Although nearly three weeks in Thailand, I’m still shackled by Western expectations. The first thing we did when we arrived in Kanchanaburi on Wednesday was head to the train station to book tickets to Surat Thani for Friday morning.
Two tickets to Surat Thani, please. Second class. Air-con. With seat reservations. On the 9.35. On Friday, says I, not for a minute thinking that he’d do anything but smile politely and hand them over. Instead, he laughed.
Friday? All trains full, he said. Saturday, too. And Sunday.
He showed me the screen. Our only option was to travel overnight in third class with no air-con. We’d have to catch a bus to Ban Pong from Kanchanaburi and then catch the evening train from there, arriving in Surat Thani at around 6 am on Saturday morning. We could, of course, have gone back to Bangkok and paid more than we were prepared to pay to fly (internal flights are pretty cheap in advance; not so cheap last minute). So, we chalked that one up to experience and decided to travel as the locals do. In the meantime, we had a full day to putt around and see what we’d come to see: the Death Railway.
The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, the Siam–Burma Railway, the Thai–Burma Railway and similar names, was a 415-kilometre railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II.
Remember the movie, Bridge on the River Kwai (that was Bridge No. 277)? We could’ve seen that from our raft, had we not upgraded to a better raft – with air-con. I know my limitations and himself would like to get home alive. Anyway, the movie was filmed in Ceylon, not in Thailand, and the jury is still out regarding how well it tells the story – but it lays the basis.
At 5.30 am the following morning, we joined what looked like a Thai women’s group on the platform near the Bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi and took the train to Nam Tok. These ladies, all in their early 60s, put the kids to shame when it came to selfies and giggles and boisterous behaviour. When they weren’t checking out the selfies, they provided in-carriage entertainment for the next couple of hours. I’d been looking forward to the train journey for months. I’d read all sorts of blog accounts that made it sound spectacular and terrifying. And perhaps, had we come straight from Bangkok, I would have been more wowed. But after Phu Chi Fa, not so much. Yes, it was spectacular but more because of what it is than what you see. That this was built by prisoners of war in such a short period of time with very little by way of materials and tools, is quite something. And in that heat and humidity?
Hellfire Pass (Chong Khao Kad) Museum
When we arrived in Nam Tok, we were assailed by songthaew drivers offering guided tours and all sorts. We just wanted coffee. We went with Bai who recognised our immediate need and understood and took us to the 7 Eleven. It’s mad to see these dotted around the country in the most unlikely of places but they do decent coffee. From there we went up to Hellfire Pass (Chong Khao Kad), a 500-metre cutting hewn out of the rock by allied POWs in just six months in 1943. The museum works on a donation basis and offers headsets with an audio tour. As we wandered through the trail, we listed to Australian POWs, some of whom are still alive, give an account of their time there. It was quite something. All of them, without exception, were still looking for the humour in it all. The accounts were horrendous. Life must have been unbearable. And yet they still marvelled at the scenery, the birds, the flowers. They remembered the sunsets, the teak forests, the dawn chorus. And they came back. On Anzac Day each year, a dawn vigil marks the work done and remembers the thousands who died making it happen. The Hellfire Pass Museum was under renovation so not all the trails were open and the main museum was closed. But still, it was so worth the hike. For some weird reason, I felt inordinately proud of those boys, for getting through the ordeal and still managing to see the beauty of the place.
Sai Yok Noi waterfall
The main attraction of the Sai Yok national park in the Tenasserim Hills, the waterfall provided much relief from the darkness and horror of Hellfire Pass. October is a school holiday in Thailand. The kids were out playing in the water. Inner-tubes bobbed around. Families picnicked. Restaurants and cafés did a steady trade as the locals and holidaymakers alike made the most of it. As it’s closer to the railway station, most people stop here first. I’m glad we didn’t. I needed to decompress. I could still hear the voices of those Australian soldiers in my head and was still battling with how they managed to cope with it all and stay alive. I needed some levity.
On our way back to Kanchanaburi, Boi detoured and took us to see Krasae Cave. We’d driven right past it on the way up on the train. It sits just off the edge of the tracks and back in 1943 would have been where the POWs rested if they’d been given a chance to rest. Today, it’s a shrine and for Thai people, it’s more of a commemoration than the Hellfire Pass memorial. After navigating a series of traders, and more colourful Asian ladies who really know how to style it, we found the cave inside which a large Buddha reigns supreme. A large notice board has fortunes printed in both English and Thai. I watched as a couple of Thai tourists shook out their sticks and checked what was in store for them. When I tried, a family sitting across the other side of the altar, laughed and shouted over instructions. Although Buddha was present, it seemed that the energy in this particular cave temple was more lighthearted than in the cities.
From here, we could walk the tracks, see the trestles up close, and marvel once again at this feat of engineering. Why it isn’t one of the wonders of the world, I don’t know. The second of the two daily trains came through as we were there. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to go back in time and hear the clink-clink of hammer on chisel. The tourists hanging from the windows taking selfies seemed strangely oblivious to it all. I wondered if they realised just what had gone into building these tracks.
What makes this an engineering feat is the totality of it, the accumulation of factors. The total length of miles, the total number of bridges — over 600, including six to eight long-span bridges — the total number of people who were involved (one-quarter of a million), the very short time in which they managed to accomplish it, and the extreme conditions they accomplished it under. They had very little transportation to get stuff to and from the workers, they had almost no medication, they couldn’t get food let alone materials, they had no tools to work with except for basic things like spades and hammers, and they worked in extremely difficult conditions — in the jungle with its heat and humidity. All of that makes this railway an extraordinary accomplishment.
Later that afternoon, back in Kanchanaburi, we visited the War Cemetery to pay our respects. We missed out on the Chungkai Cemetery, started by the POWs themselves in the camp. But we did get to see the Chinese Cemetery, lying next door to the Allied one; it’s everything the other one isn’t. The haphazard mix of Chinese burial mounds and Thai chedi reliquaries gives it a Disney World feel. Definitely one to visit if you’re in town.
We were staying on a raft house on the river. Each time a boat passed, our place rocked. The party boats that travelled up and down the river with revellers put paid to any thoughts of an early night. The bars along Mae Nam Kwae Road would give Khaosan Road a run for its money. It’s here the backpackers and expats gravitate. There was a healthy measure of older British men with young Thai wives (?) and some restaurants and bars that seemed to cater just for well-dressed Thai men.
We ate one afternoon at Mangosteen Café and Books sharing a platter of local specialities (including the famed Issan sausage) and enjoying every morsel. I’ve been impressed with the English-language book offer in Thailand. Everywhere we’ve been has had a least one large bookstore – Kanchanaburi has at least two. But it wasn’t until the next day, as we were driving to the bus station, that we saw how big the town really is. There’s a whole other side of it that’s not remotely touristy, alive with market traders, the sing-song waves of conversations soothing the scented air.
Thankfully we noticed that our lovely helpful ticket seller had sold us train tickets leaving from Nakhon Pathon and not Ban Pong. So after a quick diversion to get that changed and a heart-stopping few minutes thinking we might have to up the line to come all the way back, we were sorted (same guy and he didn’t bat an eyelid).
We caught a local bus to Ban Pong. Quite the experience. The massive steering wheel was chest-high on the driver and the gear stick was level with his ear. We had five hours at the station to wait for our train.
There’s been lots of waiting in Thailand. Time seems to have a different meaning. No one is any great rush anywhere. The country has one massive ‘ish’ after every entry on every timetable. I’m Irish. I should be used to it, I know.