Bangkok - 08-12/04/15

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 Bougainville??

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.

The Thai Royal Barges - the King's barge is second from the camera.

Our longtail boat - plenty of grunt in the V8 engine!

Many people on the side canals live in nice houses with water views ....

.... and so do the lower socio-economic Bangkok residents.

Out of the side canals opposite the Grand Palace on the Chao Phraya river.

Nearing Central Pier past Wat Arun - Temple of the Dawn - who clearly had the builders in!

Bang Pa-In, Ayutthaya - the King's Summer Palace. Started in 1632, abandoned, then re-established between 1872 and 1879 in a mixture of Thai, western and Chinese styles by King Chulalongkorn.

The Sage's Lookout - Bang Pa-In.

They're big on topiary at Bang Pa-In!

Remains of prangs and chedis at Wat Maha That, Ayutthaya. Constructed from 14th century, fell into disrepair in 17th century and again in the 18th - razed by the Burmese in 1767.

Wat Maha That, Ayutthaya. This statue of Buddha was engulfed by tree roots when the temple was abandoned.

Wat Na Phra Mane, Ayutthaya.

Inside Wat Na Phra Mane. Not quite J Arthur Rank! Ringing the gong three times supposedly brings good luck before ........

........ some contemplation before Buddha.

Wat Lokayasutharam Reclining Buddha, Ayutthaya - 42m/138ft.

The entrance gate - Kanchanaburi cemetery.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery - Kanchanaburi.

Kanchanaburi Cemetery. As with so many conflicts, many had no known grave.

Konyu Cutting - nicknamed "Hellfire Pass".

A flare made from bamboo. During the "speedo", POWs and other workers had to toil for up 18 hours a day to try and catch up time lost due to the difficult terrain. The sight at night gave rise to the name "Hellfire Pass".

Australia has taken responsibility for the Hellfire Pass memorial. Original rails and sleepers have been reinstalled.

Even at the wayside station of Thakilen, the Thai king is held in high regard, with this large portrait and drapes on the platform.

This cave served as quarters for the Japanese troops overseeing construction of the Wang Po viaduct.

The Wang Po viaduct.

Looking back to the Wang Po viaduct - little changed in appearance since 1943, although maintained using the original design.

No trains coming!

The Bridge - arched spans brought from Java in 1943 and angular spans replacing those destroyed by allied bombing.