I certainly did not plan to name two separate blog posts "Estrogen & Elephants" and "Testerone & Tigers," but after the way our trip earlier this month went, it's only right. You see, we lucked upon another 4-day weekend, and for some reason only about 4 of us wanted to do any traveling (I say "about" because some situations led to people getting stuck in the city who would have traveled otherwise). So while I was the only guy on my Chiang Mai excursion, this weekend, dudes were in the majority. We decided to visit Kanchanaburi, a small frontier town about 3 hours northeast of Bangkok. We all said straightaway we wanted this to be a more relaxed, laidback weekend - and so it was. We caught a cab and told him to head to "Sai Tai Mai" - the southern bus terminal. We thought he understood, and we said "sai tai mai" about 12 different ways to get the point across. Well we drove about a block and a half before he turned off down a side street that we all knew dead ended at the Chao Phraya River. What could this mean? We were all intrigued (to say the least) with his decision making. He pulled up to a couple tuk tuk drivers and we realize he has no idea where he's taking us. Well after about 10 seconds of discussion with the tuk-tuk drivers (who are generally more adept at dealing with foreigners), the tuk tuk driver turned to our cab driver and told him we wanted to go to "Sai Tai Mai," exactly what he told him earlier. "Ooooohhhh, Sai Tai Mai!!! Oh ya ya ya." This is not the first time this has happened. You can pronounce a word completely correctly but say it with the wrong inflection and the Thais have NO idea what you're talking about. It's a little flabbergasting. It's like saying elePHANT instead of ELephant and getting blank stares. It's these things that make learning the language seem a vain task. Anyways, it took us a while to get to the bus station and a little longer to get to Kanchanaburi, as it was the Queen's Birthday aka Mother's Day aka a national holiday. Good thing we were in no rush. We made it to the bus station, which had about eight 7-11's inside. No joke. There were at least two on each floor. We caught a bus for insanely cheap and listened for the next 3 hours to an overexcited American girl who had just graduated talk her friend's ear off about the most banal, trivial details of her collegiate life in the most obnoxiously loud voice possible. Actually she talked for about 2 hours straight and then apparently just fell asleep, probably mid-sentence, probably because she talked herself into exhaustion or because she suddenly ran out of ex-boyfriends/psychology classes/phobias/pseudo-intellectual musings about music and art, and we had an hour of peace and quiet.
We got there with pretty much a free day to just walk around the town, so we found a hotel to stay at and dropped down our stuff. They only had two rooms left, and one of them was a little more expensive with a riverside view, hot shower, and AC - Max and I took one glance and decided to shell out the extra cash for it. It was worth it, especially because it had a second floor loft/roof where you could sit up, have a few drinks, and watch the river. After planning out the rest of our trip, we tried to find the recommended museum in town to give us a little history of the place before we went out visiting. This was more difficult than the map made it seem, but we got there 20 minutes before it closed and gave the exhibits a quick once over.
For those who aren't WWII buffs, one of Japan's campaigns during the war was the capture of Rangoon, a seaport in Burma that, if captured, would cut off supply lines to China and other Allied countries in the East, among other strategic gains. Well, with the help of Thailand (who were indeed Axis, who wouldve thought), this was accomplished. Now they needed some way to transport supplies in between countries, and laid upon the building of a Thai-Burmese railroad. To do this they brought in tons and tons of Asian labourers who were promised good wages and decent conditions, along with as many POWs as the Japs saw fit. Well, to put it plainly, the Axis were filthy liars. Surprise surprise. Conditions were terrible, there was no pay, and over 100,000 workers died working on the railway. About 90,000 were the Asian labourers (from Burma and Malaysia, mostly) and the rest were POWs who either died on the job, were murdered after the Japanese realized they were losing the war, or were killed by Allied bombs dropped to destroy the railway. The situation was described in the fictional novel "The Bridge on the River Kwai," (pronounced Kway, not Kwi, Its not "Bridge on the River Buffalo") which later was turned into a more famous film of the same name, which I'm sure you've heard of. Turns out after the film came out, tourists flocking to Thailand started asking where this bridge was. Unfortunately, no such bridge existed over the Kwai River. This part was fictional. So, to appease the tourists, they found a different bridge that was part of the railway, which had also been bombed during the war and rebuilt, and simply renamed the river underneath it. So the Mae Klong became the Kwai and all was good.
So as far the War stuff went, we saw the Museum and accompanying cemetery, went on 2-hour hike through "Hellfire Pass," an area of the railway that has been turned into a hiking path, took a train ride over part of the railway that has been rebuilt for local use, and went to see the bridge itself. While most of the locations were really interesting and respectful, this part was kind of depressing. The bridge is infested with street vendors and there are so many tourists (many many of them Asian) flocking the bridge and walking back and forth on it and taking pictures with funny faces and all. It's a little disgusting. Some vendor was blaring Lady GaGa or Madonna or something. I saw an Asian tourist taking photos on the bridge, striking silly/seductive poses and all. Meanwhile, I'm trying to think how many people died in this useless endeavor, building the "Death Railway," which only even ran for a short time before it was destroyed. Would you strike that pose at Auschwitz, Asian tourist lady? Not saying you have to be solemn at the bridge, but have a little respect. You aren't at the world's largest ball of twine, you're at the site of a massacre, the remains of an historical tragedy.
Rant aside, we also found plenty of time for non-WWII related activities, most prominently the visiting of a "Tiger Temple." Apparently, at this certain monastery many years ago, the monks started taking in hurt animals to heal them. The animals then grew fond of the monks and began flocking to the monastery to take up residence on the grounds, and the place became an animal sanctuary. The villagers began to hear about the monastery as well, and when one villager came across a baby tiger who had escaped from its poachers (unfortunately not before getting injected with the preservative formalin in order to be stuffed), they brought it to the monks who attempted to save its life but were too late. However, more and more tigers ended up at the sanctuary and now that is what the place is known for. Now, they open the sanctuary for a short period each day to allow visitors to come in (for a steep fee), pet the tigers and see the rest of the animals. Now, many people wonder how this is possible. The tigers are serene and calm around humans, so they must be on drugs! Well, after seeing and petting the tigers myself, I can say I think this theory is a little off. They chain the tigers down for only a few hours at midday, right after they exercise and eat lunch. The tigers aren't on drugs, they are just in food comas. Plus, they are nocturnal animals, and normally sleep about 16-20 hours during the day. Nobody likes to see animals in chains getting forced to follow human orders, but do these tigers really have it that bad? They stay in a peaceful animal sanctuary free from poachers, get free food and all they have to do is stay in one place for a few hours while they take their daily nap and receive numerous belly rubs as an added bonus? What part of this angers conservationists? It seems to me like these monks have done a good service preserving an endangered animal. I REST MY CASE.
Oh yeah. And we got to play with baby tigers. Whaat?
We also found time to visit two waterfalls. One of them (Sai Yok Noi) is a popular hangout for Thai families on weekends but not much to see for tourists. We also only stopped there because we had some extra time and our sungtao driver that we rented for the day thought we might enjoy the sight. Although it wasn't that cool, it was really nice of our driver. The other waterfall we saw was the famous one in the area called the "7-tiered waterfall" in Erawan National Park. As you might have guessed, the waterfall sloped down a mountain with 7 different falls on the way down. Some of the waterfalls were really cool, and some weren't. One of them had a nice rock slide which dumped you into a really deep part of the water. Unfortunately, if you slid down the wrong way, you would fall into sharp rocks. One of our friends who went a few months earlier actually did this and was rushed to the hospital. On our trip, Kit came dangerously close as well but managed to stand up mid-slide and run over to the deep end. Pretty slick move. Saved her own life. The other interesting thing about the waterfalls was that there were large fish in each pond that would nibble on your feet as you swam. These fish were quite larger than the ones that are used specifically to eat off dead skin in foot massage parlors, and definitely not as pleasant. The key was just to keep moving so the fish couldn't catch up. Standing still is just asking for it.
That's pretty much most of the weekend right there. We also saw some monkeys in the wild. One was definitely jerking off when we walked by and he got all pissy and started hissing and screaming at us. I guess this is the monkey equivalent of yelling "SHUT THE DOOR WHAT DID I TELL YOU ABOUT KNOCKING FIRST?" We ate the best pizza we've found in Thailand. We met a racist Belgian. We played a 3-hour game of Cut throat. We drank some brews in a bar made from bamboo that looked like a set piece from the Swiss Family Robinson. We talked to a Mynah Bird that would say Thai phrases like "Mai Kow Jai," "Korp Kun Kup," and "Sawadeekaap!" We played with elephants for a few minutes. It was a good weekend.
Guess I should recap some other events of late as well, if I still have your attention. We took one weekend to visit Jim Thompson's house. He was an American businessman who made it rich in Thailand by revitalizing the silk industry in the 50's and 60's. His silks were made famous in America after being used in "The King and I." Then one day, he up and disappeared. No one knows what happened, but he went for a walk and never came back. Some have crazy theories involving communists, rival silk magnates, and tigers. But likely he was just hit by a truck driver who hid his body.
We also went to a Thai art gallery, which was mostly unimpressive, except for a couple of outstanding galleries. In particular, there was a floor dedicated to photographs taken all around Thailand - and there were some really amazing shots. The next floor up was an exhibit entitled "Imagine Peace," which I thought was a neat way for local artists to express their feelings about the state of affairs in the troubled country. That was until I realized that the exhibit was a government-appointed project and that all the exhibits were essentially pro-government and anti-red/yellow shirt. I had forgotten that "peace" and "freedom" don't always go hand in hand. For some countries, "peace" means complete government control and censorship. I suppose there is some sort of strained "peace" that exists when the government controls the press and stifles any opposition, but it's not a nice thought.
In the past several weeks, I've also managed to visit "Little India," which amounted to passing fabric store after fabric store after fabric store, buying a couple classic Bollywood films, and eating some amazing Indian food; see Bangkok's flower market which spanned several blocks and is exactly what you think it is; and travel several times down the Chao Phraya River on cheap boat rides. It's been a pretty good month, and school is going swimmingly as well. I'm sure my next blog entry will be a little shorter as we enter the rainiest month of the year, but I'll definitely try to update once more before the big October break.
UPDATE: Almost immediately after posting, I realized I forgot something pretty cool. In my previous post, I mentioned that we failed to find Chinatown, but by the time of this blog, we successfully FOUND IT! It was definitely pretty China-ey, and we just wandered around till we forgot which Asian country we were in. Then I ate a bird's nest. Well, in a soup. You see, there's a specific type of sparrow in South Asia/China that makes a nest for itself each day out of its own spit. These are found high up cave walls and are very dangerous to collect, but are harvested by gutsy workers and are made into a delicious soup that is considered a delicacy in the area. We bought and shared a cheaper grade soup, which was still delicious. I think, however, that it is a delicacy more for the mystique behind the food than the taste. Like caviar. Or Shark Fin Soup, the other delicacy in Chinatown. I don't think I'll try that one, though. Something about that doesn't seem right.