slice-of-thai.com Journal 12/13/2003-12/20/2003: Kanchanaburi

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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13 Dec 2003

Back in Bangkok, I prepare to go to Kanchanaburi (the place where they have the bridge over the river Kwai) to meet Bill, the generous farang who, as described in an earlier journal entry, did amazing things to help a bright but poor countryside high school student have a chance to get a decent technical degree in Bangkok. Although I helped translate several letters to him and exchanged emails with him, I have never actually met him in person!

Finishing my errands at 1pm, I board a 2.5 baht (6.5 cent) ordinary city bus from Siam Square bound for the Southern/Western bus terminal. The driver takes the scenic route through what seemed all of Bangkok's worst traffic spots, including Chinatown and a Chao Praya river bridge which was nowhere near the bus terminal where I was going. Eventually I get there and board a bus to Kan (Kanchanaburi).

I have some rather vague directions from Bill as to the whereabouts of his resort. I give the Thai sawng teeo (pickup truck taxi) drivers at the station the name and details. They exchange confused "never heard of it" looks with each other, looks I have seen so many times, and then one of them turns to me and confidently announces "OK we go." He wanted 200 Baht to go basically 30 km.

The sawng teeo driver is full of energy—definitely wired on something, not sure if it was natural or artificial. He talks and talks in amazingly fluent english, talks about the other guests who he took to the other place, talks about his friend who's working in Australia, and talks right past the turnoff for the resort.

After asking several people for directions, we finally pull into the resort. It's a beautiful spot very far from town, right on the river. They've built small, mushroom-shaped, one-room, glass-walled concrete bungalows right on the river bank which blend into nature fairly well. You can, if you like, wake up in the early morning, grab your fishing rod and cast into the river without even getting out of bed!

The staff are friendly but I am very confused that they don't seem to know how much their own rooms cost, which rooms are available, or anything else. I later found out this is because the resort has not actually opened yet, and some friend of the owners has referred Bill here. In fact, before they open their resort, the owners are preparing the property for a massive birthday party for some retired ex-military patriarch of their family. This is going to be a serious affair—hundreds of people attending, a huge stage set up with giant speakers and a well-known rock band, catered food and of course lots of kissing up to the big man. Fortunately the party won't be for another 10 days, so Bill and I won't not be bothering the staff too much.

The resort is set up with all the stuff Thai tourists seem to love. There's nature, but as if that's somehow not good enough, there's also a big American-Old-West-style main house with a giant, computerized video/mp3 karaoke system, disco lights, pool tables, a stuffed water buffalo head mounted on the wall, and other distractions. The karaoke plays just loud enough to be annoying in even the most distant huts, again reminding me that Thai and farang tourists have a fundamentally different idea about what constitutes a getaway from city life. The owner assures me that it's just Friday and Saturday that are karaoke night at the resort. I take one look at the drunk twenty-somethings manning the audio equipment, and go file through my backpack for a weeklong supply of earplugs.

Bill takes me in his rental car to a cool restaurant about 10km outside of Kan called Krua Pakdee. This place serves a huge variety of dishes, and over the next days we would sample:

That evening there is a gathering of Thais eating little snack stuff and drinking whisky at the resort's main house. There's family members and resort staff. All ages and genders are represented. It is common for Thais to display outward signs of deference such as waiing each other, bending their heads down as they pass an elder, or saving a seat or other convenience for an elder, but for some reason this particular group is taking it to an extreme. Every time a new Thai shows up, the intricate mesh of wais and counter-wais establishes the pecking order within seconds. Sometimes little slipups or ambiguities would set off entirely new waves of wais across the whole social spectrum. Later I would understand that these are the sons and daughters of the big man for whose birthday party everyone is preparing. I can't imagine what it will be like when he shows up. Maybe they will spend the first hour or two waiing each other.

One particularly sycophantic teenage boy can hardly sit still in his chair and talk to his friends because he's obsessively watching over the whisky glass of the older man across from him. Each time the glass reaches exactly 4.28% full, he dutifully springs up, fetches more spirits and ice into the glass, and proffers the glass to his superior, the elbow of his extended arm meekly supported by his other hand in the traditional servant posture. When he dares to speak, he sprinkles his sentences with polite particles. The kid is walking on eggshells. I get the feeling that either he is in deep trouble now and is trying to make amends, or that he fears he will be beaten severely if he steps out of line.

A fourty-ish Thai man "plays the game" at the table for a while and then, suitably drunk, comes over to talk to me in fluent (though slurred) English. He doesn't fit the pattern of the others. He lived in Los Angeles for many years where he ran various businesses. Now he runs a large-format inkjet sticker printing shop in Bangkok (he did some of the advertising that plasters the full height and length of the outside of the Bangkok elevated train cars). He brought up some very nice, expensive lighted signs and stickers for his friends at the new resort. He is in the melancholy stage of his drunkenness, but he eventually gets past the generic woes such as "now my life is shit, my Thai is shit, my English is shit" and explains that since his return to Thailand, his family and "friends" have placed some very high expectations on him. Now he cannot tell which of them are really his "friends" and which just want stuff from the "rich" Thai who used to live in America. I wonder if that distinction would ever have occurred to him if he had spent those years as a successful businessman in Thailand instead of America.

A separate group of young adults plays with the karaoke computer and drum machine. I talk with them for a bit. They're pretty bored. They'd rather be partying in Kan, or even better Bangkok, and they find this whole middle of nature thing kind of dull. But it's a job. And after all you need a staff of 10 for a resort that hasn't even opened yet!

14 Dec 2003

Today Bill and I do some touring around the natural features of Kanchanaburi province.

We pass a large area clearly marked in English as a national animal preserve. But on our way in, two soldiers stop us. They don't speak English and Bill tries to communicate with them in Thai. Even short sentences seem problematic, so the soldier really sums it all up by noting that the animal preserve "mai mii sat"— has no animals at all. In fact it would appear to be an army base. I wonder what kind of boondoggle is going on here. Perhaps they got to do some target practice and also collect government grants for doing such a good job of preservation :)

We head up to an interesting multi-room cave, Dowadung cave, where our flashlights spot two large snakes gliding effortlessly up an almost completely vertical, slippery rock wall. Amazing. The crude map of the cave outside the entrance tells us that there were 4 or 5 more rooms than we found, some with little or no oxygen. On our way out we notice that the Thai tourists all decided to climb down the slippery, steep entrance "stairs" barefoot.

We visit the Hellfire Pass monument, a really elaborate memorial set up by the Australian government. There is a large museum with a beautiful view, full-color brochures and guides explaining everything in fluent English, and a steep but well-marked trail down to the monument. Hellfire Pass is one tiny part of a 415-km Burma-Thailand railroad that the Japanese were trying to construct during World War II using Australian, British, American, and other prisoners of war as labor. The monument itself is a giant cutting in solid rock and the name refers to the hellish conditions of the POWs (perhaps as many as 16,000 of whom died) dynamiting and picking/shoveling the rock at all hours with hammers and chisels.

At the monument, we meet a proud Australian caretaker/manager who is busy removing all of the Thai flags that people have stuck into the crevices of the rocks, leaving the Austrailian and American ones. "Yeah well it'd be ok if the Thais were actually there, ya know?" Apparently, there is pretty significant disagreement between the official Thai and Australian accounts of history. The Thai monument stones near the site describe large numbers of Thai and POW casualties. But, based on testimony from surviving Australian POWs, he believes pretty strongly that there were few, if any, Thais being abused like the Allied POWs, and that the Thais in the area lived off of the POWs and other laborers by selling them basic goods like cigarettes and food at high prices. There were certainly a lot of "asian laborers," as many as 200,000 of whom 80,000 died. As one somewhat passionate website explains:

By early 1943[,] disease, starvation and overwork had so depleted the prisoner's work force that the Japanese were forced to hire 200,000 Asian coolies to help finish the railway. Many of these impressed laborers, who were predominately Chinese, Malay, Tamil and Burmese met with fates worse than the prisoners. It is thought that at least 80,000 of these laborers met unfortunate and untimely deaths but the number could even be as high as 150,000 as no records of them were kept.
We visit Sai Yok Yai, the well-developed waterfall that is the second-biggest tourist attraction in the area after the Bridge over the River Kwai in town. The waterfall itself is only about 20 feet high, but it is nice going to a cool place. The water falls right into the river, so there's no shore where you can stand under the falls. No problem though—a perfect opportunity for Thai ingenuity. For a fee, you and your family can rent a 15x15-foot motor-powered bamboo houseboat (or hutboat?), where father can drink his whisky, grandma can eat her som tam and the kids can play and splash in the water when the driver motors up and down stream past the falls, 2 or 3 times! The business model is so successful that there are around 10 or 15 houseboats for rent.

In the afternoon, we drop by an orphanage that Bill has helped before, and which Bill has been visiting each day during his multi-week visit to Kanchanaburi. It's sort of a new-age orphanage, like the weird grade school I went to in California. The children, many abused or abandoned, live in large family-like house units. There is a school and a library on the premises but the kids are not required to attend classes at all. If they show up, it's because they want to. Other events and activities are similarly low-pressure. Surprisingly, a large number of the kids do show up to learn. We wander around the "campus" a bit and meet a British expat who has been teaching English here for many months (?) and who also acts as the soccer coach. The kids require constant, intense effort and he is visibly exhausted, but we can also see that some part of him is thriving in this environment. A group of tiny kids and their associated kittens start following us around, begging for piggy back rides, and seemingly waiting for something. Eventually I realize it's Bill's color Palm Pilot, which has several small games where you tap on shiny baubles in certain patterns to win points. At least one or two of the kids have figured out the rules and strategy of the game; the others just like looking at the shiny baubles and hearing the sounds the unit makes when you tap on them. Interestingly, when the little kids played with the Palm, the big kids didn't seem at all annoyed that they weren't playing the game right! Bill is of two minds about whether he should have shown them this little piece of technology because he can see them getting hooked like so many other kids in the world! On the other hand, Bill is interested in finding some kind of educational and/or artistic software that will motivate these kids to learn math, science, and other subjects on the computer.

Finally, the time comes and we head over to the river for the ritual hourlong afternoon swim. Bill was originally supposed to teach some subject at the orphanage's school, maybe math, but things sort of evolved and he wound up being the official babysitter for this important event! The horde of mostly naked kids love being splashed, spun, and flown around by the strange farangs. They cannonball into the water next to us, scream and yell and climb up on us for piggy back rides. Some of the Thais, mostly women and girls, bring over their soap and sarongs and take this opportunity to have a shower as well; indeed I have noticed that for many Thais there is no real distinction between "taking a bath" and "going for a swim"—the two are always together.

15 Dec 2003

Bill gives me a ride into town today, where I rent a motorbike and do errands. I just missed the annual sound and light festival at the Death Railway Bridge, where they are busy breaking down huge scaffoldings from the event.

I visit 3 different travel agencies trying to book one of the new super-cheap (999 baht) Bangkok to Chiang Mai flights, but it appears that 2400 baht Thai Airways has exclusive agreements with every travel agency in the country and I would have to try my luck at Bangkok airport later! I waste a lot of time in internet cafes trying to find the phone number of these new budget airlines (one of which is owned by the Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who, after using his political position to force Thai Airways to do an expensive survey of which routes need more service, started up his own airline to compete with Thai Airways on those routes!). I waste a lot of phone minutes trying to call the budget airlines but they put you on hold and almost never answer their phone. On one occasion, the airline employee actually answers her phone and I attempt to make a booking. But when it comes time to spell my name in English over the horrible-quality connection with her almost nonexistant English, it is so futile that she gives up and hangs up on me.

At one internet cafe, while repeatedly dialing an airline, I talk with the employee in Thai. She makes most of her living as a whisky girl at one of the local bars: she dresses in skimpy whisky-company-branded clothes and tries to entice customers into the bar and entice them to purchase lots of her brand of whisky. She finds this job rather unsatisfying and so took up a job at an internet cafe in the hopes of talking with the customers and learning English. Unfortunately she failed to consider that people in an internet cafe are paying for their time and don't want to chat with the staff, and are busy talking to someone on the internet anyway, so nobody actually ever talks to her. Oh well.

At one of the internet cafes I keep getting sidetracked by a new form of website popup window I had never considered before—a window pops up with a big picture of the Thai King with a caption saying how great he is. I wonder, if I installed a popup blocker on these computers, if I would be guilty of lese majesty.

I ride my motorbike back the resort and arrive shocked to find huge, huge speakers set up on the outdoor stage, and some semi-drunk 20-something thais rambling on with an electric guitar. I assume I will need to find another place to stay until around 11pm when they disassemble the speakers. Whew, just a rehearsal for the big party.

16 Dec 2003

Today's mission is to visit the local hot springs on my motorbike. Since the hot springs are much better when it's cool outside, and since they are more than 100km away, I get up at 5:30 and am off on my motorbike, wearing every jacket, shirt, and pant that I brought with me to Thailand, at 6am. Despite the layers, the trip is super-cold, and the second half of the trip introduces thick fog and dew, which accumulates on my helmet's visor so that I have to stop and wipe it off every 2-3 minutes or so. However, as always seems to be the case, once I arrive and plunge into the wonderfully warm pool with steam rising above me, all that pain is forgotten in an instant.

The hot spring consists of a small natural source feeding into a swimming-pool-sized stone pool which they built under a large shade tree right along the river. When I arrive, there are already 10 or 15 bathers, but there is still plenty of room. The hot water from the ever-filling pool trickles out of the pool, over a 20' long, 6' wide stone patio and falls directly into the frigid cold river flowing beside us. If you want, you can alternate between really hot and really cold, or hang out on the stone patio while warm water flows underneath your body. An old lady has been capitalizing on this setup for many decades now by giving massages to people on the deck. I get a massage from her, though I think she used to play guitar because she really seems to love plucking and twanging every muscle, bone, and tendon accessible from outside my body. At times relaxing at at times distressing, my massage continues while I talk in Thai with an uncharacteristically outgoing Thai woman in a bikini waiting for the next massage. Her clothes, speech, and body movements are such a contrast with the conservative Kan folks around that she attracts attention from every corner. She tells me she's from Pattaya where she "sells puppies to farangs who buy them for their girlfriends." Hmm.

The water from the source is cordoned off in a separate, 2'x3' concrete-walled tank with a little roof and a wire mesh wall to keep out leaves, birds, etc. There is a small hole where you can reach your hand in with a water bottle to collect some of the water. The Thais here are all convinced that this water is super-clean, clean enough to drink! I'm not so sure about that.

There are two sets of signs in Thai and (sort of) English detailing the hot spring rules. In addition to the usual "hours of operation" and "no running," there are stern rules against "lady with mens" (period) bathing in the pool. I found it interesting that the Thais would have such a hangup about this subject, moreso than most Westerners that I know. But at the same time, the Thais have no problem printing huge, detailed public signs about the subject, when most Westerners would be too conservative and sheepish about body parts to even hint at it on a sign visible in a public place, for fear of being sued by some right-wing organization.

I sit in the pools, swim in the river, and hang out for 4 hours. Then I pop up to the requisite strip of nearby restaurants where I have a rather boilerplate conversation with a stout German guy with a young Thai woman in tow. He tells me all about how the women are so much cheaper in the Philipines where he spends his other vacation time, and how it's a shame that the USA wastes so much time "giving money to za jews" in Isreal. Hmm.

On my way back, I notice 3 or 4 more hot springs and decide one day to come back here and explore them all!

With much pain in the posterior, I complete the long motorcyle ride (some parts at 90kph, a first and probably last for me) back to the resort and check out. They didn't really keep track of my laundry or meal charges and even though I offer them the details they decide to just not charge me! I bike even further back to Kanchanaburi, return the bike and when my bus back to Bangkok is just about to leave the station I realize that I forgot to return the motorbike key. In a rush I call the motorbike lady who only speaks Thai and wants me to bring the key back but it's too late. I can't really communicate with her in the seconds which remain and I spend most of the bus trip worrying about whether they will come get the key from the station and whether they know which of the two stations to look at. I notice a solidier with a cellphone sitting in the bus seat behind me and explain my situation as well as I could in Thai. He probably would be willing to lend me his phone, but instead he sums up the whole situation as it really is in the Thai view: "mai bpenrai."

17-20 Dec 2003

I take an early taxi to Bangkok airport. This was the fastest taxi trip I have ever taken since opted for the expressway (+40B) and the tollway (+30B); it's amazing how quickly you can get there if you need to. I easily get a 999 B plane ticket to Chiang Mai at the airport. I meet my friend Geoff in Chiang Mai and stay at his house for a few days.

Over the next days we would geek out on his computer, see the Lord of the Rings 1 and 2 at home, see Lord of the Rings 3 in the theater at the local modern westernized shopping mall, eat at lots of random markets, and generally hang out.

I did a 3-4 hour solo hike at Doi Suthep National Park from one waterfall to another, much higher one. I did a lot of wandering around town. I came across an interesting synagogue/restaurant/youth hostel for Israeli tourists and expats, serving Kosher food and having special events from the Jewish calendar. I also ate at Whole Earth, a Thai/Indan restaurant in a beautiful garden setting with a large, luxurious teak house. The food was very beautifully adorned and fairly good, though I felt a little awkward at this place because the staff was trained to wai and bow and be generally obsequious to an unnerving extent.

21 Dec 2003

I board the 3rd class bus through the windy mountain roads back to Pai, a place I visited on a previous trip.

At this point my trip to Thailand completely changes in nature. I switch out of tourist mode and try out a plan I have had brewing in my head for some time. I want to find a place in Thailand where I can stay comfortably for a long time, relax a lot, and also continue to develop my small software business (http://word-in-the-hand.com and a few other projects) over the Internet in order to fund my cost of living.

I would stay in Pai for at least the next 4 months, renting a house outside of town by the month, getting to know the local Thais and expats better than I ever did on previous trips, and taking only a few short side trips out of town.

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get the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
get the best chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.
See AlsoYou'll probably also like these sites...
allaboutpai.com
A site about Pai, my peaceful home in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
lurkertech: video tech and diversions
Buzzword bingo, bill the borg, MEZ, lurker's guide to video, and Thai, oh my!
mapfling.com: free custom maps with your own labels
Party? Meeting? Request a map, label it yourself, and easily fling it to your friends!
world's stupidest everything
See some of the worst the world has to offer, and add some of your own!

World's Stupidest Holiday and Birthday Presents - stupidest-presents.com
World's Stupidest Wedding Websites - stupidest-wedding-sites.com
World's Stupidest Baby Websites - stupidest-baby-sites.com
World's Stupidest TV, Movie, Music, and Sports Stars - stupidest-stars.com
World's Stupidest Politicians - stupidest-politicians.com
World's Stupidest TV Shows - stupidest-tv-shows.com
World's Stupidest Movies - stupidest-movies.com
World's Stupidest Blogs - stupidest-blogs.com
World's Stupidest Websites - stupidest-websites.com
World's Stupidest Company Websites - stupidest-company-sites.com
thailand your way
Travel with my friend Nang, who is a great nature, birding, and cultural guide.
jeed illustration
My English-fluent Thai friend Jeed is a freelance illustrator who is available for hire.
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