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- Written by Russell Johnson
A cruise on the River Kwai in Thailand
I am a river rat. Not a rafter, but a lollygaging Huck Finn kinda swamp rodent who likes to flow with the current and poke around the slough. Lord Buddha describes The Dharma as a raft that floats one to Nirvana. A few days on a river and I find myself paddling pretty close to a perfect state of bliss.
I love jungle rivers, draped with serpentine vines (not to mention envined serpents) where steam rises in the morning, macaques squawk and shake their hairy little fists, insects whine like powertools and plumy birds, aloft and aloof, snub me as a lower form of life while I stare at them in admiration.
Thailand's Kwae Noi, better known as the River Kwai, is such a river...at least during the week when the party boats of Bangkok revelers are quiet. Difficult to imagine that this is just a few kilometers from Bangkok. I wind my way upriver on the RV River Kwai, a polished teak and brass reproduction of the colonial riverboats that used to ply the waterways of Thailand and Burma. The River Kwai, the boat, has ten air conditioned cabins, however, rather than the hammocks slung across the deck of the pip-pip gin and quinine days. Little need for the quinine these days, though, there are no mosquitoes on the river.
The River Kwai, is known best known due to a catchy little tune whistled in a movie called "Bridge on the River Kwai, " which was filmed in Sri Lanka and was not about a bridge on the Kwai but another one on the nearby Mae Klong.
But, lets rewind. First you had to get to the Kwae Noi, and getting there involves an early morning drive through traffic-choked Bangkok. We get through due to our driver's fish-skills. It is said that Thais drive like fishes. Fishes, unlike Americans and Brits, don't queue up. They find a gap and swim on through. Have you ever seen a line of fish outside of a cartoon? You know what happens to the straggler in a cartoon fish queue. I feel confident that a good Thai driver will deliver me to my destination tail intact.
On the way to the Kwai we swim past Phra Pathom Chedi, the largest pagoda in a Southeast Asia full of large pagodas. The original was built 2000 years ago. This incarnation looks newly-painted.
There are also Buddhist caves here and in many places in the region. One wonders what a monk has to do to draw cave duty.
We board the RV River Kwai to begin our journey up river. The river is pretty here, but the scenery gets better and better as we head north. The trip is not without a few obstacles. The river is so shallow at points the boat needs a tow. In fact, sometimes the captain has to call the keepers of the dam up river and ask them to release a little more water. And some bridges are so low that masts have to be pulled down so the boat can pass under.
"Pardon me boy is this the Kanchanburi Choo Choo?" My wife and I burst into a chorus that the Thais politely acknowledge with a famous Thai smile. Thai smiles aren't always what they seem. Like Minnesotan's, they may nod in agreement but it doesn't mean they agree, particularly when money is involved.
We're off the boat for a bit and on the rails. This region is famous as the route of the Burma-Thailand railway, otherwise known as The Death Railway, built by the Japanese as a supply route. 12,400 Allied POWs and between 70 and 90 thousand conscripted civilians died of disease, starvation and brutal treatment in 1942 and 1943. 130 kilometers of he old railroad line remain.
There are many museums and monuments to those who died here…including Hellfire Pass, where Allied POWs an locals cut canyons by hand: with picks, hoes and shovels. It is really quite moving. The real Bridge over the River Kwai, destroyed by Allied Bombing but reconstructed with Japanese reparations, is a letdown, aesthetically and spiritually compared to the rest these artifacts. Besides, as we said, it isn't the one described in the movie.
To Western ears, Mon music is indeed strange. The Mons reside primarily across the border in Burma, or Myanmar as it is called now. Western Thailand is a place to sample Mon culture without entering politically-troubled Burma itself. I have been to Burma. It is as unusual as its music. It is a country that has been isolated by its politics of its brutal, corrupt rulers for decades.
But history in the Kwai Noi region has deeper layers, revealed in well-preserved relics of the Khymers of the 12th and thirteenth century and way back to the dry bones of Neolithic age 4000 years ago.
But I live for the moment. Moving upstream the jungle gets junglier and the mind fleets away from the madness of WWII to scenes of hanging vines and jungle waterfalls.
Not Nirvana, perhaps, but a nice little journey toward it.