The River Kwai

15 Apr

I HAD A BAD FEELING about Kanchanaburi the moment I got off the phone.  I’d just booked two nights in what sounded like the perfect weekend getaway: a floating bungalow on a river, close to national parks and mountains.  The problem was the price.  It was too low.  What kind of accommodation could I expect for six dollars a night?

The bus left Bangkok at 2:30 in the afternoon under cloudy skies, and it began to rain hard as we got underway.  The fact that it was raining I took as a hopeful sign, remembering the words of my old travel companion: It’s a good sign, rain.  It means good luck.  His aphorism held up as the journey progressed through a greening countryside of sugarcane, corn, and banana plantations interspersed with forest.  Water buffalo grazed in muddy tracts beside the road and the sky cleared to reveal wooded hills in the distance.  This bucolic setting was rudely interrupted by downtown Kanchanaburi, which bore an unfortunate resemblance to Bangkok.  I hopped on the back of a motorcycle taxi which sped me away from the chaos of the bus terminal and deposited me at the edge of town.  The driver pointed to a dirt path that led to my hotel, then turned his bike around and left.  It was a short walk, and at the end of the trail I caught my first glimpse of the Mae Nam Khwae Yai, better known as the River Kwai.  Several hundred feet across at this point, it moved slowly past forested banks dotted with lily pads.  There, bobbing gently in the current, were three thatch-roofed bungalows perched on rafts.  The sun was setting and cast an orange light on the water.  I checked in and strolled across the narrow wooden bridge to my hut, just in time to rest my feet on the railing and watch the sun drop behind the trees on the opposite bank, taking the last of my worries with it.

To my right was the historic Bridge on the River Kwai, a metal silhouette spanning the river less than a mile away.  I poured myself a glass of whisky, spilling a few drops into the water.  “For Pachamama” I said softly, remembering the tribute from a past trip to Peru.  Perhaps it was this out-of-place honorific that cued the arrival of the karaoke boats.  This restful scene was at once marred as a longtail boat chugged past, towing a houseboat full of Japanese tourists who danced under flashing lights to a thumping rhythm:

She had them Apple Bottom jeans, boots with the fur.  The whole club lookin’ at her…

I watched the riverine rave go by, feeling the first throbs of a headache.  I wondered if the Thais failed to see the irony of their peace being shattered by Japanese within sight of the infamous World War II bridge.  There were several such boats, all of which prefaced their arrival with a kinetic beat that caused the hut to vibrate.  I peered at the water, expecting to see dead fish floating in their wake, killed by the percussion.  For two hours they made their circuit before at last falling silent, returning the scene to its initial promise of quiet.  I took some aspirin and went to bed.

In the morning I saw that the lilypads had blossomed in the night, opening their pink lotus flowers to the moonlight.  In Greek mythology, those who ate the fruit of the lotus would lose all desire to return to their native land, but they had already begun to close their petals, disdaining the heat.  My girlfriend arrived from Bangkok, having taken a later bus after finishing her Friday classes.  There was much to see and do around Kanchanaburi and our time was limited, so I’d booked a full day’s tour that included several of the highlights.  Included in this tour, and almost de rigueur with any sightseeing excursion in Thailand, was an elephant ride.  Elephants were ubiquitous on the tourist circuit and I’d even seen them in Bangkok.  Ever since my first article on the subject I’d been on the mailing list of the Elephant Kraal, the preserve in Ayutthaya that I’d visited as a reporter.  They’d sent me an email a couple of weeks earlier with the startling news that they intended to bring a few of their animals to Khaosan Road as part of a fundraising event for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti.  My first thought was, “Is this a joke?”  Khaosan Road is probably the best-known street in Bangkok, thanks to the popularity of Alex Garland’s book The Beach and the movie which followed.  It is ground zero for backpackers; a crowded bazaar of shops, hotels, bars and travel agencies.  Vendors of every stripe prowl what is nominally a pedestrian avenue (except for the presence of mopeds, tuk-tuks, cars, and delivery vehicles) in order to sell bootleg DVDs and college diplomas to the visiting throngs.  The clubs send music into the street and the air is redolent with weed and exhaust.

It was into this burlesque that the elephants came.

The Elephant Kraal was something of a halfway house for troubled pachyderms.  Killer elephants and old, worn-out beasts of burden were accepted into the Kraal and cared for by volunteers.  Eventually they would be trained to give rides to tourists, and occasionally helped out in relief efforts like the 2004 tsunami when they were utilized in helping to move debris.  In this instance they would be passing the hat.

At 4 pm the animals arrived, their sides painted with the slogan, Thai Elephants Help Haiti.  The elephants waded through the street to the delight of the tourists who rushed up to take photos.  A few were knocked aside by the lumbering beasts while others, stoned, just stared.  People put money in the baskets held by the elephants who swung them aloft, sending money everywhere.  It was chaotic, but money was raised and, presumably, sent to Haiti.  All the people involved could feel good about the event.  How the elephants felt about it all is an open question.

Next on the itinerary was bamboo rafting.  We were driven upriver and ushered aboard a flat raft of bamboo poles lashed together with vines and rusted nails.  The raft barely supported our weight, sinking below the waterline as we sat on crude benches with waves sloshing over our feet.  It must have been an odd sight to people on shore as we appeared to be floating on chairs in the middle of the stream, but there were no spectators.  We were flanked by jungle.  The trees dipped their branches in the water on either bank and we were serenaded by birdsong.  It reminded me of the scene in Apocalypse Now! when the patrol boat was hastening up the Mekong River, just before the jungle exploded with machine-gun fire.  Having grown up with images of the Vietnam War, Southeast Asia would always harbor a certain menace for me, and I wondered if this next generation of Americans, experiencing the conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq, would soon feel the same way about the deserts of the Near East.

There was an Englishman on this tour, a large man in his fifties, and as we scrambled ashore he opened his shirt to reveal a prodigious belly.  His face lit up when he spotted a woman who was selling Leo beer from a roadside hut.

“This is my Leo baby,” he said proudly, patting his stomach.

His wife was Thai and they’d swapped countries.  She was living in a town near Liverpool while he was enjoying the East.

“She’ll get sick of it,” he said with conviction.  “I give her two years, tops, and she’ll have enough of the cold.  Then we can settle in here.”

Like so many other lotus-eaters we’d run across in Thailand, he gave us a caveat about the locals:

“They really do hate us, you know.  I’m kind of protected, the wife being Thai and all.  They’re lovely people, but they just want your money.  Don’t give a toss about you past that.”

All of this was said in front of his Thai relatives, who smiled amiably (whether in agreement or incomprehension I couldn’t say).

After lunch we were given three hours to explore the seven-tiered Erawan Falls at Erawan National Park.  It was not far to the top, but each successive cascade tempted hikers off the humid path with inviting turquoise pools.  We gave in at the fifth tier and jumped in the cold, refreshing water.  Almost immediately I felt something nibble at my toes and I jerked my feet away.  Then I remembered that Erawan was home to a species of fish that feed off the dead skin particles of bathers.  I remained motionless in the water and watched as dozens of these small fish surrounded my feet and gently exfoliated them.  It was a strange but not unpleasant sensation, an experience that would have cost me around 250 baht on Khaosan Road.  I was told that these were Garra Rufa fish, but the Garra Rufa were indigenous to Turkey, and while they have been exported to places like Southeast Asia it was mostly for use in the tourist trade.  It was possible that they had been introduced – either purposely or accidentally – to the waterways of Thailand, but I doubted it since I read that the Garra Rufa don’t have teeth, and the fish that were working on my feet definitely had teeth.  These were either an indigenous species or Chinese Chin Chin fish, which also nibble on human flesh but can grow to a size that allows them to draw blood.  At any rate I was able to enjoy the experience without any trepidation since I didn’t learn about all of this until I returned to Bangkok and Googled it.

For the finale of our day’s excursion we were taken aboard the train for a short ride along the River Kwai.  There was nothing remarkable about this narrow-gauge line.  I suppose I was expecting it to be a grim experience, passing through dense, mosquito-infested jungle that would evoke the miserable conditions of its construction: 100,000 prisoners and conscripted workers had perished here, of malnutrition, disease, and mistreatment at the hands of the Japanese in order to complete the aptly named Death Railway.  But this trip brought none of that to mind.  It was simply a breezy ride along a scenic river.

The bridge itself, when we arrived, was overrun with hawkers marketing kitsch.  Tourists were having their pictures taken in front of decommissioned bombs and bought souvenirs from stalls that blocked access to the bronze plaques commemorating the war dead.  Soon the karaoke boats began their clamorous circuit in the river below and I walked home thinking – a bit sententiously, perhaps – of the last words in David Lean’s epic: “Madness. Madness.”

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Posted by on April 15, 2011 in THAILAND 2009-10


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