22.06.2008 - 22.06.2008 32 °C
Because of commitments in Bangkok, we only had a day to spare to visit Kanchanaburi, and so decided to book an organised tour - mistake number one. There were several options to choose from (that offered elephant rides and the tiger temple) but since we wanted to spend more time at the Kwai, and no time with under-cared for animals, we chose the simple bridge tour. Unbeknown to us, they actually mingle all the tours together, so the Bruntons would have to sit like lemons in the van whilst others enjoyed their tour extras. Meanwhile, we were treated to a condensed, blink and you miss it, whirlwind tour of Kanchanaburi. Several silver mini buses all set off at the same time (from different companies) from our morning meeting point, just outside Bangkok. They drove at high speed, regularly overtaking (and undertaking) one another. We thought it must have been a case of "last one to the cemetery smells". There were several tourists already at the first stop, so it was obvious we weren't the first there - however - judging by the proud look on our driver's face, we don't think we were the last. Talking of the cemetery, our guide first told us we'd have 20 minutes to look around. As we were stepping out of the van, she'd reduced the time to 15 minutes, but actually came to collect us after 10. Of the two cemetery's in town, Don Rak is the biggest, housing nearly 7,000 allied graves, kept in immaculate fashion.
The entrance to Kanchanaburi war cemetery, but sometimes known as Don Rak.
Next stop was at the slightly run down JEATH Museum. The word JEATH is an acronym of the six countries involved in building the railway (Japan, England, Australia/America, Thailand, Holland). Again, we got rushed around, and only managed to see about a third of the museum. It is a tired looking museum, but there was still enough to keep us interested for longer than we got, particularly the newspaper clippings of POW's life stories.
We then got ushered onto a boat, which wasn't included in the price, but promised to show several sites which wouldn't be possible from the road. It's a good job we'd taken in a mental image of the sites before the boat ride (they showed us pictures to tempt us onto the boat), because we didn't really get to see any of them. The driver appeared to be trying to break Campbell's water speed record. The next few minutes whirled by in fast foward, before we were dumped (a little green) by the Bridge on the river Kwai.
River houses on the Kwai - surprisingly this photo isn't blurred!
The Japanese chose the River Kwai basin as the route for the construction of the 415 kilometre Thai-Burmese railtrack. This was needed to connect their recently acquired territories of Singapore and Burma. Work on the railway was commenced in June 1942 and took only 15 months to complete, despite Japanese engineers predicting that it would take 5 years. Kanchanaburi housed the POW camp, for the building of the bridge. It took around 60,000 POWs and 200,000 forced Asian labourers to work on the railway project. They had to remove about 3 million cubic metres of rock and build 9 bridges. The building of the railway took it's toll - more than 25% of the POWs and over 50% of the Asian workers died during it's construction - often due to starvation and disease. This gave it the nickname of "The Death Railway". We gained this knowledge from the Rough Guide (the book, not our tour guide - OUR guide didn't bother to open her mouth, other than to order us into the van).
Bridge over the River Kwai
The Bruntons on the bridge
Given that we had disobeyed our guide and refused to go to the Tiger Temple, she "kindly" suggested that we could instead visit a buddhist temple close by, and they would collect us in an hour. We got dumped at the side of the road, next to this (no offence) very ordinary temple, with no attraction (or toilet), other than to pray. Given that the Bruntons weren't praying, we had no alternative but to sit by the roadside, providing fodder for the mosquito population until the van arrived (15 minutes late).
At various points during the day, we were subjected to a Frenchman and his internet bride (who should have stayed in their hotel room) licking each others faces -mistake number 2 (sitting behind them). It wasn't the most alluring sight. We did meet a nice Canadian couple whose first words were "Hi, we're from Canada, where are you from?" We believe this was to avoid a situation where they could have been mistaken for Americans. They even invited us to their home in Canada and we may shock them by turning up!
On the way back to Bangkok (again at terrifyingly high speed) our driver, like the others, weaved in and out of lanes, quite often failing to stop at red lights. We can only imagine he thought these were for decoration, or illumination, not as an indication that traffic from the left would soon cause a major impact to his van, if he didn't halt. Later, we were told that Thai's don't need to pass a driving test to gain a licence. They can simply buy one for 500 baht (approx 8 English pounds). If they can't afford this, they can go to a test centre, drive for a couple of minutes round a few cones and over a few ramps, and gain a licence for free. So, they don't take any lessons. Certainly if our driver did, they came courtesty of the Stevie Wonder School of Motoring. We've decided to stick to slow trains in future.