26 February, Kanchanaburi
After just one night in Bangkok, we took a very long tuk tuk ride to Thonburi Station in Northern Bangkok. Luckily, we had left ourselves plenty of time, because our tuk tuk driver got terribly lost. We had agreed on 180 bt for the trip but, as the driver was almost in tears, we relented and paid him the full 200 bt he had requested. A whole 80c extra. Big-hearted us!
Kanchanaburi was a major staging point on the Thai-Burma railway constructed by the Japanese in 1943. An estimated 100,000 men died constructing this line - around 90,000 conscripted workers from South-east Asia and 12,800 Allied POWs from Britain, Australia, the Netherlands as well as a small number of Americans.
We treated ourselves to an air-conditioned taxi for the 80 km trip to Hellfire Pass. At about $50 AUD, it was a good deal, as a local share taxi was about $40.
The Hellfire Pass Memorial was constructed by the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs. The memorial features a small museum, opened ANZAC Day 1998, as well as 7 kms of the line that included the cutting now known as Hellfire Pass. Remnants of the railway and its construction can still be seen - decaying sleepers, some track, dog spikes and drill holes cut by the POWs and Asian workers, using only hammers and hand drills. The work must have been tortuous enough in the south-east Asian heat and humidity, especially during the monsoon season. Add in the inhumane treatment dished out by the Japanese and Korean guards and it is easy to see how the name “Hellfire” Pass fits, even though it was coined because the eerie glow from kerosene lamps on the faces of the emaciated POWs, working to create the cutting, reminded observers of Dante’s “Inferno.”
Work on the Thai-Burma Railway began from both ends in October 1942. The Japanese were desperate to complete the line so they could move equipment into Burma to confront the British in India. The American, British and Australian navies had mined the main sea lane through the Straits of Malacca, blocking access to the Indian Ocean. From April 1943, the Japanese engineers, themselves under pressure from the Japanese government, increased pressure on the workers, in a period known as “Speedo”. It was during this time that the work on Konyu cutting (Hellfire Pass) was undertaken.
Disease and exhaustion were responsible for the more than 100,000 deaths on the project. Around 20% of the POWs died. The death rate among the Asian workers was closer to 50%, as they had no medical care and their living conditions were far worse than those endured by the POWs. We were interested to note that the well-known politician, Tom Uren, was a survivor of the Burma Railway.
To return to Kanchanaburi, we got our driver to drop us off at Nam Tok so we could ride the train over the famous Bridge over the River Kwai. We got off the train at River Kwai Bridge station and walked back across the bridge. The area is very touristy and, sadly, it is about all some people see of the area.
27 February, Kanchanaburi Railway Station
We are returning to Bangkok today after a morning spent at the Burma Railway Museum and the Allied War Cemetery. As is the case all over the world, the graves of the thousands of POWs who died on the railway are immaculately maintained, set among flowering tropical shrubs and manicured lawns. About 100 kms of the line we have travelled over the past couple of days were built by the POWs.
28 February, Bangkok
Arrived late last night from Kanchanaburi. Our train was late leaving and the terminus station, Thonburi, in North Bangkok, is a long tuk tuk and Metro ride from our hotel. After a few beers and a very late dinner, it was close to midnight before we got to bed. Consequently, we were a little slow out of the blocks this morning.
We were in Bangkok a few days ago, but just overnight, so we didn't do much other than familiarise ourselves with the transport system. Today we applied that skill to getting about, using the BTS and the rather complex river ferry system. Without too many dramas, we got ourselves to the riverside Wat Pho. Yes another Wat, but this is Asia and that's just “Wat” you do.
Lord (and Buddha) know just how many temples we have seen in Asia, but this is just a whopper - well-maintained and in spectacular condition for a complex, parts of which are more than 600 years old. Some days ago we wrote about a comment made by a cleaner in our hotel in Chiang Mai. "Many Chinese”, he said with a roll of his eyes. He was right! Everywhere we went today was crowded with thousands upon thousands of Chinese tourists - pushing, yelling at the tops of their voices and poking us in the head with their sun umbrellas. The crowds today were at least on a par with any we have experienced in China. Towards the end of our visit to Dusit Palace Park later in the day, we just gave up as the lines of selfie-stick waving, umbrella-poking, ill-mannered Chinese tourists extended as far as we could see outside the Palace Throne Hall. Apparently, Chinese tourists have no interest in the history of the management of the Royal Elephants, because this small museum on the same site was almost empty. Only marginally interesting, but very peaceful.
Bangkok city has been a real eye-opener for us. Broad boulevards, beautiful parks and open spaces, modern skyscrapers and, at least at the moment, relatively clean air. On the train coming and going over the past few days, we have seen enormous infrastructure projects. Freeways, railway works and maintenance and improvements are going on everywhere. Down at street level, there is plenty of “old Asia” left to see, but in 10 years, Bangkok will be as western as Tokyo. A bit sad in some ways, but indicative of the rapid change that is taking place throughout Asia.
We learnt a valuable lesson about getting about the city today. We have generally used tuk tuks in cities and towns throughout Asia, thinking that they are the way locals get about, so they will be cheap. Increasingly, this is not the case. Locals in cities and large towns tend to use share taxis or local buses. The tuk tuk is becoming somewhat of a tourist thing to do. We grabbed a normal taxi today and had an air-conditioned 4.5km trip for 65 bt, about $2.50 AUD. We have been paying at least twice that for the joy of sitting on lumpy seats, risking our lives on the back of beat-up old tuk tuks to do the same distance.
Just one more day in Thailand. We will probably just hang about and see what we see.
So what do we think of Thailand?
Thailand was obviously not on the top of our must-see list of Asian countries. We have visited some of its neighbours several times. To be honest, one of us had to be cajoled into making this trip. To us, Thailand was a place that old men went for holidays with young Thai girls - a place for “sex tourism”. There is no doubt this still goes on in Thailand, we have seen plenty of it on our travels, but this is a very unfair view of the country. Most Thai people we have met have been extremely polite, friendly and helpful. The blame for the sex tourism mantra should more fairly be settled on the western men who exploit poorer Thai women. Even this judgment needs to be qualified. We are sure there are many normal relationships between Thai women and western men. We have seen many younger mixed race couples with children who, we are sure, live normal lives in Thailand, but the exploitation is still there. It is just too obvious to ignore.
Stepping off our moral high horse, there is a lot to like about Thailand. It is going places. Industry is jumping here. Many of the cars imported into Australia are manufactured here. The middle class is growing rapidly and rural poverty is declining. There seem to be some political issues, but we don't know much about those and we don't see much evidence of discontent among the people we meet. All in all, we have had great experiences in Thailand and we have been amazed at the rapid development of the country and we have been captivated by the people. Just smile or make a joke with a Thai and you will always get a positive response.
Thailand is taking us close to the end of our “to see” list for Asia. We started with a visit to Vietnam in 2007. To date, we have travelled in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Mongolia and Japan. Some of these we have visited more than once. We plan to visit Japan for the fifth time later this year. We may get to Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan sometime in the future, but India, Pakistan and the Philippines are not in our plans at the moment.
So it is fairly obvious that we are big fans of travelling in Asia. From the treeless plains of Mongolia to the steaming jungles of Laos and the just as steamy cities, Asia is simply exciting, not always easy, sometimes challenging, but it just gets you in.
It is hard to remember what we actually thought Asia was like 10 years down the track, teaming with people, poor, dirty, culturally different and possibly dangerous? Very little of this has proven to be true. Asia is not teaming with people, in fact most countries are far less crowded than European countries. Some of Asia is poor, but many of those living in poverty have the possibility of an improved lifestyle as Asia continues to grow and develop. In many parts of Asia living standards are as high as or higher than Europe or the USA. Asia is changing so quickly that we are staggered by the changes when we revisit places like Vietnam after a gap of a few years. We know Asia much better now than we did 10 years ago. We enjoy it. We will continue to travel and learn about our nearest neighbours. Most telling is the fact that we are no longer phased by motor scooters, loaded with whole families and their weekly shopping, hurtling towards us on the footpath.
1 March, Kuala Lumpur
Now masters of the Thai railway and subway systems, we took the MRT from our hotel this morning to the outer suburb of Bang Sue where we took the ‘heavy rail’ for the last 20kms to Don Mueng Airport. This last leg on board a less than luxurious 3rd class train cost us 3 bt each, about 11 cents. The total journey of nearly 40 kms cost 43 bt each, $1.60.