Yes, that’s me in the middle, surrounded by my compadres for the day Jeanette and Kathy from Ohio of all places, near Cleveland, but Jeanette is studying in Chicago, blah blah blah. Honestly, I probably learned more about them than I did about the history of the River Kwai, the bridge and the mass death of a LOT of people building said bridge.
But I am jumping ahead of myself. It was a LONNNNG day. I had to get up at 5 am. Yes, that is five in the A – M. As in probably before most of you even went to bed on Friday! Usually when I have to get up so early I hardly sleep from panicking that I won’t wake up on time, but I actually slept like a log and didn’t find it all that much of a struggle to shuffle into the shower at such a time. When I left the house and was walking along the soi at 5:55:55 according to Casio time, I noticed that pretty much everyone was going about their usual business anyway – there were people getting their hair cut at the hairdressers along the road and the old man had the chicken on in his roadside wok! It was also a much more pleasant temperature, which is probably why they were up.
So, I jumped in a taxi and we stumbled upon the swanky hotel I was being picked up and I loitered outside as I was early and then the reception man came out to ask me what I wanted and I explained and thankfully he didn’t have me escorted off the premises! Phew! Eventually a girl from the tour company showed up and we went inside and had a seat and then the mini van (which was quite luxuriously appointed) arrived and I hopped in, bagging the front row of seats for maximum spread-outage and said hello to Kathy and Jeanette, the aforementioned mother/daughter combo from Ohio. Cutting a lot of driving around back sois out, the other people who had booked for the tour didn’t show up for whatever reason, so it ended up just being the 3 of us, which was good and bad – good in that we essentially got a private tour for a lot less than it should have cost and bad in that I was lumbered with the 2 of them for the day and their incessant whiny questions.
So! It took about 2 hours or so to get to Kanchanaburi, where our first stop was the cemetery. I have to say the tour was not all that informative, the guides were very nice and all, but didn’t give much of the history or show us round or anything. Not that there is much from a tourist aspect that you can say to talk up a cemetery with over 6000 graves of people who died in such ridiculously unnecessary circumstances I guess. The cemetery was very peaceful though, so well looked after – there were a lot of gardeners out tending to the graves even in the scorching sunshine. I wandered around the rows of graves of the British soldiers (unfairly represented as E for England in the JEATH anacronym: Japan, England, Australia/America, Thailand, Holland) and thought about my grandad and how he must have felt fighting in the second world war and thinking how lucky it was that he didn’t end up under one of these markers where no one could ever go and stand at his grave and remember him. It must have been hard for the families who couldn’t even have a funeral to send off their loved ones.
The peace was shattered somewhat as I reached the far end of the cemetery which is next to the road, across which was a little row of houses and shops, one of which was blaring out D.I.S.CO by Ottawan for some reason. I have no idea why any Thai person would want to listen to that at 10am on a Saturday morning, let alone do so overlooking a cemetery where several coachloads of tourists are reflecting on the cruelness of mankind, but there we go. I had a chuckle about it, still thinking of my grandad, as he would have thought that was funny. I am sure that I must take my slightly warped sense of humour from him (he is the man that gave us milky way sandwiches with the wrappers still on, after all). Anyway, back on board our mini van for the trip to the JEATH museum and to tend to the camera which is already protesting about the violent heat. (I had rigged up a cooling bag for it by using a frozen Domo Kun facecloth and a gel eye mask in some Ziploc bags inside a carrier bag which does work for a while but is ultimately defeated by the searing heat).
We arrived at the JEATH museum, which I had been expecting to be a big-budget production – you know, a building with some sort of big marble engraved plaque on the outside, possibly donated by the Japanese to show that they are not evil after all, some air conditioning, some film footage maybe and at least a gift shop where you could buy your own authentic POW loincloth. They are really missing a trick with all that. Instead there were a few bamboo huts (which they painstakingly point out several times are not authentic, but replicas) which you file through with some photos taken of the camp showing the POWs going about their daily business in the aforementioned loincloths. The loincloth aspect really threw me – I had somehow painted in the sort of striped outfit of the Nazi concentration camps in as the default uniform for them, but then it is a lot hotter here I guess.
The next hut was filled with newspaper clippings, letters from foreign dignataries and drawings of how life would have been for the POWs. The drawings were of things like – possible skin diseases prisoners may have suffered in a kind of desperate filler material. I found this very strange as surely there must be all sorts of material about the terrible things that happened, film footage, more photos of the liberation, etc. I can only surmise that it’s down to finances – Japan, if you are reading – cough up some cash for a bit of expansion, eh? It’s the decent thing to do.
So, after shuffling through the bamboo huts, we arrived outside and … that was it. Very abruptly back outside to real life. The museum is not even on the site of the camp which is further upstream nearer the bridge. We then had the option to take a boat ride instead of the minivan along to the bridge which I felt a bit coerced into paying more for. Somehow you don’t mind paying a bit more when you are handing over the money to a man with no shoes and a wife with a baby sitting nearby who look like they might not have eaten for a while. So in we all hopped, as you can see above, and we took a nice breezy trip along the river, seeing a lotus farm, some houses on the river and a very odd phenomenon that my camera was not up for catching – the river Kwai is actually 2 rivers, Kwai Yai and Kwai Noi (big Kwai and little Kwai – bridge is on Kwai Yai) and they are both different colours. Noi is a muddy brown coming from the mountains and Yai is a deep blue, from the sea. Where they meet it is like a line down the middle – the sea colour just stops abruptly and the brown begins like there is a fence. Very strange.
Soon we came up to the bridge, which without insulting the memory of all the thousands of people who gave their lives for it, was a lot smaller than I imagined. I had somehow thought it would be Golden Gate-esque in it’s proportions, but, although not an insignificant size, it was considerably dinkier than expected. The train actually goes over it if you care to take it, which somehow seemed a little bit morbid – I had thought that people would just look at the bridge as a reminder of how cruel humans can be to each other and as a lesson to be learned, but there was a huge line of people streaming on and off the train that goes across it. The Thai guide told me that 2 Thai people had fallen off the bridge a few weeks ago, jumping out the way of the train, one of whom died. More casualties, all this time later.
Off the boat, we were given about 30 minutes to explore the town itself which centres around the bridge, naturally. I was thinking to myself – I could really do with buying some sunglasses and a disposable camera and turned round and literally right in front of me was a stall at a little market selling only those 2 items. Result! I had a wander around, bought a huge bag of limes for about 25p and generally mooched around, soaking up the sun and seeing the sights. I met back up with my American companions eventually (they were late every time) and we all headed to our minivan which had caught up with us and headed about 15 minutes onwards to a train station called Thakilen. From there, we took the train across the wooden bridge by the river which seems to be the first attempt at the bridge building that was abandoned in favour of the metal one over the river (I think). It was very picturesque as you will hopefully see once my disposable camera is developed.
Once we arrived at the train station, we headed to a little hut place for lunch which was surprisingly tasty. Then back on the mini van and headed to the next stop which was for the Americans who had opted to do the bamboo rafting/elephant trekking part of the tour. We all 3 of us got to go on all options of the tour as there was only 3 of us in the end, which was pretty good. I didn’t elect to go on an elephant as they looked pretty sad in the sun, so I stayed behind looking at them baking and marvelling at their mahouts sleeping on their backs as they waited in the corral for the next set of tourists arriving, and chatted to the guide who told me all about growing up in Chiang Mai and how the elephant keepers who are Burmese mountain people (they don’t really say Myanmar round here it seems) get paid 3,000 bhat a month (approximately 50 GBP).
The Americans eventually returned wearing crowns made of leaves and I decided to go on the bamboo rafting trip, so coughed up an extra fiver and leapt into my lifejacket. We got on the raft which was actually a lot sturdier than it sounds and we were towed down the river against the current for about 15 minutes in the pouring rain – it started just as we set off and stopped just as we reached the turning back point. Once we went as far as we were going, we were cut adrift and the guy on the raft started paddling us back. It was very peaceful and I think one of those things I will always remember doing and going – did I really do that?? I’m glad I did now.
Back on the minivan and we headed about 15 minutes up the road to the Tiger Temple. It has very mixed reviews – some people believe that it’s a den of abuse and illegal tiger-trading and that the monks are evil purveyors of punishment to wild animals who don’t want to be fondled by the public. Whilst others are supportive of their venture which purports to care for abandoned “pet tigers”, cubs whose mothers have been killed by poachers on the Burma/Thailand border (very close by) and had a successful breeding history with several cubs having been born there over the past few years without a proper breeding program. I decided to go and see for myself.
It was very run down, that is for sure. Upon entering, you walk through a kind of dirt field with a lot of dead wood lying around with some wild boar in it. It also smells authentically like a zoo/farm. There are animals roaming free everywhere, mostly wild boar who’s babies are very cute. There is evidence of the new tiger habitats which are being built to give the tigers more freedom, but reading reports around the internet, these have been a long time in the making. The doubters claim this is because they want to keep the tigers chained up but in reality it is likely down to money as is so often the case. They certainly try to get “donations” from visitors at every opportunity and it is abundantly clear that the place could do with funds urgently.
The tigers themselves though on the most part looked pretty well cared for to me. I’m not a tiger expert though admittedly. The first one we came across was a baby. He was on a little wooden platform under a tree and had just had a bottle and was lying sleepily having his photo taken with people. He was chained to the tree to stop him wandering off and had a fan trained on him (and his brother in the cage behind him) to cool him down, and also a keeper with him who regularly gave him a drink from a water bottle. Not exactly being whipped with a belt as some reports have indicated. Anyway, it was quite an awesome experience to sit next to this little tiger and stroke him. I got lucky and the keeper was giving him a drink when it was my turn, so I got to spend a little longer with him, and he gave me his paw to hold – it was very cute.
After that, we wandered up to Tiger Canyon, which is where the big boys are. It’s basically a quarry which now houses the tigers for a few hours each afternoon. They could really do with some more shade down there, as the heat was baking and the tigers were lying outside with some shade, but maybe not enough. They were all chained to stop them wandering off into the crowd – I don’t think that it is possible to have tigers so close to tourists and NOT have them chained up. The volunteers were mostly American and they were encouraging people to have “special” photos taken for 1,000 bhat (about 15 GBP) which basically is you sitting down with a tiger’s head in your lap. I did not choose this option, instead opting for the “free” photos – a volunteer takes you by the hand and takes you to each tiger, you crouch down beside it and give it a stroke on it’s back whilst the volunteer takes your camera and photographs you. It is a bit odd being lead by the hand by a total stranger but also reassuring as you now, tigers are pretty scary close up. The biggest tiger I stroked was pretty sweaty, and they were all obviously very hot – I suppose that they are well-fed and hot and will just lie there chilling out whilst people come up and touch them, otherwise they’d be a bit boisterous.
I personally saw no evidence of tiger abuse, but obviously there is a lot more to it than what I saw. It’s clear though that they desperately need money to improve the living conditions for all the animals, not just the tigers. The ponies that were roaming around were pretty well-fed looking though, including the little foal that tried to chew my fingers off. It was good to see the tigers but I am not sure I’d go back. At the end of the afternoon, I made my way back to the gates and met the guides who’d spent the time chatting and eyeing up the male tourists and waited for at least half an hour for the Americans to get back. Then we all piled back on the mini van and headed back to Bangkok, snoozing and sneezing alternately.
It was a fun day out, but not quite what I expected really. I didn’t learn as much as I thought I would but I did get a great tan on my arms!