Tuesday, July 29, 2014

WWII history and feet-cleaning fish in Kanchanaburi.

We'd decided to go south and we had two ways to get there: through Bangkok or avoiding Bangkok altogether. We opted for the latter and took a slight detour to Kanchanaburi, home of the River Kwai (Khwae) bridge, to learn a little more WWII history.

the obligatory bridge/river shot
(movie buffs should note: this bridge has been rebuilt...
and the movie was filmed in Sri Lanka)

Back in the day Japan decided to build a railway to make their conquest of Burma from Thailand a little more straightforward. A mountain range forms the border between the two countries, but that didn't stop the Japanese from designing a fully functional railway system. All it took was some engineering smarts and hundreds of thousands of POWs and Asian "volunteers" or "employees" (in quotes because they were neither - they were slave labor).

The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre gave a really good overview of the history of the railway. Over 16,000 POWs (38 for each km of track, mostly Australian and Dutch) and 100,000 Asians (mostly Thai and Burmese) died building the tracks. Conditions were awful, work was backbreaking, and food was scarce. Often the dead were buried in or near the work camps, and for whatever reason the Japanese allowed clearly marked graves and burial ceremonies. So after the war a handful of ex-POWs were able to go back and recover almost all the remains in order to bury them properly in what are now beautifully manicured cemeteries.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (Don Rak)
where 6982 POWs were buried

Chungkai Cemetery just outside of town
where 1750 POWs were buried

Many surviving ex-POWs have donated artifacts to the museum. The exhibits are fairly unbiased (especially considering that it's a western-funded museum) and overall, really well done.  Worth the 120 baht entry!  And The Railway Man is now on our reading wish list.

Anyway. The train system is still operational so we took a day trip on the "Death Railway" to see this engineering feat up close. It's about 2 hours each way to Nam Tok. The scenery was pretty but the visions in our head from the museum were a bit haunting, especially when we got to the steep wooden trestle bridge built parallel to a mountain.

hand-sledged rock

the Wang Po viaduct's 300m trestle bridge

the river

the countryside

Back in Kanchanaburi we also stopped by Wat Tham Khao Poon, home to a labyrinth cave of Buddhas at every turn. Less serene and more flashy than Tham Ting and Tham Phoum in Luang Prabang, but deeper underground - which meant BATS! So cool.

weaving through the walls

one of the prayer rooms

the view from the wat grounds

And we took a day trip to Erawan National Park where we saw a seven-tiered waterfall (allegedly the most photographed in Thailand, used for all the travel brochures) and got our feet cleaned by fish. The falls were pretty but crowded with tourists taking a dip.

the nature trail
(it wasn't that exciting,
but we were the only ones on it)

one of the seven tiers

a quieter spot

The cleaner fish were definitely worth the price of admission though...

it tickled... a lot

almost too much to take

Food notes: with a Tesco and a 7-11 across the street we tried to avoid restaurants as much as possible. The restaurant food we did try was bland, uninspired, and expensive - with a few exceptions:

veggie Tom Yum = YUM

  • Paul's Coffee Shop - amazing sausage, mediocre food
sixteen more, please

Lodging notes: we arrived the night of a festival so all of our top picks were taken. We ended up at a random, large, ranch-style hotel on the main strip whose name escapes us and it's not worth the effort to find it online. It would have been fine if not for the cranky staff and creepy old white men milling about. At 250b/night, though, it worked. (Told you our standards were low these days!) The bazillion frogs in the garden outside and the morning rooster were definitely a bonus.

outside our room

Otherwise, Kanchanaburi itself wasn't really for us. The night market food stalls weren't as intriguing as we'd been led to believe, the town was dusty with stray dogs everywhere, and the percentage of regular tourists to creepy old white men was a bit out of whack.

But the history was interesting and a nice break from ancient ruins. Next nice break: a little beach time! Southern Thailand via a little town called Prachuap Khiri Khan, here we come...

1 comment:

  1. Paul's Coffee Shop is also my second-favorite Beastie Boys album