Saturday 31st December 2005
Bangkok to the River Kwai
I had an even earlier start this morning. I woke at 5am and showered. I was not fully dressed when my breakfast arrived in my room at 5:20am. The dining room only opens at 6am for breakfast. I had to be up early because my bus arrived at 6:15am. Several of us from the hotel were driven to a bus station and we then transferred to a large comfortable coach.
Great Tour Guide
The tour started at 7am. Our leaderâ€™s name was Chai Wat. He spoke for the next two hours as we headed north-west towards Myanmar (Burma). He spoke of the history of Thailand and especially the Death Railway. He is a walking encyclopaedia.Tomorrow is his 77th birthday. He was only a young lad when he witnessed terrible atrocities at the time of the railway construction. He related several terrible incidents that he has personally witnessed. We visited the official War Cemetery and this was a moving experience. This memorial was immaculately maintained with extensive, spacious lawn throughout. Each gravesite had a very clear plaque. Roses and other beautiful flowers were growing between each grave. The vast majority of soldiers buried here were Australian.
The Bridge over the River Kwai
A short time later we arrived at the bridge over the River Kwai. We were able to take a train trip over the bridge. It was not as I expected. The area adjacent was very commercialised with a large market place next to the bridge. We were given a half hour for shopping. I bought a very cheap T-shirt with a picture of a train going over the bridge. It cost me 100 baht (about $3.30).
Exhilarating Boat Ride on the River Kwai
Next we had an exhilarating long-boat ride on the river. These speed boats must do about 60-70 kph. After disembarking we had a tour of the JEATH War Museum. The name JEATH represents the five nations involved in the construction of the Death Railway; the first letters of Japan, England, Australia, Thailand and Holland.
The museum was sadly run-down and in desperate need of restoration. It was also depressing to see the graphic paintings done by a prisoner at the time. He has realistically depicted the hardships they all went through. There were also many photographs and newspaper cuttings from the time and since. Interestingly, Weary Dunlop features prominently throughout. Our tour guide knew him personally. In fact, Weary would personally ask for Chai Wat to be the guide whenever he brought survivors back to visit.
Back in the bus we headed off into the mountains near the Burmese border. Along the way we stopped briefly at a road-side stop to see some wild monkeys. They come here to be fed by passing tourists. Apparently they can turn quite nasty and aggressive, so we were warned not to approach too close to them. This road side stop was complete with several stalls selling fruit (for the monkeys) and things like drinks, chips and so on for the tourists.
Traditional Thai Lunch
Lunch was in a traditional country Thai restaurant in a small village. The food was excellent but I ate still more rice. Over lunch I sat with a couple from Adelaide. They have a unit in Adelaide but spend most weekends on their houseboat which is moored at the River Glen Marina in Murray Bridge. It is a small world.
After a very relaxing lunch we visited a nearby railway viaduct section of the rail line making up part of the Death Railway. The weather today was mild, about 28 degrees and a little humid. I simply could not imagine working there on the railway construction at the height of summer when it would get to 40 degrees with 95% humidity and no water to drink throughout the day and limited food in the evening. How did anyone survive those conditions? Then add on top of that their poor physical state from malnutrition, illness and injury. The human body and spirit has an amazing capacity to survive against unbelievable odds.
At this point we were merely 20km from the Burmese border. We couldnâ€™t go any further as there have been recent security problems. There has been an on-going border dispute between Thailand and Myanmar for many years. There has also been some terrorist activity in that region in recent months.
A problem with Eucalypt Trees
We returned the way we came along the main highway and freeway back to Bangkok. It took us just over three hours which included a short stop for a toilet break. The country through which we travelled included vast acreages of sugar cane plantations. Many pineapples and other fruits are grown in this area. An interesting minor fact is that eucalypts are quickly becoming a pest species in this area. Many were planted some years ago for paper production but they have escaped the plantation areas.
New Year’s Eve Celebrations
I went to bed at 9pm after such a long day of eleven hours on the tour. I also have to be up early for the drive to the airport to fly to Kathmandu. I watched the New Yearâ€™s Eve fireworks from Sydney on television before going to sleep. I was briefly woken by a few fireworks at midnight. These were widespread throughout Bangkok and not focussed in one spot like in Sydney. They last all of two minutes and I was soon back asleep.
Kathmandu, here I come.
Friday 30th December 2005:
Bangkok to Khao Yai National Park
I went to bed early at 9pm. My internal clock was telling me that in South Australia it was about 2am. I slept soundly until 4:30am and then dozed until 5:30 when I arose, showered and dressed. I went down for breakfast at 6:10am. It was still quite dark. I had a large breakfast again to prepare for a long day, not knowing when I would eat next.
Big OOOPS time!
The minibus came for me at 7am. I was the last to get on. There were nine passengers plus the driver and a guide for the day. There was a couple from New Zealand, a couple from Brisbane and a Venezuelan girl studying in Sydney. Her sister, brother in law and nephew from Venezuela were also on board. About a half hour later as we were travelling through the outer suburbs of Bangkok the guide had explained what we were going to be doing for the day. The Venezuelans asked if we were going to visit Pattaya Beach. They were on the wrong bus! Major oops time. After some quick negotiations and phone calls to the Tour East office they agreed to continue on our tour, even though they were dressed for the beach and definitely not prepared for hiking through the rainforest. I had my hiking boots on; they had their bathers, towels and thongs. It seems that there was a misunderstanding between their travel agent and the Tour East Company.
Visit to a rice farm
Our first stop was at a fuel station after about an hour. This was for fuel, toilets, purchase of drinks and whatever. I needed the toilet (because one takes every opportunity to use a toilet when travelling) but didnâ€™t need to buy anything. A little while later we stopped at a rice farm near the entrance to the national park. For the next half hour we were given a ride in a water buffalo cart through the rice fields. This traditional means of transport has all but died out due mechanisation. Our guide called them Japanese buffalo â€“ tractors that use Japanese engines. Our guide had a delightful sense of humour and was full of witty sayings like that.
For the first time I managed to see quite a few birds. We were travelling in quiet countryside at a slow walking pace. Unfortunately I was unable to identify many of them. During the ride in the cart we had to wear a traditional straw hat used by the locals. We also had to squat cross-legged in the car; my legs were really stiff for the next three days as a result.
Visit to a Country Market
The bus had travelled to our destination and another group of tourists had arrived ready to ride the carts back to the farm house where we had started. After another half hour in the bus we arrived at a genuine working country market. There were hundreds of stalls under plastic sheeting (to keep out the hot sun). These stalls sold an enormous range of foods â€“ rice, vegetables, fruit of all kinds, fish, eels, cockroaches, frogs (still alive), all kinds of meat both cooked and raw, plus many things I didnâ€™t recognise. Our guide was really good at explaining what things were and what they were called. We even got to taste some of the produce. He then bought a few items of fruit for our lunch.
Khao Yai National Park
Within the next hour we drove deep into the Khao Yai National Park. This was largely very thick rainforest. We saw many elephant droppings on the road but we did not sight a wild elephant. This would have been a worthy addition to the mammal list on my database! We also drove through a tiger zone but I was not surprised that we didnâ€™t see one. There were also signs warning to watch out for wild buffalo and several species of deer. We saw none of these because it is a fairly busy road.
At one point we stopped for a toilet break and then went for a walk through the rainforest. After half an hour downhill we came to a spectacular waterfall. The last section was very steep, 180 wooden steps as steep as a step ladder. The climb back up was very challenging and good training for next week in the Himalaya. My tendency to sweat profusely was not helped by the high humidity. And it is the dry season here in Thailand. Iâ€™d hate to go walking here in the Wet.
After another drive through the beautiful mountains we came to the Jungle Lodge. Here we had a sumptuous lunch of traditional Thai food, including more rice! Iâ€™ve eaten more rice in the last two days than I usually have in a year. After the soup and the main course we had a selection of fruit from the market.
After lunch we walked a short distance to where there were several elephants waiting to give us a ride through the rainforest. Fantastic! The ride was very peaceful. Our mahout took my camera, hopped off the elephant and proceeded to take about 20 photos of me and Vicky (the Venezuelan student) on the elephant. Vicky didnâ€™t have a camera with her but I offered to send copies to her on my return home. She gave me her email address so I must remember to send them to her.
One delightful and amusing incident as we got into the seat. Vickyâ€™s thong fell to the ground. The elephant nonchalantly reached down and retrieved it. It then handed it back to her. Should that be â€œtrunkedâ€ it back to her? Elephants donâ€™t have hands!
Feeding the Elephants
After the ride we were expected to buy our elephant a pineapple to eat. At 20 baht (about 70cents) it was a pleasure. Such gentle creatures; I stood right next to it and it gently took it from me, neatly bit off the leaves and politely chomped it up, dribbling just a little juice. I then tipped the mahout 40 baht. This also goes towards looking after the elephant.
On the ride through the rainforest I saw and heard many birds. I could not identify any of them as the experience was so overwhelming. I do remember seeing several parrots and a Blue Magpie, I think. The beauty of it all is that I get to ride another elephant at Chitwan National Park in Nepal.
Thursday 29th December 2005.
At 2pm I met my driver for the afternoon in the hotel lobby. He then set off to a nearby hotel to pick up six English tourists who were also doing the same cruise. An exciting â€“ sometimes breathtaking â€“ fifty minute drive through the traffic of Bangkok ended at the river wharf. We had to wait for about ten minutes before boarding one of Thailandâ€™s famous long boats for an hour long cruise.
These boats are incredible. The engines are huge and seem to be more suited to a bus or truck. They are mounted in such a way that the operator (captain?) is able to easily move a handle that swivels the whole engine and the attached long propeller shaft â€“ often 3 â€“ 4 metres long â€“ in order to steer the craft. These great engines are noisy, smelly and powerful, pushing the boat along at a great rate. Sometimes they seem to reach speeds of 40 â€“ 60 kph, depending on the traffic, water conditions and the load.
Transfer to a Wooden River Boat
On our cruise we didnâ€™t reach those speeds but putted along at about 15 â€“ 20 kph taking in the unfolding scenes along the bank. Part way along the motor stopped and we drifted towards the bank for about ten minutes. Eventually the driver managed to restart the motor. After the first hour of the cruise we transferred to another boat for the return journey. This was a much slower, older and more ornate wooden craft. We were served delicious fruit drinks and afternoon tea consisting of a wide variety of local fruits.
Birding in Bangkok
On the cruise I actually saw a few birds. I saw about 8 different species but havenâ€™t yet identified all of them. (Post-script: the list includes House Sparrow, Rock Dove, Spotted Turtledove, Common Myna, Great Egret, Brown Headed Gull, House Crow and Barn Swallow. The last 3 listed are first ever sightings for me, ie â€œlifersâ€. All the others I have seen in Australia.)
The cruise was interesting and quite fascinating. The river lays bare the huge social and economic gaps in this country. Tall, towering and very expensive condominiums have been built alongside broken down, decrepit shanties almost collapsing into the water.
The river also highlights the proliferation of Buddhist temples in this city. Our guide said that one tourist city in northern Thailand has far more temples than coffee shops. He also said that he feels sad about all the temples. Most Thais, he said, are very poor and very superstitious and give large proportions of their money to the temple priests. He went on to say that they did it for good luck. He said that the money was usually spent on things like gold for temple decorations rather than helping the really poor and needy.
Thursday 29th December 2005
When I awoke I was very confused. I did not expect the sun to be shining in my window. For the next three days I was constantly confused by directions. Thatâ€™s what comes from arriving in a strange city in the middle of the night.
First Non-Australian Bird
After showering and shaving I went downstairs for a lovely breakfast. The restaurant used for breakfast was open aired with a roof. While having breakfast I saw my first Thailand bird; a humble House Sparrow hopping around my feet. The choice of food for breakfast was great and it all tasted delicious. I had grilled tomato, fried rice and potato. I finished off with a very sweet banana, much sweeter than the bananas we are used to at home.
After breakfast I went downstairs to confirm my flight out and the time of the hotel pick up for Sunday. While I was at the Tour East desk I picked up a map of Bangkok. Later I also confirmed my tours for Friday and Saturday. I had booked those two tours on the internet before leaving home. I have three very early starts ahead of me catching buses at 7am, 6:15am and 7:45am. Early nights are in order.
First Impressions of Bangkok
Mid morning I went for a stroll down a nearby street. Three to four lanes of chaotic traffic and no lights means one uses the pedestrian overpass bridges to cross the street. To attempt anything else is to court disaster. Itâ€™s too busy.
I was amazed at the trade being conducted on the footpath. Every available space is utilized for selling an amazing range of goods including many food stalls. There was barely enough room for two people to pass. I managed to find a small supermarket selling bottled water.
At lunch time I used the Botanica Restaurant in the hotel. It has a lovely atmosphere with plenty of food to choose from buffet style. I ate there again tonight for dinner. Some of the food is quite spicy (for my taste) but still bearable.
Arrival in Bangkok
We touched down at 10:20pm local time (1:50am S.A. time). The airport here is enormous! I didnâ€™t count the planes as we taxied, but it must have been well over a hundred, maybe many more. It took 20 minutes to taxi to a stop, 15 minutes by bus to the terminal and then another 30 minutes through immigration. It only took 60 seconds to find my luggage. I was thankful to Simon for giving me a blue and purple strap for my case. It made the nondescript black suitcase really stand out. That plus the bright yellow Peregrine tag (provided by my travel agent) made it easy to identify it quickly.
Customs was just an easy walk straight through as I had nothing to declare. Next I was faced with finding the mini-bus driver from Tour East to take me to the hotel. At first I missed the man holding the sign with my name on it. Eventually we met up and headed off to the hotel. On emerging from the airport buildings one is immediately hit by the heat and humidity of Bangkok, even near midnight.
Bangkok at midnight is crazy. The freeway in to the hotel is three lanes of death wish drivers! I was relieved to arrive safely. (Post-script: if only I knew what was in store for me in Nepal I would not have been at all concerned!) Check in took but a few minutes and after a quick shower I fell into bed at 1:30am (5am in S.A.) I woke at 3 oâ€™clock with a sudden fright. I thought Iâ€™d slept until 3pm, but when I opened the curtain it was still dark. Iâ€™d only slept for an hour and a half. I soon went back to sleep and managed a few hours of good sleep before breakfast.