The Bridge

Today I had the honour of walking across the Bridge over the River Kwai. It was a most humbling experience. I could not help but wonder what I would have done had I been a young man at the start of WW2. Would I have volunteered or waited for conscription, would I have acquitted myself well, would I have survived and how would I cope if I found myself myself here as a POW?

These questions are imponderables, but ONE THING I AM SURE OF, JUST STANDING IN THE BLAZING HEAT OF THE SUN ON THAT TRACK, AS LUCKY IN LIFE AS I AM, I KNOW THAT I WOULD NOT HAVE SURVIVED. THE MEN THAT DID IRRESPECTIVE OF RACE OR CREED WERE GIANTS!

The construction of this 415 Km railway of death cut through mountains and valleys, through dense jungle and took 16 months (despite an original estimate of 5-6 years). It also took the lives (usually horribly) of 16,000 British, Dutch, Danish, Australian, New Zealand and American POW’s together with those of 100,000 conscripted Asian labourers.

Building it was a massive undertaking, but particularly this bridge (made famous by the movie, although they also built 420 other timber cantilevered bridges) and cutting the nearby Hell Fire Pass, so called because the men toiled through the night hammering and chiselling through solid rock by hand, illuminated by oil lamps and bamboo torches, to all intents and purposes, Hell on earth.

When finished, the bridge and tracks operated as a supply line for about 18 months, ending up ironically being used by the retreating Japanese army before being put out of action by allied bombs (incidentally by one of the early uses of guided bombs).

Looking back, Japan’s expansionist ambitions were clearly bonkers, way beyond its capabilities and capacity, yet another example of the hawks’ influence over that of the doves that sadly we still see today. They were going to come unstuck sooner or later, even without the atomic bomb and this bloody railway would have made little difference.

After the war, some of the line was dismantled, leaving the section we travelled on from Bangkok as a local line and a reminder of the pain and suffering that some sadly misguided men can inflict on other men far better than them.

Final note! At war’s end, the Allies recovered all but a handful of the 16,000 POW’s bodies, identified each one and buried them in beautiful cemeteries that are still cared for today. Of the 100,000 Asian conscripted dead, records show that 3 bodies were recovered, these were never identified and so buried in unmarked graves.

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Bridge Over the River Kwai

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Yesterday we got the train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. This is the line that formed the Burma railway and the two and a half hour journey gave us a chance to reflect on what it must have been like to build the railway under those conditions.

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Our train seemed old enough to have been one of the first in operation when the railway was completed in 1943. There was no air-conditioning; some of the fans worked; the seats were broken and many of the windows and shutters wouldn’t open or close. We had thought that travelling with the windows open would provide a cooling breeze but we were wrong. It was like sitting in a sauna with a fan heater on full blast.

Still, we had plenty of clean water and space to spread out. The POWs were packed into carriages without enough space to sit or lie down. And they had no windows! NO WINDOWS! And they travelled like that for four days! They had little food and drink. Their water wasn’t cold or clean and would have given them dysentery, beri-beri and other stomach ailments. Once they arrived they had to contend with malaria, cholera, mosquitoes, lice and bigger animals, forced marches, brutality and slave labour. It’s amazing that around half of the 200,000 POWs and workers from the surrounding Asian countries (Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia) actually survived.

On the journey we passed people working in the intense heat (this is the cooler season!). I noticed construction workers laying pipes and dancing along dodgy scaffold, quarry workers loading lorries and women carrying buckets of sand and clay to form bricks that would bake under the searing sun. All of them were wearing long sleeves and head coverings with coolie hats on top. It must be unbearable. A worker here can earn about £6 a day, which makes sense if you consider our train journey cost £2 each; but is less than adequate if a cheap night’s accommodation is £12 (2 day’s wages, so not many holidays!) or a simple cotton dress costs £6 (not many shopping expeditions).

The train also passed Thai houses literally inches from the moving carriages, mostly built of plywood and corrugated metal. There’s not always a clear distinction between the outside and the inside as they often cook outside so you can see right into the houses. There’s no fan, no privacy and a dirt floor but, ironically, it’s not unusual to see a satellite dish outside. On this trip we have seen people leading very hard lives.

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This morning we went to the bridge over the river Kwai. The river is beautiful, surrounded by trees, flowers, a colourful temple and floating restaurants and the bridge area is surprisingly tranquil. We walked right across the bridge, musing the fate of those men who had slaved in the jungle, mountains an riverside for nothing more than a bowl of rice.

We’re now sitting on the river bank outside our little room listening to the birds calling to each other, the lizards hooting (yes, they really do, it sounds like ‘cup-cake, cup-cake’), fish splashing and the occasional boat drifting past, once again realising just how lucky we are.

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Trials and Tribulations of Travelling

One of the downsides of travelling is the constant planning and decision-making that has to go on. Freewheeling is a nice idea but, without making bookings, you can miss out on the cheapest fares and places get booked up.

When we set out on this trip it was our intention to spend a longer time in fewer places to get to know them better, and to work our way through volunteering, helpx and paid work as much as possible. The Maya Pedal disaster changed all that and put severe strain on our budget. The irony is that if we’d stayed in Central America and gone on to Chile we probably wouldn’t have spent any more money than we are doing. But we all know that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

We’ve spent hours recently trying to plan the next weeks as there are so many factors to consider. Cost is, of course, crucial but we also have to consider climate, as if we can’t function in the high temperatures it’s a waste if time being there. Unfortunately, the cooler places in this part of the world also tend to be more expensive and we’re struggling to find affordable accommodation.

We both get bored when doing nothing, and don’t like crowded tourist sights at the best of times, which is one of the reasons why HelpX was so good. You contribute to the host’s projects and they tend to be in places that tourists rarely visit so you get a chance to find out about real life there.

So we’re looking for somewhere cheap, off the beaten track, with a mild climate and interesting people to meet. Oh, and ideally in a stunning landscape.

HelpX in this part of the world, apart from the one we had to pull out of, has not proved too good. We either get no response, or they’re booked up or can’t take us for another reason. Finally yesterday we found an ideal one and have arranged to go there for a few weeks. This is a great relief as it will give us something productive to do, get away from it all, and relieve the pressure on the budget. But we still have to find accommodation for the 5 or so weeks between now and then.

We’re going to the River Kwai today for a couple of days, then up to Chiang Mai, where we’ll have time to do yet more searching so we can plan the final bit of the itinerary before moving on to cooler climes.

Bangkok

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If you ever come to Bangkok you should come and stay here. It’s an oasis of calm just minutes away from the main road. Our host, Raewyn, and her Thai husband Charlie, live here as do many of his extended family. Everyone, including us, has their own space and in between there are little canals, mango, star fruit, pomelo and other fruit trees, quirky and traditional art and exotic flowers. The only sound we can hear apart from windchimes is an amazing variety of weird and wonderful birdcalls. We have a bedroom and bathroom and a lovely outside area where we can prepare and eat food. There’s also a communal kitchen and a swimming pool, that we’ve had to ourselves since we’ve been here.

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It takes a while to get to central Bangkok (best part of an hour) but we’ve done it twice on the river bus, which has a nice breeze and gives a good view of lots of the sights. Along the riverside there are modern skyscrapers, tumbledown shacks, smart modern Thai houses, Buddhist temples and traditional Thai buildings.

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We’ve been to the golden Buddha temple and the Grand Palace with emerald Buddha but the heat gets a bit much by midday so we usually come home and lounge by the pool after that.

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Bangkok is definitely a city of contrasts. Chinatown is full of smells and sights from the old days and, as it was Chinese new year this week, there are food offerings everywhere. We never need to take our usual supply of emergency food as there is something to eat on every corner though we haven’t had such good food here as elsewhere in Thailand or in Malaysia. There are also modern air-conditioned shops, restaurants and food courts.

Being in Bangkok has been an experience and the temples are wonderful but it is hard work – noisy, dirty, crowded and polluted. People try and rip you off and we have felt herded around at the tourist spots. We’ve been very relieved to escape back to our oasis.

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Next stop Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai on Tuesday.

A Great Day

We had a bonus extra day in Krabi today. After leaving Dayang Bunting last week we got a ferry and bus to Krabi where a chance encounter with a Mancunian led us to Koh Jum, a quintessential tropical island paradise with miles of golden coconut palm-fringed sands two steps down from our bungalow, warm sea, blue skies and about five other people. We did very little apart from a couple of strolls through the jungle under chattering monkeys to the local one-taxi town, dip in the ocean to cool down and wander along to the local restaurants for dinner. Oh, and admire the stunning sunsets.

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We came back to Krabi planning to travel north but our plans have changed (again!) this time due to the weather. It’s in the mid thirties and we’ve discovered that we’re no good for anything in these temperatures apart from sea, swimming pools and air-conditioning. So we’re going to Bangkok! We’ve rented a cottage in a traditional garden with a pool so we can recover between forays into the city. And this has given us an extra day in Krabi so we decided to take a boat trip to  Railay today.

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Railay was an unexpected delight. We knew there were some amazing rock formations there, but didn’t know what else. We found a pleasant beachside walk that eventually led through Lord of the Rings type caverns to the most amazing beach. There was a craggy cliff on one side providing much needed shade to half the beach and lots of people were climbing it. A cave, believed by locals to be home to a goddess of good luck, was full of carved and decorated lingum (penises) in all sizes. There were quite a few people of all ages, nationalities, shapes and sizes giving it a lovely atmosphere. After a swim and a lie down we strolled along to some boats selling fantastic food and had lunch. The perfect weather, unexpected beauty of the place and lovely atmosphere made this a great day.

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Yes, that is me in a bikini!

When we got back to Krabi we went to the night market for some amazing food. This is the third time we’ve been here and tonight we had mussels, prawns, clam soup, rice, stir-fried vegetables and beer for less than £12.

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Krabi has really grown on me. It’s not a pretty town but the setting beside the river (which is really part of the sea) is beautiful and we found a stunning Buddhist temple. There are lots of young backpackers here and some lively bars with good music but the youngsters seem to be interested in climbing and water sports so there’s not a huge party scene.

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Tomorrow we’re catching an overnight bus to Bangkok but not before Sean has posted his cowboy boots back to England (they’re getting rather heavy!) and we’ve both had a Thai massage.

Don’t mention the war!

An English woman, an Irish man, a German, an Italian and a pole sit down for dinner at a Muslims table.

Our final stop in Malaysia was to be a week or so living in a beach front shack on a small island called Dayang Bunting off the larger but still fairly small island of Langkawi. We had booked our accommodation through AirB&B and the description promised cheap and cheerful and delivered both. Jane, who more and more assumes the role of my PA had been exchanging emails with our soon to be host Shade to tie up the details, frustratingly for her, his responses (although always prompt) were more laid back than even I could manage i.e. most contained what we were to learn was his mantra in life “don’t worry, be happy”. I guess that for Jane, this was probably a nightmare, she now had to contend with two very lackadaisical people, at each end of the project and she was in full organisational mode. We arrived in one piece, edges a tad frayed and a day early having cut short KL as the planned overnight train was fully booked for the next month leaving us only one option, to travel early 3rd class, which turned out to be much more comfortable than feared.

On landing at Tuba island as instructed, we had a 30 minute or so wait for Shade to come pick us up and transport us the couple of miles along recently paved roads and over the single track bridge that joined the two islands to our temporary bungalow home. He duly arrived in his battered old white Proton with odd yellow panels and no rear window leaping out of the “wreckage” to greet us with a welcoming smile so wide and warm it could melt the ice cap. This short journey was an introduction to Shade, he began telling us about the island, his life and his philosophy on it, this dialogue ( yes dialogue, he did pause and allow comment, although this may have been mainly to allow him breath) continued effortlessly to the point we waved goodbye at Langkawi quay 8 days later.

Arriving at our destination, a remote spot at the end of a small track, we had not passed any recognisable shops or restaurant, clearly these islands were a long way from being “developed”, yes the government had built nice new schools and laid some tarmac but it was still very much a fishing and rubber plantation economy. Our hosts offered us full board for an extra 50 ringets (£10 each) per night, seeing little option, we accepted. As it transpired this proved to be amazingly good value, we ate famously as the Irish say and left the island several pounds heavier and converts to Malaysian cuisine. Other extras thrown in were use of some kayaks and a couple of Honda motorbikes, the latter we used to Buzz round the islands, me at the front and my newly discovered biker chick Jane riding pillion.

Our first evenings dinner was served on tables set out on the lawn, we were joined by a Korean family that had been staying for a few days and were leaving the next day, destination undecided. They were good company and much braver than us travelling so unconcernedly with two young boys in tow. The food cooked by Shades wife Barkat was delicious, Shade the most attentive of hosts and the setting splendid, a great introduction to what was in store for us over the next week.

Midway through our stay on this little island, after a good breakfast we boarded our hosts fishing boat for the 35 minute passage to Langkawi, the main island. This was a for Shade and Barkat to pick up fuel and supplies and a shopping trip for us. We would also be bringing a German couple back to the island to join us and another couple that had rocked up unexpectedly yesterday, he Italian, she Polish. That evenings dinner was a delight, with great food, lively conversation, travellers tales and only the slightest hint of underlying racism ( no, not from Jane, this time :-)). I don’t want to put a slight on what was a lovely evening and perhaps I was reading to much into a few loose remarks but it seems that a slight tinge of xenophobia is an all to common occurrence even with apparently intelligent and worldly folk, do we all harbor some level of resentment towards immigrants irrespective of our own ancestral origins? Discuss.

As I sit here in Thailand, on the balcony of our splendid bamboo bungalow with the waves gently lapping the palm fringed white sandy beach in front of me, I am recalling our time on Dayang Bunting, only a week ago. Remembering Shades constant (almost smothering at times) attention, bringing food and drinks, offers of trips out, Barkats amazing cooking and the regular supply of interesting fellow travellers keeping the conversations fresh. Yes we lived in a tin hut that rattled in the wind, the beach was muddy and the sea a bit murky but I wonder if that for all of Thailands postcard perfect appearance, warm inviting seas, tasty foods, colourful sights and beautiful people will it generate memories to match those we carry from our time in raggedy but quirkily splendid Malaysia, it’s going to have to pull its finger out!

Menopause

There’s no doubt about it, I’m finally menopausal. The main symptoms are feeling very sorry for myself, crying a lot, having irrational thoughts and blaming Sean for everything. These feelings seem to come at random times and unfortunately I haven’t yet learned to recognise them for what they are so the irrational thoughts can sometimes lead to irrational decisions. This is what happened last week.

We had a long-standing arrangement to do an English teaching helpx placement with a lady in Thailand called Nitty. Two days before we were due to go all the above symptoms kicked in along with a migraine. As usual, I didn’t realise what the cause was but just felt I couldn’t cope with another helpx, the journey to get there, meeting Nitty’s family, the heat. All I wanted to do was go home. Sean, as usual was very patient, managed to avoid arguing (on the whole), kindly didn’t point out that I was slightly mad and didn’t complain when all our plans were up in the air again. I explained to Nitty that we couldn’t go but still felt really bad about letting her down. Then we had to decide what to do next.

We left Dayang Bunting, where we had been for a week of marvellous food, but where we had felt a bit overwhelmed by the hospitality and headed for Krabi in Thailand. From there we made our way to this island. It’s stunningly beautiful; we have a bungalow on the beach and we’re staying five days while we plan our next move. I feel rather foolish, but relieved that Sean is so understanding and hopeful that maybe next time I’ll recognise the symptoms before they take over.

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