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Friday, June 22

Thailand Travels: Day Three

Yep, so maybe I didn’t have as much time as I thought I would these past weeks to catch up with you all. It seems odd to go back and tell you about the rest of the trip now when it did happen several weeks ago. But for the sake of continuity, I just can’t NOT tell you.

Day three of our trip started with another lovely and satisfying buffet breakfast at the fabulous Lebua. Our tour guide picked us up at 7:00 a.m. We had no idea what to expect but the jam packed van was definitely not on the original list. At that hour in the morning, there ain’t no sunshine around me so we pretty much just squished ourselves into the seats and settled in for a long trip out of the city. Once we hit the highway, the driver cranked the speed up into the 90s and began careening in and out of traffic. There were multiple times that I had to re-swallow breakfast as we drove. Was that too much information? Anyway, the guide began a long discourse of which we couldn’t hear much since he was way up in the front of the van and we were way in the back of it. We amused ourselves by counting pictures of the king that flashed by the window.

Knowing my love for history, Kimono Hubby had chosen this day trip for us. Our first stop was at the JEATH War Museum in town called Kanchanaburi. The museum is a recreation of the wooden and thatch prisoner’s huts that the Japanese erected during World War II. Along the walls were pictures of the varying horrors of WWII including many that showed the Death Railway and the Bridge on the River Kwai. For those of you who haven’t heard about this except for a late showing of the old movie on TNT, here is a little history lesson:

During World War II, Japan came to control much of French Indochina (the nations now known as Myanmar (then Burma), Thailand, Cambodia and Laos). In their quest to control the riches of the region, the Japanese inflicted untold horrors on the people in this region. In Thailand, the River Kwai presented the Japanese with an obstacle. The Japanese wanted to move men and supplies deeper into the region but had to cross this river to do so. They began to build this railway and the bridge that would move them through the jungle and they used forced labor from the locals and Allied prisoners of war to do so. Of the prisoners of war, there were British, American, Australian, Dutch as well as other that worked and often died because of the horrific conditions they suffered through. I won’t go into the details but just know that the Germans were not the only regimes causing mass suffering during this war. About 160,000 died but the count can never be confirmed because the Japanese did little with regards to recording who came and went from their camps. The efforts of these men created what today is called the Death Railway (because of the massive losses) which stretches through Thailand and Myanmar. The Bridge on the River Kwai was heavily bombed by American pilots. After the war, the bridge was rebuilt and moved further down the river so that local Thais could continue to today using it as an important mode of transportation.

So that is the history lesson. And why we felt it important to go and see. The museum is small but an important place to remember what happened on the other side of the world during the war. Some of the pictures honestly broke my heart to see. But the sadness wasn’t to stop there! The van next drove us down the road to the War Cemetery where those that lost their lives in those camps were buried. It was a place of quiet, solitude and supreme honor. I never once spoke above a whisper. For all of the suffering those men endured, I would not be the one to destroy what peace they might have now. The cemetery used to hold all of the nationalities, but as our nation commits itself to the no soldier is left behind policy, the Americans who once rested there have all returned home to find an eternal resting place on American soil.

Filled with melancholy and contemplation, we boarded the van, this time to see the bridge itself. Here the atmosphere was much lighter. The area was crowded with people and a market to draw in those tourist dollars. While I’m sure some know what the bridge means, I don’t think that everyone understood that same magnitude. Not that I was bothered by the fact that they turned history into a tourist trap. We surely are the royalty of such exploits back home. There is one keen difference… at home, we would have stood and looked at the bridge from afar. In Thailand, like so many places in the Far East, you can just march yourself right out across the bridge that doesn’t seem to have been updated in the last fifty years. There was no walkway, just the wooden boards in-between the rails. The bridge was crowded so often you had to straddle a railway clinging to what you could to let a crowd pass. In my excellent footwear choice that morning, black flip-flops with little bows on them from Ann Taylor Loft, I almost slipped twice which would have found me taking a swim in the muddy river below. Both times KH with his able and strong hands caught me before I went down. Of course, each time there ensued a lecture about such silly hoof coverings. Also striking about the area is that the side we began our crossing from was filled with action… a covered market, restaurants, local homes. On the other side, a market essentially constructed from crude pieces of wood and wire. An elephant casually roamed around between the stands looking for a rider who would maybe feed him a banana. It seems if you live on the one side of the river, things are going pretty well for you. If you live on the other, well… As we were coming back to the first side, we noticed an approaching train. After several blinks to make sure it wasn’t the heat playing tricks on us, we realized that the train was headed right for us. Not fast or anything, but enough to make us get a move on and find a packed overlook to squeeze ourselves on to just before the train rolled by. It was so close, we could touch the train and the people in it without even stretching out at arms length.

Our day of historic travelling was not done yet. The next stop was for us to be on that train! We were to travel on the very train that so very many died putting into it operation. We were to take the very train past the cliffs where even more had seen during the last of their days. I can’t tell you how excited I was. But first I had to go. Really bad. Sprinting towards the ladies room, I could not believe what I found. Perhaps if you read about the bathrooms in Japan way back when I wrote about them, this will not surprise you. But it sure surprised me. The toilet was in its own stall but it was about a foot off the ground. No seat so I assumed it was something you stood over but I just couldn’t figure out how. In Japan, I have mastered the Japanese toilet and actually will choose it over the Western toilet any day now. I like the little hood that protects from splashes. It’s honestly just like when we went in the woods during childhood camping trips. Here in Thailand, I was completely perplexed. I seriously stood over that toilet trying several different options. In the end, I did it wrong AND I hurt my legs from the strain of how I was holding myself up and yet down at the same time. I was barely able to stand back up after I went and then could only manage a wobbly walk back to the train depot. I only found out I did it wrong when someone was later discussing it on the bus. Here you are supposed to stand on the edge of the toilet and squat down. The only thing with that, there isn’t much room to not go on yourself, or so I thought. Thankfully, it was my first and last Thai toilet. And enough about bathroom procedures already! Really this enter is a bit too TMI, even for my tastes.

On the crowded train, there was only standing room. Like I said, the railway is a current and important mode of transportation for the Thais. They got there first, and they got the seats. Thankfully they couldn’t care less about the scene outside the windows as we travelled through the jungle and past the precarious cliffs that followed the river path. They encouraged you to lean over them and snap away at what was outside the window. They’re not dumb… they know how to make us happy and subsequently bring in those tourist dollars! KH was quite helpful and tried to determine the age of the train by looking at the electrically sparking fan that rotated directly over my head. Just an estimate, but we think that little has been done since its original manufacturing by the Japanese. It was yet one more thing that added to the constant authenticity of Thailand.

When we got off at our train stop, we found ourselves in a sleepy local town in the jungle. After a bit of a walk, the tour guide led us into a restaurant which consisted of a thatched roof and picnic tables. It was beautiful. A buffet of local food was laid out for us. Ice cold Cokes were available in the same tiny bottles they sold back in the 50s and 60s. I filled up on the tiny local bananas which are sweeter than the regular sized one. Our tour guide encouraged me to pack some into my purse. I couldn’t say no.

You would think the day would be drawing to an end for us. But it was only just beginning. Our next stop was something I had been looking forward to since we first planned to go to Thailand. We had heard about this monastery where the monks lived communally with tigers. We were headed to just that monastery. As we walked in, free roaming water buffalo, pigs, ducks and deer passed by us going about their daily business. A peacock floated in their midst but never let me get close enough to stroke its gorgeous plume. A monk sat on a platform ahead with a baby tiger playing with his robes. At first we only took a risk to give it a few pets. As the monk assured us it was fine, we were able to pick it up and cuddle it. I now totally understand why people keep tigers for pets in their apartments. So cuddly! Well, except for the gnawing which we were told to discourage. I guess they are trying to train them not to eat people. After handing the tiger back to the monk and cleaning off the smidge of pooh he had managed to get on both of us, we were escorted to the canyon where they adult tigers live.

This is a very regimented process. And for good reason. We are talking about wild animals with jaws that could consume a human head. Before we went in, we were told that nothing has happened and that it was all very safe. Yet, one Thai takes your camera and has the responsibility of taking multiple pictures of you with each tiger. You are led one at a time by the hand of another Thai who places you in a particular position next to each tiger. Was it for the best picture? Or was it because this was the position that the particular tiger disliked the least? There were about ten tigers but several of them were in the distance and you weren’t brought any where near those. Perhaps they are the maulers. After they escort you through, the give you a book and tell you to look at the pictures. If you don’t like them, they will escort you through again to get more shots. We called it at one. With huge, satisfied grins on our faces, we headed to the exit and began to peruse the book they had handed us. It was a book that talked about each tiger and included their likes and dislikes. For all of the prior claims that the tiger petting was all fine and safe, the book told explicitly otherwise. I’m actually quite glad I didn’t know that before I went in. I’m sure they can smell fear and know who is an easy target. I surely would have been a goner.

It had been a long tour and a long day. But how many times do you get to Thailand? The restaurant and area that we had wanted to visit the night prior but had skipped because of traffic was now open and clear. We cleaned up, caught a cab and went to Sukhumvit. The restaurant was called Ruen Mullika and we never would have found it without the driver knowing the area. It was hidden in a local neighborhood where little else was around for the tourist crowd. The restaurant was constructed from an antique wooden tea house that wrapped around a beautiful garden. Not only was the setting romantic and quaint, but the food was supposed to be out of this world according to “Thailand’s Best Restaurants 2006” and Timeout’s travel book on Bangkok. The menu was huge and we took full advantage of it. The Mai Thai’s helped cool us off from the hot summer night and the spicy dishes in front of us.

Full and exhausted, we meandered down the streets trying to get back to the main street but only making turns that took us deeper into the local neighborhoods. I would have loved to explore if only I wasn’t so exhausted from the day. We finally hailed a cab and made it back to the hotel. All dressed up and running low on nights left in Bangkok, I convinced KH to have one more drink at the bar on top of the hotel. Called the Sky Bar, it is a circular bar that projects out of the 64th floor of the hotel. A railing of metal and glass surrounds the bar with limited room to walk and a dizzying view of the city and river below. The wind makes you feel like it will whip you, or at least your drink, right off the edge to plunge into the darkness. It was exhilarating. A scene right out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But rich and famous we are not. And bedtime it was.

Only one more day left to share.


Mike S said...

Love the toilet part. They're a real challenge on a rainy day with slippery footwear on the porcelein:)

Anonymous said...

i am still jealous of the tiger petting!


Caroline said...

Fabulous blog - soo interesting. Will be adding to mine and looking forward to hearing more!