Prow decoration on a Thai Royal Barge. Note the cannon - these vessels were sometimes fighting barges.
We have visited Thailand before, on leave from PNG, and done the round of Palaces, Temples and Buddhas (standing, sitting, reclining, golden, emerald etc) in Bangkok, so did not feel the need to do that again. This time, we had three days in in
the city, two on pre-booked tours and one on our own. With temperatures of nearly 40C and very high humidity, door to door tours were extremely welcome, but we did venture out on our final day, exploring the Skytrain system and the Express Boat to take
us to the Royal Barge Museum. The Royal Family is highly revered in Thailand - this week was Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn's 60th birthday (King Bhumibol's second daughter - flattering photos of her with notices expressing fulsome good wishes were
absolutely everywhere) and the current king reintroduced the tradition of processing down the river on ceremonial occasions in his splendid carved barges. They are quite a sight, even in dry dock and must be amazing in action. We couldn't help
but be reminded of our own Queen's damp trip up the Thames in 2012 for her jubilee. No comparison! Leaving the Museum, we took a ride on a longtail boat around the Bangkok canals, where so many of the population live in close proximity to the water
- many in houses on stilts. The proximity got a lot closer in 2011, when terrible floods ravaged much of the country. It wasn't a very taxing schedule, but we were completely exhausted when we got back to the hotel. How did we survive in
One of our organised tours took us to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam. It was largely destroyed in a war with Burma in 1767 and the king then decided to relocate to Bangkok. First we went to the Royal Family's Summer Palace
at Bang Pa-In, where we enjoyed driving round the fifty acre site in a golf buggy to admire the pavilions, residences and entertaining topiary. After that, on to Ayutthaya itself where it was temples, ruined or otherwise, headless Buddhas and lots of
very long names. Impressive overall, but the details tend to be somewhat forgettable. The tour ended with a very passable lunch on board a riverboat, which took us back to Bangkok in air-conditioned comfort.
The standout experience in Thailand
was the Death Railway Tour. This was as serious as it sounds, but not a depressing day out. It was a private tour with a very good guide, who chatted about all sorts of aspects of life in Thailand on the long drive and it's thanks to her that we
know a fair bit about the Royal Family, social change in Thailand and what our lucky colour is (green as we were both born on a Wednesday, since you ask). But when she needed to tell us serious facts, she did that well. As many of you know, Martin
is always interested in the history of WW2, so he was very keen to make this trip, but I was equally enthusiastic, as I have just read Richard Flanagan's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North". The tour included four main features - the Commonwealth War
Graves Commission's cemetery at Kanchanaburi, a ride on a train over a very long wooden viaduct, walking across the Bridge over the River Kwai and a steep walk down into Hellfire Pass (and back up again - my calves are still complaining). The cemetery
contains the graves of British, Australian and Dutch soldiers, most in their twenties, who died as prisoners of war building the railway the Japanese planned from Singapore, through Malaya and Thailand to Burma. It's a sobering place and even more so
when you remember the thousands more who are not here - some American, but mostly Malays, Thais, Burmese and Indonesian conscripted slaves, who far outnumbered the soldiers and whose death toll was many times greater. The train ride was entertaining,
but only relevant to the story in that it demonstrated the type of terrain the POWs were battling with and the engineering feats they accomplished, including the Wang Po viaduct, built in March/April 1943 during the "speedo" period. This was when the construction
schedule was getting behind due to the difficult terrain, so workers had to work for up to 18 hours a day - an amazing feat given that a ledge had to be cut in the rock face before the wooden structure could be built. We then travelled on to the famous
bridge that we all recognise. This is actually the second crossing - the first was a temporary wooden structure, although not the Forth Railway Bridge-like structure shown in the 1957 film. It was brought to the site by the Japanese from Java and
completed in April 1943, just two months after the wooden bridge. At that time the river was called Mae Klong, but after the film's fame (the author of the 1954 book on which the film is based, Pierre Boulle, had never been to the site - hence the geographical
error), the ever-pragmatic Thais renamed it Kwa Yai. Once you leave the rather commercial car park end and walk across, picking your way carefully over the tracks and trying not to look down to the river, your imagination starts to take you into a pretty
dark place. But perhaps not as dark as at Konyu Cutting (nicknamed Hellfire Pass). This site is the deepest of the many cuttings through the mountains further north and has been restored by Australia as a memorial. You have to work hard to
get there and even harder to get back, but that seems right. No-one flits in, takes a selfie and flits out again, as some do at the Bridge. When you climb down into the pass, you can see the deep cutting hewn out of the rock by men who were already
not much more than skeletons, wielding inadequate tools. The name "Hellfire Pass" was given to the area after the Japanese decided that the work was not going fast enough and introduced night work - "speedo". Holes were driven into the rock walls and
oil torches set into them. The resulting glow, lighting up the terrible scenes within the cutting, looked like a scene from hell. Flanagan's book describes the work on this part of the railway extremely vividly. Seeing the real thing was unforgettable.
Bangkok is an exhausting city at the best of times and everyone tells us that April is the worst of times, being the hottest month of the year and also New Year here in SE Asia - a national holiday or, rather, nine days! So we were content to be moving
on again, on a tour that took us by road to Cambodia.