Kanchanaburi was probably one of our top stops on this trip. Full of emotion, from extreme sorrow to comforting peace, visiting bridges, giant trees, waterfalls, and amazing Wats, we were grateful to have spent three days exploring this area.
We left Kao Yai early in the morning, catching a lift from our guides to the bus station in Pak Chong. We then hopped on a three hour bus to Bangkok. The ride was uneventful, but once we got to Bangkok the traffic was so horrendous that the bus hardly moved an inch for over an hour.
When we finally arrived at the bus station in Bangkok, we weren’t keen on getting into another hot, crowded bus to sit in traffic for hours again. Instead, we approached one of the cabs/drivers outside the bus station and bargained with him for a $60 air-conditioned three hour car ride to Kanchanaburi.
Once we were checked into our hotel in Kanchanaburi, we went out to walk around the backpacker area by our hotel. Essentially this area is a long street that follows the winding river, lined with restaurants, boutique hotels, and bars manned by lady-boys. It was fairly quiet and benign now, but would come alive at night.
Kanchanaburi is infamous for being the location of the Bridge Over the River Kwai. Immortalized in the famous movie and novel, it was a part of the infamous Death Railway to Burma, constructed by POWs working for the Japanese in hellish conditions during World War II. Some 16,000 POWs and 90,000 Asian workers (most of them enslaved) died during the railway construction.
Pretty much all the sights in Kanchanaburi itself are directly related to World War II. Under recommendation, we first visited the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, which gives a good introduction of the Death Railway and its history. The museum is well curated, with lots of information regarding World War II in Thailand, railway construction and route, and the conditions endured by POW’s and Asian labourers. There are various exhibits with video and interactive displays which are very moving, but also hard to see. The fee, about $4 US, includes a free coffee or tea at the cafe upstairs, where we sat by the window reflecting on what we just saw in the centre and contemplating the atrocities of war while overlooking the 7000 POW grave stones in the poignant Kanchanaburi War Cemetery across the street.
We left the museum and sombrely walked back back along the road, past our hotel and toward the bridge. We approached the solemn bridge site (a new bridge, not the original), its steel angled beams looming over the wide river. We heard the sound of laughing visitors, laughter that seemed to trivialize the austerity of the site and what happened here. I wish the museum was closer to the bridge, so that it could prepare visitors with a history of what went on here before they traversed the bridge itself.
On the way back to our hotel, we stopped in to some of the shops in the outdoor market, and I bought some hand-made bracelets, not because I needed any more bracelets, but because I liked to support the women making them. We decided to rent some motos to see some of the sites outside of the town.
When you ride further south of the tourist/backpacker area, you reach a ‘locals’ area that is extremely crowded. You have to be very alert riding this area!
We headed north out of town on a one hour moto ride to Erawan Falls. Riding a moto/scooter on these roads is not for the faint of heart. You can ride somewhat on the shoulder (remembering that traffic drives on the opposite side of the road in Thailand) but the road is narrow and cars, trucks and gigantic tour buses WILL pass you by within inches of your bike, and inches of your life.
On the way we stopped for a fill up of wonderful leaded gas (no, not wonderful!) The gas stations are a little primitive. ha!
The Erawan Falls are pure, seemingly untouched beauty. They are composed of seven tiers that you can climb to, all of which are picturesque shaded forest areas and great for swimming. It is a shaded jungle oasis straight out of a Disney movie or picture book.
They close access above the 4th tier after 3pm, so we went straight up to the top tier right away – a good hike, not too hard but hot – and took off our shoes to go in and swim in the crystal clear blue water. In the water are giant fish that nibble on your toes! They don’t hurt you and are looking for a meal of dead skin cells, but the feeling can be disconcerting and it tickles. You also need to remember to guard or lock up your belongings to a tree, since there are monkeys around which will be happy to steal your bags looking for food.
As we started back on the road on our bikes, it began to rain. Within a few minutes it was a torrential monsoon downpour! John offered me his Seahawk’s poncho, but I refused, so he wore it. As we rode along, at one point it got so bad that we couldn’t even see, so we pulled over off the road and into a little shack, which was a side-of-the-road store/restaurant of sorts. We tried to order food, but the woman apparently didn’t have any (or didn’t understand us) so we bought two sodas and sat for a half hour waiting for the rain to slow as it pounded on the corrugated roof overhead, pooling off into rivers of rain at the corners.
We eventually ventured back on the road and made it back to our hotel where we showered and dressed in dry clothes and ventured out for dinner and after-dinner drinks at a local Rasta bar. Yes, a rasta bar in Thailand, complete with Bob Marley-esque band. It was an entertaining night!
The next day we rode our motos south and across the river in search of a giant tree I had read about. On the way we stopped in at this cemetery, mainly to stop for a water break. We got off the bikes and headed in to take a look. We walked among the rows of immaculately tended grave markers, feeling morose yet peaceful at the same time. It really drove home the incredible loss of life that these graves represented. The Thai people keep the grounds and graves so well tended and clean, planting flowers and ornamentals among the markers, making it feel like some reconciliation was being made for what went on in this area.
Inside was not a registry, but a small plastic report cover with four papers inside of it. The first paper was a photo of a soldier, looking somewhat gaunt and leaning against a wall of sandbags, cigarette in hand. On top of the picture was handwritten, “Francis Davies”.
Next was a letter from the UK War Office, notifying a parent that their son, F.W. Davies, was buried in this cemetery, Changkai Military Cemetery.
Next was a two page letter written to his soldier’s father from the POW’s captain, notifying this father of the death of his son from dysentery in the POW camp, and the circumstances of his burial in the cemetery.
At that point I broke.
I started to weep. Everything I had seen up to this point just boiled over in my heart. The atrocities at the Cambodian Killing Fields and Genocide museum; the many deformed, burned, and poverty-stricken people we saw in Cambodia; the children forced to work; the toddlers in the dirt with no shoes or toys; the young girls enslaved to pedophiles; the animals and elephants, abused and misused; the pollution and squalor near the factories; the stories of the horrific treatment of the POW’s here. It all was just too much for my heart, this package I found just broke the last straw in my mind, it was the last turn of the key in the lock that flung open the door to my heart, releasing a river of sadness and overflowing tears.
I read the rest of the letter through blurry tear-filled eyes, careful not to let my tears fall on the papers. I actually sobbed when I read this part, where this soldier’s kind commander took time to describe his burial to his loved ones, the laying to rest of their beloved son that they would never get to attend:
He was buried one cool September evening in the beautiful and peaceful cemetery at Changkai. There were four others that were laid to rest at the same time, and small crosses now stand near their graves. At the end of the service the bugler sounded The Last Post and Reveille and the large crowd of mourners came away leaving yet another five of their comrades at peace and at rest from their labours.
At that point John came around the corner, I could see he was wiping tears from his eyes. I started to tell him what I had found, and read part of it out to him, but my words kept catching in my throat. We just sat there in silence for awhile, tears falling.
I guess Francis Davies’ relative left this folder here, as a reminder to those who visited, as a way to personalize the heinous atrocities here and make them real, instead of just something that happened to someone else we didn’t know. I was glad they had left it.
We left the cemetery, our tears drying in the wind as we went in search of the giant tree, not knowing the intense peace we were about to find there, the balance that the universe was about to award us for our sorrow.
We went through some beautiful countryside, passing through a military instalment. We stopped to ask a man in a guard shack there for “big tree” and he motioned us to continue on up the road. Soon we spotted the tree, as it really can’t be missed.
The tree is gigantic and amazing. It is like no other tree you have ever seen! We sucked in our breath as we dismounted our bikes. In awed silence we walked under the webbed canopy of branches and immediately felt shrunken and small next to this imposing mammoth of a tree. We looked up through the criss-crossing of twisted branches in wonder, the soft sound of the light wind rustling its leaves, birds singing, and the faint sound of children’s laughter, and the sadness of our last stop was swept from us. I could physically feel a blanket of peace wash over me as I marvelled at the intrinsic artfulness of nature.
We walked under and sat on a colossal tree root. We were not alone; a small group of children were playing amongst the hanging tree branches. As we sat and chatted, two girls came close and were examing my tattoos. When I looked back at them and smiled and winked, they giggled and ran away.
We didn’t stay as long as I would have liked, as we had another stop to make and wanted to make sure to be back to our hotel before dark. I could have stayed there all day with a book and a pen. This enormous tree and the peace it offered us was a moment we needed; it left a dent in my heart, and I knew one day I would return to sit underneath it again.
We drove our bikes back past the cemetery, and on for another 20 minutes or so to a temple called Wat Ban Tham. This is the most interesting Wat (temple) we had seen yet. It is a cave that holds the buddha and other worshipped statues, but to access the cave you have to climb a mountain of steep stairs that begin by going through the mouth and body of a dragon!
You can then climb another series of stairs up to two viewpoints, looking over the River Kwai and all of the Kanchanaburi district.
It was a beautiful Wat, with many flowers and plants.
I had the hugest laughing fit in the parking lot as we were leaving. John unknowingly put his helmet on upside down! I could barely tell him what was wrong as I was laughing so hard. He let me take a photo before he removed it. It sure felt good to laugh!
The next day we were leaving Kanchanaburi, but we had some time in the morning to go visit one more Wat on our motos.
This Wat also had an underground cave. you descend steep stairs and then self-guide yourself through the caves and tunnels that contain many Buddha statues and representations. It is a bit unnerving in there, I was about at the end of my rope for caves!
Can you see John at the end of the tunnel?
We then returned our motos and checked out of our hotel. Our hotel called a tuk tuk for us, and the driver not only took us to the bus station, but came and helped us figure out which bus to board. We were off on yet another magical no-A/C two hour bus ride to Ratchaburi where we would be catching the overnight train to the beaches in the south.
We reached the train station with a four hours to spare. We saw a little outdoor cart set up selling food with tables, and almost every table was full. We walked back to it and ordered two dinners, two cokes, and two beers without knowing at all what dinner we were going to get. Turns out we got a well seasoned and GIANT bbq chicken breast with noodles, salad, and bread. All of that cost us $4 USD! We tipped the young girl another $5 USD and she looked PLENTY surprised and happy at that.
We walked back to the train station, feeding a couple of dogs our leftover chicken. We then sat in the terminal counting geckos and reading the hilarious sign translations:
We met two young men at the station who were travelling for a few months after just finishing college in Massachusetts. We chatted with them for awhile, but they were not able to get a spot on our train so had a few more hours to wait past us. We left them with one of our decks of playing cards to keep them busy (the ones with the Team Canada hockey logo, hah!)
As our train approached, a man came to find us to tell us to come and get ready to board the train. We made our way to our private compartment.
The toilets on the train were lovely. Luckily I didn’t drink much before boarding!
We soon were rocked to bed like babies in a crib, and would wake up in the morning in Suran Thani.