Our flight from Koh Samui to Bangkok was short, at around an hour. The little Koh Samui airport has to be one of the best in the World. It is all outdoors, with lots of little covered rotundas joined by covered walkways. The departure areas are like Business Class lounges elsewhere with comfortable seating, free Wifi and computers, complimentary coffee, fruit juice and snacks. It is all quite amazing and makes getting to the airport early a real pleasure.
Once in Bangkok, we had planned to take the train from the airport but some confusion with our planning made us opt for a taxi in the end. The taxi seemed intent on matching the 140km/hr speed of the airport train except his 10 year old Toyota Corolla was not so keen. It made lots of creaking and groaning noises as we slid around the curves and bends of the motorway. He did demonstrate how good the steering was by changing three or four lanes at a time. Somehow, we arrived safely at the Abloom Serviced Apartments to be blown away by the quality of the hotel for the price. At around $60 a night, there is a lot cheaper in Bangkok but I doubt there is much better value. We had a suite of rooms bigger than our Kingsley place, use of a huge pool, excellent gym and cheap restaurant. The staff were very attentive and organised taxis etc throughout our stay. Best of all, there was a Sky Train station right outside, giving access to the rest of Bangkok.
We enjoyed wandering around Bangkok, having little real purpose and just going where things took us. We wandered up and down on the river using a tourist day pass. We sat for nearly an hour in cross town traffic while taking a taxi to the Kao San Road. We ate some amazing street food in Kao San Road and bought a couple of T-shirts from one of the many stalls. Bangkok is a noisy, smelly conglomeration of streets, vehicles and people. Given that we do not care much for temples and palaces, Bangkok itself hold few attractions. With every major car manufacturer using Thailand as a cheap source of labour, cars are relatively inexpensive and car ownership has increased amazingly in recent years. The traffic problem now rivals the worst the US has to offer, despite an incredible network of motorways.
On our way to catch a train to Kanchanaburi, we gave ourselves plenty of time to allow for a possible traffic jam. This proved fortuitous because we ended up stuck for over an hour in almost stand-still traffic. More worrying, was the fact that the streets were full of heavily armed police, not just small calibre automatic stuff, but also big heavy duty rifles. There were police and military everywhere and we started to get concerned about just what we were stuck in. Apparently, anti Thaksin protesters were active again and the government was concerned that protests might interfere with a planned visit by the Chinese Premier.We cared little for the political implications but we were very happy when our taxi driver performed an amazing U-turn and managed to get us to the train station with 15 minutes to spare.
The train ride to Kanchanaburi takes about three and a half hours on the regular train, stopping at all stops. There is only one class available and Thai Rail admits that it is Third Class. The wooden slatted seats get hard on the bum after an hour or so but we managed to bag a cushioned carriage, left over from the days when they had second class. Most of the windows wouldn’t close and people kept moving spots according to which way the rain was coming from.
Once in Kanchanaburi, we found a tuk-tuk and made our way to the Pong Phen Guesthouse, where we had stayed back in 2008. Little has changed, except for a fresh coat of paint over everything. There were lots of backpackers around, as well as the older men of dubious quality who always seem to have a Thai girl nearby. Life in the guesthouse centres around the pretty little restaurant and bar at the front where cheap food and drink is in good supply. We off loaded our bag of laundry and wandered along the main road to pick up a variety of street food.
Just near the laneway to PongPhen is the B.T. Travel Centre. They had served us well last time so we headed back. The cute girl at the front desk seemed to get happier and happier as we ordered more services, first a private car and driver to go to Hellfire Pass, then a trip to wash elephants in the River Kwai and finally a car to take us back to Bangkok airport. Everything was organised to our satisfaction and in one swoop, our three days were filled in.
On our last trip five years ago, we explored the war museums and the poignant war cemetery in and around Kanchanaburi. At the time, the weather was very hot and we ended up skipping the actual walk of Hellfire Pass, site of the horrific work camps on the Thai Burma Railroad. The weather at this time of year is very mild and pleasant so we looked forward to trekking along the 4km stretch of rail cuttings that have been prserved as a monument. As it turned out, only 2.5km was available due to some operations by the Thai Military on the far end section.
The Hellfire Pass Museum is a wonderful shrine to the POWs and Asian workers who died or suffered during the construction of the railway. It was built and is maintained by the Australian Government and offers free entry and free use of an audio commentary pack along the way. A feature of the commentary is actual recorded memories from ex-POWs that help put everything into context. It is a moving experience. Tour groups are not allowed to set out on the walk itself, only private groups. We were equipped with a two way radio and were checked on periodically to ensure our safety. The Thai girl who managed the communications did offer some good advice, “If you see a tiger, RUN!”
At only 2.5km, the walk was easy, although we were hot and tired at the end due to the number of ravines we had to cross. The various cuttings we passed through were mostly dug by hand, using hammers, chisels and hoes. The removed rock was carted in baskets to create fill for the ravine crossings. It must have been horrendous work. Faced with the inhumanity of the situation, it is easy to overlook the sheer engineering genius of the Japanese to plan and construct such a rail line in such a short time. Hundreds of trestle bridges were constructed using teak cut from the surrounding jungle.
We radioed in that we had completed the walk and our car came and picked us up to deliver us to Nam Tok Station. After a brief lunch, we hopped onto the train to return to Kanchanaburi via the River Kwai valley, the sides of which were studded with amazing tressle bridges. The scenery was amazing, with towering mountians, spectacular rail cuttings and wonderful river views. It was a great train trip, yet neither of us had any trouble nodding off through big parts of it. We were bushed.
One thing we did notice along the way was the huge area of hemp plantings. These crops looked very much like good old “pot” but apparently are used as a bio-diesel crop. Most of the Kwai Valley seemed to be growing hemp so either the locals are continually stoned or there is money in bio fuel. A bit of research revealed that Thailand ranks sixth in the World for the use of bio-fuels through sugar cane, cassava, oil-palms and hemp. However, there is considerable concern over the loss of food crops to the planting of fuel crops.
The highlight of our stay in Kanchanaburi, and the whole trip, was bathing with an elephant in the River Kwai. We did this on our last trip and loved it, but this time the experience was much better. The elephant camp we went to looks after older elephants that are too old to work in logging operations. Most come from Burma or the highland border country. The love between the handler and elephant is obvious and all the elephants appeared to be well looked after with only light loads to carry and plenty of rest time. We were given a 45 year old female and climbed on to ride bare-back down to the river. The walk down the steeply sloping river bank was quite scary and Christine made lots of noises but managed to stay within the bounds of decency.
Once in the water, the handler jumped off and left us to it. He would call some instructions to the big old girl (the elephant that is) and she would sink us, or gently buck us. Often, we managed to hang on but I got thrown several times while Christine stayed on all bar once, having the ears to hold on to. Getting back on to the elephant was fun, especially over the trunk and head. It is one thing to have a 50kg handler clambering up and over but quite another to put up with our lumbering torsos. The old girl showed great patience.
Finally, it was time to return up the bank. The handler remained on the ground and barked instructions. The elephant took quite a while to move, seeming to decide on a suitable path up the bank. Once on the move though, she negotiated the climb with ease. I kept telling myself (and Christine) that the elephant had done this many times and knew what she was doing. Christine just replied with strangling noises and one profanity. Having reached flat ground, the elephant walked sedately back to the camp and we climbed off, thrilled with the whole experience.
We changed out of our wet gear and dried off. I found a 1000Baht ($33) note in my pocket which was soaked through. It was only later, about 10 minutes away from the camp, that I remembered it, sitting on the top of the toilet cistern. It was the only money we’d brought with us so I told our driver, who immediately turned around and went back. Of course, the money was gone. It seems that one of the employees found it and had already been to the local roadside stall and spent some of it. Through the driver, I made it very clear that it was my fault and didn’t want any trouble, but it seems that the incident brought some shame to the camp and the boss man insisted on giving me 1000baht. I felt bad but the driver assured us that the camp people would feel better. I’m not sure about the fate of the employee though.
On our last night in Kanchanaburi (and Thailand), we walked to the local markets for a few last minute T-shirts and some reading glasses to replace the pair lying somewhere in the River Kwai Gorge. (Never lean out of a train window with glasses hooked into your shirt). We found an interesting restaurant on the dog-leg bend near the war cemetry called Coffee Paul. It was a small place that shared menus with a larger establishment next door. Offerings on the little Coffee Paul menu were mostly starters and snack food but after sampling some dumplings and fish cakes, we worked our way through four dishes. Everything we ordered was unlike any we’d encountered before. The food was absolutely amazing and at $2 a plate, cheap as well. No wonder the two restaurants were packed when all others around were empty. The locals seemed to know.
Our private car to the airport proved to be a blessing. The traffic in Bangkok is proving so bad that allowances of several hours over and above normal travel times are necessary. In our case, we made the trip from Kanchanaburi to Suvarnabhani Airport in very good time, a shade over two hours. As you travel up to the main terminal on elevated roads, it is possible to see the parked planes stretched out all around. What I did notice was the complete lack of Air Asia planes. The last time we had flown out of Bangkok with Air Asia it was from Suvarnabhani. It is possible they have moved to the older Don Mueang. A quick check of the documentation showed this was the case, leaving us some 45kms away from our destination. Even worse, the driver said he did not know the way. He could drive from Kanchanaburi to either airport but would not be able to find his way across Bangkok. He drove us down the motorway for a bit and stopped in a layover to flag down a taxi for us. After three cabs, he finally managed to negotiate things for us, saying the drivers wanted 500baht up front and another 500 on arrival. In fact, we found that this meant our driver was going to pocket the 500baht and we pay the taxi 500 at the airport. Things got a little fuzzy. All we wanted was to get across town and find the right airport. In the end, everyone got what they wanted and the two mad Aussies paid handsomely for the privilege. Later, we found that Air Asia runs a free shuttle between the two airports.
We seem to be losing the plot with travel arrangements lately. Time to go home. Ahead of us is a two hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, three hours of stop over and a five hour flight. At least the last leg to Perth is in lovely lie-down Premium seats.