that the bridge there now is not the one built buy the POWs, they built a wood one right about where my guesthouse is and then the steel was put in by the Japanese later. Also, the bridge now goes over the river Kwai, but it didn’t originally. The author of the book made into a movie didn’t do his research well enough and assumed that was the river. Soon the Thai’s had people showing up wanting to see a bridge over the river Kwai and there technically wasn’t any. So they renamed that portion of the river to the “Little” Kwai river, which joins the actual river a couple miles downstream.

Evening On My Raft Hut

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Evening On My Raft Hut

 

Both of these items and all the t-shirts and tour sites were what led to my apathy this morning. I found the best museum I’ve been to here near the war cemetery that was done by and English guy . Most museums here are like the tour guides themselves, lots of talking or writing, but very little of interest. This was super informative and had so many good displays and videos I spent almost 2 hours there.

My guesthouse sits on the river and has floats along with the walkway to it on it. Every boat that goes by makes everything shake up and down, but thankfully they don’t go at night since they’re quite loud. The room is spartan at best, a mattress on the floor, fan, one bare bulb, and about 2 feet of room at the end of the bed and four on one side, but for $6/night who’s complaining? I’ll be moving again tomorrow, but am looking forward to settling down for a while at the end of the week. Hope everyone is doing well.

Cheers,

Brian

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