A punt on the river Kwai

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A punt on the river Kwai

Updated 15 years, 6 months ago

Whilst in Bangkok, I bumped into Lucy Marquis in a street bar. Those of you who know her will not be surprised by this, due to her reputation as one of London's most notable bon viveurs and girls about town. The chances of meeting up with her, if you know she is in town, are greatly increased by a trawl through the local bars and clubs. So I was not unduly shocked by our meeting- I was just surprised she was still (fairly) lucid. I met her later in the evening at "Gulliver's"(Khao San pick-up joint) dancing to DJ Otzi- I mean, bloody hell Lucy. Just because one is in the East, one must not let standards slip. DJ Otzi dancing could be the thin end of the wedge, prior to physical, mental and moral decline. Be vigilant! After removing the bottle of Sam Song whisky from her iron grip, we began to plan our next move, along with two Aussie lads(Steve and Aaron), deciding on the jungle scenery, war history and waterfalls up at Kanchanaburi- the site of the "Bridge on the River Kwai"(as in the film and book).

With the smooth organisation and precision planning that characterise all of my travel plans, we arrived at the station too late for the train we intended to catch. Of course this train didn't even exist, the only train was to go at 1.50pm, so we had a four hour wait. Not the best of starts, really, but it allowed us time to enjoy a really superb pork noodle soup from one of the roadside soup van johnnies. Boy, it was good. The train up was great, passing small villages, people in paddy fields, loads of Wats and the odd Buddha. Great way to see a bit of the country. At Kanchanaburi, we got rooms in floating wood and bamboo houses on the Kwai for 40 Baht(about 60p) a night! Lovely views up and down the river, the only down side being the proximity to the karaoke boats that steamed up and down the river all night, with local chaps making horrible noises into microphones, indicative to me of severe constipation or abdominal bleeding, with Westlife style ballads playing in the background. No, not pleasant, it does mar the ambience of a gorgeous sunset rather. One of the striking things about Thailand is their devotion to the winsome, whining ballad, that boy bands have made their own(and they shall reap their reward in Hell). This music is playing everywhere you go(it's on now in this blasted internet place), so it's best not to linger anywhere long and it sounds possibly worse in Thai, incredible though that is to believe.

It was getting towards sundown

when we arrived, my thoughts turning naturally to finding a bar, but all this was put out of my mind by the tempting sight of a raft moored to our floating house. I don't know, maybe it was the Nelson spirit in me, Britannia rules the waves and all that, but I reckoned we could punt it up to the famous bridge for sunset. Aaron agreed and was keen too, Lucy and Steve didn't care either way but wanted in as it might be fun. Besides, if those punts at the Oxbridge universities can do it, so could we. The Thai's in the guesthouse roared with laughter when we told them what we were doing and enjoyed it immensely when we went ahead anyway with our western arrogance and came a mighty cropper. First we pushed off and the current rapidly took us down stream, towards the concrete legs of a bridge further down. The stick thing, you punt with, made no impact at all, we just span round and round. We managed to save ourselves from oblivion on the bridge by getting stuck in some thick weed, near the river's edge. Anyway, after much cursing, swearing, laughing and a broken punting stick, we somehow recovered enough to berth near(ish) to where we were supposed to, welcomed back by much ribald laughter. Hapless, is the "mot juste" for our efforts.

The next morning we went up to

the fabled "Bridge over the River Kwai", constructed by Allied POW's under brutal Japanese treatment in the War. Actually, the original bridge was bombed by the Allies, so this was the re-built version, but everyone still goes there because of the film(which I saw in a bar in town the following evening- great stuff). There were surprising numbers of Japanese visitors there, surprising given their normal "deaf adder" approach to the war and their role in it. Then I went to the "museum" next to the bridge, supposedly telling the story of the "Death Railway", but I noticed that alot of the stuff was glossed over and conditions in the camps were shown using Japanese propaganda shots from the time, taken to try and show what fun the camps were! Then my eye was caught by an English translation of the Japanese text on the wall, describing that the "Death Railway" was so-called because of the Allied bombing of the bridge in 1944, killing loads of POWs who "happened" to be on the bridge, resulting in the river flowing red with blood! I was staggered and bloody angry! The POWs were put there by the Japanese commander as a human shield, which the bomber pilots didn't see. Besides, the "Death Railway" monniker relates to the inhuman treatment meted out to Allied POWs, not this. Clearly the whole place was set up to tell a history that they thought the Japanese tourists would like to hear.

We went on to two further museums on the war. Another one in Kanchanaburi, run by Buddhist Monks, which was graphic in its description of the suffering of the POWs- the beatings, diseases, malnutrition and Jungle sores, where open wounds, or just cuts, would infect and expand, the flesh rotting off the body until bone was exposed. Oh yeah, they still had to work. Then there was another one up at "Hellfire Pass", set up by the Australian retired servicemans' league, which was much more detailed and very moving. We also walked along the course of the railway(now disused up at Hellfire), where huge cuttings were dug through sheer rock by prisoners. Absolutely stunning scenery though, right across the thick, jungled valley. We also rode on the "Death Railway" up as far as Nam Tok where it terminates nowadays. Amazing ride, following the river through thick jungle and winding around cliffs on precarious supported platforms and bridges.

On a lighter note, I rode off on an elephant(very touristy, I know) into the jungle to a waterfall, then trekked to a cave nearby, where a bloke led us down wet, slippery rocks into the cave to see the stalagtites and stalagmites, coloured rock and so on. The sights were well worth the broken leg, dislocated shoulder, back spasm and various cuts, grazes and bruises I sustained on the way down. This bloke just hopped about in flip flops(!) whilst I slithered, grunted and crashed into rocks, with little style, grace or elegance. In fact none at all. I thought I was going to tumble to my doom in the dark abyss, my battered remains puzzling archeologists in years to come as to what the hell was a species of "Fat Pom" doing there.

Saw some Tigers in a Buddhist temple which cares for orphans and victims of maltreatment. Smacked a bit of a zoo, but I got to play with these enormous big cats, which was cool. There was also a very wild and aggressive leopard being kept there, I don't know why. Rather distressing to see it in a small cage- it was an absolute beauty too. Went off for treks into the jungle, some of them quite tough, but when you reach these gorgeous waterfalls at the end it all seems worthwhile. Swimming around in crystal clear, blue water with monkeys playing in the trees above, miles from anywhere. Wonderful. Saw England v Sweden up near Erawan National Park in an empty hotel with the Thai staff, who kindly let me in to watch the game. I was desperate to see it, but it was abit of an anti-climax; I wish I'd gone and lounged in the hotel pool instead, with Lucy, Steve and Aaron.

Up in the hills and mountains near Three Pagodas Pass at the Burmese border, the country was stunning. Sweeping valleys, meandering rivers, surrounded by thick jungle, but dotted with Mon and Karen villages- often raft houses out on rivers and lakes. Amazing views and when the early morning mists rose in the valley, the peaks breaching the murk, it had an eerie, other-worldly feel, like the land that time forgot. One half-expected dinosaurs; therodactyls soaring round the valleys. We stayed in an idyllic guesthouse on a steep slope overlooking a wooden tressle bridge in Songkhataburi, not far away from Three Pagodas. We explored the village abit before leaving and I ended up befriending some kids in a bamboo back yard overlooked by houses on stilts at various heights, playing a game like marbles with elastic bands. I think I did quite well, I was always handy with a rubber band at school.

Good to get out of Bangkok, away from all the noise and smells, hussle and bustle and see some more rural Thailand. It was good too , that we did it without resorting to tours, which it is all too easy to do in Thailand as they have them for everything. However, we had no desire to be carted about like retarded geriatrics, although I'm sure the others found that a tour seemed tempting after my hair-raising rally driving in the dark, up, down and around bendy roads as I tried to race us towards Songkhataburi one evening. Seeing the steep cliffs I raced around in daylight the next day, I blanched at my idiocy. Sorry chaps.

Anyway, back in Bangkok, I had just enough time to meet Dozer for a skinful of beer, buckets of Sam Song with straws, somehow losing the big man, then finishing with White Russians in some bar at six in the morning talking world Cup with a group of Brits. My hangover was perhaps the worst ever experienced as I set off for Koh Tao the following evening, a dribbling mess.


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