Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Takes me one step closer to the edge and I'm about to break

Our idyllic boat ride on the river ended at the famous Bridge on the River Kwai. Now, here is an interesting bit of trivia. After the movie came out, tourists showed up in Thailand wanting to see the bridge. Well, there wasn't a bridge over the River Kwai. The author of the book had gotten that detail wrong, right bridge, wrong river. So what did the Thais do?

I thought they must have built another bridge. No, they were far more resourceful than that. They renamed the river that did have the WWII bridge built over it by the POWs. Now the Mae Khlung River has been rechristened the Kwae Yai, "Big Kwai" and it joins the original Kwai to the south.

Oh, those clever Thais.

Speaking of clever, we also visited the bathroom next to the River Kwai. Amusingly, I had read that often the folks posted at such bathroom entrances who ask for a small fee to use the facilities have no actual claim to it, but that people pay, so why shouldn't they ask? Of course, it is possible that they did have the right to ask for it. You never know. We paid 5 baht without demurring; all of 15 cents. Note the classy Winnie the Pooh wrapping paper, which was all over Thailand for some reason. I appreciated that they also used the bathroom to store the additional store of sodas they had for sale.

Wandering up to the actual bridge, there was an absolute crush of tourists. The kids were waylaid for photographs, of course, and I was pulled aside for an "interview" by a Thai University student who was taking an Advanced English class and needed a victim. I gladly filled out the form (Where were we from, what had we seen in Thailand, did we like Thailand, did we like Thai food? And so forth,) and posed for a couple of photos with the interviewer. Bethy momentarily lost a shoe walking across a freshly painted piece of plywood. Then, as Mike was walking with Thomas on his shoulders, he stepped wrong on a funnily formed curb and went down.

He bellowed a decidedly non-preschool word and after a moment slowly stood back up, at which point he turned a worrisome shade of gray.

There was teeth gritting and grinding, and he said he thought perhaps he'd broken his toe.

You lucky folks at home who got the nice "souvenir" photo from Mike's mobile phone know that that's exactly what he did. I'll spare the rest of you, but be assured, over the next few hours and days it swelled in nauseating ways and turned exciting shades of angry purple , top and bottom.

Being the tough guy that he is, we went on the bridge before trying to hunt down a pharmacy, he determinedly carrying both Thomas and our bags of laundry.

The bridge itself had been bombed several times by the Allies, and historically, it was a thrilling place to be. Physically it was very uncomfortable, and I didn't even have a broken toe.

Here I must confess something to you: I am afraid of heights. Flying is just fine, airplane, helicopter, great, but heights that I can imagine someone falling off of, ugh. I would probably have been relatively OK on the bridge except that it was a completely unmodified train bridge and the kids were with us.

The kids falling bit is what sends my bowels into a spiral. There were no railings, no ropes, no nothing to keep someone from falling a very, very long way if they erred. When we were walking out on it it wasn't bad beyond that initial ooh eek, except when the train was coming through and people were hurrying to get on the sides of the bridge.

Going back was a nightmare. I would surely have forbidden the kids to play on such a bridge if we had one like it near home. As it was, there were throngs of tourists pressing and pushing to walk along the famous bridge. People would stop and pose in groups for goofy photographs, and others. impatient or scared, would shove and push. A few idiots climbed the thatched bamboo lookout towers, and I wished we'd never gone out there.

At one point there was a woman walking dead center across the bridge. Generally a coward like myself kept one foot in the nice solid middle and the other on the rails to the side to let another person pass, and the other person would do the same, and there was room for that if everyone cooperated. Most people were OK with that compromise. I was smiling nicely, to fake it to myself as well as others, and I politely murmured "excuse me," to this roadblock. "Excuse me?!" she spat at me in some sort of slavic-esque accent, "where do you expect me to go?!"

Under duress, I didn't manage my counting to ten. I half closed my eyes and walked far too close to the edge for my comfort level, refusing to look down and see the water far below us, plus the iron girders we'd probably bounce off of on the way down. I was dragging Bethy by the hand, she fighting me; "Mom, you're holding too tight!!!" Through clenched teeth I snapped back at the woman, "they're called manners, you should try them."

Finally we made it back to solid ground and I had had enough of the bridge on the River Kwai to last me a lifetime. And then some.

Thomas and jackfruit. Durian, bananas and oranges in background

We weren't sure which way to walk to get into town and tried a couple of ways, finally setting on the more traveled way. We were startled to see a young leashed leopard on a table alongside the road. We gawked for a moment and then petted it, (no charge for petting, 100 baht for photo!) the handlers told us. It was a lovely creature from the local Safari attraction. Not as soft as a housecat, but absolutely gorgeous spots and luminous eyes. Then I saw a vender offering the notorious durian, which I've been dying to try forever.

Weighing between 2-7 lbs, and up to 1 foot long, the durian looks very much like an ancient weapon. I can easily see someone being bludgeoned to death with its wicked spikes and heavy mass. It closely resembles a club and those spikes are sharp indeed. Then there is the fruit inside. Even intact, you can really smell a durian. I thought it smelled good, if indescribably strong, in my mind closest to a really ripe cantelope. People have compared it to everything from almond custard to vomit, and either adore or are revolted by them. Durian are banned in hotels all across SE Asia, along with things like flammable liquids, so of course I had to try a slice of one.

Mike was totally grossed out even at a distance. The fruit had a sort of creamy texture, odd but not bad. We took a photo for proof, been there, done that.

I rewrapped the rest of the slice in plastic wrap and put it in the backpack but later had to find a discrete disposal spot for it as the odor got stronger and stronger. The backpack smelled for a couple of days after that. That's some powerful fruit!

Mike limped off down the road and we finally found a pharmacy where he made himself understood. I bought the kids, who were begging for snacks anyway, popsicles for the sticks, just in case, and, admittedly, to stop their whining. There were other snacks on the shelves but, as Thomas pointed out and watched gleefully for several minutes, the stream of ants kept me from considering them too seriously.

Mike taped his broken big toe to the one next, took a bunch of painkillers, then shrugged it off as all he could do about it.

What a guy, huh?

We realised that, not really knowing where we were going we could be walking forever, and as little legs of the two kids and broken toe do not make for great walking holidays in general, hailed a funny looking vehicle. A motorcycle attached to a wheeled, canopied sort of frame, with an "L" of padded bench. No one could then, or later, tell me what it was called. But wheels are wheels, the show must go on, the driver negotiated a fare and took us to the JEATH war museum, first dropping our laundry off at a nondescript place for 20 baht a kg. I snapped a photo of the location as we drove away, desperately hoping we'd be able to be reunited with our clothing the next day.

Along the way were many folks riding double, triple on the motorbikes, others carrying umbrellas for shade, and this couple doing both:

Apparently the traffic lights in Kanchanaburi are, like many traffic annoyances in SE Asia, merely suggestions. Those who dared go through the cross street on green lights as our driver ran the reds received a shake of his fist. Those morons.

The JEATH Museum was odd, a little shabby and worn, and heartrending. Not large, a long thatched bamboo hut like the Allied POWs had. The wind rattled the roof the entire time we were there. The name "JEATH" comes from the five major nationalities, Japan, England, Australian, Thailand and Holland involved in the building of the Death Railway between Bangkok and Rangoon. The most conservative estimates are that 100,000 prisoners of war and Asian laborers died working on it in the jungle during the Japanese occupation in WWII, most from starvation and overwork, and those that survived endured the most appalling conditions you can imagine. The movie barely touched on the hardships and horrors of that time, for the sake of filmgoers.

Though I took no photographs of the inside of the museum, as it was forbidden by sign after sign, I was moved by the newspaper articles, the black-and-white photographs. One in particular struck me. It depicted the worn but grateful faces of liberated prisoners, gaunt yet still alive, being served hot cups of coffee. Later I was nearly brought to tears by a letter written by a serviceman many years later, who had come back to visit Kanchanaburi. He wrote that it was as beautiful as he had remembered, not the bad times of course, but the landscape and Thai people.

Our kids were much more interested in the kittens that were climbing in and out of the exhibit, and in chasing the hens and chicks outside, which, considering the photos and paintings of rotten limbs and emaciated souls, was probably best.

We asked to be dropped off at a shopping center where, the entire time, a woman was relentlessly screaming Thai on the PA which was supposed to whip shoppers into a frenzy of buying. We could barely stand it and escaped to the street, deciding we could just wait and hope our laundry went through and we would have clean undies soon enough. Worn out we hunted down (oh glory!) a pizza place and had some of the best pizza I've tasted in Asia. Gooey cheese, mmmm.

This guy had the exact right idea about what to do with the rest of the afternoon and agreed to let me take his photo with a grin:

Tuk-tuk driver reclining in a hammock

I couldn't imagine Mike wanted to walk about on that toe much longer, and Thomas said plaintively, in his little boy voice "I'm exhausted, I'm pooped." We found a truck with benches in the back that agreed to take us back to our hotel. It had no seatbelts, of course, nor a tailgate, the driver got lost many, many times, but was extremely apologetic, and eventually we made it. Home sweet home.

1 comment:

Tanya said...

Oh my goodness I'm with you on the bridge, not the height thing as much as visions of kids toppling over the side! Well done trying durian Im not a huge fan texture wise but I dont mind the smell (and quite like the taste) which is just as well as it is often the first thing you smell walking into a supermarket many SEA countries. You managed to fit so much into your days I AM impressed esp in the heat. Cant wait for the next installment...