Song of the day – My Girls by Animal Collective
The early bird does not catch the worm. The early bird catches the overcrowded 8am public bus from Kanchanaburi. Then, face pressed against the glass, the early bird watches as all of the ultra-modern, air-conditoned tourbuses race past you on the motorway as your bus trundles along at 30km on the hard shoulder. Question: “How many people can you get on a rickety old Thai bus?” Answer: “I don’t know, I couldn’t count because I had somebody’s arse in my face.”
No matter – It cost us the eqivalent of a quid each, instead of twenty odd quid each for an unnecesary tour. We arrived at Erawan National Park at about half nine and after unfolding ourselves from the contorted positions we had occupied on the journey, we set off into the woods. The park is a huge expanse of forested slopes – I’m not sure if it technically counts as jungle but the flora and fauna that occupy it suggest that it is. Those amazing creepers we noticed yeterday are here in force, dangling over the path whilst thickets of bamboo line either side of it. Tree branches seem to grow in consciously weird shapes, as if they’re all competing to be the most photogenic plant lining the route. After a steady climb we came to the first of the seven waterfalls that make up the Erawan Falls. They’re not particularly large or powerful, rather it’s the natural beauty of the place that pulls in the tourists. We were pleasantly surprised at how thinly-spread the crowds were, probably because we arrived relatively early in spite of the slow journey.
Not wanting to stand on ceremony, we chucked ouselves into the first pool that we found. It was stunning – a crisp, cool pool in this shangri-la of a setting. There were thousands of friendly fish who began to nibble, and then chomp on our toes. It’s supposed to be good for getting rid of dead skin and you can pay through the nose to have this done in most upmarket shopping centres around the world – or you can have it done for free at Erawan. It’s a peculiar, tickly sensation, especially because you can’t see what creatures are nibbling at your feet and you have to take it on good faith that it’s fish that are nipping at your toes and not some giant mutant crab from the deep. The Buddhist in me was frightened to tread on any of the fish feasting on the soles of my feet as I waded out to deeper waters.
We swam around for about an hour, enjoying the novelty of being able to swim under and behind the waterfall. We sat and watched from behind it’s cascades as little Thai kids enjoyed the game of floating under it in their rubber rings and capsizing under the force of the water. We then walked a couple of miles up the hill to see some of the other waterfalls. I was dissapointed not to spot any of the monkeys that had been promised by numerous signs instructing us not to feed them – but I’m sure by the end of this trip we’ll have seen our fair share of these mischievous ne’er do wells.
We returned nice and early to get the bus on the way back and were rewarded with a seat by the window. How the bloke managed to get the bus up some of the steep hills out of the park with fifty-odd people on board I will never know. I was listening to him grind through the gears as we attacked the hill and when he got down to first I started wondering where he was going to go from there – we could easily have got out and walked at some points.
Upon returning to Kanchanaburi we got a “songthaew” (basically a pick-up truck with a cage on the back that toursits sit in) to the bridge on the river Kwai. I’ll tell you something funny about the bridge – well, two things actually. The first is that you should never ever pronounce it “Kwy” in front of a Thai. That pronunciation of the word means “buffalo” and is an extremely offensive word in the Thai language, so you’re likely to get a slap for your troubles. The word is pronounced “Kware” as in square, if you want to avoid upsetting people. The second fact is that the “Kwai” river has only been named the Kwai since after the film came out. Apparently Pierre Boule – the bloke that wrote the book – had never been to the area where he based his book, looked at a map, and assumed that the legendary bridge was on the river Kwai. Little did he know that the bridge actually ran over a completely different river. In the sixties the ever-accomodating Thais decided to rename the whole river the Kwai, because they got fed up of explaining to millions of tourists that the place they were asking to go to wasn’t actually called what they thought it was.
It’s a very strange thing when something so beautiful has been wrought from such pain and suffering. The Bridge over the Kwai is part of a long stretch of railroad called the Siam-Burma railway, that was built by POWS and slave labourers on the orders of the Japanese army in World War Two. It was built to bring Japanese troops and ammunition to the front line where they were fighting the allies in Burma. Over 100,000 people died during it’s construction. This statistic in itself is shocking enough, but you only need to stand in the scorching heat for five minutes, staring at the huge concrete and steel construction which spans a considerable length of water, to appreciate how horrendous it must have been. Malnutrition, heat exhaustion and terrible cruelty were responsible for this human tragedy, and vast graveyards scattered around the town are filled with the souls who perished here. Like I said, people of many nations died here, but it hit me hard to think of the lads from British towns and cities. Conscripted into the army, expected to fight an invisible foe in the jungle, and just when they thought the war was over for them they were provided with a fate far worse than fighting – far worse even than death. Perhaps it’s because Hollie and me have made the journey here for such contrasting reasons, but I can’t help thinking that for these men and boys it must have felt like such a long, long way from home.
We crossed the bridge on foot, walking along the tracks with the crowds. A little Thai girl was playing a badly tuned guitar and singing sweetly in front of a cardboard box with “For education” on it. I was really tempted to take her picture and give her a few baht but we’ve read about how often a parent or even “exploiter” will get kids to go and look cute for some money, then take it all off them for motives that don’t relate at all to the child’s wellbeing. Across the far side of the river there was a huge Chinese temple occupying a large section of the bank. The bright colours and intricacy of the various statues outside drew us in, and we spent a good half hour walking around the grounds in amazement.
The birds in the trees, trickling from various water features and general vibe of the place was incredibly harmonious. It was clearly Chinese-influenced in design and much of the wall hangings were written in Chinese rather than Thai. Inside the temple itself a huge statue of a laughing Buddha shed golden tears of joy in front of three scrawnier, more pensive buddhas, who clearly hadn’t achieved enlightenment yet. It was curious to note how fresh and new everything looked, and the sound of builders at work and sight of scaffolding confirmed that this temple was still a work in progress. It puzzled me that such massive investment had gone into a temple – I certainly couldn’t imagine a new church being built in Britain to the same grandiose specifications – it must have cost a bomb.
Then as we walked round a corner we saw a large marble wall with the portraits of various smartly-dressed Chinese men and women mounted on it. Alongside this was a list of names, each with a different numerical value next to them. At first we assumed it was some kind of memorial to the dead, but on closer inspection the photographs were very modern-looking and the numbers next to the names were not dates. The values next to each name got higher from right to left, and then it struck me what this must be – an honours board for people who had donated money to this recently-built temple. The biggest donor had invested something like 14 million, and there must have been a few hundred names on the wall, with the last few each having “10,000” next to their name. Now, I don’t mean to be cynical – I’m fascinated by Buddhism and feel that it’s an incredibly wholesome religion – but surely the whole basis of Buddhist teaching is to do with letting go of attachments to the material world! If I’m correct and that’s what this whole thing was about, it seems a pity – especially having spent so much time, energy and money on having built something for the good of your fellow man.
Tonight we ate in the same Thai restaurant as last night. It turns out that the restaurant is called “Rung Rueng” and what we had last night was the special of the same name. Hollie loved it so much that she had the same thing but I opted for a traditional Thai green curry, which didn’t dissapoint. Everything I bit into tasted like it had just been picked from the allotment. Washed down with the obligatory Chang, we toasted the best day on the trip so far and the fact that we’re beginning to get into the travelling zone. Tomorrow we will leave Kanchanaburi with a heavy heart but safe in the knowledge that Ayyuthaya is going to be just as incredible.
Have a good day, whatever you’re up to, and thanks for reading!