M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo

The Death Railway, Elephants, and Finding Work

Jolly Frog Guest House, base of operations for our Kanchanaburi explorations, turned out to be a lovely place.  The rooms were simple little cubes with bucket toilets and cold showers, but the grounds were nice.  The rooms all faced out to a cool green garden with hammocks, loungers, and a beautiful view onto the river.  Every night a gorgeous sunset reflected off the river and clouds and made the whole place glow a shade of pink and purple.  A set of stairs lead down from the garden onto a pontoon floating in the river with tables, chairs, and more loungers; a perfect place to bring a beer and watch the long-tail boats and floating discos go by.  The food was good as well, with a kitchen that served everything from hamburgers to Tom Kha Gai (Chicken Coconut Soup), and thankfully at backpacker prices.

Sai Yok Waterfall without tourists

For about 12 days we stayed here exploring the area.  Mostly we ventured out on our own, renting a motorbike in town and stumbling through new and interesting parts of town.  I don’t really fancy the package tours that so many tourists opt to join, however we broke down eventually and joined a daytrip that explored half a dozen of the major tourist spots in the area.  About 8 of us jumped into a minivan in the morning and drove off to Sai Yok waterfall, a very beautiful (and popular) cascade with swimming about 30km out of town.  Next we drove to the “Death Railway” memorial, set near one of the old prison camps along the railroad.  The spot was called Hellfire Pass, one of the more notorious camps with a grizzly history.  Summarizing briefly:

During WW2 Japan, occupying much of SE Asia at the time, needed to build a railway from Thailand to Burma to resupply it’s forces in India and other areas.  They used prisoners of war as laborers, mostly Dutch, Australian, and British, as well as a million or more conscripted laborers from occupied SE Asian countries.    Much of the route that wasn’t already built was very remote and inaccessible to heavy equipment, so these prisoners had to work with incredibly primitive tools to build the rails.  In addition to the difficulties of the terrain and lack of equipment, the Japanese army treated the prisoners as if they were already sentenced to death…a relic of the Samurai code that still dictated much of the Japanese army’s behavior.  A lot of prisoners died to build the railway, to say the least.  Hellfire pass was a particularly difficult section of blasting and digging, and the memorial there is especially poignant.

Overlooking the valley along the Death Railway

After walking along the old rail bed for a few kilometers and visiting a particularly depressing museum, we got back in the van and headed farther into the country.  We stopped at a hill-tribe village, although really not a tribe at all but rather a minority nomadic people that live between Thailand and Burma.  Here we went riding on elephants through the woods along some old trails and jeep roads, eventually looping back to where we started. Riding on the back of an elephant is bizarre, although I’ve very little experience riding on the back of anything.  There is a platform strapped to the back of the elephant with hand rails for riders, but Jennifer convinced me to ride on the neck of the elephant.  Apparently elephants are hairy…hair like little bristles of a comb.  I sat on this elephant’s neck, with my legs hanging down behind its giant ears (which flap like wings), and held on for dear life.  The fall from the top of an elephant is akin to falling off the roof of a building…a building that could then step on you as it walks by.  The ride was fun though, and if you’re sitting on the platform it’s actually quite comfortable.  The big loping steps of an elephant are more bearable than a horse’s crotch-numbing trot.

Next the tour dropped us off at a cave-temple with some impressive gold-leafed Buddhas inside.  The cave itself was decent, but the location was more impressive.  Set into the side of a cliff right along the River Kwai, the cave is accessible only by walking along the railway trestles that hang precariously over the river 50 meters below.  Here we caught the train, still operating on this stretch of the death railway, all the way back to Kanchanaburi to finish the day…a beautiful ride along the river and cliffs and through the countryside.

Trestle over the River Kwai

Funds were getting to a critical point at this time, so employment quickly became priority one.  During all this sightseeing of Kanchanaburi, we were also chasing down a few prospects for teaching positions at local schools.  In fact Stuart, the shady proprietor, connected us with one of his English teacher friends, who in turn connected us with a school that might be hiring.  After one interview we were called back for another the next day, this time with the big boss in charge of 6 different schools.  The second interview was bizarre, and a bit intimidating, but we came away from it with a job.  Jennifer was offered a full time position immediately, even though there were no official openings.  Young, female, native-speakers are a hot commodity in Thailand since most of the farang (Thai for foreigners) are 50-something retired alcoholic geezers.  The school offered me a full-time position at the start of the next term, although it turned out to be a lot sooner after one of the teachers pulled a runner over Christmas holiday.

A motorbike and a house seemed like the next logical step in the equation, so again we asked around the backpacker’s ghetto and we weren’t let down.  A Swiss guy that runs an Italian pizzeria apparently also owns some property south of town with some bungalows, so we got a ride on his 3-wheeled motorcycle (basically a motorbike with a side-car holding 2 little benches to sit on) to check them out.  The property, maybe 7-8 acres, is large and open with a pond in the middle and 3 bungalows around it.  A large house, built in the style of a Thai temple, sits towards the front of the compound and is used as a house for guests and relatives of the Swiss guy, Kinet, and his Thai wife, Thong.  The bungalow we looked at, and soon moved into, was built only 6 months ago and had a great vibe.  The outside is painted a fresh green color and the inside sky blue.  It’s one very large room, a large bathroom, and a very large front porch, all freshly tiled.  We moved in the next day.  Living next to us in the adjacent bungalows are a young tattooed Frenchman and his lovely, albeit quiet Thai wife, and a retired Australian ship’s captain.

The last item, the motorbike, was a breeze to get a hold of.  Kinet and Thong went out of their way to help us get a good deal, and for 15,000 baht (about $450) I bought a second-hand 125cc Honda motorbike.  We’ve been riding her for the last month and she hasn’t let us down yet.  Now with the big 3 accomplished…a job, a home, a ride…the pace of life has settled down a bit.  We’ve slowly been decorating the house, buying this and that to fill the empty space.  Driving is always an adventure here; navigating the chaos of Thai traffic is no easy feat, and a “close call” happens on a regular basis.  Unlike most of the Thais, we do wear our helmets, and with the straps actually connected.

Coming up: A trip to the Andaman Sea for Christmas holiday, the adventures of teaching English in Thailand, and border hopping for visas in Laos.


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