Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, Bridge On The River Kwai, Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball…
Wanting to make the most of a day here in Kanchanaburi (or getting lazy?), I booked a leisure day tour to hit a variety of sights in the area. My air-conditioned mini-van brought me to Sai Yok National Park, a 500 square-km park that includes the Sai Yok Noi waterfall (60 kms outside of Kanchanaburi) and the Hin Dat Hot Springs (60 km more past the waterfall), lunch, the Hellfire Pass site and memorial museum and the Krasae Cave & wooden viaduct to catch a train along the Death Railway. The tour concluded at the Bridge of the River Kwai.
The Sai Yok Noi waterfall was a gratuitous tour stop. The falls are very much no competition for Kanchanaburi’s immensely popular 7-tiered Erawan waterfall (tomorrow’s stop as I return to independent travel). Too shallow for adult swim, the falls were flooded with Thai children. Lacking a nature path to explore, the falls were a quick photo stop. But also, like all of the day’s stops, funding the local vendors is a key part of the itinerary. I etched my initials in a bamboo tree because I am that bad ass.
The Konyu cutting, aka Hellfire Pass, is a 4 km span of construction of the Death Railway. Where a mountain once stood whole, force laborers under Japanese control chipped away under fierce conditions. Nicknamed Hellfire Pass because of the flickering shadows upon the mountain walls of the laborers’ emaciated bodies working against the evening campfire, the eerie names of both the railway and the pass gained new meaning with a visit to the site and memorial museum. Below is the actual pass, now a 4 km trail (although construction is underway for a more extensive memorial next to it). Looking at the walls of the mountain, a drill head still embedded within one the rock, was unsettling.
The Australian curators of the museum have put together a thorough display of lives of P.O.W.s and romusha forced to actualize the Japanese scheme. Romusha refers to the Southeast Asians recruited as laborers as the construction of the railway from Thailand to Burma could not be accomplished solely with the P.O.W.s. The project was a huge undertaking. The Japanese promised these men a good wage and safe working conditions but they were underfed, beaten and subject to diseases like cholera and dysentery from unsanitary living conditions.
The 60,000 P.O.W.s, mostly from Britain and Australia (but also Dutch, Indonesian and American, as well), were transported to either Thailand or Burma. In tiny steel rice trucks bound for Thailand from Singapore, P.O.W.s endured a harrowing five day journey. For those to be working in Burma, a train to a boat without food or sanitary conditions. Once they arrived they were to set up camp and begin their work immediately.
One of my favorite panels I read in the museum was the one that detailed the discrete sabotage the workers employed as they were in the horrific disposition of aiding their enemy in the construction of the railway. Risking death, these subtle acts of courage were tremendous. White ant and termite nests were placed in wood piles to lessen the life of the wood. Stronger timber was substituted with a weaker Kapok tree’s wood. Those responsible for pile driving holes randomly did so in loose earth so as to weaken the infrastructure. A local merchant from Kanchanaburi also helped the workers’ plight by smuggling supplies to the famished men.
The museum contained a quick timeline that summed up the WWII with invasions and pivotal Allied defeats. Looking at the sequence of invasions is truly scary. This was not so long ago. As veterans who served in WWII begin to pass away it is important to remember. If you’re interested, Wiki has a extensive timeline that is only slightly daunting.
After the museum, the tour group was nice and quiet and shaken. We headed to lunch at a local restaurant and had the opportunity to feed ginormaus big-lipped fish in the pond. This made us all feel silly and giddy.
Next on the tour itinerary was the Hin Dat hot springs. I looked forward to the hot springs for many reasons, foremost being the condition of my skin. The sunburn I sustained at Hat Karon, Phuket has since blistered and is 80% peeled. But because of my daily travelings with a backpack, many blisters, the body’s natural and perfect dressing, were torn prematurely. To say my skin is irritated is an understatement.. As my arms and legs are healing they are trapped under long sleeves and long pants, as they’re close to unsightly. But the moisture (read: sweat) produced from this climate irritates my wounds further. Summary, my skin is a sherbet swirl of red, brown and, hmmm, cream. I bought this tine of prickly heat which I am hoping has a who-told-you-to-put-the-balm-on effect. Anyway, I also thought that this hot spring would help my skin. Hair of the dog that bit me: hot, hot, hot. (Too Much Information)
The hot springs consisted of 2 springs, both with water temperature between 95 and 104 degrees F. I’d never been to a natural hot spring but had a vary clear image of what I hoped it’d be like. A tranquil, serene opportunity to bathe within the forest in a mineral-rich natural spring of immense heat. Silly me, I expected privacy, cleanliness and a lack of services. Wrong. Wrong. And Wrong. I eventually faced the music and joined the crowd. The result was invigorating and a good therapy for my sorry limbs.
Lastly (I won’t event mention the cave.) was the ride on the death railway route. Silly tourist fodder. The train went 4 stops and was filled with tourists taking pictures out the window. Of what? Who knows. For some extra baht one could have rode the train to the Bridge (over the River Kwai) but the rest of us were then dropped off at the shops, I mean, the Bridge.