Well I'm back in Bangkok once again following a nice, if at times infuriating 2 days in nearby Kanchanaburi. It was definitely a welcome respite from the noise, pollution, hassle and traffic of the capital, but there were a few pitfalls along the way which highlighted to me some of the issues of lone travel in Asia. I caught a taxi to the government bus station on Tuesday morning to catch the public bus 2 hours west to Kanchanaburi. Bangkok's transport system isn't very well integrated and the bus station was about 7-8 miles out of centre. Fortunately the metered taxi only cost me about 2 pound 50 to do that distance and the morning traffic was not that bad. The public bus was then the bargain price of 2 pounds! Its worth bearing in mind that Thailand, and in particular Bangkok, seems expensive to me after travels in the country's poorer neighbours, but I was happy with those prices. The locals use the government bus system and I've read in guides and online that these busses are far safer, quicker and cheaper than the tourist alternatives. The downside of that is that the bus station had absolutely no signs in English, but I asked the ticket person which platform my bus went from and she said 10. The numbers were about the only thing I could recognise so I had little trouble locating platform 10. I waited about 5 minutes before my bus came and then attempted to board it, only to be told by the attendant there that my bus left from the other platform 10 around the other side of the building! Quite why there were 2 platform 10s I don't know but I had to dash through the terminal and I only just made my bus. It wouldn't have been the end of the world if I missed it as they were pretty regular, but it highlighted to me that nothing is straightforward in the Thai transport system (even Chiang Mai's small railway station managed to be confusing in that it listed 4 platform numbers when there were clearly 3!).
The bus took dead on 2 hours to reach Kanchanaburi bus station and when I left the bus I was amazed to see next to no taxi or tuk-tuk touts looking for my business. The only person there was a cyclo driver who offered to ferry me to my hotel for a very reasonable price. It really made a nice change from the usual bus and train stations we use, where as soon as you leave the coach you have numerous touts in your face. Kanchanaburi town centre looked like any other Thai town, but my guest house was located in the backpacker part of town, which was the customary strip of massage parlours, hotels, restaurants and internet shops. I find it quite ironic when I meet "travellers" who always stay in this type of town, as no matter where you go in Asia all the backpacker areas look the same and are very westernised! And yet many of them have the cheek to deride me for going on group tours and claim I'm not getting a true experience!
Kanchanaburi is on the backpacker trail for one simple reason - its position close to the River Kwai, and in particular that bridge made very famous by a certain movie. I didn't pay the bridge a visit until my second day there, but I spent the first day visiting the town's main war cemetery and the very interesting Death Railway Museum. Contrary to the impression created by the film, the prisoners of war who built the Siam-Burma (Death) railway were not treated at all well by their Japanese captors. They were forced to work 18 hours per day in sky high temperatures and with next to no food rations. The pictures in the museum showed many prisoners looking like skeletons. If they ever relented from work though, for any reason, they would be beaten. Many thousands died during the railway's construction, hence the name Death Railway. The railway was intended to link resource rich Burma, which the Japanese had conquered, with Bangkok port. That way the Japanese could ship the Burmese resources back to Japan without having to go round the dangerous Malay Peninsula. The train line was a remarkable feat of engineering given the terrain it goes through, and the prisoners managed to build it in just over a year. The allies bombed the line (and bridge) from the air on numerous occassions, but there was never any action taken by prisoners on the ground. The story was a complete fabrication, and the writer even managed to get the name of the river wrong. The famed bridge did not cross the river Kwai (that ran parallel), but a different river. Amusingly, authorities have since renamed the river for the benefit of the tourists, so now the bridge does strictly cross the River Kwai!
After the museum and town cemetery I took another cyclo out of town to visit a Buddhist cave, and another second world war cemetery. It was 7km out of town and I had intended to catch a moto taxi, but a cyclo driver came along and pleaded with me to go with him. I had never seen anyone so desperate for money. I got him down to an acceptable price (less than half what he initially said) and we set off on our way out into the dry and hilly countryside surrounding the town. That was when things started to turn for the worse. The driver was basically a beggar, and he was in totally the wrong shape for the job he does. He talked endlessly about how he had 4 kids to feed and send to school, and how he has to work 7 days a week, 12 hours a day just to pay for them. He showed me his swollen knees and ankles, as well as the many sores on his body, and he was close to hyperventilating in the heat. He said that even though he was ageing (he was nearly 50 going on 70) he could not stop working as his family had no other income, and there was no other job he could do. The ride lasted about 2.5 hours, and he took me through the 800m cave system and waited for me at the cemetary. He seemed a nice enough man but his complaining never stopped and it was all to try and get more money out of me. In the end I had to relent, which I don't normally do, and I paid him close to what he originally asked, which was probably 3-4 times what I'd have paid for a moto taxi. It proved to be a very expensive afternoon but I consider that to be a charitable donation. Its hard to trust people here in Thailand but the people of Kanchanaburi seemed more genuine than those in Bangkok. I've no doubt he has 4 kids - he is old and they do breed like rabbits here - but I don't think he should have guilt tripped me so much - none of the other cyclo drivers have! At least he was very grateful to me in the end, and I saw him again today and he stopped for a brief chat to wish me well as I waited for my bus.
My room had no television and so I went to bed early that evening at about 9.30pm. I was disturbed though at about 10.15pm by a knock at my door. It was a woman at the travel agency I had booked a tour with for the following day. She explained to me that I was the only person who had booked to go on the Erawan Waterfalls/Hellfire Pass/Death Railway/Bridge on the River Kwai tour, and so they had to cancel it. She offered me a number of alternatives, but the other tour I really wanted to do, which substituted the Erawan Waterfalls for a less good waterfall, was fully booked. In the end I had to accept a partial refund and accept a tour that just did Erawan, Death Railway and the bridge, but I was not happy that they'd left it until so late to tell me. This is another pitfall of travelling alone - if I was with a group I could easily have got a couple of other people to go on that tour with me and then it would have run. As it was I had to miss out Hellfire Pass, which is one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing. Officially called Konyu Cutting, it is a really steep gorge made by the prisoners for the railway to run through. The Australian Government have a highly acclaimed musuem there, but at 82km from town I had no chance of visiting it unless on a tour. The Death Railway now terminates about 50km from Kanchanaburi. I had always wanted to see the place having played a mission on the Playstation game Medal of Honor which was set there!
My new tour started at 8am the next day, and I boarded the near full minibus to find that I was the only person not in a couple - another downside of lone travel! 4 of the 5 couples were French, but there was a young Geordie bloke with his immeasurably pretty Thai girlfriend who I was able to talk to. It was a one hour drive first to Erawan Falls, which is a 7 tier waterfall quite similar to those I saw in Laos. From the bottom tier to the top was a walk of nearly a mile, through thick jungle where there were monkeys playing about (sometimes with people's bags!). You could swim in the pools at most of the levels, and after I'd completed the walk I went back to picturesque level 3 for a dip. It was lovely fresh water and a lot warmer than the river in Laos, but the problem was it was full of fish! As soon as you stayed still hordes of little fish would come and bite your skin. Some people pay for that here in Bangkok, and they call it a fish massage. Its apparently meant to cleanse your skin, but to me it just felt horrible. I had to move constantly and I tired myself out very quickly. We had 4 hours at the falls (about 2 hours too long) and after 3 me and the geordie/Thai couple were back at the bus ready to go! Our ladyboy guide got us our included lunch early, but we had to wait around for a long time for the others.
Our next stop was for a ride on the Death Railway itself - and this was something nearly all tours included. The village where we boarded was awash with tourists and there were loads of market stalls set up to take advantage of us! I didn't buy anything but did enjoy briefly playing with a 1 year old boy who belonged to a really pretty girl on one of the stalls. She spoke no English but her friend did, explaining to me - "No papa no more. Papa gone Burma. Papa no come back. You be papa. Baby no papa." I felt really sorry for the girl and her kid, but they both looked really happy and although I didn't get a photo, I think her and her kid will be one of my most endearing memories of Thailand.
The railway station was situated right next to the wooden Wampo Viaduct - where another mission of Medal of Honor was set! You could walk out onto the unstable structure and I got some good photo's of the track arching round the cliffside, with a steep drop down to the River Kwai. The train was absolutely jam packed with tourists, but our he/she guide gave me a really good tip and said I should stand in the doorway and on the steps leading up to the carriage. They did not close the doors on the train! Initially, when we crossed the viaduct, it was pretty hair raising, but after we got onto the flat ground it was a lot of fun, and it felt like being on a half hour long rollercoaster. Health and safety would have had a fit in the UK!
We left the train about 30 minutes shy of the Bridge on the River Kwai, but the tour took us there for our final stop just as the sun was setting. The bridge was of course rebuilt after the war, but some of the original materials were used. It looks nothing like the structure in the film (which was actually shot in Sri Lanka), and is now situated on the edge of Kanchanaburi close to another tourist market. Every tourist in town seemed to be there at the same time as us, but I still enjoyed seeing it. You could walk out onto the bridge freely, but at one point we had to stick to the side platforms as a passing train from Bangkok went through. All in all the day tour wasn't so bad, though it would have been a lot, lot better if they'd have cut 2 hours of our time at the waterfalls and gone to Hellfire Pass.
Last night I had dinner alone again, which wasn't so bad as the bars in Kanchanburi all had books to read and they were quiet enough that you could get talking to the staff. I got chatting with a old bloke from Morecambe who hadn't been back to the UK in 23 years! He was a lot nicer to talk to than some of the idiot backpacker types you get. I also read in the paper about how Bangkok is on security level 3 after a massive bomb was found near the supreme court, and a grenade was set off near the parliamaent. A court rules on February 26th over whether former Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra gets his seized assets back, and tension is mounting over that. It was his supporters that rioted in the city last year, causing tanks to be deployed - something which happens if the security level is raised to 4. I'm just glad I'm escaping Bangkok before the 26th!
Finally, on last stress to blog about. Instead of taking the public bus back today, I decided to book one of the tour agencies private minibusses back to Bangkok as it worked out cheaper. They were meant to collect me at 10.30am from my hotel, but never turned up! I walked down to the agency (a different one to the one I booked the tour with) and they told me the driver had forgot! I had to wait nearly an hour and a half for the next bus!
Despite the tour agents being less useful than a group of monkeys, I still had a nice time in quiet Kanchanaburi. Just one more day in Bangkok now before I head down to Phuket on Saturday (Indian visa permitting). I'll update from there.