My chocka-block weekend in Kanchanaburi was the week before last now, but this it the first chance I've had to actually sit down (in an internet cafe with huge squishy first class style aeroplane seats AND 60p smoothies!) and write about it. The last ten days or so have been pretty hectic as am covering lots of extra classes for an absent teacher; I do have a job to do in between my weekendly jaunts don't forget!
So my weekend in Kanchanaburi was pretty last mintue. In fact, it only all came together on the Friday morning when me and some teachers I know in another province got ourselves in gear. Accordingly, I rushed home like a crazy lady in my lunch break to pack and straight after school got the van to Bangkok, where I then got another to Kanchanaburi, although got a wee bit lost trying to find it among the 50 odd vans that cluster around Victory Monument.
It's a three and a half hour bus ride to Kanchanaburi but the vans claim to take an hour less and only charge about 30b (60p or so) more than the bus. A minivan may well sound like you're travelling in more style and comfort than those who brave the government bus, but these are not normal minivans as you and I know. They are squeeze-fourteen-people-in-a-space-meant-for-eight-people minivans, so I was squidged at the end of a four person seat in the row behind the driver, legs up in a contorted position as my bag was stuffed in the 12inch gap in front of me for, not two and half, but pushing three and a half hours. Liars! Well, to be fair, it took a good hour to get clear of the city at the peak rush hour, although every hour seems like rush hour in Bangkok. So, when the Blue Star Guest House I'd booked into asked if I'd be arriving before 9pm, when they shut up shop, I wasn't all that hopeful... given that it was nearly 7.30pm and we were stationary in Bangkok's suburbs. Aside from the cramped conditions, my on-the-road dinner consisting of raisin bread and coconut-coated peanuts, and the sleeping head of the woman next to me, who was practically on my lap, lolling onto my shoulder every time we went round a bend, I was also sat behind an old Thai dude who picked his nose THE ENTIRE JOURNEY. It's not an activity frowned upon here as at home, but seriously, someone give the guy a tissue!!
Arrived in Kanchanaburi around 9.30... in the middle of nowhere, and had to search for a sangthaew to take me to the GH. Found one already full of Thai's staying literally round the corner to me. He charged them 20b and tried to get away with 80b for me, blimmin cheek! I argued, using my now good grasp of Thai numbers, and managed to get down to 40b. The very friendly boss of the GH had waited up for me and led me down a windy wooded path to a gorgeous bamboo tall house, on stilts on the river Kwai. The 'en suite' was actually down the stairs from my balcony (oh yes, balcony, all for 4 quid a night!) so involved a careful walk down a set of steep wooden stairs, in towel, in the dark.
In spite of the idyllic surroundings I actually had a rather abysmal nights sleep that Friday night. I think I must have just grown accustomed to always being around noise, be it the chattering children I hear eight hours every day or the traffic I hear eight hours every night, so I couldn't sleep amid all the sounds of nature. I'm not exaggerating when I say there was about a gazillion bull frogs in the rushes around the huts and they were doing some kind of rendition of Beethoven's longest symphony, accompanied by cicadas, on repeat, all night. I woke up every hour or so praying it was nearly a decent hour to get up. Eventually it got to around 7ish and I gave up trying to get back to sleep so got myself ready to get started with the long list of things I wanted to do.
The girls weren't arriving until later that afternoon so I scheduled my cultural fix for first thing, after all, you can't go to a place as steeped in poignant history as Kanchanaburi, with its infamous bridge over the River Kwai, and not spend the time learning more about it. Starving after my make-shift 7-11 dinner I decided to go Thai and have a rice and chicken breakfast before absorbing myself in history, priorities must. Think the lady who ran the stall I ate at liked the fact I was speaking Thai and kept bringing me little extras like soup and coconut wafers, not together though, that would taste weird. I also watched her prepare the most elaborate meal for the 'spirits'... it's Buddhist tradition to feed, water, and pray to the spirits in a small house in front of your home/place of work to stop them entering your premises and causing havoc.
Obviously went back to the Bridge, although I'd been before, and watched the Eastern Oriental Express roll across its tracks with the people who'd been walking along it darting out the way. Decided to go to the WW2 museum, although to be honest there wasn't much WW2 about it... it was a very OTT-decorated building which housed random collections of old coins, jewellery, clothes, the odd gun, an exhibition of all the Miss Thailand's of the last century (side note: found out the other day that my 'host mum's' cousin was Miss Thailand last year, claim to fame), and lots of articles belonging to the Thai family who funded the building of the museum. Basically I think they just built it so they had a second home to store all their junk. There was a small area in the basement which had a reconstruction of the bombing of the Bridge, along with a description which had been written by someone with clearly an understanding of English drawn from children's books as it included phrases such as 'they became aware by instinct that they were at death's door' and 'the bodies lay higgeldy-piggeldy'. Also in the basement were two giant carved stones which, before I got up close, I thought might have meaningful quotes about the loss of lives of POWs, but upon closer inspection realised one said 'have you bought your loved ones souvenirs yet', and the other said 'make yourselves comfortable' (umm, in a war museum?) After that shambles of a 'museum' I went to the Allied War Cemetary and Thailand-Burma Railway Museum, both of which were highly emotive and made me feel a lot more aware of what happened in what is now quite a tourist hub.
After a morning of mixed feelings I lightened the mood of my itinerary a bit and went off to the Tiger Temple. It's a temple an hour or so out of town where orphan tigers are raised by monks. I was reassured that they were very tame and there'd only been one 'incident' in the last decade, and that the victim had survived, how reassuring. Naturally it's a massive tourist trap and you don't get much for the extortionate 500b entry fee (ok it's only a tenner, but on Thai wages this is a pretty hefty expenditure!) You're literally led to the canyon where the tigers are taken for a few hours every day and then taken by the hand by a member of staff from one to the other whilst another takes your camera and snaps away. Unfortunately I didn't have a very skilled photographer and ended up with lots of mini-videos instead of photos, typically they would have been the best photos as well. After that we had a chance to see some cubs (not teeny ones though, which I was a bit disappointed about). In spite of the massive tourist element, it was a truly incredible and unforgettable experience. After all, it's not every day you get to sit and stroke a fully grown tiger!
By the time I got back the girls had arrived and we made two important decisions. Firstly, that they'd both share my room as the rest of the GH was fully-booked, and secondly, where to eat. We chose a little semi-open air Thai restaurant, quite a walk away from the main tourist section and I think they were quite surprised to see us as we were greeted and then heard shouts of 'menu ferang menu ferang!' We ordered a whole deep-fried fish with a mango relish, glass noodles with mushrooms and peanuts, and spicy salad with omelette. It was all delicious, and a pinch at around 100b each. Had an even worse nights sleep that night... there were the cicadas and the frogs, which had most definately multiplied since night before, and now there were three in a bed and I ended up on the end, pillowless and blanketless, and fricking freezing because the very creaky fan was on. Ah well, I'm sure I'll have much worse experiences on my travels, at least there were no cockroaches in our room.
The next day we set off early on the local bus to Erawan National Park. One of the monks who we shared part of the journey with gave us each a Buddha-imprinted stone, I seem to have made quite a good impression on monks lately, this one restrained from soaking me with a water blessing though. Once again our trusty teachers work permits served us well and we paid 40b entry instead of 'tourist' entry of 400b. Erawan's famous for it's beautiful seven-tiered waterfall, which we hiked, climbed, and clambered all the way to the top of. I don't know how the Thai people we came across on the way were managing it in flimsy flip flops that's for sure. Once at the very top we went for a dip in the gorgeous blue pool. It was a bit more of a speedy dip than I'd have liked but the fish kept nibbling at our feet.
The way back down was interesting, mainly owing to the fact we didn't want to put our shorts back on over wet bikini bottoms, so went down half-dressed, much to the amusement of everyone who crossed our path. We were back at the bottom, with dry bottoms, just in time for lunch. Once we were full of sticky rice and som tam we realised we were also just in time for the 2pm bus back to town, which worked out perfectly. Or, it would have, had it shown up. We ended up hanging around until the last bus came two hours later. In the meantime I'd spoken to some Thai's on a VIP bus who said they were going via Saraburi. Damn leaving my bag at the GH!
Had an epic journey home, this time squidged in a corner at the back of the minibus on a seat so high up that my head actually was on the ceiling. Back in BKK I was dropped off on the opposite side of the city to Victory and so couldn't make it back for the last van home. Instead it took two taxi's and a very long skytrain journey to get to the Northern bus station. Once there I had a kerfuffle getting on the Saraburi bus, which I then proceeded to stand sardine-ified for an hour. Clocking onto five hours of journeying I was pretty knackered but terrified of falling asleep in case I missed my stop. Ended up getting in sometime after 11pm and decided to motorbike home from the station, completing my list of different modes of transport for the night.
In spite of the mega travelling involved to get to and fro, my weekend was ab-fab and full of a very eclectic mix of activities: history, tigers, waterfalls.