Sunday, December 27, 2009

Kanchanaburi Travelogue: A day trip by train

Although I was visiting Thailand mainly to conduct family research, my exceedingly kind hosts, Khun Jamras and Pah Vasana, organised a couple of day trips and acted as excellent tour guides.

One of these outings was a day-long train tour into Kanchanaburi province, most famous abroad for its sad place in history as the scene in World War II of the "Death Railway" connecting Thailand with Burma. At that time Thailand was occupied by large numbers of Japanese soldiers - certainly hundreds of thousands - with many local conscripts and prisoners of war losing their lives in the railway's construction. It's most popularly commemorated in the film "The Bridge over the River Kwai" (it's actually Mae Nam K[h]wae, and its pronunciation rhymes with "air" instead of "eye") and in the town of Kanchanaburi two rivers Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi merge - the railway runs along side the latter.

As far as I can recall, I've only ever been there once, when I was just 4 years old. It seemed about time that I visited again - and by train, of course! The day's excursion, from Bangkok Hualampong right to the present end of the line, Nam Tok (for the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall), which according to the State Railway network map is a distance of about 120 miles from Bangkok, but I understand that during the war the line extended much further. There's a weekend special, costing a mere 100Baht, as listed in the State Railway of Thailand (look for Sai Yok Waterfal (waterfall is 'nam dok' in Thai). I think you can purchase tickets at most rail stations, but for some journeys, as with this one, you need to book quite well in advance - at least a week. This and other options for getting to Kanchanaburi are well covered in a detailed travel guide by Mark Smith.

We went for the 100 baht option ("3rd class") and with the wind blowing through the window and fans inside the carriage, there's no need for air conditioning. There are just two caveats: don't stick your head out even an inch when the train is moving, because there's a lot of bushes right next to the line; and when the sun shines, keep the window down, but pull down the metal grill(?) to keep the air flowing. Here's a view of our carriage (taken at Nakhon Pathom):

Saturday tour train

At this price, it's a bargain just to get there and back, but there's much more in the way of service. As usual, plenty of hawkers selling drinks (hot coffee early on and cold drinks later), and food to order - order in the morning, served in the afternoon; as well as various snacks. The average UK rail car cannot compete! But the real bonus was the rail conductor who strolled up and down the carriages with his megaphone announcing the sights left and right as we bowled along the line. With a ready smile he cracked lots of jokes, even for mundane situations, e.g. "No, don't get off here - only rabbits get off here!" He had a cartoon-like ubiquity, particularly at the end of the line: as people disembarked, he stuck his head out of a carriage and carried on making announcements through his megaphone! (You'll hear his voice in some of the video clips).

Hualompong is a terminus; trains emerge heading in a Northerly direction and those for the West go through two or three stations in the suburbs. We found it more convenient to get on at Bang Sue, remembering that there are two stations - one for trains destined for the South, the other for all other destinations! At least the train from Chiengmai was not going to stop here...

At shortly before 7am on Saturday 19th December we were on our way and raced along to Nakorn Pathom, about 40 miles down the line. It was a very brief stop, barely time to "Wai Phra Pathom Chedi" (pay homage to the Phra Pathom pagoda), though I have visited several times in the past, and have written a little illustrated guide to the chedi (from a visit in 1988).

Moving on from Nakorn Pathom we arrived at the most significant destination along the journey, the town of Kanchanaburi, where the train stopped to allow passengers to make their way to the now very familiar bridge:

Khwae Bridge

This is not the original construction - this and a wooden one were subject to numerous bombing raids. About halfway along there's a boilerplate that has a date of 2491 B.E. (Buddhist Era), which in Thai convention would be the equivalent of 1948C.E.

Boilerplate for Bridge over the Khwae Yai River

With so many tourists, there's a danger of becoming insensitive to the wartime tragedy that took place. I think it depends a lot on whom you travel with and whether you can speak with a local person who has some connection. My father has been there in recent years and came back with a very touching account of reconciliation told him by a Thai lady who had set up a shrine for the victims. A now frail and elderly Japanese man, who as an interpreter/interrogator had been one of the officers meting out punishment, had been having nightmares ever since and was trying very hard to seek forgiveness and healing, visiting the site every year. There came a pivotal moment when he met one of those whom he tortured, a Scottish soldier. His nightmares suddenly vanished. My father is not sure of the names, but we think they could be Takashi Nagase and Ernest Gordon respectively.

The nature of our whistle-stop tour was such that this kind of encounter was not likely, but on our way back we did at least pay a brief visit to the war cemetary:

War Cemetary at Kanchanaburi

War Memorial Plaque at Kanchanaburi

We then boarded the train again to continue our journey, the train first inching up to just short of the bridge before proceeding onwards:

From then on, the terrain became more hilly, with the train often hugging the hills following the snaking river. (The following composition includes film taken in each direction).

The train finally pulled into its destination at around midday. It's now very popular and from our lunch spot we could take in views of mountains on one side and the waterfall and streams on the other. We could also see an apparently new row of traders besides the road, near which dozens of motorcyclists had gathered and then made their urban roar on their various machines, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. That's typical of Thailand today.

Being not so long after the end of the rainy season, the waters were flowing quite freely, with plenty of people splashing about the in 'little waterfall,' but I just took a photo of the top of the waterfall, where no-one could climb up!

Waterfall at Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi

We had a stop of over 2 hours, but I was slow to note the other attractions nearby:

Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi: sites

If I were to go again I'd aim to reach the Wang Badan cave - given that it's located a mile or so away and the climate is quite warm, I think I'd need to allow at least an hour to get there and back). Fortunately, there was another cave quite nearby, just beyond a ranger's station: taking the path up the slope, as shown in the photo, revealing the intertwining forest vegetation:

Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi

Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi (from above the waterfall)

Just a few steps up to the entrance to the cave:

Cave at Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi

I imagine that for many centuries (before the arrival of trains) it was used by dhutanga bhikkhus, practising assiduously. It is now a shrine and still feels peaceful with a nice atmosphere, with plenty of sunlight coming through.

At 2pm the train returned to pick us up and it was time to make the journey home.

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