Friday, March 28, 2008

The Bridge Over the River Kwai and the Thakilen Train Ride

As I got near the bridge, I noticed a horde of tourists. People were walking on the bridge, crossing to the other side and back, just to get the feel of it. It has to be mentioned that this isn’t a safe area for letting children walk around, as they might fall off the bridge! This Death Railway stretches for 415 km all the way to the Burmese border. it’s notorious construction took the lives of some 100,000 soldiers who toiled hard under harsh conditions to finish its construction in 1 ½ years for what would normally take 5 years to complete.

It was a nice experience walking along “The Bridge” with the rest of the crowd. There were wide-open spaces which took my breath away (I have trouble with heights) but it was part of the thrill. Some monks dutifully posed as tourists flocked for photo opportunity. These guys are proverbial “superstars” and they seem to embrace this practice good-naturedly.

From the “Bridge”, we gathered back to the van. By this time, I’ve scanned through the DVDs sold at the nearby tiangge; the souvenir shops, etc. We were driven to a train station 30 minutes from the JEATH Museum. This was the Thakilen Station. We bought our tickets (50 baht) then waited as other tourists anxiously congregated at the platform. This was going to be fun, riding through the Death Railway. It will take an hour. We were instructed to be attentive and to go down at the 6th station of Namtok where we were going to have lunch. I positioned myself near the edge of the platform, hoping to get a good seat. I’d be lucky to get a seat. It's going to be a packed ride, with a mix of farangs and local commuters. There were students on the ride. The guide told us that the crown princesses took this train earlier this week. When the train arrived, I jumped in and took my seat beside a German couple. The Malaysian girl sat nearby. Several others were standing on the aisle. Occasionally, an ambulant vendor would pass by selling drinks and a yummy-looking doughnut. I finally gave in and bought two pieces. The mountainous route was peppered with rural scenery, bamboos and kamoteng kahoy jut out from the arid land. There was a river along the route, lined with quaint cottages.

When we finally got to Namtok, I got off the train. There were no platforms here. I hopped off the rails. Our van was waiting for us. We were taken to a restaurant for our 1 PM lunch, and as fun as it sounds, we ate in comfortable silence. We enjoyed three viands and a very sweet pineapple fruit. After our lunch, it was time to see more sights. The Spanish brothers were whisked off to go elephant riding (a very cheap 100 baht/ride) while the rest of us were taken to Sai Yok Noi Falls.

Restaurants along the Kwai Riverside.

Monks enjoying the spotlight. They were stopped, while crossing the bridge, by a group of tourists who wanted photos taken with them.

My austrian tourmates at the Thakilen station before purchasing our train tickets.

Thakilen station platform. Waiting for our train.

Thakilen station ticket counter.

Thai students on our train.

A riverside resort seen during our train ride.

Our train ride along the Death Railway.

When the local commuters went off at the 4th, 5th station, we had more space and better seats. Our austrian tourmate (right, middle, with eyeglasses)...

At the Nantok station, we got off the train. No platforms.

Our late lunch was here.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Kanchanaburi Grim - Visiting A Cemetery & a Death Museum

West of Bangkok, and a 3-hour drive headed via the eastern highway towards Ratchaburi is the central town of Kanchanaburi. With a population of barely 60,000, this stretched out town boasts of several sights that tourists flock to, the main one being the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai, popularized by an old American film. This bridge is linked to the famous World War 2 Death Railway to Burma. These days, tourists take on the riverside scenery in droves.

For this trip, here is the tour package itinerary, as published. Tourists will be pickep up from their guesthouses at 7 AM. From there, the van travels 3 hours to Kanchanaburi and head straight to its first stop, the Cemetery of the Allied Prisoners of the 2nd World War, then a visit to the War Museum, aka the JEATH Museum (an acronym: read further). At 10:30, we would take a walk to the Bridge Over The River Kwai. After that, they will take us to a train station. We shall take the train through these wood-based train tracks, experience the Death Railway first hand, which is allegedly the most dangerous curbing bridge in the world. The bridge itself is made of wooden logs along the mountain. At 1 PM, we shall have our Thai lunch. At 2 PM, we shall be taken to Sai Yok Noi, the other waterfall attraction in this area (the more majestic waterfall would be the Erawan Falls). It’s supposed to be our free time. We will be free to roam the area on our own. At 2:30 PM, we shall leave the waterfall for the Tiger Temple.

I paid 600 baht for the whole trip, which seems like such a bargain considering this includes a comfortable van taking us all around 5 places to visit, and this includes lunch. However, there are optional areas we have to pay extra. JEATH Museum is 40 baht; train ride is 50 baht, and then the “donation money” at the Tiger Temple is 300 baht. You may choose not to get inside these sights although you'd feel like a big loser if you don’t - you’re already there! And what else would you do while the rest of your van-mates traipse along? Wait in the van with the driver? Therefore, you need to shell out a minimum of 1,100 baht for the whole tour. Still a bargain though. And yeah, if you do plan to visit the Tiger Temple, you have to avoid wearing colorful, eye-catching shirts – FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY, for Pete’s sake! Why? Read on!

United Nations cast: 2 Austrian guys, a young Malaysian couple (he: a University student taking plant biology – err isn’t it easier to just call it “botany”?), 2 Spanish guys (who I later learned were brothers, one was a tall lanky 17 year old, and a bulky guy); a really touchy-feely German couple (I am sorry but these two seemed made for each other, both looking toothsome and ... errr “homely”). Now, the good thing about this group is that no one wanted to mingle. It's the most quiet tour I've had in years! LOL. I was conversing with the Malaysian guy, but after a while, we ran out of interesting things to discuss, and I got sleepy. I slept the last hour of the trip.

Upon reaching the Kanchanaburi Allied War Cemetery, we went our separate ways. We were instructed to meet at the van. The Kan Cemetery (free admission) is an idyllic sight to visit. This is the Thai people’s gift to the allied forces who died during the war. Some 7,000 soldiers, mostly British and Dutch, were buried here, and just reading through the inscriptions gave it a somber, albeit wistful atmosphere. From there, we were taken to a Museum, just straight up the Th. Saengchuto. This was the JEATH Museum. The acronym stands for the participating countries found in the horrific torture chambers: Japan, America, England, Australia, Thailand, Holland. Poorly maintained, we paid 40 baht for the materials used to torture the prisoners. There were mannequins depicting the manner in which the prisoners were violently killed by their Japanese tormentors. No one else bothered with the nearby Jewelry Museum. I took several minutes to digest the scenic river view of Kwai River. From a distance, I saw the infamous bridge. There were a few boats on the river. From there, we took a walk towards the Bridge over River Kwai, which is a hundred meter walk from the museum, passing through restaurants and tiangge. It was a nice area. Clean river, rustic bridge, and a well-maintained park by the river.

Entrace, Kanchanaburi Allied War Cemetery.

Exit, Allied War Cemetery, Kanchanaburi.

Thatched bamboo hut at the JEATH Museum.

Phra That Kwai Yai, JEATH Museum grounds.

Replica of some of the soldiers who were tortured to their death by the Japanese forces during World War 2.

River Kwai

The Bridge over the River Kwai, taken from the JEATH Museum.

Monday, March 24, 2008

5 Things Chiangmai is Famous For

A "yoga" house. Just adjacent to this, is a studio where we found an on-going yoga session. It took us 45 minutes just to locate this place.

There are 5 things that I eventually learned Chiangmai is famous for. These are the main reasons why people visit this enchanting, laidback city in the mountains of North Thailand.

1. Dental Work. Oh yes, Jose! Caucasians actually save up to have their dental work done here. Dental clinics are a ubiquitous sight all over the city. Local dentists are said to be very efficient - and very cheap as well. American girl Ana Lisa, whom Irene and I met on our first day in Chiangmai, revealed her intentions to have teeth "done" once she gets some stuff settled, whatever that meant. I told Irene why not invite Ana Lisa to walk with us. She whispered, "Coz i dont think it's a good idea. She seems scrimping and may have money problems."

2. Spas. Thailand is known for pampering their farangs anyway they can; for their spas and massages, well-being clinics and facials. In fact, just outside the mall - Kad Suan Kaew, located northwest of the city center, you would see multitudes of couches spread infront of the mall entrance, and farangs getting their massage right where people could see them. Parang Megamall na may nakahilerang mga massage couches sa. It was some sight!

3. Cooking Classes. Irene (my Malaysian Chinese friend who's based in London) told me that people come to Thailand to learn about Thai cooking. In fact, I've met 4 people during my whole stay there who has, in one way of another, set their sights on a cooking class. Ako lang yata ang 'di nakakaalam. (I'm the only one who doesn't know.) Haha. Caucasians specifically book one-day to one-week classes.

4. Yoga classes. During my walkathon with Irene, I've seen 3 yoga places full of Caucasians.

5. Gay Scene. From books I read, the gay scene in Chiangmai enjoys a relaxed and laidback atmosphere, just as long as you don't smooch torridly in public. Gay people aren't looked down either. The community is generally tolerant.

A lovely unnamed park I inadvertently discovered while looking for a yoga house. I saw a group of people dancing (aerobics?); several joggers, children playing, etc.

Wat Phra Singh - the city center's most visited temple.

Monks congregate during late afternoon before partaking on chants and prayers.

Lanna Oasis Spa. A high-end, ultra expensive spa where a massage costs B2,000. Back in Lamphu House (Soi Rambuttri), a body massage for 2 hours would only cost you B150-200. The Lanna is obviously for the well-heeled tourists.

This is the Eye in the Sky!