Six months ago I visited Auschwitz, where a million people died in World War Two. Now I’m in Kanchanaburi, where more than 100,000 perished working on the Thailand-Burma railway. The two places couldn’t be more different, however. For a start, Auschwitz doesn’t feel like a beach resort.
Truth be told, I’m starting to understand why a certain type of middle-aged European male views places like this as paradise. I’m a little creeped out when I see them with their much younger Thai wives and girlfriends - and here I’ll admit that I’m making assumptions that may or may not be warranted - but putting that aside, there’s a great deal that’s attractive about this town. The scenery is beautiful, the cost of living low, the food magnificent, the pace of life almost catatonic and the weather, for the moment at least, is spectacular. Add to that pubs serving cheap beer and screening English sports and it’s hardly surprising that every time I go out I pass stocky, bullet-headed geezers in football shirts.
I arrived yesterday on a bus service from Bangkok that reminded me of National Express coaches in the UK, back when they had hostesses serving you drinks of water and there was no law requiring you to wear a seatbelt. The bus pulled into Kanchanaburi at 1pm and I was immediately targeted by a samlor (bicycle rickshaw) driver who was determined to pedal me to the well-established strip of guest houses in a area of town 3km away.
Now, I don’t know if I’m mellowing in my old age or whether it’s the friendliness of the Thais, but I’m being much less of an arsehole on this trip than I have been on previous occasions. Time was when the merest whiff of a hawker, tout or pushy taxi driver would get my back up, and yet these days I just smile and think: “Well, they’ve got to make a living.”
So I indulged the samlor lady, agreeing to let her transport me to a guest house. I should have guessed she’d hang around, trying to wheedle commission out of whoever I stayed with, but to my surprise this didn’t bother me too much.
I settled on a place called the Noble Night Guesthouse, one of many perched on the banks of the River Kwai and extremely affordable considering the comfort, setting, swimming pool, TV and wifi it provides. In British terms, I’m paying £6 a night to live like a [down at heel, penny-pinching and still showering in cold water] king.
Having mooched around the shopping centre on my first day, this afternoon I was much more concerned with the town‘s place in history and paid a sobering visit to Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.
Some 16,000 Allied PoWs and 100,000 Asian labourers lost their lives constructing the so-called Death Railway; the cemetery contains 6,982 servicemen’s graves. Most have names, regiments and ages on them. This one, heartbreakingly, does not:
Across the road, a highly informative museum describes in horrific detail the cruelty meted out by Japanese engineers and guards. Faced with photographic evidence, film footage and first-hand accounts of what went on, I could well understand the bitterness of some veterans, and can only admire those who’ve been able to forgive their former captors. Sadly, though, the museum’s frontage doesn’t quite get the tone of respect right.
Leaving the museum as the sun was starting to set, I walked the couple of miles to Thailand’s most famous railway bridge, still in use today. (And in the next 24 hours I’ll be returning there, taking a train ride across it during a day-long guided tour of local sights.)
It had been a sad, reflective sort of day, but I was glad I’d taken the trouble to come here. Still, I couldn’t help asking myself: if there wasn’t a film called The Bridge on the River Kwai, would people be quite so keen to have their picture taken with it?