One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” –Henry Miller

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thailand Trip: River Relaxation

The next section of my trip was a short 3 day tour in the jungles north of Bangkok on the River Kwai.  I was picked up from my hotel early Friday morning and driven 3 hours north of the city.  Our tour started by visiting the famous bridge over the River Kwai, which is actually a movie.  I had never heard of this bridge or the rail road prior to visiting the museum that explained in depth what had occurred here.  I’ll give a short explanation to those, like myself, who are unknowing. 

This picture is of the bridge over the River Kwai and two South African guys, Sibou and Doriaux (I'm taking a stab at the spelling), who were on my tour.  The tour guide didn't do a very good job taking this picture, but I still really like it.

The famous bridge over the River Kwai

A long tailed boat ride down the river to the River Kwai Jungle Raft Hotel

During WWII, the allies imposed an embargo on the Japanese.  So in order for the Japanese to still have access to necessary war time supplies they forced thousands of British, Australian, and American POWs into labor camps for the construction of a railroad through Thailand and Burma.  The conditions in which the POWs worked were unthinkable.  Thousands died from starvation, malnutrition, infection, exhaustion, and disease.  The RR was completed in something like 17 months. 

We visited one of the worst sections of the RR called the Hell Fire Pass.  POWs had to drill (by hand: chisel and hammer) into the deepest and longest section of rock on the railway.  The Japanese were anxious to have the RR finished and ordered a “Speedo” period in which quotas were increased from .5 cubic meters to 3 cubic meters of excavation per POW.  They had to keep working until they reached their quota each day.  This often meant working long into the night.  The way the torch light hit the gaunt faces and skeleton like frames of the POWs working at night gave the Hell Fire Pass its name.  What is really quite devastating is that today only a small section of the railroad is functional.  The majority of the RR line has been stripped of all RR remnants.  It was all for nothing… 

The Hell Fire Pass:  You can see the rock on either side that the POWs had to chisel and blast through.  You can also see that the railroad just ends. 

After a very sad, but enlightening tour through the history of the railroad, we took a 45 minute long tailed boat ride down the river to the River Kwai Jungle Raft Hotel.  I would seriously recommend anyone going to Thailand to stay at this hotel.  It was such an exotic and unique experience, so beautiful and relaxing. 
First, it’s a raft; there is no getting around that point.  To give you an idea, the wakes from passing long tail boats caused the hotel to bob in the water.  You could jump in the water from your room’s pier, float to the end of the raft hotel, get out, run down to the other end, and do it again. It was fun! 

Breakfast at the Raft Hotel

I was camped out right here most of the weekend... reading, writing, napping, swimming = bliss

My room: that's mosquito netting over the bed

So the bathroom.. this was interesting. I'm pretty sure that all of the water came from the river. The toilet was a self flusher. That rectangular box to the right of the toilet was filled with water and had a dipper in it.

This is the hall to my room. My room was the raft on the end. The rooms are on the right, the river (obviously) on the left

The hanging flower planters were pretty, but I think this was more for practicality's sake.  As I said, the raft hotel swayed with the wakes and currents in the river and so did these planters.

Raft Hotel:  taken from the reception desk; it's a view into the dining room

Each two rooms shared a pier. This was the point were you could jump into the river and float down to the end of the raft hotel.

It’s located in the middle of the Thai jungle and completely secluded.  At night I saw the most stars in the sky than I’ve ever seen.  You can’t hear any noise besides the murmuring of the river’s current and occasionally of the Mon women coming by to water the plants or fill your lantern. That’s right, your lantern. There’s no electricity, which made getting ready for bed at night a challenge. 

This whole hotel is owned and operated by the local Mon Tribe.  They have a village that is a little hike from the hotel.  Sam, our guide, took us to visit the village on Saturday morning.  They have a school, a temple, monuments, and …an elephant camp! (I fed and pet them! though... no elephant riding for me. I decided not to. It seemed like a little bit of scam to me, plus I had gotten an up close encounter already).

Mon Tribal School. Kids go to Thai school 5 days a week and to the Mon school 2 days a week to preserve their culture and language.

Mon School

Mon Pagoda. Everything here was made by hand by the Mon Tribe Village.

Mon Village

Feeding the elephants sugar cane. They have quite a sweet tooth

Mon Village elephant camp

Mon Village: statues by the river

I woke up to a rooster calling one morning, but what got me out of bed in a hurry was a sound that was a mix between a semi hitting his brakes and a trumpet.  I knew it had to be an elephant!  Sure enough, it was! Two Mon people had ridden elephants down to the river for some water and a bath.  They were RIGHT outside my window.  I saw them down at the river every morning and every evening.  Their presence was always made known by that same call.  When I heard it, I simply moved myself from my hammock to the back porch and watched until the elephants were done bathing.  It was so amusing to watch them too.  They played in the water by completely submerging themselves and bobbing back up, spraying water from their trunks.  If those weren’t displays of elephant ecstasy, I don’t know what is. 

Elephants frolicking

My last day on the River Kwai Raft Hotel started at an easy pace (which could describe my whole time spent there.  It was a nice change from Bangkok).  I had time after breakfast to hike around the Mon Village. A map showed promise of cliffs and a Buddha statue on the outskirts of the village. The hike out was different from other hikes I’ve experienced.  The forest was primarily bamboo and teak and the vegetation was thick and green and lush. 

At 11am I packed my things into the long tailed boat and road out of the jungle.  Those boats had to be a favorite.  You practically sit on the floor of the boat, which rides low in the water. The speed and the mist from the spray felt great. 

I was joined with a larger group for the rest of the tour that day, but I seemed to “talk” the most to 2 older Dutch sisters from Switzerland.  They had difficulty because the guides all spoke in English.  I, being the only native speaker, became their intermediary for the guide.  Not that I speak Dutch at all, but if there’s one thing I’ve gotten good at teaching ESL, it’s eliminating unnecessary words – in essence, I speak darn good broken English. (hah!) Sure, this is not an ideal way to teach proper English, but for the means of simply communicating a point, it works like a charm.  We had lunch at a nice little Thai restaurant by the river and concluded our tour with a train ride through the country side. 

Train ride: This mountain is called "Sleeping Woman" in Thai. Can you see her?

Train Ride on the small section of the RR that is still functional

When all but I had been dropped off, I asked my tour guide about the social and political climate in Thailand after last summer’s turmoil that left 2000 injured and 100 dead.  As it were, our guide had been a member of the uprising and had the scar from a gunshot wound to prove it.  The scar was a HUGE gash in the center of this man’s gut.  He was lucky to be alive!  I asked him how he felt after such an event.  What he said (more or less and in broken English) was that he was so happy (And was he! He was one of the happiest men I’ve ever met).  He said that it felt like death, but because he survived, he could not allow himself to harbor feelings of vengeance because “how would that make my mind feel?”  In essence, I think what he was saying was that when someone injures you, it can really inflict 2 pains—one, a direct, physical pain, and the other an emotional pain.  While the first injury may or may not be within your control, the second injury is within your grasp to nullify.  He said, “You don’t have to forget, you can still know the truth in your heart.”  

Thailand Trip to be continued in blog 3....


  1. Ah Jes! what an adventure you're having. I wonder how in the world you discovered that raft hotel. It definitely seems like you're following your objective to really experience Thailand instead of simply tour.

  2. This seems to be a truly wonderful experience..and that water usage in the bathroom instead of toilet paper...yeeeyyy

  3. I am so thrilled that you get to experience these things and that I get to read about them :) Thank you for writing all these details and posting all these wonderful pictures! I LOVE reading your blog!!