Notes From A Recent Trip To Thailand Part 3
I now realize my wife has made a concerted effort on this trip to please me by scheduling destinations more to me than herself. Although I appreciate her effort, I feel a little guilty when she announces our next destination: the bridge on the River Kwai. Many Thais know that foreign visitors flock to the place so I guess my wife thought I would be jumping for joy when she announced the plans. I wasn't but I pretended to be. Although The Bridge on the River Kwai is one my favorite movies, I am not dying to see the actual bridge. For me, it's really more about David Lean's talent for great epics than its subject of Thailand. Even though the movie used real Thai actors, it was actually filmed in Ceylon, probably for very practical reasons. Ceylon was newly independent from British rule, but it still had good relations with the UK and the British navy was even stationed there. Also, before the movie went into production in 1956, Phibun and the Army were running Thailand. Phibun was pro-west but with WWII still fresh in everyone's mind, I'm sure he was not excited about a movie that reminded the world Thailand was occupied by the Japanese. This is pure speculation on my part as I have not been able to find any information on why they chose Ceylon for filming. Maybe the appeal was easy access to British pubs after hard day's filming in the bush vs. being in the wilds of western Thailand. I really don't know.
The actual history about the bridge is a lot more clear. The film may be great viewing but its devotion to fact makes a Thai bar girl look pious. The worst offense is that the condition of the prisoners depicted in the film was in reality far worse. The Burma Railway, or the Death Railway as historians today know it, killed 16,000 of 60,000 Allied prisoners and Asian laborers lost half of 180,000. Conditions were considered appalling even during a time of brutal war. Also, the real British commander of the camp that built the bridge was not insane or collaborating as depicted so aptly by Alec Guinness as the fictional Col. Nickerson. The surviving prisoners who saw the film said the character of Col. Nickerson was a complete farce and an insult to the real commanding officer, LTC Philip Toosey. In fact, Pierre Boulle, who wrote the novel the film is based on and who himself was a prisoner of war in Thailand, admitted the fictional Colonel was based on a number of French collaborating officers he had known. British bias was certainly at play here by Mr. Lean, something Sir Alec loudly complained about during filming. The brutal Japanese camp commander in the film was in reality a rarity for Japanese camp commanders, as he was considered merciful and respectful by his prisoners. LTC Toosey even defended him at his war crimes trial after the war. Last but not least, the song most people associate with the movie, was whistled and not sung as the real lyrics were considered a little too rough for gentile audiences. The lyrics start with, "Hitler has only got one ball…" and they get worse (or better) after that. There are many more disconnects that make this film more fantasy than fact, but for those who still love to watch this movie, and I am included in this group, relax and enjoy the wonderful smiles of the Thai "women bearers".
This would only be my second train trip and it would be without air-conditioning. This particular train, which only runs on Sundays, is an all day excursion into western Thailand with several stops along the way, including the bridge. We left 30 minutes late at 7 AM from Bang Sue terminal in Bangkok. The train was pretty old, maybe 60's or 70's vintage, and the initial passengers were mostly Thai. The first stop was at the Pathom Chedi for 40 minutes and then at Kanachanaburi, we picked up a considerable number of farang passengers, mostly from Europe. The next stop is at the famous River Kwai bridge. Although it is now a full-blown tourist trap as only the Thais can do, the bridge is part of a venue that is truly scenic; meandering river, green hills, with a beautiful temple on the opposite bank. There were a couple of floating restaurants that looked worth trying, as well as a couple of river boat cruises. How ironic that a Japanese invasion that led to an influx of western prisoners, plus a lot of Hollywood spin, has produced a tourist site visited by many thousands of Japanese and western tourists each year. There is far too much to see and do here in the 25 minute stop we are allowed by the conductor. This place is definitely worth a half-day stop for a boat ride and lunch for those venturing into western Thailand.
From the River Kwai bridge, our train meandered further west into the mountains. Near the Tham Krasae station, which we did not stop at, the tracks were up against shear mountain walls and very steep slopes. At this place, more than at the Kwai bridge, I thought of the human toil and misery that went into the rock excavations that created this part of the railway. As we went higher into the mountains, the scenery was breathtaking as we looked down at a small camp along the river below. Now we were moving slowly and we continued at this speed until we reached our final destination. Nam Tok station is situated on steep forest hills. Nearby, are the popular Sai Yok Noi waterfalls. We arrived late and when we left the train, the conductor told us to return at 2 PM. This left us with an hour to enjoy the "swimming and eating" we were promised in the train program. Instead, we walked down to the tourist center by the highway and enjoyed a nice lunch. Afterwards, we walked through the forest where the falls are. It seems you can rent heavy blankets and sit and eat at various perches along the falls. Some of the children were having fun in the water. Again, it was a stop worth at least a half-day visitation but alas, 2 PM was drawing near.
We hurried back to where our train was and discovered an empty track. We saw the engineers nearby and asked where the train was. They laughed and said the train would not return until 2:40 PM. The sun was now at full radiance and even in the shade, it was stifling hot. We settled down on a bench under a large tree when I decided it was a good time for a beer. I walked across the highway into the 7 Eleven and brought a Singha to counter. The cashier frowned at me and said it was after 1 PM and they couldn't sell beer again until 5 PM. Oh well, I walked out of the store and remembered seeing someone walking out with beer around 1:30. I went back and told this to the cashier and she said no, she meant 2 PM. This double-talk was pissing me off and I stormed out of the store. I guess my wife had seen me and walked down to see what was happening. Still fuming, I told her the story. She told me to wait for her. She then walked into the restaurant we had eaten in earlier and emerged five minutes later with two beers in a bag. I asked how she had done this. She said, "Dave, sometimes in Thailand you have to find a different way." Truer words were never spoken about Thailand.
It turns out even the engineers were wrong, as it was closer to 3 PM before we started our journey back to Bangkok. The engineers must have had some incentive to be on-time as our train barreled down the mountain at what seemed like breakneck speed. The only place we slowed down was at the bridge as it was filled with tourists. We gained speed again on our way to our last stop before Bangkok. At Kanachanaburi, all the European tourists got off. We decided to take a brief look at one of three memorial cemeteries for the fallen prisoners of the Burma Railway. We only had 40 minutes so we raced through the streets to the cemetery, only to arrive five minutes after it closed. No matter, we got close enough to see that the Thais took their responsibilities to maintain the graves very seriously. As you can see, they are beautifully maintained.
We arrived back in Bangkok after 9 PM, almost two hours late and it was raining like hell. After we had scurried to the car and started driving back to the condo, I reflected on the day. I really enjoyed this trip as I had experienced a piece of Thailand rarely seen by Thai people. This part of their country as well as their history, holds little interest to modern Thai citizens. It is too rural and includes a part of Thai history they would rather forget; the occupation of Thailand by the Japanese during WWII. I do not know about today's textbooks, but my astute wife says they learned very little about WWII and Thailand's role in it when she went to school. Her boys are equally ignorant but then again, most of America's teenagers can't tell you the details of Watergate. When I told my wife the story about how Thailand declared war on America and Britain 14 days after Pearl Harbor, she stood in shock for a second. Yes, at one time Thailand was officially at war with the west. Some ex-pats might snidely say it is still going on. Anyway, the Americans, realizing the death grip Japan had on Thailand, quietly pocketed the declaration. In fact, even well educated Thais, like those who have studied overseas, I am sorry to report, seem to only know recent history. Most Thais are just not that interested in history. Although much harm is done by those who remember each petty slight between warring parties from hundreds of years ago, like in eastern Europe or the Middle East, it is equally as bad to forget how you came to be in the present. This constant relearning of history's lessons seem to keep Thailand in a perpetual "emerging third world country" status. I have little room to talk. America seems to be entering another "know nothing" period, the kind that led to the Great Depression and facilitated WWII. America's current weak leadership and corrupt politicians have more in common with Thailand and Uzbekistan than the America of my father's generation, who sacrificed so much for a better society. Just a short time ago, America was, as Ronald Reagan described it, "a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere."
For some reason my drinking habits have come into question by the Thai people I have been with. I don't think I drink too much, a few beers every day, and I have continued this routine while in Thailand. My Thai friends ask if I get headaches or cannot wake up in the morning. I tell them I get up at 5:30 AM everyday (even here) and run 5 miles before working. They seem amazed by this to the point of disbelief. I finally stumbled on a reason they could understand. I tell them I can drink beer and still lead a active life as my grandparents were from Germany. They nod their heads in understanding and move on to other subjects.
On a related note, one day my wife and her friend remark on the many mosquito bites I have on my legs. I jest that yes, I have enjoyed feeding the mosquitoes of Thailand for over a week now. That gets a big laugh. Later, I ask my wife if she has been bitten very much, as we have been to the same places and have dressed in similar exposed clothing. She shook her head no. In another witty retort, I remark that like the girls of Patpong, Thai mosquitoes prefer foreign blood. Only later do I find that recent research shows mosquitoes prefer the blood of those who have been drinking beer. No wonder I have so many welts, and no wonder bar girls have so many farang boyfriends.
Little did I know that I would soon be giving some bar girls a chance to suck a little of my blood.
Next in Part 4.
Good to hear you enjoyed Kanchanaburi. I went there once, back in the late '90s and wasn't impressed and have not been back.