The Bridge Over The Night Club Kwai
I may complain about the reliability of LP’s maps, but I can’t fault the books on their accuracy. Although LP may occasionally miss the mark because of new developments since the last edition was published, it’s generally on target when it comes to the details that don’t change, especially everyday oddities. The stranger the entry seemed, the greater the likelihood it was completely correct.
The floating discos of Kanchanaburi, for example.
Because I had two weeks to spare before my Vietnamese visa was valid, I visited a few other towns before I left Thailand. Not knowing much about the country, I flipped through my guidebook until I saw Kanchanaburi, the home of the legendary Bridge over the River Kwai. Having seen the movie when I was a kid, I thought it would be cool to see a World War II landmark. The entry about the floating guesthouse clinched it.
There was a warning that floating discos plied the river near the guesthouse, but I ignored it. Considering how wrong the book’s maps had been, I wasn’t worried about something that probably wasn’t right anyway.
That was before the walls of my bedroom began to throb.
At first, I thought it was an earthquake–until I remembered I wasn’t on land. Instead, I was in a small, no-frills bedroom with an old mattress on the floor, a standard sized night-stand (which looked strange next to my height-challenged bed), a curtain-covered window and an outside walkway surrounded by lots of wet and a small ramp up to the common area where people ate and watched at least one of the videos from the owner’s extensive collection every night. The realization provided little comfort because it didn’t explain why my walls were shaking.
Since all of the other rafthouse’s guests were asleep, there wasn’t anyone to ask what was happening. So I had to sweat it out on my own. I felt like the little kid in “Jaws” innocently paddling a life preserver to a boat just out of reach, blissfully unaware that something is gaining on him until he sees the look of panic on his father’s face. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell how close the shark was because I couldn’t hear the soundtrack playing in the background. Just as I was about to completely freak out I recognized the mating call of the wild disco: A pounding bass backbeat loud enough to rattle the fillings in any human head within a mile radius. All doubt was removed when the boat rounded the bend and the sounds of really bad disco music thundered from speakers that were the size of small Buicks.
That was the good news.
The bad news was that the boat was still a couple of blocks away and moving slowly. Even this wouldn’t have been so bad if it were an occasional occurrence. No such luck. Instead, the boat returned every half-hour until shortly after midnight, rousing me from a restless night’s sleep despite my tying pillows to my head to block out the sound. I didn’t even try to ignore the fury.
Why would anyone even be crazy enough to want to go to a disco on a boat? If a couple went out on a date and it was a disaster, I would think they would want to be able to make a quick get-away. That’s not possible on a boat unless they wanted to swim for it. Although such an escape may seem drastic by some people’s standards, I’ve been on dates bad enough that I would have considered a watery escape as a viable option. Considering where I was, however, I quickly realized it was a silly question. After all, Asians are the same fun-loving people who think Karaoke is entertaining.
I can think of nothing more boring then spending a night in a bar, a disco, or watching people get drunk enough to screw up the courage to get on stage in front of friends just to sing badly. My friends have long marveled at how I have the guts to get up on stage, tell jokes and risk bombing in front of a hostile crowd. Quite frankly, I would rather bomb than do Karaoke. But then again, I can’t carry a tune in a briefcase.
Fortunately, I wasn’t staying at Nita Rafthouse on a weekend when the boats go until 3 a.m. In addition, the boats usually shut down around midnight during the week and I didn’t go to bed before midnight most of the time I was on the road. At least one of the nights I was there the discos were completely quiet.
The quiet was much appreciated by most of the guests because it allowed us to hear the videos that the owner showed every night. The owner’s video collection was quite extensive, with an emphasis on violent action films from The States. (What is it with Asians and film violence, anyway?) My first night the owner showed a movie that we didn’t even really need to hear not only because it was a Steven Segal Film, but also because it was sub-titled to the point of ridiculousness. When a no-goodnik broke into Segal’s house in the film (I think it was one of the ones with a three word title like “Out for Justice,” “Really Pissed Off,” or even “See This Movie”), there would be a subtitle in parenthesis saying “glass breaking,” when he made a quick getaway, the subtitle said “tires squealing” and when he threw someone down the stairs or pushed them out a window the subtitle was always “AAAAAAHHHHH!” which, in English means “AAAIIIIIEEEE!” Another night I saw “The Color of Darkness” and saw similar subtitles in a racy sex scene. When the woman moaned the screen displayed (moaning) and when she groaned “Oh God,” the notation was (groaning). I’m surprised the scene didn’t end with the subtitle (ejaculating).
The floating discos aren’t what make Kanchanaburi famous. The bridge on the River Kwai is. Most people know it because of the famous film “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” in which a British Army Captain played by Alec Guiness at first refuses to let his officers in a prisoner of war camp work on an enemy bridge, gets put in solitary confinement in a hot box for weeks on end due to his stubbornness, never seems to lose weight, grows a bad beard, wins the battle and then pluckily agrees to help the commandant build a much better bridge. Then an even pluckier group of British commandos led by American escapee William Holden blows up the bridge just as the first train crosses it. Curiously, few of the prisoners in the film are killed except when they try to escape, and even fewer die from malnutrition and overwork doing hard labor in a subtropical climate at the hottest time of the year. Fortunately for the prisoners, the camp is run by a Japanese commandant who isn’t really the evil tyrant he appears to be, he’s just misunderstood. (This is like saying the commandant played by Ray Fiennes in “Schindler’s List” was a really nice guy who was just following orders) As a result, viewers may be puzzled why the railroad of which the bridge is part was called the Death Railway.
A trip to the Jeath Museum, half a block away from the Nita Rafthouse, easily resolves the issue, though. The replica of a POW camp not only shows the horrible conditions soldiers lived and worked under as they were forced to build a link in the Death Railway to Burma, it also uses facts and figures to provide perspective on what really happened. The numbers stack up this way: The railway was about 415 kilometers long (263 in Thailand, 152 in Burma) and allowed the Japanese to shuttle supplies between the two countries. Although engineers estimated it would take five years to finish, the Japanese forced 30,000 Allied prisoners and more than 100,000 conscripted laborers from all over Asia to complete the work in 16 months. More than 16,000 POWs and most of the laborers died from starvation, exhaustion, punishment, disease and a lack of medicine to treat their wounds.
The museum also mentions a fact I found fascinating. Many injured soldiers relieved their pain by bathing in the river where native fish would nibble away scar tissue. As disgusting as it sounds, this is what passed for medical treatment. It gives the phrase “are the fish biting today?” a whole new meaning.
One of the area’s other major attractions is the Erawan Waterfalls just two hours out of town. When I first heard how far away it was and how few buses went there, I almost skipped the park altogether, but I’m glad I didn’t. The 1994 edition of “Let’s Go: Thailand” says “If you can only see one place around Kanchanaburi, this should be it.” The park has a hiking trail running alongside seven levels of waterfalls complete with cascading water, natural pools and bamboo groves. Each level is so much more beautiful than the last that I found myself hiking without any real provocation, just so I could see how much more attractive the next level up was. I was so captivated I reached the end of the trail before I realized it. I knew it was the end of the trail because a small wooden sign near the last waterfall said “End of Trail” in English.
Having worked up a sweat and wanting to reward myself, I decided to go for a dip in one of the pools. This is where I discovered one of the major disadvantages of solo travel: Not having anyone to watch my stuff. Although I’d left most of my valuables back at the guesthouse, I still had to find a place to hide the backpack holding my camera and passport. The first area I tried had a great hiding place but the water wasn’t deep enough for swimming. The second place was under a highly trafficked footbridge. I was about to give up when I saw a large open area where a Thai family was frolicking near a waterfall.
I should mention I’m not afraid of water, but I discovered I don’t like cold water. It hadn’t been a problem when I left the States but, then again, I hadn’t spent weeks hoping for hot water only to get shocked into consciousness every morning with a frigid shower. It’s one of the few inconveniences of backpacking that bothered me. As a result, I stopped running and jumping into pools out of fear the water would be heart-stoppingly cold.
So, I eased into the water, taking five minutes to get acclimated. As I did so, the mother of the frolicking family watched me warily. Her concern made perfect sense. I was the only white guy in the vicinity, I was entering the water near her family, and I was moving stealthily. Her watchfulness didn’t bother me, though, because she was worried I was a criminal even as I was thinking about what a complete and utter goober I am.
By the time the water level was up to my waist, however, we seemed to reach an unspoken truce. She apparently agreed not to stare too hard at my sunken chest, while I seem to have agreed not to get to close to her family, lest my Caucasian-ness be contagious. Then I sat down in cold, clear water on a sweaty, hot day and got refreshed. And life was good. It was very, very good.
Until something bit me.
“Jesus Christ, what the hell was that?” I yelled as I shot straight up out of the water.
I looked to the shore in hopes of getting a possible explanation from the woman even though I was pretty sure she didn’t speak English. She wasn’t staring at me anymore. In fact, she’d disappeared from the patch of sand where she’d been seconds before. That’s because the incident so amused her that she had doubled over with laughter and was rolling around on the sand chuckling. It wasn’t bad enough that she was chortling. No, she had to tell her entire family so they could laugh, too.
Yes, that’s me, David Volk, international goofball.
So I moved to shallower water in hopes of avoiding whatever gnawed on me, only to get bitten again. At that point, I had had enough. The bites weren’t painful, just unnerving because no one had warned me there were biting fish in the river. When the woman saw I was leaving, she and her family had more yucks at my expense. I tried to ask her if fish bites were normal. I think she understood me and, from her laugh, I figured the bites probably were pretty typical.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. These were probably the same fish that nibbled on soldiers’ scar tissue during World War II, but that was in the ‘40s and this was years and miles away from Bridge Over the River Kwai.
The situation gave a whole new response to the old question “Are the fish biting today?”
Of course they are.
They bite every day.