Monday, April 03, 2006


We've just returned from Kanchanaburi, only 2 hours from Bangkok but worlds apart. Kanchanaburi is slow and scenic: a countryside edged by lumpy mountians with valleys full of sugar cane, rivers full of reeds and flowering lilly pads, caves and waterfalls and jungle. Kanchanaburi is the site of the 'Bridge over the River Kwai', with much history on display at museums throughout town. The place is like a time capsule from 1942/3, when the Japanese forced POWs to build the 'Death Railway' to aid their movement and the passage of supplies through Burma, towards India.

In Kanchanaburi, the river is lazy and the peaceful twitter of birds is only disturbed by the occasional THUMP THUMP THUMP of a bassline in the passing of a floating disco -- the people of Kanchanaburi don't waste real esate -- our bungalow was actually on a floating raft, anchored to the shore, bobbing with the waves on the River Kwai.

Maybe I like Kanchanaburi because it's sort of kitschy: floating discos and bungalows on rafts are just the start. The town is famous for the nearby Tiger Temple, where tourists can get up close and personal with rescued tigers. I heard once a lady's arm was bitten off, but no-one really talks about her or the potential danger. People assume the monks have tamed them, but they're monks, not animal trainers (on second thought...). There are rumors that the tigers are drugged -- sedated -- so when Gustav puts his face next to the tiger's head for his photo, the tiger seems not to care. Personally, I didn't want to be the next tourist-who-gets-bitten-but-nobody-talks-about-it AND the skies were black with rain the day we stopped to visit, so we skipped the tiger temple and road home to safety from teeth and rain.

There's also a monkey training school. We saw pig tailed macaques ride a tricycle, play basketball, swim, count to 10 (pointing at signs), and sell us 'white monkey holding peach balm' (similar to tiger balm -- they probably sell that at the tiger temple). The most alluring attraction and biggest letdown, though, was the floating nun. She was said to do yoga positions while 'hovering' on the surface of the water. It was a miraculous scene, according to some sources. For 100 Baht ($2.50), we got to see an obese woman float in a tub of water. Yes, she did some mudras with her hand... but she floated because she was fat and anyway, floating is not hovering. But what did I expect? No-one can really walk (or do yoga) on water...

There's also a mini lightshow reenactment of the allied troops blowing up the bridge (over the River Kwai) during WWII. We skipped this, having visited numerous 'Death Railway' museums in the previous days and frankly, we didn't need to see a model blown up to get the jist of the story. While I am a fan of this type of entertainement, at 300 Baht ($7.50), I couldn't do it.

While Kanchanaburi is a bit kitsch, and the expats who live there are no different, it is also a sobering place. Especially felt when visiting the war cemetery in town, where the corpses of British and Australian POWs were moved when the war was over (they were moved there from cemeteries in the jungle near their work camps). Rows of small headstones, all alike, are inscribed with messages from loved ones so sad I felt like crying. Most of the men were in their 20s and most of them died in the year 1943. What a bad year for so many -- looking at the graves I was overwhelmed by the number of men who died in that one year and realizing I was only seeing a fraction of the men who died that year, or in the war as a whole, I again felt like crying. Not necesearily for the men who died, but for the people they left behind.

Despite my bad feelings about war, I am fascinated by war stories... and a visit to Kanchanaburi was a great history lesson.


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