Lat Ya to Bangkok via Nam Tok (Kanchanaburi Province)

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Sometimes when you travel, you make a bad call. Today was one of those days.
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I had read that the Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok train ride along the Death Railway was scenic and interesting. I also read that it only took two hours and was a common day trip from Bangkok. Let me get this out there right off the bat – it was not terribly scenic or interesting. As for being only two hours? I had been lulled into a false sense of security: Thailand is still a developing nation and time is not linear here.
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We spent more than ten long hours on the train today. It is ten hours of our lives we will never get back.
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Yes, there were interesting moments, like watching the big trestle bridge go past as we rounded a bend in the river (note, this is only less than 5 minutes of the entire train journey) and watching a group of ladies doing aerobics in a railway station carpark. But the scenery was the same as we have at home and there were certainly plenty of better things we could have done with our day.
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As I wrote the first part of this post this we were still an unknown distance from Bangkok on the train back from Nam Tok. It was almost 8pm and we had boarded the beast at 10:30am in Kanchanaburi to travel out to Nam Tok where we hopped back on board to travel back to Bangkok via Kanchanaburi. The train was to arrive in Bangkok at 5:30pm, leaving us an evening of ferry rides, dinner, massages and a nice hotel.

I guess this is all part of the travel adventure. One day when we are more experienced at this travel caper, we will look back and laugh. But I can tell you this: I am not a railway man. Give me planes, motorbikes, cars and bicycles any day of the week. I want to choose where I travel and when without finding myself stuck to someone else’s timetable (or lack there-of).

We arrived at our hostel in Bangkok after 9pm. After a quick shower we treated ourselves to an oil massage. It helped us to unwind and also to talk about how we can avoid this type of thing happening in future. Most of that conversation went around my needing to be less tight fisted with money, which was a fair call. It turns out that if we had spent 1,600 baht we could have been back in Bangkok within about three hours instead of six (which cost us just 200 baht). It would have been worth it. Also, next time we pay to do something scenic and find ourselves bored with the experience, we will just call it a wash and forgo the cost of the scenic activity (i.e. the Nam Tok train).

Travel is an adventure. Sometimes in adventures things don’t go according to plan. On every trip I’ve taken this year there has been that moment when I realise I should have done things differently. And every time I hope I learn from the mistake.

Rest day in Lat Ya (Kanchanaburi Province)

After walking over 120km in a week, neither of us could be bothered going anywhere today. I had a bad night feeling frustrated and stuck by some things in my life (yes, even those of us who seemingly have everything have frustrations in our lives) and Paul was worn out from the emotional experience of going to all the war graves. So we agreed to just go with the flow and see what happened.

After a leisurely breakfast we strolled into Lat Ya and walked some backstreets we hadn’t been down before. We both wanted a massage and were sure that even little Lat Ya would have a massage shop. After-all, this is Thailand. We weren’t wrong either. There, tucked away down a little alley in a non-descript house was a familiar image on a sign. It’s the same stock photo used by so many massage places at home in Australia: a lady lying on her stomack with a smile on her face and a purple flower in her hair with hands massaging her shoulders. We mimed hands massaging our arms to the lady in the shop, which resulted in a fairly standard conversation:

“Oil massage?” she asked.
“Thai massage” we said.
“300 baht” … “okay”.

She phoned her friend to come over to help because she and the other masseuse were both busy with clients. By the time she finished, her friend arrived and we were ushered in to lay on our backs on the massage bed. The bed was just a long low wooden shelf where three of us (another client) all laid while the masseuses went about their business. This is probably my favourite thing about Thailand so far: massages. The going rate is between 250-300 baht ($10-12.50) per hour and we noticed that the local lady leaving as we entered paid the same 300 baht as we did.

Thai massages are not exactly for the feint hearted. The ladies who use their elbows, fingers, feet and knees to great effect to find knots in muscles you didn’t even know you had. Nothing is off limits: shins, calves, inner thighs, armpits and necks. We’ve had the masseuses contorting our bodies into strong stretches and walking on our backs. But every time I leave, I feel so good. My muscles are terribly tight so I often jump a bit during the massage but I think a month of massages will do me a world of good.
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Bodies rejuvenated we stepped back onto the street. Paul mentioned a cake shop he had seen a couple of days ago and I readily agreed. Y’s House Cake and Coffee was amazing! The iced chocolate was rich and strong. This was no watered down semi-sweetened cocoa and sugar mix but actual chocolate. As for the cakes, well, I’ll let the pictures above speak for themselves.
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We returned to our hotel for some down time and to watch a TV series I bought from iTunes. After about three hours we thought it might be time for some fruit so we walked out to go to the local fruit stall for some pineapple. But the lady wasn’t there. Instead, there was a small farmers’ market set up across the road.

WWII memorials and a temple cave (Kanchanaburi)

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We weren’t sure what to expect from Kanchanaburi. When we arrived by train a couple of days ago, the town seemed small and utilitarian. So it came as a surprise when our mini bus drove past the train station and kept going for another 5km to the bus station to drop us off in the middle of a bustling regional city. The bus station area was crazy hectic with taxi trucks and motorbike taxis and unmarked “taxis” all vying for our baht. Having just arrived and being fans of walking, we politely declined all offers off “where you want to go?” and set off on foot.

We decided to walk to the Chungkai War Cemetery and a nearby wat that had a cave system underneath it. The 5km walk took us past the city’s old gate where a woman was praying at a shrine. A small wat glistened in the middle of the road where it looked like it had been plopped despite the traffic. We walked across the river where houseboats lined the banks. And then we were out on the open road walking past rice paddies and wild gardens. It was hot on the open road. It made me think about how hard the life of the POWs and local prisoners who built the railway must have been; at least it was dry today.
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Chungkai War Cemetery is a moving place. It’s situated between the main road and the river just outside the Kanchanaburi city limits. There were no tourists there when we arrived and the few who turned up later were quiet and reverent. The number of unnamed soldiers buried here was moving. I think that would have been the worst for families who lost loved ones in the war: never knowing what happened.
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After leaving the cemetery we continued our walk further away from town towards a wat that had caves under it. The wat’s road entrance is relatively subdued. There is a slightly run down looking temple building and some cute puppies along with an old sign announcing the caves. The entrance from the river side is much more lively, with market stalls, a big gold Buddha statue and new signage. Obviously, this is the preferred entry for many tourists. But don’t be fooled by the low key road entry. The caves are worth a visit. The narrow passageways are dotted with Buddha statues and candles. The smell of incense lingers on the stale and musty air. In places we almost have to crawl through low hanging entrances and squeeze between closely spaced gaps. It’s at once adventurous and spiritual.
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Rather than walk the 10km back to the Bridge Over the River Kwai, we hire a longboat. I am sure we paid too much but am not a tough negotiator and he had all the power because we didn’t want to walk all the way. The boats massive motor pushed us quickly down the tree-lined river. It bounced over the small ripply waves that had been blown up by the wind and, at times, felt like a burst of wind would blow it over. It was pretty cool to approach the infamous bridge from the water and see it in its full glory. Sure, it’s not the original bridge (obviously because that was blown up in the war) and it’s not in the original location, but it’s what the bridge symbolises that gives it meaning. We joined the tourist throng on the bridge, walking across and back, before checking out the JEATH museum. The museum is actually in two parts: the war between Thailand and Burma, and the WWII museum. The museum depicting the war between Thailand and Burma is definitely the best part. A mural that covers five floors shows the story of the Kanchanaburi region as the focal point for a conflict that has gone on for centuries. There are painted murals showing Thailand’s kings and an interesting piece about how the Thais originally came down from Mongolia in the Khmer era, always moving further south to find a new land of their own before settling in this area. The JEATH museum itself was okay but seemed to be an eclectic collection of items all dumped into rooms without any real interest shown by the curator. It is a “more is better” approach, rather than a “select the best pieces to tell a story” approach. But it is worth a look if you want to see many artefacts from the war.

Walking through Kanchanaburi’s seedy streets where white men of all ages sat in their drunken stupors, eyes glazed over and voices loud, made me feel embarrassed and ashamed. I can’t imagine what local Thais must think of our countries and people. Just as we in the west judge all Asians by those who live in or visit our countries, so too do the locals in the lands we visit judge our entire nations by the way tourists behave. Especially in places where it is unlikely the locals will ever be able to afford to visit our homes to see that we are not all red-eyed drunk and loud.
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After the shock of my first time in a real proper tourist strip, the Commonwealth War Cemetery was almost eerily quiet. The gardens and plaques are immaculate. The gardeners tending the garden worked with a delicacy and reverence that was touching. It was quiet despite the hectic surrounds. It made me sad to see such wasted life, especially given conflict and war continues today. Will we ever learn from our history or are we doomed to repeat it?
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After an emotional day, we took our first Thai bus ride back to Lat Ya. The buses here are colourfully decorated and filled with lots of fans to keep the air flowing. It wasn’t as hectic as I expected and, at just 15 baht a person, cost just one tenth of a taxi ride.
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We arrived back at Lat Ya just as the sun was setting to walk our final short 500m to the hotel.

A day in Lat Ya (Kanchanaburi province)

After wondering whether we’d made a mistake in coming all the way out here to what felt like the middle of nowhere we woke to discover that our hotel is actually a tranquil resort set right on the banks of the River Kwai. A buffet breakfast of Thai food and some interpretations of Western breakfast as available in the restaurant overlooking a quiet bend in the river. I was grateful for the toast with jam given my stomach’s delicate situation.
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Not knowing what to expect from the day, we started to walk into the town that we discovered is called Lat Ya. Close to our hotel we came to the Shinto Memorial Garden to commemorate all those who lost their lives on the Death Railway. The garden was a moving tribute to the Allied soldiers and local labourers who perished in that terrible time. Open to the public this garden is maintained by a private group of people who are not funded by any government and to whom no donations can be made. I felt deeply moved during our stay in the garden. It really brought home the important role that all sides in a conflict play in bringing peace. It is only when there is acknowledgement of wrongs and forgiveness of pain that all can be at peace in a place that has seen such violence.
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With no real destination in mind, we wandered the streets of Lat Ya. The township is relatively small and straddles a major highway through Central Thailand. It’s nestled in a basin between some mountain ranges so the days here have been hot. This town is in the midst of a transition from traditional housing and street shops to modernisation. There’s a large Tescos supermarket next to a new strip of shops that will probably open in the coming weeks. Near our hotel there is a new apartment building and an artist’s impression showing modern strip shops underneath. There are some large mansions in the side streets and shiny new mid-sized cars and SUVs in the driveways of even the more modest houses. But it’s still traditional at the same time with shrines, shops selling flowers and incense, and roadside food stalls.
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There is also a large Wat complex here that appears to be a school. As in so many other places we’ve been to this week, the gardens are immaculate and delicately designed to give colour, shape, structure and calm. Speaking of immaculate and delicate – Paul stopped at a barber shop for a haircut. Watching the barber work was like watching Mr Miagi from The Karate Kid meditate. He moved slowly and deliberately, making sure not to leave any stray hairs as he clippered Paul’s hair off. After the head hair was cut, he tipped the chair back and used a straight blade to shave Paul’s face, ears and nose hairs. And all for the grand sum of 70 baht (less than $AU/US3).
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We ended the day with dinner at our hotel. We weren’t sure what to expect but the setting was pretty, the menu had both English translation and pictures, and the prices were the same as we have been paying at street-side restaurants. My stomach was still feeling unsettled so I opted for French fries instead of rice (you know how it is after food poisoning, anything that even remotely resembles that which you ate immediately beforehand becomes totally unpalatable regardless of whether it was the culprit or not). The vegetables were amazing, the chips perfectly crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, and the garlic pepper beef delicious.

Bangkok to Kanchanaburi (Central Thailand)

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After our three days in Bangkok it’s time to go explore something new. We could probably spend a whole month just hanging out in Bangkok walking it’s many streets, catching ferries, eating food and having Thai massages. But there’s no sense getting comfortable; Thailand is a big country with lots to see. And so we pack our gear and take the ferry up the river to stop 11: Thonburi Station. The walk from the pier to the station takes about fifteen minutes but we have packed light for this trip and it is no problem. There is a market across the road from the station but it is still too early for it to be pumping. It’s smelly and there are lots of big rats around. That’s just part of being in Thailand I guess.
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We had been told that the train departed at 1pm and that we needed to be at the station at least an hour beforehand to purchase tickets. However, the train actually departs Thonburi at 1:55pm and it is a quiet station where you can buy tickets quickly and easily. With about two hours to spare, we went for a walk to explore some more wats. We started by heading back to the river where neither of us know how we missed the “floating” wat when we first walked past. It was beautiful, sitting in the middle of a man-made pond of chrystal clear water. After returning to the station we walk in the opposite direction and come across another gorgeous wat that appears to be a school for young monks. Boys with shaved heads and orange robes buy soft drinks and pens from a little stand within the wat’s walls. Others sit talking with older people dressed in regular clothes.
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Back at the railway station, we watch men washing a train that will depart before ours. And then it is time to board our wagon. Seating is unallocated so we chose the soft seats in the front car, rather than the wooden seats further back in the train. From here I can watch the locomotive being coupled on too.
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And then we are finally underway. If it weren’t for the foreign tourists, this train would be very quiet indeed. A gaggle of girls from the UK and Australia (guessing by their accents and body language) fill most of our carriage. Half of them couldn’t even lift their heaving packs onto the racks, so full and heavy was their luggage. I know they might be traveling for a year but I simply can’t imagine carting a 70-80L backpack around with me. I have certainly learned a bit since Korea when I carried too much gear on my bike and am now down to a lightweight 30L pack that is easy to throw on the bag rack.

The three hour train journey takes us past urban housing, mansion estates, rural farm land and wats. Kanchanaburi is only about 125km from Bangkok so we’re not really fully into the country because there are many towns along the way. But we still get a glimpse of rural Thailand with its rice paddies and banana plantations.

We make two mistakes when we arrive in Kanchanaburi. Firstly, we don’t take any of the taxis from the station and then don’t know how to identify them out here. Taxis here are not cars but mini trucks and motorbikes. Secondly, we thought our hotel was only about 5km from the city centre (or at least, that’s what told us) but it ends up being over 25km away in the village of Lat Ya. We end up paying two motorbike taxis 150baht each to get us there. They refuse to negotiate and it’s not until we arrive that I know why. 25km is a long way to ride a scooter with two big western guys with backpacks as passengers.
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We feel like we are in the middle of nowhere. But at the same time, I have learned that when your travels take you somewhere you don’t expect, they might just be taking you where you need to be. We are a little disappointed to be all the way out here with no idea how to get around and no transport. And then we walk down the road to a little restaurant that is marked on Google Maps. The menu is only in Thai and no one speaks English but there are pictures and we have a translation app. Before long we are tucking into an amazing meal of chicken, snow peas and fried rice. This has to be the yummiest meal we’ve eaten here so far. It’s a pity that I stop at another shop on the way back to our hotel and buy some milk that will cause me some intense discomfort later in the night.