To Hellfire & Back

So it was without ceremony we found ourselves in the waiting area of the Nong Khai railway station. It was hot, we were hot and as we discovered we now had 3 or more hours to wait before our Bangkok bound sleeper train was due to arrive.

In all my years (pre-travel) I’d long had this romantic notion of long layovers in empty airports or dusty railway stations, sitting, waiting, watching the world go by. The reality was a little less idyllic. There’s only so much time you can spend wandering the station, reading your book (or Lonely Planet guide) or people watching… especially when there aren’t too many people around.

It wasn’t all dull, I just thought I would touch on one of the small realities that I often forget about travel, the down time. We did find time to grab ourselves an Icecream and watch one of the favourite things I discovered in Thailand. Their patriotism.

Every day, at both 8am and 6pm, the world stops as the national anthem is played, and everyone within earshot stands to attention.

The 6pm anthem

The 6pm anthem

There was almost a case of mistaken identity as the evening finally came around. The train arrived and we crossed the tracks, ready to board when a guard popped his head out and motioned for us not to do so. It took a few moments, but we soon realised that this in fact was not the correct train and another half hour passed before our correct train arrived.

We settled down with the setting sun for company, ready to wake back in the Thai capital.

The sun setting on our adventures in Laos

The sun setting on our adventures in Laos

We woke on the outskirts with a fairly clear goal in our mind for the remaining few days we had left of our trip. How to quickly and hopefully cheaply enough find our way out to Kanchanaburi.

Kanchanaburi is home to the famous Bridge on the River Kwai (or Kwae) made famous by Alec Guinness in the movie of the same name (although the real version is not made of bamboo). As a history buff, this destination was a no brainer for me, and as well as an ok museum nearby (although many of the exhibits have little to do with the war here in Thailand), there is also a Commonwealth War cemetary here as well.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai

We’d managed to find lodgings for ourselves on a houseboat on the river which seemed a nice spot, and combined decent views with the gentle lapping of the water (occasionally ruined by the screeching sound as a karaoke barge floated by).

In the late afternoon we took the time to visit the war cemetery before the weather forced us to make a hasty retreat back to our accommodation. The weather had been very friendly to us for the majority of our trip, so this was my first true experience of tropical rains.

The rain was torrential, but thankfully the air certainly didn’t get cold, so it wasn’t unbearable, but we still resembled two drowned rats by the time we’d completed the ten minute walk.

Dancing with who? In the summer rain

Dancing with who? In the summer rain

The rains passed, and dinner aside there was little more left in the day but for the karaoke bar to make another pass.

Morning came, and we’d already made the decision to travel up to Hellfire Pass so that I could see it firsthand myself. There was special meaning for this place for Sarah, as her grandfather had actually been a POW here who’d been forced to work on the Thai-Burma death railway.

We opted to catch the local bus there rather than do the typical tourist group tour thing. It was a fun option, and certainly felt more adventurous (it certainly didn’t feel so fun waiting for it for our return leg on a very humid day) than if we’d caught a mini-van and paid through the nose for western company and air-conditioned comfort.

It certainly was a very solemn place and there is also a very modern and informative visitor centre there as well (part run by the Australian government I believe).

When you get down to the cuttings, you can begin to imagine the terrible heat, and pain that must have been endured by malnourished POW’s in carving this railway through solid rock with hand picks.

Hellfire Pass

Hellfire Pass

The local bus did finally arrive to ferry us back the 80km back to town, where we finally stumbled upon the local backpackers hangout (as well as our original Gecko’s guide from the Thailand leg of our trip) and had a feed before heading back to Bangkok.

This would prove a poor decision as this lead to Sarah becoming horribly ill for our last night/day in Thailand (our suspicion is that it was from ice made from local water) which really curtailed any final plans we had.

By the evening of our final night, she had recovered somewhat, so we were able to indulge in one final banana pancake before reluctantly boarding our Thai airways flight back home.

The hallowed 'Banana Pancake'

The hallowed ‘Banana Pancake’

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