Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The falls guy

“Don’t go chasing waterfalls,” the girl group TLC once warned. Paul McCartney, on the other hand, urged us not to go jumping them. After that he went off at a bit of a tangent, wibbling on about how much he needed love and consulting a rhyming dictionary to help him illustrate his point. (“Like a castle needs a tower. Like a raindrop needs a shower. Like cricket needs David Gower.” OK, I made that last one up.)

What triggered all this anti-waterfall sentiment remains a mystery, unless Macca and the lasses had had a day like I’ve just had. The fact is, I recklessly ignored TLC’s advice and did go chasing the wet sprinkly buggers this morning, and I’m not sure much good came of it. The rest of the day was mildly disappointing too, but I’ll come to that in a moment.

I was on one of those day-tours-in-a-people-carrier things, where they pick you up at 8am, drive you around to the places public transport don’t reach and drop you off at teatime when you’ve done the region’s edited highlights, as it were. A variety of companies in Kanchanaburi run these tours and it’s obvious now that most follow the exact same template, meaning I could have randomly swapped places with a fellow tourist at any point in the day and it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Driver and guide aside, our group consisted of four middle-aged white blokes and two southeast Asian spouses. In the vehicle’s centre three seats there was a mild-mannered fortysomething Frenchman, his thirtysomething spouse (fair enough) and me. Behind us sat a silver-haired Yorkshireman and alongside him was an obnoxious, paunchy, boorish, greying, balding and eminently punchable Australian tosser and his 12-year-old wife.

French bloke and his partner spoke only rudimentary English - though oddly enough, this was the language they communicated in - which meant I could get away with watching the world go by and not be forced into any stilted conversations. The downside was that I then had to listen to the guys behind me role-play David Brent and Chris Finch from The Office. Just think of the Aussie gobshite as Finchy, tirelessly sharing his reactionary views of Asia and the world with his overawed new friend. At one point I could have sworn I heard him giving advice on the best go-go bars to visit, though that might well be my journalistic exaggeration gene kicking in.

Our first stop was the Erawan National Park with its picturesque seven-tiered waterfall. When the guide said we were staying two-and-a-half hours, I wondered how we were going to fill the time. The answer turned out to be: walking up a mountain trail, admiring each tier… and in your case, Davy boy, taking far too long with the old photography so that before you reach the highest waterfall you have to turn back in a panic and practically run down the sodding mountain.

Next we drove to Hellfire Pass, which is basically a railway cutting. To be fair, though, it is a railway cutting with a tragic history that deserves recognition. The slave labourers I wrote about yesterday endured an especially brutal time here carving a path through solid rock. The strikingly modern Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum that overlooks it stands as a testament to their suffering.

According to The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia that I’m carrying, the train journey along the Death Railway is really scenic in parts. Unfortunately the section of line that we travelled on just after 4pm is bounded mostly by fields. As we waited at the station, our guide advised us to nab a right-hand seat as soon as we boarded, as this would afford us the best views.

I got on the train. All the right-hand seats were taken by tourists. Bastards.

There I was, desperate to rubberneck and quietly resenting all the rubberneckers who’d got there before me. If we passed something vaguely interesting, they’d all lean towards the glassless windows and take photos. All I had was a view of white people’s backs. So I tried my luck in the next carriage or, to be more precise, that bit of the carriage where the doors are.

The train was packed not just with tourists but with children coming home from school. In front of me, two girls sat in the open doorway as it rattled along, their legs dangling over the side. Behind me, two teenage boys were doing something similar, except they were engaged in a fun fight for most of the journey. I shudder to think what Health & Safety would make of it.

Then, after about three stops, all the tourists got off and trooped back to their people carriers. We had one more destination: the Bridge on the River Kwai, which I’d seen yesterday. But by now Finchy’s rants were becoming ever more unguarded and expletive-strewn and when he got to “I’m sick and tired of the bloody Aborigines,” I’m sorry to say my brain imploded.

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