The Bridge on the River Kwai, the real thing

Trip Start Oct 31, 2012
Trip End Dec 12, 2012

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

For the third day in a row, I am up once again at 4 am to get to the Southern Bus Terminal by 5 am so that I can catch the first bus out to Kanchanaburi, site of the famous bridge over the River Kwai, which served as the basis for a popular book and award winning movie.  I had wanted to make the trek during my last visit, but was unable to do so, so made sure one day was set aside this time for it. 

Like yesterday, a number of taxi drivers don't want to take me to the bus terminal, stating that it is too far out, and they won't likely get a fare coming back into the city.  I finally find a driver who is willing to take me, or so I think, so I tell him I want to go to Sai Tai, which is the name the Souther Bus Terminal is known as by the locals.  

Even with my bad sense of direction, I knew this driver wasn't going in the right direction.  We drove around a bit, sometimes circling a block over and over.  I keep telling him, "Sai Tai, Sai Tai," to which he ignores my pleas.  We arrive at some small bus terminal located in the city, and tells me this is where I am to leave from.  I tell him it isn't, but rather than argue, I just get out and refuse to pay him, deciding that my chances to get to Sai Tai greatly improve with another cab driver.  Seeing thta I have no intention of paying him, he walks up to one of the ticket offices to confirm that this is where you go to buy a ticket and depart for Kanchanaburi.  The woman tells him that he needs to go to Sai Tai, just as I had been telling him.  He finally gets it, I agree to get back in the cab, I really have no choice at this hour, but there is no way I will now catch the 5 am bus.  Luckily the buses to Kanchanaburi leave every 20 minutes.  

When we arrive at the terminal, I look at his meter, then pay him the exact amount that I was charged by the driver from yesterday, who knew exactly where he was going.  That fare was about $4.50, which was close to what the guidebooks said it sould be, so I handed him the equivalent in Thai Baht, the local currency, and step out fo the car.  He says nothing to me.    

When I buy my ticket, the woman tells me to go to platform 10, which I do, as it is marked "Kanchanaburi."  I wait for the next bus, which does leave every 20 minutes without waiting to fill up, but there is no bus at the platform, nor is there one arriving.  I ask around and they tell me I want the other platform 10, located on the other side of the bus terminal.  I have to sprint to make the bus, which is pulling out as I get there.  Luckily the driver waits for me, and off we go for another 2.5 hour journey.  

During World War 2, the Japanese needed to link its ground forces in Thailand with its forces in Burma, as well as move goods and ammunition between the two.  To accomplish this, they decided to build a railway to connect the two, using British, Dutch and Australian POWs, along with local slave labor, to do the work.  The line was later dubbed the Death Railway, as a result of the incredibly high number of lives lost during the contstruction in very difficult terrain, and under horrible weather conditions.  In addition to the rebuilt bridge -- later rebuilt by the Japanese and paid for by the Thais, irony of irony -- there are three museums and two cemeteries to honor these POWs and this episode of WW2 history.  

One of the museums was just excellent.  It went into detail on how life was like for the prisoners on a day-to-day basis, and showed their ingenious ways of doing things,  For example, in the makeshift hospital, lacking supplies, the medics would turn old saki bottles in drips for surgery.  Some of the mannequins in the recreated scenes looked so real, it was rather eerie.  The museum's focus is not only to share this episode of the war, but to search out missing bodies, and work with families to get information on their loved ones. 

At one of the other museums, there was one display that rather baffled the hell out of me: the casket containing the body of a US soldier who lost his life in the Korean War.  Why it is here, or how it got here, I don't know, but in my opinion, it should be turned over to the US governement, tests should be done to determine the identity, then return his body to the family.  Using it as a display is rather cruel and gruesome.   

Like any place where money can be made, the site has turned itself into a theme park of sorts, where you can ride a tram across the tracks for about one hour, and attend a sound-and-light show at night, where they have makeshift Japanese huts, flags and mannequins staged for effects, then they have explosives go off, as if the bridge is being bombed, just as in the movie, by the POWs.  With the exception of the train ride, all of this can be seen and enjoyed from your seat at a very touristy restaurant.  

The problem with this staging is that in reality, the bridge wasn't bombed by the POWs, but by invading allied forces via plane.  When the Japanese saw the planes headed to the bridge, to save it, it forced thousands of POWs to get on top of it and wave, thinking that this would save the bridge from being bombed, but it didn't.  It is said that the river turned red for some time thereafter. (If you haven't seen the movie, check it out, it is very good and quite the epic, still stands well with the passage of time.)

I didn't stay for the light-and-sound show, nor did I take the train, but I do wish I had had more time to spend here, as the countryside was just so beautiful, and there are so many things to see and do here: visting wats, and other historical sites -- war and non-war related, among many other things.  

After walking the portion of the bridge that stands over the river, visiting the three museums and one cemetery, it was back to Bangkok.  Hopefully, with the long weekend being over, there would be less traffic.  When I got to the bus station, I noticed a number of beautiful temples on street next to the terminal, so decided to extend my stay in Kanchanaburi to do a little exploring.

For the ride back, instead of taking the bus, I agreed to get back to Bangkok by private van.  The minibus had 13 seats in, was air conditioned, and cost less than the bus.  Even though I was the last person to buy my ticket, the agency let me be the first one to choose my seat, which was very nice of them.  I thought this should be faster as well, as there would be fewer stops.  Its final destination was the Victory Monument, where all minivans arrive and depart from, rather the bus ternimal, which was perfect for me, as it was next to the metro station.  If I had taken the bus, I would have had to been dropped off at the bus terminal, take a bus to the Victory Monument, then take the metro back to my hotel.  

Things were going fine, we were moving, but when we stopped at various control points, that is where the problems started.  These small bus companies make sure no one cheats them out of any money, so they stop several times along the way, count the passengers and note the places of departure, then call the person at the last control stop to confirm their records are similar.  They then call the next station to share with them their data.  At one stop, the woman couldn't get her numbers in synch, and with only 13 passengets.  As each passenger was questioned as to where they got on and asked to produce their ticket, one girl who got on in Kanchanaburi with me, did the talking for me, of which I was thankful. 

As it turned out, it was the woman seated in front of me that turned out to be the problem.  The control person and the woman went back and forth, back and forth so many times, arguing.  When the control person wasn't arguing with this woman, then she was on the phone back and forth with the prior control points.  That took forever before things got straightened out; the woman didn't cough up any more money, and we were back on the freeway for downtown Bangkok.  I would have just kicked her off to begin with, but then she seemed to have a legitimate right to be on the van to begin with.

So between the traffic and this run-in, it took well over four hours to get back to downtown Bangkok, which was actually quick; I can't imagine what it would have taken if I had taken the regular bus to the terminal, then switched to the the local bus to get to the metro station.  Given that I return home tomorrow, when I get back to my hotel, I spend the rest of the evening doing nothing but trying to pack, as my large suitcase is too small for all the things I have purchased.  Trying to get everything squeezed in to it and my carry-on is going to be a challenge, and I'm up against the clock to get it resolved.    

The clock strikes midnight, but I try to stay awake for my 3 am departure for the airport, hoping that by staying awake, I'll be so exhausted that I'll able to sleep on the plane.  It doesn't work.  I am fast asleep, but at least everything is in my suitcases.  



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