Kanchanaburi, the land of mountains and rivers
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Through these years, I have been acting as a part-time tour guide for my Japanese friends who I have known way back when I studied in Japan, and this time was no exception. When I knew they were coming to Thailand, I’ve been thinking of a tourist attraction not far from Bangkok where nature meets culture and history. Then the best choice occurred to me, the grand Kanchanaburi of the west! My friends and I hit the road on Saturday morning to avoid the late traffic disaster of Bangkok. After a short stop of rice and curry for breakfast on the way, we reached Kanchanaburi in only about an hour. The bus terminal on the left told me to take a left to my first destination of the trip, Kwae River Bridge. Despite the almost unbearable heat of Kanchanaburi sun, the huge metal bridge lying across Kwae River since World War II was packed with tourists from all over the world, young and old, as usual. While we were walking for a closer look of the bridge, a train passed the bridge and reminded me that this so called “The Death Railway” was still in use. Everyday, tourists from Bangkok would go on a train ride and pass this Kwae River Bridge to Sai Yoke Falls, all the while admiring the sublime view of mountains and rivers along the way. Another image from when I was a kid popped up, I was on a train going on a school field trip. When the train went around the edge of the cliff near Kwae Noi River, the path was terrifying, and the name the Death Railway wasn’t much of a help. It was until later that I knew more about the tragic history of this bridge. After waving to those cheerful train riders, I led my friends to have some cold water under the soothing tree shade and started giving my lecture on the unforgettable history of this bridge. The railway and the bridge were built in the time of the World War II as a way to transfer army weapons and soldiers of Japan army from Thailand to India, which was then a colony of England. Most of the labor was from the soldiers of the Allies. However, the hardship of building the railway and the bridge in the past was so great it killed quite a number of those western soldiers, and the railway was appointed the name The Death Railway from then. Once the train was gone, tourists could take a walk on the bridge, and with such height, some hearts could skip a beat. Watching the face of many lively tourists taking photos with the bridge or admiring the grandeur of the river streaming vigorously underneath, I almost couldn’t imagine the cruelty and ruthlessness of a group of greedy people back in the time of war almost a century ago. Thinking of such tragedy, I decided to take my friends to Kanchanaburi War Cemetry not far from the bridge. The huge graveyard decorated with dignified simplicity was meant to be a memorial for thousands of the Allies soldiers who died building the bridge. Every time I visited this place, I always saw older foreigners standing in front of some tombstones, crying, which was really hard to watch. I really couldn’t help but wish for the future without any war. Afterwards, I took my friends for the awfully tasty noodles for lunch at the old market before going to pay respect to the City Pillar Shrine nearby. Then we headed west. After three hours drive through Tong Paa Poom district, Kuen Kao Laem Lake, and magnificent view along the way, we finally reached Sanklaburi, western gateway to Myanmar. We went straight to our resort which provided us with rooms on the raft in Sam Prasob area not far from Mueng district. The name of the area was because the place was where three rivers met and became Kwae Noi River that went to Kanchanaburi. People here were Mon people, living together in a simple and peaceful village surrounded by mountains and rivers. We rushed through the check-in process to be able to enjoy the view of the lake on the boat trip before sunset. In the past, the area was the location of a community of Thai, Mon, and Karen people. There were district office, a market, and Luang Poh Uttama Temple. But when the government decided to build Vachiralongkorn Dam on the land, people had to evacuate and the area was flooded from the water in the dam until it became an underwater city, a famous tourist attraction as seen today. The tide was high when we were visiting and half of the temple was under water. We were told that when the tide was low we could even get down from the boat and walk right in. The evening breeze, the lake, and the mountain made the 40 degree Celsius weather not as torturing as it should be. The boat driver took us to see the only palm tree that survived in the water, which was pretty amazing. Then we were taken to the new Luang Poh Uttama Temple on the other side of the lake. The official name of the temple was Wang Wiwegaram Temple and a golden Buddhakhaya chedi of the temple could be seen gleaming in the sunlight from very far. Since the temple and the community were divided by a gush of water of 500 meters wide, the abbot of the temple, with the villagers, built a wooden bridge for people to be able to visit the temple. The bridge has become the longest wooden bridge of Thailand and a trademark of Sanklaburi nowadays. This Mon Bridge, apart from being a road connecting the village to the temple, also reflected the simple lifestyles of the traditional Mon people which can rarely be seen today. Students wore uniforms with Sarong, women carried baskets on their heads, men chopped woods on the river bank, kids jumped into the water and screamed with joy; these were the display of the real happiness and genuine smiles some of which managed to capture through the lens of my favorite cameras. I woke up the next morning and through my room window, I saw villagers waiting to give food offerings to the monks. I hurried out to take my last day experience here. Lines of Buddhist monk and temple boys walking on the bridge and an old lady prostrating herself to pay respect to the monks were an image that truly reflected the strong faith of people here. The sun was starting to go high in the sky when I felt hungry so I walked to the other side of the bridge for my breakfast. What you shouldn’t miss in this Mon community was Kanomjeen Namya Yuakkluai, a dish so distinctive and delicious second to no dish in Bangkok. After the meal, we drove for around 20 kilometers to barrier of Chedi Sam Ong, the end of Thai territory at Tanaosri Mountain. Though the three white chedis looked so ordinary like three white stones, it represented the faith and the belief of Thai people that has rooted deep in our hearts. People in the past would pay respect to the chedis before going to other countries to bring good luck with them. Shops in this area offered wooden utensils and furniture like tables, chairs, or even carpenter’s plane since the landscape was still a perfectly unharmed forest. Exquisite wild orchids were also brought from the forest for sale. Finally we bid goodbye to the mountains of Sonkalia River, the heart of Sanklaburi people, and let the life here take its slow pace among the pure nature and the kind community. On my way back, I was left wondering if we have abandoned the nature for too far now.