We are still dry although more and more districts in Bangkok are being hit by the flood waters. Chinatown, which is close to the Chao Phraya River, is inundated with up to one meter of water. Yesterday, the water collapsed embankments on the west side of the river (we are on the east side) and water began to surge into the nearby community (Thon Buri).
Last weekend, my best friend from graduate school came to visit Bangkok. We had exchanged emails about a potential visit in early September, and I had suggested that he be here on October 22 since a Royal Barge Procession was scheduled to take place on the Chao Phraya that afternoon. The procession was to have 52 boats — four major royal barges, eight other barges with animal figureheads, and 40 smaller craft. Each of the four major barges is propelled by 50 to 60 oarsmen and altogether over 2,000 members of the Royal Thai Navy are needed to row. The procession was to have brought a members of the royal family to Wat Arun where they would present ceremonial robes to the Buddhist monks. Royal Barge Processions date back over 700 years and the last one took place five years ago, so this would be a very special day. Alas, because of the record-high water on the Chao Phraya and the suffering of the Thai people from the massive flooding, the scheduled procession was postponed until the king’s birthday in early December.
Last Sunday, we headed out to the province of Kanchanaburi, which is about 100 miles northwest from Bangkok. The terrain to the west is much higher than in Bangkok, so we knew that we would be safe from flooding once we cleared the Bangkok metro. Kanchanaburi is the third largest province (in land area) in Thailand and it has a long, mountainous border with Myanmar. (This border is denoted by the solid white line on the far left side of the map below.) Several major tourists sites are in the province including the Death Railway, the Bridge on the River Kwai, and the Tiger Temple.
The Death Railway
During WWII, nearly 70,000 Allied prisoners of war (half British, the others primarily Dutch and Australian with fewer than 1,000 Americans) along with 200-300,000 Asian slave laborers were compelled by the Japanese Imperial Army to build a 250 mile long railroad from just west of Bangkok to Thanbyuzayat, a coastal city in southeast Burma. The rail link was needed since the Japanese realized they could not establish naval superiority in the Pacific. The Japanese planned to use the overland transportation route from Singapore through Burma as a supply line for an eventual attack on India.
Japanese engineers had estimated that this construction would take five years. Work began in September 1942 and was completed on Christmas Day 1943, a mere 16 months. The human cost was high — 16,000 Allied POWs lost their lives as did at least 100,000 of the Asian slaves.
An eleven span bridge was taken from Java and transported to Thailand where it was reassembled by the POWs and slave laborers. Three of the spans were subsequently hit by Allied bombers in 1945 and they were replaced by newer spans from Japan after the war. In the picture below, the original spans are the arch-shaped ones while the replacement spans are the flat-topped, trapezoidal-shaped ones.
The movie The Bridge On the River Kwai provides a highly fictionalized version of the story of the Death Railroad. This 1957 film won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Alec Guinness). Over 70,000 raters on imdb.com give the movie a score of 8.4 out of 10.
We rode a train on the Death Railway from Kanchanaburi to Wang Pho, a journey that took a little over one hour. The scenery along the way, particularly near the end of the ride, was beautiful. The train crossed the bridge and then ran along the river. Along the way, we saw field after field of sugar cane and tapioca. We also saw several herds of water buffalo. Near the end of the ride, we rode atop the Wang Po viaduct, a wooden trestle that was built by the POWs, that hugs a cliff on the right side of the track, and that overlooks the River Kwai Noi on the left.
A short car ride from the rail station brought us to a small elephant park where we feed some of these magnificent creatures. One simply cannot visit Thailand without seeing elephants up close.
Elephants, however, for once were not the animal highlight of the day; tigers were. We ended our trip to Kanchanaburi at Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, or, more simply, the Tiger Temple.
This temple was founded in 1994 as a wildlife sanctuary. Early on, it was the home to peacocks and wild boars. Soon, there orphaned or unwanted deer, buffalo, cows, and goats were in the sanctuary.
In 1999, the first tiger arrived. As noted above, Kanchanaburi is located in western Thailand near the mountainous border with Myanmar. This area is believed to be the home of the largest remaining tiger population in the region. Poachers who capture or kill large tigers frequently leave orphaned cubs behind. The temple took these cubs in and raised them. Today, it appears that 20 to 30 tigers live here as well as large herds of buffalo, deer, horses, and pigs.
Since the tigers have grown up with people, they are used to human interaction. Consequently, one can get pictures taken with the tigers, albeit under rather strict supervision from the staff.
As we were getting ready to leave, a pickup truck went by and workers dropped bag after bag of Jicama on the dirt road in the compound. Within seconds, water buffalo and horses arrived for their dinner.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.