Kanchanaburi: The River Kwai. "A First For Me"
An edited version of this letter was published in To Thailand With Love, ThingsAsian Press, 2013
December 5, 2004
Dear Family and Friends,
I am resting on a chaise lounge, on a raft, after a brief and breathless swim in the swift, churning currents of The River Kwai. Life vests courtesy of the hotel.
To my right the sun is disappearing behind the hills across The River.
At this point on its journey from Burma to The Gulf of Siam, the narrow River Kwai is slicing through the steep green and brown hillsides (it's winter now), exposing several black and gold vertical stone outcrops.
So, if the hills are so steep, where exactly is this hotel? On The River, my friends, on...the...river.
For two nights I will be sleeping at the aptly named "River Kwai Jungle Raft." Surf on over to...www.riverkwaifloatel.com
My chaise lounge sits on a bamboo raft about 10 meters long by 3 meters wide. It is lashed to the side of a much larger wooden raft about 15 meters long.
There are ten of these long rafts attached to each other by little wooden bridges. Each raft has five bedrooms. In the middle of this train are several much larger rafts - a dining area for about one hundred people, bar, lounge, kitchen and the ever-present Thai massage area. A large raft at one end is a theater where, this evening, we will be entertained with singing and dancing by the Mon, a local hill tribe.
All of the rafts are decorated with a botanical garden of potted and hanging tropical plants. Just next to my lounge is a small red leafed plant with tiny white, ball-shaped flowers. Also, a "Jackson Pollack" bushy green plant which is liberally dribbled with bright yellow. The entire complex sits on steel pontoons and is anchored to the shoreline.
The sun is hot yet the breeze seems cool. With the exception of an occasional motorboat taxi and some quiet neighborly conversation, or a very occasional screech from one of the elephants nearby (elephant ride, anyone?), the only sound is the murmuring and splashing of the impatient and swirling river current.
Our bedroom has one double bed and one single bed. The very "basic" Asian bathroom has a sink, mirror, a proper toilet, except that it takes a scoop or two of water from the cistern for a proper flush, and a shower head which is just beside the sink. Hot water? Forgetaboutit. Power? Pre-Edison.
"Our bedroom" you say? Yes, I am in the company of two female university grad students I met on the Internet several months ago. Bum, 22 (pronounced Boom) and her friend Paulina, 30, speak excellent English and Spanish. When I arrived in Bangkok a month ago, and we had a chance to meet, they invited me to join them on this trip. "Porque no?" I responded. "Absolutamente y muchas gracias."
Actually the girls are here with a group of fellow Spanish students and teachers. So here I am in the mountain jungle of Western Thailand, close to the border of Burma, being served by young and charming Mon men and women, and, practicing my Spanish! I do believe I am now an honorary member of The Bangkok Spanish Club.
"Our bedroom" you say again? OK. OK. This is a "first" for me. I am sharing the facilities with Bum and Paulina, and I promise to behave myself. Thai style.
The trip here was also "basic Asian." Taxi to a crowded bus terminal. Weekend travelers combined with a National Holiday. It's the King's Birthday. He's seventy-seven. "Cumpleanos feliz."
Two hour Air/Con westbound bus to Kanchanaburi. Then, a one hour overcrowded local bus. I rode "shotgun" most of the way on the steps of the open doorway. We passed a World War II Cemetery and Museum. Then a fifteen minute motorbike taxi to the pier. Finally, a long-tail motorboat to the lodge a few "clicks" up The River.
All the way here I kept thinking of "The Bridge on The River Kwai." Alec Guiness, the very British Colonel Nicholson ("Officers will do no manual labor.") and Sessue Hayakawa, the equally stubborn Colonel Saito, his Japanese counterpart ("Be happy in your work.")
"Mira, mis amigos. Mi trabajo a mi me gusta mucho."
Now, my dear readers, you must excuse me so I can get out of my wet things, shower (brrrrr), spray on some DEET, and dress for dinner.
Tomorrow, hike around a bit, swim, and maybe visit 'The Bridge.'
PS The notice posted on the wall reads as follows:
"Mosquitoes and Malaria"
1. "Malaria is generally a common disease in the tropical countries including Thailand.
2. As reported by researchers, mosquitoes which carry the disease are very rare in this area.
3. Since the establishment of this hotel in 1974, no case has been reported by our guests or staff who stayed here."
I'll sleep soundly now, rocked to sleep by The River. I hope I don't snore too much.
6 December, 2004
Dear Family and Friends,
After breakfast on the raft, Boom and I took a short hike on the well-marked path up the hillside behind the lodge.
Oops. I almost forgot to tell you about my wake up call. Yep.. About 07:00. Two elephants happily screeching and walking proudly just by the rear window of my room. I watched as the mahouts rode them to the riverside for the morning ablutions.
On the hillside, Boom and I found some touristy gift shops, a crafts center, a Buddha cave, complete with living quarters for the local monks, and a variety of statuary. Up on the hill were some excellent views of the river and the lodge below.
The highlight of the morning, except of course for the elephants, was a school, a kindergarten with about a dozen local Mon children dressed in traditional attire - white shirts and colorful floor length cloth skirts.
Now, back at the lodge, sweaty and a bit dizzy form the humidity and sun...don't forget...we are in the mountain jungle here...I am faced with a problem...a dilemma.
Do I relax on the chaise lounge at the riverside, or, do I retreat a step or two to an inviting rope hammock in the shade, just outside my room? What do I do? Whatever to do? I chose the hammock. It's a little early for a siesta, but hey, I left my watch in Miami.
As you can see we decided not to visit The Bridge. As Paulina said, "It's just a bridge."
The food here is plentiful and surpassing excellent. American breakfast...Two fried eggs, toast, coffee, fresh pineapple.
Lunch and dinner are served boarding house style with a table full of several wonderful Thai specialties. Sweet and sour chicken, fresh carrots and tomatoes, eggs with green vegetables, lightly sauteed fish, steamed rice, coffee, tea, pineapple and watermelon. All the food is delicately flavored with herbs and spices and sauces. This Thai cuisine makes the Chinese food at home taste like pablum.
This is a first class resort hotel in a dramatic/romantic/historic setting with not much to do but tempt the currents or just relax. I will be sorry to leave.
Tomorrow, back to Bangkok by bus directly to my hotel.
I have an appointment with Dr. Chumphon, DDS, at Bumrumgrad Hospital. You know that I have problem teeth...I have dubbed myself a "professional dental patient." So from experience, I can tell you that this man and his staff are just the best. The skill and warmth and efficiency and caring of this institution brings tears to my eyes. I'm not kidding. I am about to have my first three-tooth permanent bridge installed at about a cost of 60% less than in Miami. And they take Master Card!
My tentative plans are to travel south again, but this time to the eastern peninsula of Thailand. I want to visit the large island of Ko Chang. The book say great beaches and beautiful hiking trails in the hills. If I have some courage, I will enroll in SCUBA diving classes or at least go snorkeling.
A la playa.