A Year in Bangkok – The Death Railway, Crap Pickle and Going Out With a Ladyboy.

21 08 2010

Some of the photos in this post are poor quality. Sorry about that, they are older ones which seem to have deteriorated on CD. There must be a lesson for me in that! Visits to Kanchanaburi were initially something of a favourite for me but I haven’t been for almost a year now, when I took my son and his partner. It is a lovely area, a couple of hours south west of Bangkok and is probably best known for the infamous death railway during World War Two. Although I thought I was well aware of the history of the death railway I only knew about the allied prisoners of war who died during its construction, I knew nothing about the local Thai people, many many more than the allies, who died as forced labourers there. They say that every sleeper along the entire length of this railway represents a human life lost constructing it. There is only one original section of the actual railway track and that is on wooden pylons alongside the river Kwai.

You can walk along it and also catch a train along it which, of course, I had to do on my first visit. You can also visit several places along the original route of the railway including a place the Australian prisoners of war appropriately named Hellfire Pass with a very good memorial museum. In Kanchanaburi itself are several museums dedicated to this piece of World War Two history and, especially moving, one of a number of allied war cemeteries along the route of the old death railway.

Hellfire Pass.

Despite the death railway and that macabre aspect of its past, Kanchanaburi is a lovely place to visit with plenty of nearby attractions. When I went with my son, poor judgment led me to book a fancy sounding resort which turned out to be very strange and remote with bad catering. I even got to share my bathroom with a scorpion. I usually stay at a little guest house which is clean and friendly with a very good restaurant. We moved there after our first night at the resort! They also teach Thai cooking here. An en-suite room with a fan costs me the equivalent of six pounds. The receptionist is a ‘katoey’, or lady boy, and is good fun to be around. On the first night I ever stayed  there, we got chatting after she finished work and went for a drink together. As a result of that, she asked me out with several of the staff the following night and I had a great time. I also went out with them on my second visit. What really amused me was that the more my ladyboy friend had to drink, the more she turned into a ‘real bloke’! You can walk from the guest house to the famous bridge across the river Kwai and on the way there was a small bar called the No Name bar which, every evening, showed the film ‘Bridge Across the River Kwai’. The top floor of the bar is a huge advert, painted in block capitals with the words ‘get shit-faced on a shoestring.’ Only in Thailand I think. Last time I went there, it had been sold, renamed (or should that be named?) and repainted.

No name bar.

Going out with Thai people is great fun as they have such a good sense of humour. In many ways, it can seem a bit immature to those of us from the west but for somebody like me that can be a real bonus. It is very visual and slapstick style, if you saw Cooking Nanta (from Korea) when that was touring, it gives you a very good idea of the south east Asian sense of humour. And what a brilliant show that was, which I saw here in Bangkok – percussion using kitchen implements as the instruments but not to be compared with Stomp.

Kindergarten children can be quite scared of us strange looking, over-sized westerners, especially as they have probably not had any close encounters with us before starting school. If I’m going to a kindergarten class for the first time, I usually pretend I can’t open the door by pulling instead of pushing, which of course they can see through the glass. When I finally work out that I should push the door, I fall into the class, dropping my bag along the way. By now, the children are in fits of laughter and the ice has been broken so they forget to be scared. Adults have a similar sense of humour. One day, one of our teachers (who has a pronounced limp) failed to turn up for work. As he lives near me, I was asked to call round and check if he was okay. In the reception area of his apartment block, neither of the receptionists knew his name, Robert. I explained that he was old, like me, and then walked round reception dragging my left leg behind me in imitation of Robert. “Ah” said one of the receptionists “Mister Bubba” (surely only an American could call himself ‘Bubba’ and retain a straight face) and they promptly burst into so much laughter you would think it was the funniest thing since comedy was invented. One of them stopped laughing long enough to say “He welly ole, no lie you, you welly handsome”. That’s another thing I like about Thai people, they are very flattering and, naturally, I choose to believe them. She then came round the reception desk to do her own imitation of Robert (or mister Bubba), persuading me to join in again. As we performed this strange ritualistic dance around the reception area, dragging our left legs behind us, the other receptionist laughed so much that she fell off her chair. I’m very pleased that ‘Mister Bubba’ didn’t choose that moment to limp into reception.

The third tier of Erewan falls.

Another time, I was in a taxi and the driver asked my age. When I told him, he said “You look welly good, tirty fie year ol, forty at most”. Total bullshit of course, but I was pleased by the compliment. Shortly after that, I was in a convenience store with a Californian friend when one of the girls behind the counter spoke to him in Thai. He looked at me and asked “What did she say?” “She said you have beautiful eyes” I replied. So he thanked her and, as we left the shop, I told him what I have just said here about liking the way Thai people seem to delight in making compliments. “Oh” says he, rather tongue in cheek and slightly embarrassed the way so many of us westerners are when somebody compliments us “people have said that to me all over the world.”

Hot string!

One of my favourite national parks is just outside Kanchanaburi. I guess it is not just a favourite of mine as it is Thailand’s most visited national park. It is called Erewan which is the Thai name for the three headed elephant of Hindu mythology. Inside the park is a seven tier waterfall, the top of which apparently looks like Erewan – hence the name. As you go into the park, your bags are searched and you have to pay for every plastic bottle you take in with you. Show that you have brought the empty bottles back out, and you will get your money back. What a great idea, one I’ve not come across before. The first time I went there, the jungle was alive with the sound of insects and I began to think I might be in the middle of a David Attenborough programme. The climb through the jungle and up the waterfalls is exhilarating, and the higher you go the tougher it gets, including a kind of bamboo ladder thing you have to climb at one point. And all the time, you are criss-crossing the waterfalls – sometimes they are on your left, sometimes on your right. You can swim in most of the pools under the waterfalls which is perfectly refreshing although the fish in the pools will bite you, especially your feet, if they get a chance. One of these pools even has a natural rock slide into it which is great fun and is worn so smooth by countless bums sliding down it that it is like gliding down a piece of silk.

The top tier of Erewan falls.

Another national park nearby has some hot springs apparently discovered by Japanese soldiers during the war and used as a rest place for them during the construction of the death railway. As you turn off the main road toward the park, a sign across almost the entire road informs you that you are approaching the hot string. I love these little mistakes with English so much that I have started collecting photographs of them. My favourite so far is from a restaurant menu in Lopburi which claims to be offering crap pickle, I decided not to try any despite their honesty.

Would sir care for some pickle?

Also close to Kanchanaburi is a place called the Tiger Temple. Orphaned children with no extended family are traditionally raised by the monks here in Thailand. That tradition has been extended to animals and abandoned young animals are often taken to the local temple. So too are injured animals. One day, somebody found a tiger cub whose mother had been taken by poachers but the monks in the local temple didn’t want to take it in. Who can blame them, I’m not convinced that I would want a tiger wandering around my home, however sweet and cuddly it might seem as a cub and the temples are after all the monks’ homes. The person with the tiger kept trying different temples and eventually found this little mountain temple near Kanchanaburi where the abbot agreed to take in the tiger. Word spread and, whenever anybody came across an orphaned or injured tiger, they took it there. The tigers had the freedom of the temple grounds and, as well as wandering around (amazingly, without molesting the monks) they did what tigers do naturally and made several more tigers. Hence the place has become known as the Tiger Temple. You can visit if you like but you must sign a disclaimer first as there have been occasions when the tigers got so excited by their visitors that they mauled an odd one or two. I guess they thought there were plenty more where they came from. The tigers are now caged most of the time but they are allowed into a small quarried area every afternoon. When I went they were loose but I understand they are now restrained even in there. Even more amazing, you could walk right up and stroke them. One of them even rolled over onto its back to have its belly rubbed. When you are up close and personal like that, you realise just how big and powerful these cats really are.

In the tiger temple.

Clearly, this ever growing population of tigers inside the temple compound is becoming something of a problem so the monks have supposedly raised the money to employ a specialist in the field, been given an area of forest by the government and they are now planning to develop an area where they can raise the tigers in a way that will enable them to be returned to the wild. At least, that’s what we are told by the temple and the tourist authority. However, international wildlife welfare organizations have become increasingly concerned about this place (which turns over a fair amount of money in admissions and grants) and one of them managed to place some ‘undercover’ volunteers there. The reports which came back about animal abuse and illegal tiger trading make for very sad reading and those, along with serious questions being raised about the use of huge sums of money raised from visitors to the temple have certainly put me off ever visiting there again.



3 responses

16 12 2010

“A Year in Bangkok – Koh Samet and Breakfast Experiences.”
How much is it true?

18 12 2010
Ben Salmons

Hi, before I started writing this, a friend said that if somebody were to write about the life of an expat in Thailand, nobody would believe it because there is so much crazy stuff here. And the thing is, this is all true. I have changed the names of the people as a courtesy but otherwise, please believe it and enjoy it!

11 08 2014

It is very long but interesting article. A lot of nice stuff included. I will read more your posts. Everything seems to have sence!

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