Kanchanaburi to Rayong Saturday 17 – Sunday 25 January 2009
We arrived at Kanchaburi just as dusk was falling. We managed to find a good camping spot about 8km out of town at a wat. This wat had the usual collection of motley hounds ..indeed even more than usual it seemed to be a bit of an animal sanctuary. They were good with the monks and got used to us but it was best to steer well clear of their territory!! The monks were as ever very welcoming though they were concerned that we not sleep with our feet pointing towards Buddha which would be a major no no. We positioned the car so that we were facing the other way …feet to the river ..and all was well!
Kanchaburi is fairly touristy. We are back near the big city now ..130km out of Bangkok and this riverside town is very popular with Bangkok weekenders who pack onto the karaoke disco boats and warble their way up and down the River Kwai. As it was Saturday night the hordes were arriving. We did hear the disco boats but thankfully quite far down the river ..the only trouble being they upset the dogs who howled up a storm! Eventually we got to sleep and thankfully it was only Saturday night which was bad.
Kanchaburi is the site of the Bridge over the River Kwai made famous by the 1950s movie. The bridge was essential for the Japanese to move troops and weapons through from/to Myanmar and was in a strategic position connecting Bangkok and Myanmar. The construction of the railway - of which the bridge was obviously only a small part- began in September 1942 and whilst the original estimate was that it would take 5 years the POWs were forced to complete it in 16 months.
The cost was high in human terms a life being lost for every sleeper (120,000 in total) laid. Whilst horrifyingly 16,000 POWs died (mainly English Australian Dutch - some Americans) the figures for the native labourers were far worse 90-100,000. These men either lured by the Japanese with false promises or simply kidnapped from Myanmar, Malaysia Indonesia and Thailand were treated even worse than the POWs given even less food and being civilians lacked the advantage of being an organized force.
The soldiers who gave so much now have a beautiful resting place where they are grouped in nationalities in the Kanchaburi Allied War Cemetery. Most of the soldiers were buried with tin boxes inscribed by their comrades so that after the war the huge job of matching names to bodies and reburying began. Sadly the identity of many was never known. No records were kept for the native workers so their families have no way of knowing where they perished.
You can now walk over the infamous bridge which was finally destroyed by bombs in 1945 and rebuilt after the war. Nearby is the Jeath war museum (an acronym representing Japan England Australia/American Thailand and Holland who met here at the war). This is a serious museum with sketches by and artifacts of POWs but since our Lonely Planet it seems to have merged with the nearby Art Galley and War Museum which is a bizarre collection put together by a Chinese family - portraits of whom dominate the upper storey. Ranging from Papier Mache models of Hitler and Churchill to Thai weapons to portraits of the various Miss Thailand's together with their clothes it is a pretty eclectic collection - a lot of it tat. The English captions are a bit disturbingly awful considering the subject matter. Thus on a depiction of what must have been a terrible scene where POWs were forced on to the bridge during an allied bombing in an unsuccessful attempt to stop this the caption reads" in the flash of an eye the prisoners fell down dead all higgledy piggeldy over the bridge." Oh dear!
We visited the famous hell fire pass 60 km out of town. This was so named by the Australians who build it as at night lit up by candlelight it looked like the entrance to hell. This was the largest of several cuttings made through solid rock. Accomplished with very minimal equipment - hammers picks and steel tap drills only- amazingly it was built in only 12 weeks but 70% of the POWs working on it died here. It is now the site of a museum in their honour which is very interesting. It was extremely humbling to see what these incredible men endured on our behalf. Weary Dunlops' ashes were scattered here on Anzac's day 1994.
After all this we were ready for a diversion and our next trip provided it. 45km out of town we visited the elaborately named Wat Pa Luangta Blu Yannasampanno Forest Monastery Tiger temple. A forest based monastery like all wats (as our camping experiences so far show!) they have a history of taking in waifs and strays. Due to the forest setting since it was founded in 1994 the monastery has taken in unwanted and injured animals from horses to wild boars to peacocks. In 1999 the first tiger cub arrived. She was rescued from a poacher after her mother was killed on the nearby Thai/Burma border. He planned to have her stuffed for a rich Bangkok man. Sadly she didn't survive but a few weeks later 2 healthy cubs rescued from poachers were brought to the monastery. As the brochure says the Abbott having no experience of tigers had to learn "on the job" which must have been a challenge!
Sensibly his first job was to build an enclosure so his new charges didn't eat the other animals! They have now build an incredible enclosure have more than 20 tigers and the centre runs as a business. The tigers are exercised- mainly in the water - in the mornings for 4,500 baht a head -(approx $ 200 Aus) you can watch this and get in the water to play with the young cubs. They are then fed - 4 kilos of meat each - and are ready for the tourist hordes who arrive from 12pm. This is their sleep time and they are well fed and dozy. Importantly as they have been handled a lot by the monks since being babies they have no fear of humans and are quite happy to be stroked. You take turns walking beside them down to the enclosure.
Once there for the initial fee of 500 baht (approx 20 Aus) you can have your photo taken with them. They are very placid and whilst there are rules - no running or shouting don't wear red or orange- they seem very calm. For a donation of 1000 bah (approx $40 Aus) you can have a picture taken with an adult tiger's head in your lap. More tempting for 1500 baht (approx $60 Aus) you get to hand feed the baby cubs. We stuck to the basic package and got some nice pictures. The prices were a little too high for us -(especially with our new shipping issues about which more later) - but it all went to build a new even more deluxe tiger enclosure so was a very good cause. Some people are critical of the wat saying the animals must be drugged but we have to say we didn't see any evidence of this. Whist obviously it would be better that they had remained in the wild as a 2nd alternative it is a good one and they seemed very content. This generation of tigers cannot be returned to the wild as they are too used to humans, but there is a plan in place so that he next generation will be rehomed in the wild. For us getting so close to these amazing animals was one of the highlights of the trip so far. You can make a donation or find out more about the temple at their site www.tigertemple.org
Kanchanaburi was a nice little town with a few good eating places. We had to catch up on our homework (aka the website) which quickly gets behind. We found 3 places particularly accommodating and based ourselves in them for a full day of updating. First for breakfast we went to Apple & Noi's restaurant. Really nice food see www.applenoi-kanchanaburi.com. For lunch we headed down the river to the appropriately named By De River restaurant with a really good WiFi connection. www.byderiver.com Finally for dinner we went Italian and had delicious homemade pasta at a great little Italian owned/run restaurant right next to the cemetery - Le 2 Torri - definitely recommended.
The next day we headed on to Phetchburi. The main reason was to hook up with Juliet and Jeff our Belgian overlander friends whom we had been keeping up with by email. We got down first to do a reccie and found a great little camp spot out on the coast at Hat Laem Luang - 15 kms out of town- first time back on the beach since South Cambodia. Phetchaburi is a pleasant little town with a few nice wats set on the river. We seemed to have missed the opening time of the attractive white wat - maybe catch it on the way back - but it was great to see Juliet and Jeff again and we talked for ages swapping traveller's stories.
We both camped out at the beach and had a big seafood dinner (fish/prawns and squid) which was lovely when it arrived though we had a few problems ordering! They plan to ship next to Indonesia whilst we are still trying to sort out our shipping to India. We are having big problems tracking down a 20 foot long high top container. Whilst there are plenty in Darwin they don't seem to have them in Asia. The choice is between a 20 foot open top (a bit risky security wise) and a 40 foot closed top ( obviously a lot more expensive!) The other alternative is to track down someone to share a 40 foot container with us and Juliet and Jeff provided us a few addresses that might help. There is a good network of overlanders who help each other as they go - though the majority are French speakers and as we don't speak French it isn't always easy to communicate. On the subject of overlanders we have to make a quick mention of an incredible English lady we met in Kanchaburi. Cathy and her partner are making a trip around the world by motorbike. She is blind and is raising money for seeing impaired related charities. What an amazing lady! Their site is www.worldtour.org.uk
So the next morning we waved a sad goodbye to the Belgians (and all the cute puppies we'd been feeding!) and headed back to the bright lights big city of Bangkok. We drove along the coast road to Ban Laem. This was really interesting as it is a major centre for salt farms and the "harvest" was in full swing. The fields are flooded with salt water which is then dried and flattened with rollers to produce rock salt which is divided up and then raked into piles. It is then placed in a shed to dry out before being bagged. We spoke to the owner of one farm and he told us in a 30 day cycle he gets 100 tonnes of salt -or 2,500 40 kilo bags- off one rai or 1/5th of an acre of land. Each sack sells for 100 baht so there's definitely money in salt but it looked very hard heavy work! They also produce a huge amount of dried fish and squid here and you can see it drying - and smell it! - everywhere.
We stopped to feed a couple of monkeys on the road as we had some old bananas and suddenly we were innundated by about 50 of them. We just got the window up before a few swung down from the roof and in..a bit scary!!
We had arranged to meet Margi in Bangkok where she had had minor eye surgery at the Bumrungrad hospital. Getting there was a major as we missed our turning and got a bit lost. We managed to talk our way out of a fine for being in the wrong lane which was pretty good (we just played so dumb that eventually the police man got fed up and waved us on!) and got there only an hour late. Andrew took the opportunity to have a blood test and thankfully he is all clear for malaria still.
It was great to see Margi again and it felt like coming home driving down to Rayong where we received an enthusiastic welcome from both Seefar and Dear! We got the maps out to show where we'd been in the 4 months since we left - quite a lot of distance covered and some great times!
So we are enjoying a couple of day's r & r at Margi's before our 15 days are once again up and we have to do a border dash down south to the Hat Lek/Koh Kong Thai /Cambodian border.