Friday, June 10, 2005

war heroes of all kinds

I have been having a lovely couple of days in Kanchanaburi - the town with the infamous "Bridge over the River Kwai". During WWII, British, Dutch, Australian, and American POWs, along with over 100,000 Asians, were conscripted by the Japanese to create a railway between Thailand and Burma for transporting supplies. Thousands and thousands died under the hands of the Japanese, and Kanchanaburi is the sight of two cemetaries for the POWs, the bridge itself, and a base for visiting Hellfire Pass and riding the Death Railway, all of which I did yesterday.

Hellfire Pass was so called because of the light of the torches and burning dynamite used to blast the rock to create a gorge for the railway to pass through. To visit the sight is eerie and strange. It is no longer an active railway (the Thais dismantled it, not out of respect for those who perished building it, or as a symbol of the end of the way, but because it wasn't economically viable to run a line to Burma, and because they wanted to keep the Burmese out), but the original woodent tracks are there for you to walk along as you go through the pass. It is maybe 10 metres high and 3 metres wide, and about 30 to 50 metres long, and this was simply blasted by men who were starved to death, working skeletons. The pictures and museum were pretty harrowing. A worthwhile trip for anyone interested in WW2 history, especially since the Allied effort in Asia isn't as widely recognised and known about as the European experience.

During the Siam period of Thailand, elephants were used in battle. Well, I'm imagining those battles were pretty slow, with lots of pauses whilst the elephants stopped to tear down some shrubbery, or decided they couldn't be bothered to move. After the trip to Hellfire Pass, we went elephant trekking, which, to be honest, the ethical traveller inside me couldn't decided whether this was morally wrong of me. The trekking was at a Karen village. The Karen are one of the many hilltribes in Thailand, and their village looked pretty poor and washed out. It certainly wasn't a tourist hotspot, despite the enticement of riding an elephant. The elephants themselves were chained by one leg to a pretty pathetic stump of a tree, so if they had wanted to make an escape, they could have surely run for it. Although I'm not sure if these elephants had a gear for running - they were the slowest moving beasts I have ever come across. Even with my limp, I walk faster than them. I know that speediness is not one if their strong points, but these were war animals! I had read all these interesting things in Ayutthaya about the corralling of the elephants being the most exciting event of the year. I'm beginning to doubt that now.

The seat on the elephant was made of bamboo, and was neither comfortable, nor particularly safe. I spent large quantities of my ride hanging on so that I wouldn't fall on the elephant's head (going downhill) or off its ass (going uphill). My guide also had the bright red mouth of a man high from chewing some sort of natural drug in these parts. I can't remember the name, but it is like a naturally occuring form of speed. That would explain his incoherent muttering the entire time. Like I said, elephants are slow moving, and they also sort of lollop along - not a smooth ride. And most of the time is spent not going anywhere as the elephant spies another bit of greenery to tear down and munch. An interesting experience, but not one I am dying to repeat.

Something I did love however, was bamboo rafting. This is not a high octane experience, but incredibly relaxing and fun. The rafts are made of huge sticks of bamboo, and are about 2 to 3 metres long, and about a metre wide. They are held together with string, and steered by a guy standing with a big bamboo stick - a bit like a gondola. We travelled downstream through the pouring rain, which added to the whole jungle experience. Incredibly fun.

The last stop on our trip was the train ride home along the Death Railway. Part of the railway that was built during the Second World War is still in use, although the original tracks and bridges have been relaid. The train was most definitely the third class option, with wide, wooden seats. Nothing wrong with that, and it was clean, and therefore perfectly acceptable. It was packed with hordes of school kids getting home, and so there were no seats available. I have a theory that if you are allowed to something, then it is probably safe. I am aware that I really ought to revise this theory whist travelling in Asia, but before I did, I had one of the best train rides ever, because I was able to spend a good part of it hanging out of the side of the train, holding onto two bars, like they do in old movies. It was particularly fun looking down whilst going over high bridges. A great experience, and no mum, I won't do it again.


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