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Kanchanaburi

The famous “Bridge” before the tour buses arrive

We took the slow train to Kanchanaburi, famous for its “Bridge over the River Kwai”, part of the so called Death Railway which was to link Thailand and Burma. The railway was built by British and Chinese prisoners of the Japanese in the second world war and we tried to imagine things as they were back in the 1940s. To do this we had to ignore the swarms of tourists taking photos of each other posing on the single track railway, block out the undignified image of the brightly coloured Disney-style train which shunts passengers over it and back, and disregard the legions of souvenir stalls and shops and cafés which surround it. Later that evening, we also had to try and block out the “karaoke cruises” which split the peace with the sound of amateur singers belting out Chinese, Thai and Korean pop classics.

We saw the neat cemeteries of dead allied soldiers impeccably maintained by the War Graves Commission and the wilder, more flamboyant Chinese graveyards. We learnt an interesting fact: the River Kwai isn’t actually the name of the river which the bridge crosses; David Lean, the film director mistook it for a nearby river. After the success of the film and the tourists who came looking for the bridge, the Thai authorities recognised a marketing opportunity when they saw one, and changed the name of the river which flows beneath the bridge. So now there is a Nam Kwai Noi (Small River Kwai) and Nam Kwai Yai (Big River Kwai) and everybody’s happy.

E Thong Village

Indonesian batik – it gets everywhere!

Actually we came to Kanchanaburi to hire a car to take us into the Western Forest Reserve and having succeeded, we took off westwards to look for wilderness. First stop was E Thong, a village on the edge of Thailand inhabited by Burmese and Mon tribal people. L.P. describes it as an up and coming Pai, anyone who has been to both places will know that this is complete bollocks. Everything shuts at 8.30 and there was no reggae bar that I could see! We slept overlooking the village pond, and next morning Jim bought a cup of excellent coffee and I bought  a couple of Burmese longys; the traditional Burmese sarongs, although most of the women around here wear printed batik sarongs imported from Indonesia.

Thong Pha Phum

We continued on to Thong Pa Phum National Park and spent a night in a tiny bamboo hut perched out on a slope overlooking miles of primary forest. It looked as if no-one had ever stepped into it, no roads, no trails, no clearings. In the morning the sound of a troupe of gibbons whooping echoed through the tree tops and made our hearts glad.

Our little hut in the Western Forest

We spent the next night in another National Park at Phom Pee on the edge of a beautiful reservoir. Our own little bungalow was lovely, the sunset was wonderful, the staff were friendly and provided us with fried fish and rice and the place was teeming with exotic birds, so all in all we were feeling pretty happy.

Sangklaburi

We drove on to Sangklaburi a picturesque little town at the end of the same massive reservoir, linked by bamboo bridges. This week has been a particularly cold snap (by Thai standards obviously!) and we had been glad of our National Park standard issue duvets at night. But at Sangklaburi there was just one extremely thin blanket on our bed. I just knew that was not going to stop me from freezing at 5 am.

So we coughed up an extra 30bt each and got one more extremely thin blanket, after that we decided that one night wearing all our clothes in bed was really enough.  The early morning mists were very atmospheric though, and we

houses in the mon village at Sangklaburi

Houses in the Mon village at Sangklaburi

paddled out by canoe through the spectacularly broken main bridge and its low level bamboo replacement to the Mon temple with the tops of the drowned village poking eerily through the water. Sangklaburi feels very remote, but more and more lake side “resorts” are being built for a hoped for influx of Asian tourists.

We travelled on to the evocatively named Three Pagodas Pass a border post with Burma. I love the name but the pagodas are mighty disappointing and the “exciting border market” consists of stalls full of ugly chunky teak furniture and brightly lit gem stones, and no textiles to speak of!

Sai Yok National Park 

We thought we’d try another National Park and went on to Sai Yok, where we found accommodation on a floating raft down by the river near a suspension bridge. Sounds great on paper, romantic even. The reality is that the fast flowing river is used by parties of Thai school children on rafts, who are hauled upstream by long tail boats with noisy outboard motors and then left to float back in rubber inner tubes squealing and giggling as they go.

At night, a thudding generator keeps the lights on all night, as well as the karaoke machine and when all that has quietened down  there are the excruciating creaking and groaning noises made by the various roped up raft barges. It

Jim looking out for the next raft full of Russian tourists

Jim looking out for the next raft full of Russian tourists

sounds like spending a night in a factory. At 7 o’clock the raft hauling begins again and this time its parties of Russian tourists who are floating past our window chatting and laughing.

We make good our escape after one of the worst night’s sleep ever. As the next day is Sunday, we spend it dodging the drivers of large four wheel drive vehicles whizzing out from Bangkok and other cities to take their leisure time at the waterfalls and rafts of the reservoir resorts which seem to abound.

The West has been a pretty mixed experience, some wonderful, some dire. On the plus side, we’ve seen bright yellow black crested bulbuls, drongos, orioles, mynahs, sunbirds, bea eaters, Indian rollers, magpie robins, Asian fairy blue

Storks (or were they herons?)

Storks (or were they herons?)

birds, bright green leaf birds, brilliant red and striped woodpeckers, red-wattled lapwings, a great variety of kingfishers, a velvet fronted nuthatch (apparently!), egrets great and little, herons, stilts and storks, all in abundance.

We’ve spent an afternoon at an amazing ruined Khmer city of Muang Singh in beautiful parkland at a bend in the Kwai with hardly anyone else around. And this just down the river a few miles from the madness of Sai Yok.

Thailand’s National Parks – a brief and unscientific survey

13th century Khmer city west of Kanchanaburi

And we’ve done a quick survey of some of Thailand’s National Parks. They too are mixed. The entrance fee for us “farangs”  (foreigners) is five times more than for the Thais, but most don’t provide a map or any information in English. Some seem to allow indiscriminate tourism to rip through their beautiful places with no regard for wildlife but there are others where the wildlife is being well taken care of. In some places the concept of the Great Western Forest Reserve, a huge swathe of wild land on the border with Burma being preserved as a wildlife corridor, even appears to be more than just a publicity exercise.

Sunset over Khao Laem reservoir

Sunset over Khao Laem reservoir

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