Monday, May 5, 2014

Bridge on the River Kwai

Located in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, this famous bridge has been the subject of both books and films. It was built during World War II by the Japanese using Allied POWs and Asian slave laborers. Many lives were lost building this bridge. Sections of the bridge were later destroyed by American bombers, so the current bridge is not the original one. The area has become a tourist attraction both for its beautiful scenery and its history. Also in Kanchanaburi is a war cemetery where thousands of POWs who died building the bridge are buried.

With this weekend being a long holiday weekend (May 5 is Coronation Day), we took the opportunity to take what will probably be our last trip outside of Bangkok this school year and visited Kanchanaburi. We took this trip with another family and decided to go by train as this other family had never before traveled by train. Trains run twice a day, once in the early morning and once in the afternoon. So on Saturday at six o'clock in the morning, we set out for the train station with a taxi. Even though we got to the train station early enough at 7 a.m., the area was already bustling with people and activity -- market stalls, taxis, scooters, dogs and cats....

As we waited for our train, many other trains pulled into the station, but because all the announcements were in Thai, we had no idea which one was ours. Every time a train pulled in, we would gather all our bags and kids to board the train, only to be told that was not the train we wanted. We were thankful for the Thai people that helped us without being asked. Some of the trains pulled in to the platform across the tracks, and passengers would scramble across the tracks to get to them. Back home, that would be totally crazy and dangerous, but we don't even bat an eye seeing things like that anymore. We even did it ourselves!
Train at Kanchanaburi station.
The train ride took almost three hours, and the train was standing-room only because of the holiday. Many people just made themselves at home on the train car's floor, and our kids did the same. The train was third class, with wooden benches for seats, open windows, and no air conditioning. It was hot, but with the air moving through, it wasn't stifling. Many people with big buckets and baskets of cold drinks and food came on the train to sell them.

Once we got to Kanchanaburi and checked into our hotel, we decided to go into "town," closer to the bridge, for a bite to eat. We all got on a songthaew, whose driver steered us to a floating restaurant with an amazing view of the river and bridge. Unfortunately, the relatively expensive food turned out to be much worse than the view. I dare say it was the worst-tasting food I've had in Thailand so far. It wasn't inedible, but the flavors weren't good at all. We have become very spoiled being able to eat excellent food for very little money in Bangkok.
Outside the train station.
The floating restaurant where we had lunch.
Inside the restaurant.
View from the restaurant.
Once we got the disappointing lunch over with, we strolled over to the bridge, where people were walking all over it. There also was a train that took people rides across the bridge and beyond. When it came on the bridge, everyone simply stepped to the side of the bridge and off the tracks to let it through. We also took a ride on the train across the bridge. On the bridge, the train went at a slow and leisurely pace, but once across the bridge, it sped up considerably, going probably too fast, which made it more nerve-wracking. After about 15 to 20 minutes, the train stopped at a random point and turned around.

We also visited the war museum next to the bridge, and I'm glad we paid so little for the visit. While the museum was expansive with more than one building of exhibits, much of them were disorganized with no explanations. It seemed like someone just decided to take everything related to WWII and randomly put them in those buildings. There was no flow and it was difficult to learn anything because of the disorganization. There was even a picture of George Washington in a room filled with war memorabilia. It was disappointing because I was looking forward to learning more about the history of the town and its role during the war. The kids, on the other hand, had a good time looking at the guns and planes used during the war, climbing up and down all the stairs, and running in and out of the open buildings.

It was on this trip, too, that my camera decided to stop functioning reliably, so I wasn't able to capture as much of the trip as I wanted. I'm hoping we can have it repaired when we get home for the summer; otherwise, I may have to buy a new camera altogether (which, while very exciting, would be an unexpected and unwanted expense).
Walking on the Bridge River Kwai.
Stepping aside for the train.
The museum.
One of the museum buildings.
By this time, we were all hot, sweaty, and tired. It felt much hotter in Kanchanaburi than in Bangkok! After taking a break for ice cream (Oreo cookie ice cream made with coconut milk is amazing!), we decided to return to our hotel and spend some time at the hotel pool. The water, however, turned out to be pretty warm from the heat, so it wasn't as refreshing as we had hoped.
The water looked nice and cool, but looks can be deceiving!
That night, we had been planning on going to the night market and having dinner there, but with thunder and lightening crashing and flashing above us, we decided not to chance it and stayed close to our hotel. The storm never came, though!

The next day, we spent the day at Erawan Falls in Erawan National Park, which was supposed to be about an hour away from our hotel. The falls were named after the erawan, the three-headed elephant in Hindu mythology, because the seven-tiered falls were said to resemble the erawan. In the park also are four caves, which we didn't get to.

We were told to get there early, climb all the way to the top tier, and work our way down to avoid the crowds. We got to the bus station for the first bus of the day at 8:30, but it didn't leave until 9:00. Along the way, it also picked up and dropped off various passengers, including people loading corn onto the bus. The trip ended up taking almost two hours, so by the time we got there, there were already crowds of people everywhere. The return bus was leaving at 2:00 p.m., so we didn't have as much time to spend at the falls as we had planned. On top of it all, it was extremely hot. My friend looked up the temperature for the day -- 99 degrees, felt like 112 (compared to a "cool" 89 degrees in Bangkok...). There also was a lot of climbing up steep steps. In the end, we only made it to the fifth tier of the falls.

Surprisingly, the water was very cold, but it felt great in the scorching heat. There were a lot of fish in the water that nibbled at our feet. It felt ticklish and a little unpleasant. The surfaces were rocky and slippery, and used as slides by some people. There were also people who set up picnics among the rocks. I even saw a makeshift bed among the rocks where a baby slept while people stepped over and around her!
Before we got underway, the bus needed some gas. My friend, who had been sitting on this seat, was asked to get up because the gas tank nozzle was under her seat!
At the park.
A sign encouraging people to dress modestly.
An unintentionally funny sign.
A small waterfall.
I think this was the first or second tier of the waterfall.
Tier 3 or 4.
There was a lot of climbing up and down steps like these.
Tier 5, where we got in the water for a little bit.
Our last stop, another waterfall on the way to tier 6. On our way down, we were mobbed by people who were just making their way up.
A crab hanging out on the rocks.
It felt great to finally get out into open space, hike, see greenery, and be active. This trip really made my husband and me miss all the parks and hiking trails we had available to us back in the U.S. Next school year, we will plan another trip to another national park where we will be able to do some camping -- something else we've really missed.

Before getting back on the bus to return to Kanchanaburi, we finally had a delicious and satisfying meal outside the park. Once on the bus and back in Kanchanaburi, we asked the bus driver if he would be willing to drop us off at our hotel; it seemed like he was dropping off passengers at random stops where they wanted to get off. To our delight, he agreed, which saved us a songthaew ride from the bus station back to our hotel, where we were to meet a private driver we had hired through a teacher at our school to bring us back to Bangkok. He turned out to be an awesome driver, so we will definitely use him again when we next leave town again.

Overall, it was not as satisfying a weekend trip as other trips that we had taken. The weekend didn't seem to come together like with other trips we had taken. But going with another family made it more fun. It also was nice to get away for the weekend. Now we're ready to return to school and tackle the rest of the year! Only 23 days left of school!!
The scenery on the way to and from the falls was beautiful, with majestic mountains and the sparkling river flowing below them. But it was hard to capture because my camera wasn't working properly and there were so many trees obstructing the view.

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