We took the train to Kanchanaburi, a relaxed city spread out alongside the River Kwai. It’s a popular weekend retreat from Bangkok, which means the peace and quiet of this otherwise relaxed town is often disrupted by the noisy engines of the long-tails or the blasting sounds of karaoke barges plying up and down the river.
Kanchanaburi is an important historical site, because it is where the Japanese began building the legendary railway to Burma during World War II. The railway was a critical part of Axis’ offensive strategy, as it would forge a critical link between the Far East and India, allowing Japan to extend its strategic control in westward. The railway would be an engineering feat in its own right, as it crossed some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth – monsoon -fueled rivers, steep mountains and sweltering, mosquito-infested jungles – but, it was really the speed at which it was accomplished that made it so astonishing. Engineers estimated that it would take nearly 3 years to complete, but it was finished in closer to one.
Unfortunately, this speed had a terrible human cost. Thousands of Allied prisoners of war and a hundred times more conscripted workers from India and South East Asia died in the process from tropical diseases, malnutrition or overwork. The Allied POWs have a cemetery in town and there are a couple of memorial museums that tell this sad story. We traveled by train on a section of the original so-called “death railway” and walked across the infamous “bridge over River Kwai”.
Kanchanaburi is also known for its natural beauty, so headed out into the surrounding countryside. We started at Erawin National Park, which contains a series of 8 pretty waterfalls. Even though it’s the dry season and the falls were not at their most spectacular, there was enough water for Rita and Jen to take a quick dip into the icy waters of the 5th falls while Gil ran the rest of the way up to the top.
After lunch, we got rides from some gentle grey giants. After logging was banned in Thailand, thousands of domesticated elephants were unemployed and many have found new jobs in the tourism industry. There is vigorous debate about the proper role and treatment of domesticated elephants going forward, but it’s clear that their livelihood will continue to depend on interested tourists – whether it’s trekking, begging in the streets of Bangkok, performing in elephant shows or, preferably, just being themselves in a wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately, there is just not enough land or money for the latter to be a realistic option at this point.
After our hot and uncomfortable rides, we took a short, but refreshing trip down the river on log rafts (or, floating alongside the raft at times). We also visited a dark and cool cave temple with a large sitting Buddha, one of many sites of worship built into the surrounding mountains.
We took a trip to the Tiger Temple, another controversial wildlife initiative. The temple began as a sanctuary for hurt or abandoned animals of all types, but the tigers are clearly the stars of the show these days. For $10 you can enter the sanctuary and have your picture taken petting the tigers as they take their afternoon “cat nap”. The money will supposedly be used to build an island on which the tigers will be released to live in a close-to-wild existence, but some people question whether this in the real goal of the monks. Admittedly, it seems a bit unnatural to get so close to these giant cats, but after talking to some of the volunteers we are hopeful that the effort to improve the situation is genuine. And, hey, we did get some pretty amazing pictures out of the whole experience!