by Sacha Bunnik
Each year Craig from our product department and I go to visit an area to monitor the quality of our tours and to make sure that everything is set for our clients. This year’s trip was to include Bangkok and Hell Fire Pass in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Yes, we do have a fantastic job!
Thailand, Bangkok in particular, has ridden the economic wave that has swept across Asia over the last few decades, turning into a very modern, vibrant and energetic country. Downtown Bangkok is full of towering office buildings, flash new shopping malls and an overhead train network that would be the envy of most Australian cities.
Whether it is walking the streets of old China Town with its labyrinth of shopping alleys; exploring the many temples that are scattered across the city; or simply sampling some of the local delicacies on offer on most street corners – Bangkok has so much to offer.
The city and surrounding area is home to just over 8 million people officially, however speaking to our guide he assures me that the number is closer to 15 million people as more and more rural Thai people come to the city looking for work. In spite of the city’s huge volume of people it is still an easy city to get around; while Craig and I were in Bangkok we took the train, a canal boat, many taxis and did a heap of exploring on foot.
Bangkok should be referred to as the ‘Venice of Asia’, due to the many waterways that crisscross the city, from major rivers to manmade canals and streams. Klongs is what the Thai people call these waterways and they form an important link to the past, when most trade was done by these waterways.
We had the opportunity to take a 2 hour cruise on the canals on a long boat to see a different side of the city, and it was a real eye opener. It was so nice to see how locals still live over the water in wooden houses built on stilts, these unique houses seem to balance awkwardly over the water giving the impression that they will fall over at a moment’s notice. During our adventures in the Klongs we were lucky enough to see a few of the local lizards sunbaking on the banks of the canals. These lizards grow up to 1 ½ metres long, can swim, look scary, but according to our guide only eat plants (not Australian tourists).
One of the more traditional sights to see in Bangkok is the Golden Buddha, built in the 13th century. The buddha is 4 metres tall, weighs an impressive 5 ton and is made of almost solid gold, making it one of the most impressive and expensive statues in the world.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
Craig and I had an early start as we headed out of Bangkok, 100 km to the famous and, to be honest – a bit touristy, floating markets of Damnoen Saduak. Yes, very touristy, but also very interesting and enjoyable to experience as it’s unique to Thailand.
The market area is quite a narrow canal only about 10 metres wide, so it’s very action-packed with colourful long boats piled high with fruit, veggies and tourist trinkets to be sold. Here you can also experience some local treats, like the sweet palm sugar dumpling (Craig’s favourite), made right in front of you on one of the long boats.
From the floating markets we continued on to the town of Kanchanaburi well known for its role during the Second World War when it was under Japanese control. It was near Kanchanaburi that the infamous Burma Railway project was implemented which resulted in many thousands of deaths of allied prisoners as well as forced Asian labourers.
During our time we stopped to check out the bridge, made famous in the movie, Bridge on the River Kwai. The area where the bridge is located has turned very touristy with lots of market stalls and tourists.
We continued to the Allied War Cemetery, where over 6000 English, Dutch and Australian soldiers are buried, quite a moving experience as most of the soldiers were only aged between 18 and 25 years old. Being born in Holland and growing up in Australia, it was strange and sad to see a cemetery with so many Dutch and Australian soldiers buried side by side.
Located right next to the Allied War Cemetery is a small but informative museum, called the Thailand Burma Railway Centre; it’s been set up by Australians and tells the story of the Burma Railway. The centre has lots of interesting displays including some models showing what the conditions were like for the allied prisoners and how they lived in the jungle.
Hell Fire Pass
Our next stop was to the nearby Hell Fire Pass, the largest rock cutting on the railway project and one of the most demanding for Australian prisoners in terms of loss of life. The reason it’s called Hell Fire Pass is that the prisoners worked around the clock cutting into the rock (with no mechanical tools) by torchlight which gave the resemblance of a scene from hell. Craig and I walked the 2 km track following the old railway line and it’s easy to see how difficult it would have been to build, especially under the conditions the Australians worked under.