Saturday, 1 January 2011

Happy New Year!

Saturday 1st January 2011
White rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits

MP3 track of the day: Auld Land Syne

Weather: Hot and sunny

Due to going to sleep last night at around 9:00am it wasn't a problem waking up at the required time of 5:45am to get ready for my day trip. My pick-up was due at sometime between 6:30am and 7am. I got to the reception area of my guesthouse at around 6:15am where I sat, ate breakfast and met two Danish guys from my dorm just coming back from partying all night. I was still unsure whether this tour was going to go a head ... I mean, who would want to get up at 5:45am on New Years Day?

Sure enough 7am had been and gone and no one had come to pick me up; I decided to wait until 7:15am before I called the mobile number given to me when I purchased my ticket.. At 7:10am a rather stressed out Thai individual ran up the steps of my reception and asked if I was 'Matthew'. And so it was that I was on my way to Kanchanaburi.

We had a few more pick-ups to make before leaving town; at one pick-up we had to wait a while before the customer turned up. The lady in the seat in front of me wasn't that impressed and told the driver to 'drive', even before the customer had made it to the van … the driver said no. Throughout the trip the lady was pretty rude; she and her husband didn't look that impressed with the set-up and he, being a little on the large side, didn't fit that well into the mini-van (even I struggle sometimes). Other people on the mini-van included an American group and a Chinese guy; I didn't speak to any of these people due to our sitting approximation within the van. The two people I did speak to whilst traveling to Kanchanaburi were two girls from, guess where … Denmark. They were staying within the Kanchanaburi area for three nights.

The drivers driving was erratic to say the least; it was a little worrying the way he changed lanes at every opportunity to gain an extra six inches. We over took vehicles on the left hand-side of the road, on the right hand-side of the road and sometimes through the middle. A couple of times we came extremely close to families on scooters and I was a little worried. Our drivers luck ran out five minutes from our first stop; a policeman, having witnessed the carnage caused by our driver, pulled him over and gave him a traffic offense fine. Luckily for the driver he was pulled over right next to the police station and so he went and paid the fine immediately; once back in the mini-van the driver screwed up the fine and throw it at his windscreen … don't think he was that impressed.

Like I said, another five minutes of driving we made it to our first site, the Kanchanaburi war cemetery. Once out of the van I met my English speaking guide who let us know that we only had twenty minutes to look around. Once through the big white stone archway the cemetery was kept in a fitting way for the soldiers who gave their lives building the railway; the lawns were well kept, flowers and trees where planted all over the place and well looked after … it was extremely tasteful and reminded me of the war cemeteries within Europe.

With only twenty minutes I decided not to run around, trying to look at all the graves, as there where simply too many. Instead I concentrated on the British graves which where located on my right hand-side of the cemetery; I walked slowly up and down as many rows of graves as I possibly could within the time limit, I had already decided that I would use all the time I had here and await to be called to my mini-van before heading there.

The graves all followed the same pattern; regimental badges, name, regiment, age and a comment from loved ones. The twenty minutes that followed where the most emotional of my travels so far; most ages were between twenty-three and twenty-seven … most comments where left by mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. Not many had comments from wives and children as a lot of the men who died here where probably too young to have had a meaningful relationship at home … maybe that was a good thing. The comments left where heart wrenching and, unusually, I took a few photos of the head stones. I had only done four rows (that's 200 graves) before I was summoned back to the van.

Within another five minutes we where dropped off near the 'World War Two' museum and the bridge itself. I had thirty minutes within the museum and twenty minutes for the bridge before I had to be back. The museum was terrible, it was extremely badly laid out and difficult to find which way you had to go. The information in their wasn't just about the bridge, the limited information was about the whole of World War. However the worst thing, the thing that I found insulting, was that stalls where setup between the exhibitions themselves with signs saying “... Think of your loved ones and buy a souvenir...” . I left very quickly after that.

Having left the museum early I had more time at the bridge itself; the place was packed with people and stalls littering each side of the line. I took quite a few photos of the bridge and I then walked across it. As apart of my trip I am supposed to take a train along the death railway however I hoped that it wasn't the train that presented itself at the Kanchanaburi end of the track. This train would have fit in well within a theme park as it looked like one of those noddy trains; the train was every colour under the sun and all it did was go back and forth along the bridge. Again rage built up over me; this was an important historical monument that should be given a lot of respect and not have a cheap toy train traveling up and down it for the joy of tourists who have absolutely no idea what went on here. The train should have been more in keeping with the surroundings and the museum should have detailed information of what happened here. I am sure that neither the British, nore the Japanese (who paid to have the bridge rebuilt as a monument after the allies bombed it towards the end of the war), would have wanted what I saw today.

Luckily the train didn't operate all the time and so I had time to walk across the bridge and back. I walked straight down the center of the bridge trying to imagine what it would have been like in World War Two; it was midday by now and the sun was beating down, it was so hot and this wasn't Thailand's hottest season … how could anyone try to get an idea of what these British, and other nationalities, prisoners of war went through? It was then time to get back to the mini-van.

We then headed out of Kanchanaburi, which I thought was a little odd. No one told you what was happening however it seemed as though we where following the river … there must be another historical site further up the road. We where driving for almost thirty minutes when I asked others on the min-van what had they booked onto. Only the Danish girls replied by saying that they had booked a trip to the River Kwai … and the Tiger Temple.

Tiger Temple! I had specifically not wanted to go to the Tiger Temple as I wanted to spend more time at the river kwai. Sure enough I saw signs for the Tiger Temple which was 200m to the left … I was starting to get annoyed however we went straight passed the entrance and kept going. It wasn't until we had driven for an hour when we stopped, at the river, to have lunch. This to me seemed odd … why did we have to travel one hour out of town to have lunch, there where places within Kanchanaburi to have something to eat.

Lunch was served on a floating restaurant (I use the word 'floating' lightly as the river was low and so the restaurant was resting on the river bed, at quite an angle). Once at the restaurant there where a lot of others there and I was shown a seat at a table with five other people. I sat with a plate of rice on the table in front of me. Soon though three other plates where brought, one with vegetables, one with meat and vegetables and the other being an omelet. It was all cold and none of it looked very appetizing, however I was starving and so I ate my meal.

After the meal we waited for what seemed like eternity and I was starting to get annoyed. Three hours driving from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, three hours back and now one hour to get to this restaurant where we stayed for two hours … nine hours wasted (though the hours to and from Bangkok couldn't be helped). I inquired as to what was happening as, once more, information was limited; it appears that, once we had finished at the bridge, we where supposed to catch the train from Bangkok (not the noddy train), along the 'Deathrailway', to here where we where having lunch. Unfortunately the train had been delayed three hours and so the tour leaders had to re-schedule things. I was a little less annoyed now, however why couldn't we have gone back to the cemetery whilst they sorted things out?

Eventually, due to everyone at the floating restaurant doing different activities, we where all put into groups and each group went in a mini-van to do a different activity. Due to me being the only one returning to Bangkok today (added to that the train ride that I was to take now being re-scheduled for the return trip at 3pm) the tour leaders where at a bit of a loss on what to do with me. I therefore joined these two German people and I was taken to a cave. The driver was a jolly fellow and he kept joking and laughing a long the way.

We had to climb a set of stairs to reach the cave which, sadly, I felt wasn't actually worth the effort involved (I was still annoyed that I couldn't go back to the war cemetery). Once in the cave we found remnants of life and apparently monks occasionally came up here to meditate (I could think of better places). This wasn't why we where there though, we were in search of bats. The jolly driver asked us to go deeper and deeper into the caves with the only light being one torch that the German couple held. I was actually alright at the mouth of the cave as going to find bats wasn't really interesting me right now.

The driver showed us a few and then made a noise so that loads flew around for a short while … which, as you can imagine, I was over the moon about. We left and then headed back to the floating restaurant once more to meet the other groups; I inquired to what the others had done and they said elephant trekking … which was slightly odd as we had only been away for twenty minutes or so … too shorter time to go elephant trekking I thought.

The groups where mixed up again and this time the German couple, two Swiss guys and I where off to a waterfall. The place was packed with Thai's on their holiday; it was quite a nice environment. Loads of Thai family's setup picnics under the shady trees, whereas children went to play on the waterfall. British health and safety would have closed this activity down in a heartbeat; limited water flowed over a hill and poured onto some rocks where the children where playing. The water eventually went into a small pool however the children where climbing all over these slippery rocks and, at any point, could fall head first into this shallow pool … none did though.

Again I wasn't that much interested within the area and so, with thirty-five minutes to kill, I walked around wishing that I was back at the cemetery. It wasn't until I spoke to my guide that I found out that the 'Death railway' had once gone past through this area so, with that piece of information, I started to warp the landscape back in time and try to imagine what this area would have been like to work in … difficult was the word that came to mind.

Eventually we moved on and we got back in the mini-van and headed to the railway station, five minutes up the road. There, waiting, was a proper third class train that was extremely tasteful for what the area represents. The train had open windows, old rusted doors and paint stripped from the outside of the carriages … it looked as though it may have been in service in 1945. Inside I was greeted by a wooden bench and a small fan on the roof; I sat down on the left hand-side of the train until my guide whispered that the view from the right hand-side was better.

We left the train station, my head fully in the past; every click of the tracks represented the hardship and death of thousands of prisoners of war … again trying to comprehend the scale of what had happened here wasn't much use. I sat back and enjoyed the ride; it wasn't long until I realized that Thailand's rail company doesn't cut back the bushes along the railway line. With open windows branches sometimes flew into the carriage and I soon moved across to the isle seat. My guide told me that the mountain range I could see out of carriage window was the start of Myanmar.

The ride was something special however after an hour, as I was going back to Bangkok today, it was over for me. Just before I had to leave the train I got a view of the railway line, bending to the right, hugging the edge of the hillside with a beautiful valley below … a few photos where taken, though it was a little difficult with everyone from the left hand-side of the train rushing across to get a snap.

I was a little gutted that my train ride hadn't taken me across the bridge itself, however if that meant I had to ride with noddy then I'd rather not. I was meet by my third mini-van driver and we drove off from the train station, running parallel to the train. We went off road for a while which the driver enjoyed immensely stating that he was “...Micheal Shumacker...” which was odd as I thought Micheal was German. We made it back to the Tiger temple where I was transferred onto another mini-van; inside was a good group of tourists and I checked with them if they were heading back to Bangkok … we where.

The sun was setting and so there wasn't much point in looking outside anymore; I chatted to this German girl and two Swedish guys. We talked most of the way back to Bangkok about traveling and how much we had paid for things whilst being in Thailand (looks like the rest of the group here had paid nearly 3,000 baht each for this day trip where as I paid 1,100 baht). We didn't arrive back to Bangkok until 7:30pm; just before arriving at my guesthouse we had to cross a road bridge where lots of traffic had just stopped to admire the fireworks going off for New Years Day … they where extremely impressive.

I was second to be dropped off at my guesthouse; I was starving and so I headed straight to the restaurant here as the food is delicious. I was starving, so hungry that money was no barrier; I sat down and ordered spring rolls and 'sweet n sour' chicken … only to be told that they where out of spring rolls and chicken. I therefore opted for the 'sweet n sour' pork.

The meal was fantastic as always and it was a lot bigger than I remembered. I was full after one course and so I paid and went to sleep … at 8:45pm! The day had been okay, I had see the bridge, the cemetery, the museum and I had ridden on the railway, all boxes ticket. The only thing I was a little annoyed about was the lack of time at the cemetery as I thought that was the part with the most impact. Anyway I was to tired to think about it right now, it was 8:45pm and I was totally shattered!

Toodle Pip!

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