“Madness!…. Madness!!” says a distressed Major Clipton, the British medical officer, gritting his teeth, looking at the scene of carnage in front of him. The Bridge on the River Kwai, the movie that I watched over 3 decades ago, remains one of the most unforgettable movies for me. Although I understood it only in parts at that time, I couldn’t forget some scenes – the upbeat melody that the British prisoners of war whistle when they arrive at the Japanese prison camp, the stubbornness of the Japanese and British officers (Saito and Colonel Nicholson), the conversations between two British officers (Colonel Nicholson and Major Clipton) and their conflicting feelings on completion of the bridge, and of course, the last scene where the bridge is blown up. For some reason, I even remembered the expressionless man sitting outside Saito’s office, mechanically pulling a rope to keep the “fan” inside Saito’s office flapping! The plot, although based on some real events, was fictional and the movie was shot in Sri Lanka instead of Thailand. But it was the bridge made famous by this movie that made me want to visit Kanchanaburi.
The peaceful, laid-back Kanchanaburi town is located to the west of Thailand, not too far away from bustling Bangkok. It seems like a pretty regular town, except that it has many intriguing stories to tell… stories of suffering and survival, of construction and destruction, of acts of brutality and kindness, of hopelessness and hope – the town has witnessed it all and more during World War II. Little wonder then that books have been written and movies have been made to tell those tales and make Kanchanaburi compelling enough to visit.
Getting to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok isn’t too difficult. Buses/Minivans leave from the Mo Chit terminal in Bangkok and take about 3-3.5 hours to reach to the Kanchanaburi bus terminal. There are trains from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi too and they take about the same amount of time. I’d booked a ticket online way in advance from the 12Go Asia site (which cost me about 150 THB) for an early morning bus. About 3.5 hours of journey from the Mo Chit terminal in Bangkok, I was in Kanchanaburi, a little too early for my check-in at the guesthouse. So, I offloaded my bags at the guesthouse and went out in search of food.
My first unpleasant experience as a solo traveler
It was almost 1:00 p.m. I walked in the secluded streets lined by old houses and a few eating joints, which had too few or no options for a vegetarian. I stopped at a small eating joint at a corner, where a man – probably owner – answered in affirmative when I asked him whether they served vegetarian food. The place had 5-6 tables randomly laid out. One of those was occupied by the man and a younger woman. In the adjoining kitchen, an older woman was cooking something. They looked like a family. I took a seat by a vacant table, checked the menu and from among the limited vegetarian options, asked for papaya salad.
While I waited for food, the man started a casual conversation while having his drink. He struggled to put together English words and form sentences/questions. The initial questions were pretty generic and I answered politely. The questions and comments started getting weirder after the initial few minutes. A little annoyed, I wondered whether it made sense to continue to wait for the food or get out, but before I could make up my mind, the woman in the kitchen came out with a bowl of papaya salad, sticky rice, and raw cabbage (yes, raw cabbage with sticky rice!). I decided to ignore the man and his questions/comments and finish my food.
The man perhaps did not like being ignored. He took out his phone from his pocket, made a video call to someone. Pointing the phone-camera at me, he asked me to say “hello” to the man on the other side. Trying to be polite yet stern, I asked him to disconnect the call and behave. He laughed – the man was completely drunk by now and he speech incoherent. I looked at the women hoping they’d intervene. Neither of them uttered a word. In a minute, another local guy walked in. My face must’ve indicated my state of mind because he possibly sensed my discomfort and confusion. He looked at me and asked, “Are you alright?” Unsure of how to answer that question, I just looked at him and then at the owner. The new entrant spoke something with the owner in Thai and then said to me, “You go. This man is crazy.” That was just the confirmation I needed. I left the half-eaten food, made the payment, and left the place. When the man called out just as I left the place, I rushed out and kept walking without looking back until I could see or hear the man no longer.
I was in tears, not because I was scared, but because I was just SO angry and… hungry! I decided to return to the guesthouse and check into the room and take some rest. On my way back, I stopped by the river… A few moments of solitude looking at the lazily flowing river proved to be calming. I spent some time there and then returned to the guestroom… still hungry, but no longer angry.
A visit to the bridge on the River Kwai
Years ago, during World War II, the Japanese military invaded Thailand (then called Siam) and decided to build a railway bridge connecting Thailand to Burma as part of their plans to conquer Burma (which, at that time, was a British colony). They brought thousands of allied prisoners of war and Asian slave laborers to Thailand to build a railway bridge on the River Kwai. The hardships and torture that the prisoners had to suffer resulted in thousands of deaths. The bridge on the River Kwai and the “Death Railway” are the poignant reminders of those lost lives.
|Apparently, the death railway ran parallel to the river Kwai and never crossed it. The bridge was built on the river Mae Khlong. But after the bridge was made famous by the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai and tourists started flocking the place to see the bridge, the problem was that “the bridge on the river Kwai” didn’t really exist. To address the problem, Thais changed the name of section of the river Mae Khlong to Kwai Yai or Kwai for short and the river Kwai was renamed to Kwai Noi! Well… what’s in a name!|
On my first evening in Kanchanaburi, I decided to visit the bridge. After I’d walked a bit, when a driver of a typical Thai sidecar offered to take me to the destination for 60 THB, I decided it was a good deal. On reaching the bridge, the driver of the vehicle said he’d wait there and drop me back to the guesthouse and that I could pay him 120 THB and I agreed. He went to park his vehicle somewhere nearby and I walked towards the bridge.
Surrounded by cafes, shops, and stalls, the place around the bridge was quite busy. The other side of the bridge had lesser crowds and more greenery. The tall statue of Guan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, and a totem pole decorated with colorful dragons in the nearby Kuang-Im chapel (Chinese-style Buddhist temple) complex towered above the river, with the twilight sky glowing in the background. A tourist train (Death Railway train ride – considered a “must-do” activity by many) soon arrived and honked incessantly disrupting the peace I’d experienced moments ago and caused the few people standing in its way to scatter around. The train took its own sweet time to cross the bridge (perhaps at a speed of less than 20 kmph!) and finally disappear. I idled around until the twilight sky turned a few shades darker before finally leaving the place.
I walked to the place where (I thought) the Thai sidecar driver had dropped me. I searched for him in vain. From a nearby information center, a man and a woman dressed in uniform approached and asked me if I was looking for someone. They talked to a nearby stall owner and suggested that I shouldn’t wait for the driver and said that the stall owner would drop me safely to the guesthouse. The man dropped me to the guesthouse and refused to accept any money. But long after I’d left the place, I kept wondering if I was searching for the sidecar driver at the wrong place… whether he was waiting so he could drop me back and earn 120 THB for the return trip. It felt terrible to return without giving him at least 60 THB that I owed to him for dropping me at the place. If only I could give him his money…
A few days after visiting this place, I watched another movie – The Railway Man. This one, unlike The Bridge on the River Kwai, is the true story of the unlikely friendship between a British prisoner of war, Eric Lomax, and his Japanese tormenter, Nagashe Takasi. I’d rather remember the bridge on the River Kwai for the way it’s been shown at the end of this movie – the place where Eric Lomax forgave Nagase Takashi… the place that brought 2 supposed enemies together and turned their enmity into a friendship that lasted until they died… “Remembering is not enough if it simply hardens hate. Sometime the hating has to stop“.
A visit to Erawan Waterfalls National Park
Have you swum with fish or had your feet nibbled by them? The nature-lover in me was astonished by the beauty that the Erawan Waterfalls National Park has to offer. An hour of a bus ride away from Kanchanaburi, the place is absolutely gorgeous enough to deserve a post of its own.
A tuk-tuk ride around the town
On the last day in Kanchanaburi, the bus to Bangkok was a little late in the noon. The guesthouse owner booked a tuk-tuk for me for a 3-hour ride around the place for an amount of 500 THB. She gave a wrist-band as a parting gift. She also made sure that I’d have to take lesser efforts to reach back to my destination by sharing some tips. The lady had seemed a little too stern on the day I’d arrived. But she’d proven to be incredibly sweet and very helping.
The tuk-tuk driver took me to see the 100-years-old giant monkey-pod tree, which is considered to be the pride of the Kanchanaburi people. A little away from the main Kanchanaburi city, the tree is growing naturally and beautifully and is being cared for by the Veterinary and Agriculture Division. When I visited the place, there was absolutely nothing around – just the tree and its shade. I remember spending a few peaceful moments in the shade of the tree. There were just 2-3 other people around besides some stalls selling coconut water. They’ve apparently developed a garden around the tree and while that’s good for the tourists, I wonder if it’s really that good for the 100-year-old tree.
Not too far away from the giant monkey-pod tree is are two Thai temples called Wat Tham Sua and Wat Tham Khao Noi. That’s where the tuk-tuk driver took me next. Perched on a steep hill, the Wat Tham Sua temple can be reached by a cable car (costs 10TBH). Wat Tham Khao Noi takes climbing more stairs to reach the top. I only had enough time to visit the Wat Tham Sua temple. Surrounded by paddy fields, the temple complex offered some beautiful views. After walking around in the temple complex a bit, I went back down and took the tuk-tuk ride back to the bus station and finally bid adieu to the beautiful town of Kanchanaburi.