‘Speedo’ trip to the River Kwai

Thailand holds many secrets and unguarded treasures; one of those is the province of Kanchanaburi. James Springer explores its rugged terrain and some of its claims to fame.

Sitting two abreast aboard a thin long tail ‘s-peed bo-wat,’ we cruised up the River Kwai to our floating hotel. Flanked on either side by rugged, jungle terrain climbing valley sides it was surprising to suddenly feel dwarfed by nature. The swelling surface of the river informed us of rains already gone. The odd bamboo log floated past us in the opposite direction.

Kanchanaburi Province, situated northwest of Bangkok, stretches all the way to the Burmese border; split in two by the River Kwai Noi meandering its way from north to south. Interspersed with villages and flat, grid-system towns – Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai nurtures famous name-sakes such as the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Hell-fire Pass, but also the less renowned Burmese Mon people together with their traditions and culture.

Bridge over the River Kwai
The Bridge over the River Kwai

We were to spend three nights in the Sai Yok District. Vast swathes of greenery flanked either side of the road during the hour-long mini-bus ride from Kanchanaburi. Bundled inside the ubiquitous Thai mode of transport, we shared the journey with locals burdened with the week’s shopping – plastic bags filled with assortments of vegetables, noodles and freshly chopped meat. Everyone was quiet and enjoying the scenery whizzing past as if on a treadmill, the fast development in Thailand paying most attention to smooth and comfortable roads.

The resort was a basic structure made entirely out of rattan, bamboo, rope and thatch but immediately unique sitting out from the riverside on top of steel, banana boat-shaped tubes rocking gently to the undulating flow of the river. On the recommendation from the hospitable staff, we spent our first night watching a traditional Mon dance accompanied by an authentic and varied Burmese band. At the lead of an enigmatic, central drummer nestled in an ornate, wooden surround, the band struck up to the tune of booms, bangs and clashes fluctuating in pace, rhythm and volume. Above, on the stage, male and female dancers swayed, flowed and ticked with the ‘music’ in a mixed style combining Thai, Malaysian and Indian body, hand and facial expression. During the display, I noticed the drummer continuously licking his fingers and spreading what appeared to be chewed resin over the surface of the cowhide drum-skins which, I was told afterwards, enhanced the resonance of each tap; certainly not a modern technique.

Taking a more sombre tone, the second day was spent at our first memorial of the area. The Hellfire Pass Memorial centre is dedicated to the POWs and Asian labourers who suffered and died on the Burmese-Thailand railway during the Second World War. If it was not there to commemorate the lives lost under harsh and impossible conditions it may be a monument to a feat of human perseverance.

Starting from the memorial at Chung Kai, the railway line passes through seven cuttings of sheer stone; uneven, straight passages flanked by dark, imposing walls of rock the largest and longest being the Konyu Cutting, better known as the Hellfire Pass. The imagery of hell and fire – only lacking brimstone – becomes obvious as one conjures scenes of bone-thin men tiered up and down the stone sides, hacking at them with blunt metal whilst under the flickering glow of torchlights through the night as part of the Japanese ‘speedo’ initiative installed to meet the August deadline for completion of the track. The men’s shadows dance no longer on the hard walls, like ethereal daemons stalking their progress, but the echo of voices carries on till today. After marvelling at this first cutting the true realisation of hardship only strikes home after walking the 2.4km trek to the end, passing another six similar feats; the continuity is galling.

The same is true of the Bride over the River Kwai. Located just outside the town of Kanchanaburi, the bridge presents itself as a black monolith stretching over Kwai Noi. At first glance, the bridge does not seem that big, and neither that long. However, whilst on it, the size and weight of each steel girder moved and placed by hand without any safety precautions makes one shudder to imagine the accidents and injuries incurred by the POWs. Under the Thai midday sun, the scene bursts with a confusing sense of vitality and life; however, stripped of the hotels, guesthouses and floating Thai restaurants one imagines a bleak and
miserable environment.

For our last day, a winding stone stairway delivered us to a small round hole at the bottom of a cliff. Big enough to let a person climb through but in no way an indication of what lay inside. The first chamber to the Lawa Cave system held numerous skylights and a modest Buddhist shrine seated at the side of another similar opening as the first. The second chamber opened into a warehouse-sized vault keeping an innumerable amount of stalagmites and stalactites; natural pillars of calcium deposit standing motionless as the cavern’s guardians.

This side of Thailand is rarely seen. Blissfully devoid of bars and clubs, the area promotes a more natural and healthy environment, whereby adventurous exploits are the day’s events taking you to – what feels like – your personally discovered sights.

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