A Travellerspoint blog

Developing a sore bum along the Mekong

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Everything was going so swimmingly. Immigration and visa entry points in Houayxai were quick to go through (despite it being a cattle market of backpackers), we even got a 30 day instead of our expected 15 day visa. Although alarmed at the number of people who had pre booked their boat trip, there was no need; we got a ticket and were even amongst the 1st van load of people to be dropped off by the river. They just needed our passports to show the officials. And then it all started to go a bit Lisab shaped (pear). Truck loads of backpackers arrived and were making their way to the boat. Meanwhile our group were plonked in a cafe to wait (over an hour) for the return of our passports. The tour agent then announced "who wants to go by bus instead? We take you in a free taxi to bus station now". Given that the 2 day sail down the Mekong had been a long awaited highlight of our one year trip away, we said "no thank you", along with the rest. His reasoning was quite novel though - "you will be in Louang Prabang tonight. It will be cheaper, no overnight accommodation , breakfast or lunch to pay tomorrow". He said this to a bunch of tourists (not locals returning home) - as if when we reached Louang Prabang we would enter the land of the free! Fatal flaw in his argument.

The passports arrived and we made our way to the boat. It's a wonder of physics that it hadn't sank under the weight of people and bags already packed into it. And people were STILL trying to board. As we're not sick of living we didn't step a foot inside, but along with 26 others decided to get into the next boat along, reasoning that if they'd sold so many tickets they would have to sail 2 boats that day. WRONG - the Laos boat operators (who appear to have missed their annual health & safety update for this year) expected over 100 people to get into the one boat. After much confusion the Laos learnt an important lesson - don't mess with the Brunton's. It was all terribly exciting as we took part in our first "sit in", until they finally agreed to sail two boats - our victory came at a cost however, as we each had to pay an extra 280 bhat. We also need to admit that we literally sat on our bottoms whilst a great young Englishman (university educated) did all the negotiating for us.

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The overcrowded boat

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Life inside our boat

And so we set sail. Us, in our spacious long boat, the other 80 in their much narrower, packed in like sardines, over crowded boat - the irony! It was a lovely, hot and sunny day and we were travelling in style. Reading a book, moving around the boat, sitting on an open window ledge to look out onto the Mekong, stretching out on the floor to take a nap. Andyb also gave up his cushion to the wife (hence his sore bum, though Lisa's is peachy).

We were the first to dock in Pakbeng and later heard that the other boat had made several stops to pick up extra passengers along the way. This is the halfway stop - with rudimentary accommodation - where they placed a cockroach instead of a chocolate on our pillow and the leccy went off at 10:30pm. Still, we met a fun American named Faith, who swapped a Donna Tartt for a Bill Bryson (which made the next day on the boat go by very quickly for Lisab, though left Andyb wandering the boat with no one to talk to).

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View from our guest house in Pakbeng. Whilst we were sat enjoying a beer, we spotted a man high in the tree (no safety net), chopping off the leaves and branches of the trees in the foreground. We don't think this was just for our benefit, to make our beer taste better, but the guest house boasted a "room with a river view".

The next morning started off swimmingly. Our crew were waiting at the dock for us, directing us to a new (smaller) boat for our next day's trip. They fiercly guarded entry to the boat - if your name wasn't down, you weren't coming in - as several passengers from the sardine can tried to sneak on board. Then more confusion; we would have to change back to yesterday's boat for some (unexplained) reason. So, after playing musical boats for a while, we set sail again.

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The second day's sail was just as lovely as the first and made more interesting when they stopped to pick up the locals. This included a young boy with a suspected leg fracture who was going to hospital. We had a whip round for his expenses and everyone had a good gawp (as you do). Travelling along the Mekong was a great experience - made all the more memorable because of the 1st day's dramatics. The water level is quite high as it's rainy season & it's mesmerising to watch the currents swirl in different directions. Although perhaps not the usual way to sail down the Mekong in our under capacity boat, we had a lovely, relaxing time and pitied the fools on the other one who would have been lucky to glimpse the Mekong in their packed out vessel.

River Mekong scenery
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Posted by bruntonal 02:25 Archived in Laos Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The Golden Triangle

Soap Ruak

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Our last day with Bua & Stephen was spent visiting the Golden Triangle - where Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. There are good views at the top of the hill where the Phra That Phu Khao temple is located, and we even got our first glimpse of China (the mountains in the distance). Further down the road, the town is littered with souvenir stalls and surprisingly expensive cafes (as poor Stephen found out when he offered to pay for the bill!)

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The view of the Golden Triangle (see map above for explanation). This reminded us of when we went to the "Tres Frontiers" - where Argentina, Brasil and Paraguay meet (happy days!)

The town also houses the Hall of Opium. This isn't where you can sit around smoking in an opium den, but an informative museum on the history and cultivation of the poppy. Opium growing has been illegal in Thailand since the late 1950's, and the area became renowned for it's illicit production of opium in the 1960's and 1970's. It gained it's name as "The Golden Triangle" because opium was known as "black gold". Thailand seem to have halted the illegal growing and production of opium in recent years, with production of opium now centred across the border in Burma. Instead, the Thai Government have encouraged and subsidised farmers to grow other crops, such as coffee, tea and cabbages(!) in it's place.

For the production of opium, poppies are grown (purple one's giving the best concentration of opium) until the petals drop off, and the bud dries. The farmer then delicately scores the bud each day with a knife to release the sap. This is generally done at the hottest part of the day to collect the optimum amount of sap. This process continues from the same bud over a few weeks. The sap is then dried into pellets and sold on for production of morphine, heroin etc. Although we seem to have given a guide to "grow your own opium" we wouldn't recommend this as a new hobby - it's too cold and miserable for poppies to flourish in Rossendale (though we know what some of you are like, so we won't give the chemical process of how to turn opium into heroin).

We then took a scenic drive, following the Mekong, until we arrived in Chiang Khong. After a farewell meal (at a VERY nice restaurant that we don't know the name of, but it gave lovely views of the Mekong) we waited in anticipation for our slow boat down the river the next day, with just the two of us again for company.

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Posted by bruntonal 02:22 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Elephant Nature Park

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Have you ever been kissed by a baby elephant? We have, at the fantastic Elephant Nature Park, which is an hour and a half's drive north of Chiang Mai, in the picturesque valley of Mae Taeng. This sanctuary was set up in 1995 by a Thai woman – Sangduen Chailert, or “Lek” (meaning small in Thai) as she is more commonly known. Lek set up the park to care for domesticated asian elephants, which have been rescued from a life of abuse and cruelty from their previous owners. Presently, the park houses 33 elephants; the youngest being 2 months old, to the eldest who is in her 80's. We booked our 1 day tour at the Elephant Nature Park tourist office in Chiang Mai (Gem Travel), though you can book it online at: www.elephantnaturefoundation.org. You can also visit overnight, or become a volunteer for a week or two.

The day started by travelling to the market to help load fruit onto the truck for the elephants' lunch. It costs 500 bhat (8 pounds) per basket of fruit; each elephant eats a basket of fruit per day. Once at the park, the day was a mix of education and interaction with the elephants - getting to feed them and helping to bathe them twice.

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Peckish elephants coming to eat lunch

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The elephant we fed ate bananas and watermelons. Others were fed various other fruits (though the young ones didn't seem to like cucumber that much)

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Bathing time

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We spent all this time scrubbing them clean...

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...and then they got out of the water, and covered themselves in mud! (this is to protect themselves from the sun, so it's only like us lathering ourselves in piz buin after a shower).

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This young elephant wasn't at all sure about kissing Andyb. Lisab said he was thinking "ugh, but he's a BOY, I only want to kiss girls".

We heard some harrowing tales of how the elephants had suffered. Jokia is a 50 year old elephant who was blinded in both eyes by her mahout. This happened after Jokia was sold to illegal loggers (after the logging ban of 1989 in Thailand meant that her Karen tribe owners couldn’t afford to keep her). Jokia was forced to continue working even when pregnant and actually gave birth to her baby whilst pulling a log uphill. Unfortunately the baby tumbled down the hill and by the time they went back to see it, the baby had died. Distraught with grief, Jokia would not work. Her mahout physically abused her, trying to beat her into submission. Eventually, he blinded her in both eyes, after she stubbornly refused to give in. She was rescued by Lek in 1999. Her story has a sort of happy ending, in that when she arrived at the park, Mae Perm (a female elephant in her 40's) “adopted” Jokia, and they are now inseparable. Apparently, when Jokia wants to move to a new spot, she puts her trunk on Mae Perm, and Mae Perm then guides Jokia around.

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This is one of the two month old babies with her mum, going for a bath. She is on loan to the park (from an elephant trekking camp) to give her a better chance of survival - babies in elephant trekking camps have a low survival rate. Although her mum appears perfectly capable of raising her on her own, she has acquired 5 aunties. It is normal for the other female elephants to want to care for the babies. The park has had to separate mum and baby from most of the other elephants, to protect from all the other elephants crowding her (apparently, they all want the nanny job!)

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Despite the logging ban, illegal logging still goes on, so the elephants' natural habitat continues to be lost; it is estimated that Thailand now has only 500 wild elephants left. Wild elephants are at least now protected with endangered animal status, but unfortunately domesticated elephants only have the same protection as live stock. This means, in effect, they have little rights, so when abuse is identified, law states that only minimal fines can be issued to their owners. As a consequence, there are around 2,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand leading a bleak existence in the tourist industry. Even if you don’t witness abuse of these elephants, whilst on your elephant trek or ride, Thai’s still practice the ancient tradition of phajaan or torture training. This is a ritual they subject domesticated elephants to at an early age, in order to break their spirit, so the animal eventually submits to it’s mahout. We were shown documentary footage of an elephant going though this awful ordeal and it made for uncomfortable viewing, to say the least. Lek has proven that through use of positive reinforcement (instead of cruel beatings) elephants respond to human command. It seems ironic that a country which reveres the elephant as a symbolic icon (practically every temple has elephant statues outside) can treat real life ones so cruelly.

If you are in Thailand, and thinking of visiting elephants, we would highly recommend a day here. Although it's more expensive than other elephant park trips (it cost 2500 bhat each for the day), you get to see elephants in their own habitat, and instead of "amusing" tourists with rides, circus tricks or painting shows (as some parks offer), you get a glimpse of how elephants behave naturally. Also, it is a not for profit organisation, so all the money spent, goes towards the elephants.

For the record, being kissed by a baby elephant is quite pleasant, although it does feel as if someone has suctioned a (wet) Dyson to your face for a second. Here is a video of Lisa receiving her peck:

Posted by bruntonal 02:05 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Ban Kat Thi

The village where Stephen & Bua live

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Keeping to our word, we took the slow, overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (but got off at Lampang, as instructed by Stephen). We then bussed it to Phayao, where we were met by Stephen & Bua. After saying hello's and stocking up on provisions, we drove for about 20 minutes, to arrive at Ban Kat Thi. This is a lovely village, which stretches along the roadside for at least a kilometre (though Stephen & Bua's house is off the main road, down a small lane, which leads into the rice fields). Bua treated us to a fabulous Thai meal (she should open her own restaurant) and then we played catch up for the evening (read: boring them with our travel stories).

The next day was spent idling along the lanes of the village and through the rice fields, which are full of people, busy planting this year's crop. We called in to see Bua's daughter and son in law in their field and had to nick some of their water to quench our thirst. This time of year is supposed to be rainy season, though they haven't seen much yet and it was a sweltering hot day. Even the promise of the Bruntons arriving in the village hadn't encouraged this year's monsoons, and the villagers are quite anxious for them to arrive, as this year's rice crop depends on them.

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Our arrival into Ban Kat Thi

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Toy and Noy planting their rice crop.

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The locals working the fields.

Bua & Stephen's garden is full of wildlife. They are often visited by lizards, chameleons, snakes, amongst others (including lots of things that bit us in the evening!) The pictures below show some stuff we've already encountered. We also saw a dying scorpion, but didn't think we should photo it on it's death bed.

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Although these were in Bunsi's garden (Bua's sister)

Bua & Stephen have truely been hosts with the most, as they have ferried us around the sites of Northern Thailand. At the weekend, we went for a trip to Phayao and around to visit some temples and the lake. We were joined by Stephen & Bua's grandchildren. They were very well behaved, and Lisa didn't suffer from hives all day.

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Kwan (Lake) Phayao

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From left to right: Stephen, Bifern, Quan, Lisab, Bua, and Andyb

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This was one of the temples that we visited. Lisa felt quite inferior (in size) at the towering Buddha. This is definitely the largest we've seen so far.

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This is Bifern in the pond (at the back of their house) fishing for catfish and getting very mucky in the process.

One day was spent going to see Wat Rong Khun (or the white temple), situated to the south east of Chiang Rai. Chalermahai Kositpipat is the brains behind this unconventional buddhist temple and surrounding buildings. He has dedicated his life to the cause of constructing 9 buildings on the site. Building began in 1998. It is THE most beautiful temple; completely white and encrusted with small mirrors that glisten in the sunlight. Inside the temple is just as impressive. Chalermahai has painted enormous murals on the walls, in a contemporary, futuristic style (for example, one shows a picture of September 11th, one shows the Keanu Reeves' character in the Matrix). Some paintings depict the buddhist view of the 4 elements: earth (represented by the elephant), wind (the swan), water (the naga - a type of mythical serpent) and fire (the lion). The project has been funded through donations, but also through the sale of his paintings, which can be bought at the art gallery, within the complex. This was a real find, as we wouldn't have heard of it from any guide book (it only opened to the public a year ago).

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Wat (Temple) Rong Khun

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On the same day, we also visited the village of Ja Lae. This is where some of the Lahu Laba hilltribe live. They migrated into Thailand from Tibet in 1970. Others had migrated to Thailand as early as the 19th century. Within the village there is a small museum and cultural centre. The information at the centre explained that as the tribe move out of their traditional forest homes, into a more modern environment, their unique language and culture is increasingly under threat, just like other hilltribes in Thailand. Apparently, 5 years ago, they were "forced" to move to their present location (though it didn't say why they were forced). Before this, they grew, hunted or gathered all of their own food, needing to buy only their salt. However, due to the scarcity of land, they now need to purchase 80% of the food they eat. They acknowledge that moving into modern Thai society brings benefits such as healthcare and education (we also saw solar panels to provide electricity), but at a cost of weakening their traditional culture. They still hold onto their own religious beliefs; unlike Thai's who believe in buddhism, they believe in spirits and ancestors.

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Traditional Lahu house

Since it was close by, we had a nosey at this waterfall.

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Huaymaesai waterfall

Unfortunately, for the trip to the northern most point in Thailand, Bua had to stay at home (it was going to be a long day and she needed to be around for the kids after school), so Stephen took us by himself. Our first stop was to see the village of Mae Salong. This is a village in the mountains that is inhabited by Chinese one time refugees, who were fleeing the cultural revolution in 1949. We stopped for a tea and a walk around. In high season, it is packed out with both tourists and hilltribe members selling their wares, but we had the village to ourselves. The scenery is fantastic along the way, and we stopped at several lookout points to admire the view and took a few photo's.

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Tea plantations around Mae Salong

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Next stop was to the Mae Fa Luang gardens, situated high up in the mountains. These are gardens that were originally started by the Princess Mother (the King's mum). She has died now, but has left a lasting legacy that continues to grow and develop. Much had changed since Stephen's previous visit, and we were treated to some beautiful sites. We timed it perfectly, just before the heavens opened, we were belted in the car, ready for our onward journey.

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The Mae Fa Luang gardens

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Orchids

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The next leg of the journey took us along a road, which basically acts as a border between Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. This was slightly un-nerving, not only for it's very winding roads, but also because it is a very sensitive area, and we were stopped and checked (as well as videoed - we are famous!) 3 times, by armed guards, during the 20km ride.

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Burma to the left, Thailand to the right. Andyb illegally stepped into Burma territory as he did the "hokey cokey"over the barrier, which is technically the Burmese border line.

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The Bruntons at the border whilst the guards checked Stephen's passport.

We then moved on to Mae Sai, which is the "Northern most of Thailand" according to the sign. They mean, of course, the northern most point of Thailand, but they have put up a new sign and they've missed the point, if you catch our drift.

Because it was a long day, and a long drive, Andyb gallantly (and bravely - remember those Thai's don't do driving tests) offered to drive home. All was going swimmingly until darkness fell. Andyb felt like he was in the middle of a computer game, dodging the traps set (such as dogs in the middle of the road, unlit motor cycles, tractors, cars, people). He managed to get to the top level, acquiring bonus points, as he avoided all obstacles thrown at him, and pulled safely into Ban Kat Thi. This was lucky, given that in Thailand, the law states that the biggest vehicle is ALWAYS at fault when involved in an accident.

We gave Stephen & Bua a few days off from being tour operators, and headed to Chiang Mai for a few days (see Elephant Nature Park blog), before they resumed their duties. When we returned, we spent a few days lounging around their lovely home and visited a "floating temple".

Before the locals built a damn to flood the area that is now Kwan Phayao, an ancient temple existed in the middle of the swamp land. The eventual plan is to drain the water around the temple and excavate the site.

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The old temple in the middle of Kwan Phayao.

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Stephen & Bua with the Bruntons.

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The Buddha

It is a very beautiful setting around Kwan Phayao
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Lotus flower or in Thai, Buason (which is Bua's full name)

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You see the Thai flag everywhere whilst travelling around these parts, even in the middle of a lake!

Posted by bruntonal 02:05 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The bridge over the river Kwai

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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.

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The entrance to Kanchanaburi war cemetery, but sometimes known as Don Rak.

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War graves

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The Cenotaph

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.

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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).

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Bridge over the River Kwai

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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.

Posted by bruntonal 23:36 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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