Thai Vacations Hellfire Pass River Kwai Tour
My time in Thailand was all too short. With only a few days left on my Thailand trip, I went from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, then along the River Kwai. I was looking for a respite from the bustle and noise of big-city Bangkok, but I also wanted to see the River and Hellfire Pass (photos) made infamous by war. Here's what I wrote about this trip.
Thai Vacation Magic ~ To Kanchanaburi On the River Kwai
Just when I was losing hope of finding the exotic among the banal, Thailand finally worked its magic, and I was smitten.
It happened suddenly, with the rising sun swiftly lifting the dark shade of night to reveal the water-carved rock banks of the River Kwai, a fast-flowing endless olive ribbon bathed in gold.
On the balcony outside my hotel room, hot pink bougainvillea overflowed its container, a colorful frame for the enormous stands of bamboo that covered the steep hillside across the river.
My only companions this silent dawn were one small turquoise-feathered bird singing its heart out, and several small geckos that skitter into crevices as I stepped outside.
The already hot sun . . .
. . . set about banishing the river mists as a chug chug sound heralded the approach of a long tail river boat. This was just as I had long imagined Thailand would be -- impossibly beautiful. I had come to Thailand almost as an afterthought, unable to resist this destination, a free add on to my All-Asia pass that was taking me through Hong Kong to Australia. I had arrived one day at noon, and immediately toured several temples that afternoon.
With the disconnectedness that sometimes accompanies long haul travelers, I hadn't fully appreciated I was no longer in Hong Kong. One busy Asian city can seem much like another. So when I was invited to a traditonal Thai restaurant for dinner, I accepted at once, saying, inanely, "Oh! I love Thai food!" Then I stopped, thought, and said to my affable host, "Ummm. . . I suppose, of course, to you, it's just 'food'."
Yet after enduring several days of Bangkok's choking smog and dense traffic to tour yet another elaborate temple, jet lag was catching up and crabbiness setting in. Were temples and beaches all that defined Thailand, I wondered. Certainly the city offered pleasant enough diversions, like shopping in large malls, or spending evenings over dinner and a show, or simply sitting on a park bench and watching the passing throngs.
While these fabulous temples . . .
. . . and the unique cuisine were a major tourist draw, surely there was more to Thailand. Vaguely recalling scenes from the classic movie, Bridge On The River Kwai, I flipped through a tour brochure. Enticed by a chance to go exploring -- on foot, bus, train and boat -- the caves, waterfalls and the river itself, I booked the River Kwai tour, and headed out of town.
Now, watching the sunrise, I thought about yesterday's journey: The three-hour bus ride on highways that cut through a vast plain of rice paddies, rivers and canals, market gardens and cane fields to reach the gentle mountains and Kanchanaburi, several hundred kilometres northwest of Bangkok.
We gather up our belongings and step into blistering heat, and enter the JEATH (Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, Holland) Museum, a memorial to those who served and who died building the 415 kilometres (258 miles) of Burma-Thailand Railway -- the Death Railway -- during the Second World War.
All in all, we are told, there were six bridges built over the River Kwai Noi; five were in Burma, and one was in Thailand, here, in Kancahanaburi. Some 60,000 Allied POWs and about 250,000 Asian labourers were pressed into service here, under horrific conditions, between October 1942 and October 1943.
Twenty percent of these POWS -- 12,399 -- died here. The cemetery across the street holds the graves of the Dutch, British and Australians; The American dead were returned to the United States. Between 70,000 and 90,000 Asians died here, too, though there are no cemeteries, or gravestones, to mark their passing.
Inside the museum, I find I have no stomach for the many pictures and charts that graphically depict man's inhumanity to his fellows, and to do no more than quickly scan the displays on each level before heading out into the fresh air, and the quiet of the vast Kanchanaburi (Don-Rak) War Cemetery.
Grave markers, nearly 7,000 of them, are set flat on the ground in a large grid fill the grassy field, easily accommodating a few dozen visitors wandering the paths this mid-morning weekday. Some visitors appear to be fellow tourists; others are searching out specific markers, having journeyed halfway around the world to search for the grave of a relative or friend.
River Kwai Bridge a short distance away
We find ourselves face to girder with the famous Bridge, and venture a short distance onto the span while we wait for the train that will take us along this infamous route. At regular intervals along the length of the bridge, small safety platforms jut out over the water; should a train come along, bridge walkers can step off the tracks.
On the east bank, workmen are assembling bleachers to be used for the two-week-long light and sound show re-enacting the bridge and railway construction. Called the River Kwai Bridge Festival, it's held each year from Armistice Day, November 11, to Pearl Harbour Day, December 7. When the train pulls into the station, we clamber aboard en masse, welcoming this break from the past hours' sadness and anticipating a bit of an adventure for the hour and a half it will take to cover the 50 kilometres (31 miles) to Nam Tok.
The train inches across the bridge over the River Kwai, then speeds up to keep pace with its scheduled stops. We passengers hardly notice the views outside, so taken are we with the antique rail car: Wooden-frame windows slide open wide to let in a cool breeze liberally laced with grit and pollen, lazy ceiling fans help it along. Finally, we settle back into the wooden seats, and pass around random snacks and hard candies, alll the while grinning at one another, all of us absolutely delighted to find ourselves here, and having such a good time.
The track variously hugs mountain curves or heads cross country, passing through cane fields, mango groves, and once again across a bridge that, unlike the steel one at the start of our journey, is wooden, and pretty rickety at that. Every so often, the train stops for a minute or two at one of the small stations to exchange passengers.
After yesterday's bus and train from Bangkok, and the sobering visit to the war museum, to wake to this impossibly beautiful scene is pure joy. The prospect of a day of cruising the river in a long tail boat, with a stop to climb mountainside trails and explore nearby caves then continue upriver to a waterfall for lunch, well, it sounds just perfect.
It's near noon when we are tucking into our box lunches at a picnic table set under a canvas awning on a large wooden raft. We'd transferred to this raft and been towed to anchor just at the falls. The waters cascade over the back of the raft, and the 'swim' proves to be an outdoor shower. After an hour, the tow boat takes us back to the wharf. There's time to roam on the shore, and take a walk up into the park. Local families are here on holiday, the children sliding down the smooth river rocks and the parents having tea. All too soon, it seems, we're retracing our route.
We're back at the resort . . .
. . . by mid afternoon, with plenty of time to swim in the enormous pools, and to stop at the spa for a traditional Thai massage. After such a blissful day, it's a contented group that heads out the next morning for the short ride to Hellfire Pass, and the trails where tracks once ran. The track was ripped out long ago, so that no one would profit from the misery of the men who laid it.
Steps lead down the mountainside to a trail that takes us to Konyu Cutting -- Hellfire Pass -- where, our brochure informs us, 'labourers worked punishing hours well into the night, the flickering bonfire light on the emaciated workers mimicking the fires of hell.'As we walk through the narrow pass, we can clearly see on the high stone walls the hammer marks and grooves where men sick with fevers and subsisting on starvation rations laid dynamite charges to forge the route to Burma.
Fresh from a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast at our comfortable hotel, we're painfully aware of the enormous gulf that separates those who visit the pass now from those who built it then, and we are humbled. Rounding a curve towards the end of the pass near the lone tree that marks the memorial, we meet an Australian serviceman who is placing several red poppy wreaths on the rock face. With a start, we remember today's date:November 11 -- Armistice. I am glad for the sunglasses hiding my sudden tears. Judging from the sounds of throat clearing and nose blowing around me, the others are similarly affected.
It's a somber group . . .
. . . that makes its way up the stairs overlooking the memorial, and another inland trail back to the small museum. Outside, there's a gathering of servicemen, veterans and various dignitaries who are preparing to walk to the Pass for the 11 a.m. memorial service. One tall,slim, ramrod-straight veteran,who gives his age as 93, says he has come from Perth, Australia. While others take in the museum exhibits, I walk through to the balcony overlooking the valley below.
It's hard to reconcile this peaceful scene with the horrors once visited upon it. This is one Remembrance Day we'll never forget. Thailand has tugged at my heart strings, and I know I will return for other Thai vacations. There's a lot more exploring to be done, from Phuket in the south to Chiang Mai in the north. And to keep my perspective, I'll definitely go back to Hellfire Pass.
A number of tour companies offer one-to-three day (or longer) River Kwai trips from Bangkok. Ask at your hotel. In my opinion, one day is simply not enough time. I took the three-day trip, and wished I had been able to stay longer. Several other guests changed their onward bookings so they could stay longer than they originally planned.