Kanchanaburi Tales (Kanchanaburi, Thailand)

Fairytales no more – The Death Railway – Riverside bliss – Thai’s specialty – I ate dog meat – Tigers on drugs – Decisions, decisions…

Say it with me now, Kan-chan-a-buri.   When I first heard the name, it reminded me of a fairytale land full of dragons, knights and damsels in distress. Something like Kanchanabury Tales or The Knights of Kanchanabury…
But Kanchanaburi is anything but a fairytale land. It was here that the Japanese Army forced thousands of British, Dutch, Burmese and Malaysians to construct a massive railway during WWII. The railway spanned 415 km from Bangkok to Rangoon in Burma, allowing the Japanese to resupply their western front in Burma. The construction was originally estimated to take 5 years, but the laborers only had 16 months to build the entire railway by hand. Thousands died as a result of malnutrition, disease and lack of medical treatment and the undertaking was dubbed “The Death Railway.” The movie The Bridge on the River Kwai tells the tale of POWs struggling for survival in these horrific living conditions.
Sixty years later, Kanchanaburi was a languid river town hugging the banks of the placid River Kwai. We stayed in a thatched bungalow nestled in the riverside marshes and perched above the river on wooden stilts. Our bungalow was connected to the mainland by a rickety wooden boardwalk that cut a crooked path across the marsh to the reception desk and back to the shore. The bungalows were a variety of colors, from brown to orange to green. Each one had a small porch with a hammock and two chairs, paper-thin thatched walls, and large beds covered in mosquito nets. The river was chocolate brown and green lily pads downstream in large clumps. Children ran along the walkway laughing and playing games as the sun set over the water while fishermen crept silently along the planks with huge spears over their shoulders and massive headlamps illuminating the water below.
Each afternoon Jay and I sat on the wooden boardwalk, dangling our toes in the river and watching fishing boats paddle by. We were enjoying our first view of Thai river life, when our peace was abruptly broken by the appearance of a tugboat towing a massive barge full of Thais dancing to disco music.
I am beginning to appreciate the Thai’s knack for awarding tourists with a few minutes of perfect tranquility before smashing to pieces with loud music and outboard motors. It’s really endearing. Big barges would occasionally float by, each with its own theme: disco infernos, black tie affairs, and of course the barges blasting off-key karaoke. Ugh.
At night we walked through the small town and got dinner at the night market. For budget travelers, night markets are a godsend. Food vendors set up their small stands and offer almost any food imaginable: the usual pad thai, fried noodles, various curries, coconut-based desserts, and the most delicious meats I have ever tasted. For weeks I have been feasting on these tasty foot-long strips of chicken-on-a-strip…until Jay pointed out that no chickens have foot-long slices of white meat. He suggested I had been eating dog for the last few weeks, but my conscience refuses to acknowledge this.
We were only in Kanchanaburi for a handful of days. I spent my time going to museums about the Death Railway and Jay went to the famous “Tiger Temple” where visitors can play with tame tigers. According to other travelers’ reports, the tigers appear heavily sedated and are chained to the ground while Buddhist monks hold your hand and guide from animal to animal.
Despite the relaxation, my mind was preoccupied with the future. After weeks of island hopping and spending money like a drunken sailor, my bank account was dwindling and days were flying off the calendar. My free-spirited travel philosophy was running into hard truths: if I continued spending money at this rate I would be broke by the time I reached Saigon.
Time was also a factor. The summer heat would arrive in less than a month and the monsoon would come shortly thereafter. The problem with total freedom is that you have too many choices.
Where to go next? Should I explore more of Thailand? Maybe I should head to Laos and sail down the Mekong River. Possibly it was time to head east to Cambodia to see the temples at Angkor Wat. And what of this mysterious country across the River Kwai, the impenetrable nation of Burma? 
It was time to prioritize my destinations, do some budgeting, and try my best to maintain a steady pace on journey.
In the meantime we headed north to Chiang Mai.

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