Tuesday 24 May 2011

Art masterpieces from a Thailand elephant camp

If you thought artists have huge egos, how big would an elephant's ego be if he was a famous painter?

Jumbo sized would be the short answer.

I saw this painting done in 10 minutes with my own eyes
On a recent visit to Mae Sa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai I watched the elephant show, enjoying the antics and the fun and games (see previous blog) but I was most transfixed by the sight of four elephants deep in studied concentration, producing amazing paintings.

Ok, some of them might have scored a 'Well done!' at kindergarten level, but others would have turned real artists a nice vermilion green with envy, jing jing.

One of the local staff, Mui, gave me a bit of background which confirmed my worst fears about primadonna pachyderms. "Elephants have many, many emotions," he said. "Some are a bit naughty." He believes dolphins are the most intelligent animal, followed by elephants. "Emotion like a dog."

In 2000 they started a painting program here for the youngest of their 72 elephants, starting at two years old. They train for 3-6 months before their precocious talents are foisted on the fawning world. It can take a month alone to get them to handle a brush properly.

"They train every day ... we have school. Practice about 1-2 hours per day."

Once they can handle the brush, they learn the order of the strokes by heart. Some elephants have a naturally distinctive style ... some do dots, some do lines, and others, well, it's  just abstract daaaahling.

Mae Sa once brought a Chinese painter out from China (well, where do you think he was going to come from?) to teach Chinese painting styles. They instructed the mahouts, who in tern translated this to their mammoth charges, and -- voila! -- more Chinese styles were churned out.

Talk about selling out! Mercenary behaviour!!!

The paintings produced each day typically sell for something like 2-6,000 baht. But the most expensive painting by an elephant here went for 1,500,000 baht (that's US$50,000). Entitled Cold Wind, Swirling Mist the masterpiece took six hours to complete.

Still, that's good money. In fact, with my long nose, I was thinking of throwing in this travel writing game, joining the elephant circus and picking up the brushes.

Just don't pat me on the head and feed me bananas, because I've got a big ego.

See more amazing Thailand elephant paintings here: www.gallerymaesa.com

Funny video: Mae Sa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai Thailand

When you travel to Thailand, you'll find that just about every elephant camp puts on an show, daily. Or several times daily.

It might sound touristy, and indeed it is. But the Thailand elephants are so endearing, and so amazingly trained (like this guy playing hula hoop), you'll leave your cynicism at the front gate as you enter.

Funny elephant videos are all over YouTube, but here's one I made after a recent visit to the Mae Sa elephant camp in Chiang Mai.

Please take a couple of minutes out of your stressful day to enjoy watching the amazing talents of these prehistoric beasts and their mahout handlers, and imagine how much fun you could have on holiday here ...

Maesa Elephant Camp (Our Town Office)
119/9 Tapae Rd., Muang District, Chiang Mai 50100 Thailand 
Tel. +66 5320 6247, +66 5320 6248


Monday 23 May 2011

Quan Spa, Bangkok Thailand: spa treatments wet dreams are made of.

While the Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong is not a spa resort nor a spa hotel as such, it has calmly and quietly notched up a number of awards for the spa treatments at its Quan Spa including 'Urban Spa of the Year 2010' from Asia Spa magazine.

(Dear Editor: Do you think I used the word Spa enough in the above sentence?)

An oasis 25 floors above the concrete jungle.
Quan is all about aqua spa, the name meaning 'spring water' in Chinese. Little known fact: Sanya in Hainan is where the Quan concept originated.

Funky jazz bubbles from the speakers on this high-rise floor, affording a commanding view over the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, imparting an airy feeling. Water-related videos also play on any number of plasma screens dotted throughout this slightly quirky spa in Bangkok. I half expect JAWS! to be showing, but that might detract from the relaxation factor. Waves crash gently, and seagulls sing (if that is indeed what they do ... perhaps it's more of a whistle?)

"You are in the big city, but can still relax," coos Khun Pichamon. The focus here is on urban, not tropical or nature themes which are ubiquitous elsewhere.

Scents of lemon grass, orange and jasmine waft and wake me as she guides me through the seven torture chambers, I mean treatment rooms, one dedicated to a kinky-sounding Vichy Shower. The water is heated to a warm 40 degrees Celsius.

One looks like a set for Saturday Night Fever, with flashing disco lights running in serried rows above the bed, jing jing. "Just for entertainment, sir," she explains.  

The signature treatment is called Tropical Rainshower, a 45-minute session in which 6 water nozzles blast and spray and splash and massage you from every angle for 20 minutes, followed by point finger massage. It's very reasonable at just 2100 baht.

So if you're looking for a luxury spa escape in the big smoke, or just a day spa getaway in Bangkok, you water try out Quan.

Chiang Mai X-Centre - Go Carts that drive you round the bend

So you think of Chiang Mai as all Thai cushions, cruisey cafes, and being laid back to the point of lying horizontal? You want to take your adrenaline gland out to the X-Centre at Mae Rim for a workout ...

Oooh, shiny!
They've recently added Drifter Karts to their roster of activities such as Xorb balling, ATVs, bungy jumping and other new and improved  ways to kill yourself. It will surprise no one that this place is run by a Kiwi, in this case Ian, who runs things to highest international quality and safety standards (I'm not sure if this includes the katoey in the coffee shop, but).

Drifter Karts are go carts with a difference. 165cc machines that blitz around a specially coated indoor track which means you are barely in control the whole way round.

Think of it as drunk driving meets ice skating, jing jing.

I was about as in control of it as a 5-year-old boy put in charge of a crate of pythons. I was about as in control of it as a monkey looking after a banana stall. I was about in control of it as a lone policeman with a truncheon fending off a mob of soccer hooligans with molotov cocktails. I was not in control!

 Always use a rubber
 It took me a good 3-4 laps to get the hang of it, and the local pit crew soon tired of pulling me out of the tyre barricades as I lost it on yet another corner.

These drift karts can reach 100 km/h, "but ..." said my instructor. But meaning, if you reach 100km/h there is no way on this earth that you will possibly make it around the corner without stacking. You can can brake all you like, you can reverse lock all you like, but your wheels will skid across the shiny polymer surface as though it was a mirror lubed up with Vaseline.

Nervous laughter!
But once you settle down, wow, the fun really kicks in. It requires much more artful combination of acceleration, brake and steering to achieve the desired outcome, as you whip yourself into corners, flicking the tail out behind you, then gunning it to the next corner.

"Woah -- that's a whole nother beast!" exclaimed Justin as he removed his helmet, hands trembling, T-shirt sweat-stained.

While grammatically questionable, his outburst summed up the experience well. It is like go karting but different. A different skill set.

I ask about the champion at this circuit. "The champion is a Thai guy from Lamphun," I was told. "He's the champion ... he even drifts in his real car on the road," they enthused.

Oh shit. I've got no idea if it's safer on this track or out on the roads of Chiang Mai.

Details: 10 minute session 800 baht for single seater. Crash-free driving is often rewarded with extended time.

La Tavola: Top Italian food restaurant in Bangkok Thailand

Ever noticed how things seem much more exotic when named in a foreign language?

Not cosy but cool anyway ...
La Tavola restaurant at the Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong is a a great example of that. La Tavola simply means 'the table' in Italian. Which makes me wonder why they didn't name it The Chair, or The Chef's Moustache or The Giant Phallic Peppercorn Grinder?

Anyway, the name is not important ... but the food is.

We left it up to the chef to recommend. So out comes the chef ... no moustache at all (unlike many Italians, and even some of their menfolk too) and surprisingly young -- looking a bit like Billy Joel wearing a David Beckham wig.

What a display of top Italian food: my saliva is beginning to run inelegantly at the memory of the meal.

Antipasto to start with, and a red wine that slipped down ever so warmly with it, recommended by the Thai major domo who talked us ever so knowledgeably through the wine list. 'You find the Italian red a little sour, don't you?' she said as my face contorted like a school kid running amok in the Hall of Crazy Mirrors. How do the Italians manage to squeeze so many lemons into one bottle? 'Try the Australian one, ' she wisely suggested.

The attention and people skills made for a seamless experience at what had me thinking: is this the best restaurant in Bangkok? (But I get like that after a few reds -- even at Burger King once!)

Then came the mains. Tenderloin with spinach, truffle sauce and foie gras. While we're at it, there's another word that sounds so fancy and exotic in a foreign language, but just little less delicious when you translate it into English: goose fat!

Moments later the tour bus arrived and it was full ...
For the tenderloin, Billy Beckham (or was it David Joel?) suggested 'less than medium ... pink in the middle but not too pink.' Now where have I heard that before?

My companion enjoyed a seafood cappelini with squid ink and pieces of pink crab meat.

By now we were full with both food and wine. But there was no way  we were ever going to decline his dessert suggestion of chocolate lava and mint sauce, and the creme brulee with raspberry sauce. Or some more fine Aussie red.

Which got me humming along to Billy Joel's classic song. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant:

A bottle of red, a bottle of white /
Whatever kind of mood you're in tonight /
I'll meet you anytime you want /
In our Italian Restaurant

A 'wanted' poster of La Tavola's chef
And to top off a fine, fine meal, my rubbery arms buckled under the forceful pressure of the mere mentioning of a glass of grappa to seal the meal and have me proclaiming out loud that this wasn't just one of the best restaurants in Bangkok, but indeed the best restaurant in the world.

Damn, what do they put in that grappa stuff?

Magnifico, as we say in English. But I don't think the Italians have a word for that.

Footnote: La Tavola also serves a popular lunchtime buffet, with eight pastas available for only 550 baht (there's probably a plus plus on the end of that, but still amazing value).

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Thai Airways - travel to Thailand with flight to Bangkok from $855

From our friends at Thai Airways, this great offer for anyone looking to travel to Thailand from Australia in the next little while ...


Thai Airways' 51st Anniversary Sale: 

- book/ticket/travel by 30 Jun 2011 with economy class fares from AUD $855 return to Bangkok (from the east coast) and from $859 return to Phuket; ex Perth from $780 return - fares include all taxes.  Fares are also available to Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Vientiane and Myanmar).

There are 2 bonus offers also available with these fares - child discounts up the 15 years (usually 2-11 years) and a bonus domestic side-trip in Thailand for tickets to Europe, Johannesburg or Los Angeles.

Fares to Europe (with a choice of 13 major cities) start from $2,032 return including taxes.


So let me get this straight ... You can be sitting in, say, Sydney today, thinking Geez it's cold and raining, bugger this I'm gonna get a flight to Bangkok, and by tomorrow you could be swanning around the Grand Palace, getting measured up for a suit (not in the Grand Palace, at a tailor shop in Sukhumvit I mean), and enjoy a nice spicy pad thai for just $855 ( I mean the Bangkok flights, not the noodles, which are only around 35 baht). 

That's ridiculously good value, jing jing. Probably the cheapest flight to Bangkok I've ever heard of -- other than being deported that is.

So get on the blower now (I mean the phone). You've only got a month to get that leave application in and fly Phuket or fly BKK soon. There's a cold Singha waiting for you.

Monday 16 May 2011

New Bangkok hotel - Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong Hotel

Ok, ok, girls, enough ... I appreciate the hysterical screaming welcome. I had no idea I was this popular in Thailand ... but please, settle down ... no, no, DON'T throw your knickers at me ...

Not your usual blah 
Our limousine (cunningly disguised as a normal taxi) swishes up the endless driveway to the funky entrance portico of the Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong, one of the many new hotels in Bangkok. Around 50 or more teenaged Bangkok girl fans have been waiting patiently all day for my arrival. The hotel has even considerately provided chairs for them. Oh, this is too much. I'm so humbled. Gosh, I believe I'm blushing.

I disembark from the taxi, dispensing a grateful smile and a wave and the girls scream even louder ... but ... why are they not looking at me. They're looking behind me ... what the ... who the ... a splendid limousine purrs to a halt behind me and the screams reach a crescendo. A slender Asian man, with dark glasses and carefully coiffed hair emerges. It's some Korean boy band idol from the group JYJ - I don't know, much less care, if he's Junco, Yuchun or Jejung. Bloody young upstart!

"We are the hot celebrity hotel, with all the hip events," says Khun Wanpen, the hotel's representative of the Renaissance's edgy stature. TripAdvisor agrees, listing it in the Top 10 trendy hotels in Asia last year.

Pool (Korean singer not included)
It doesn't look like any other Renaissance I've ever seen or stayed at. The local designers have gone to town with lighting and visual effects to emphasize the contemporary Thai feeling. The swimming pool dazzles in 7 different colours. The ceilings are covered in texture panels with a flower motif. "That's rajaphuek flower, for a little Thai touch," explains Wanpen. In the rooms, the wood is from Tanganyika, Africa. The elevator is lined with crocodile skin. "The owner is very passionate about the details." I'll say.

This new hotel is wonderfully located downtown with broad views over the historical Royal Bangkok Sports Club. Or the odd rock star who needs to hang out for a couple of weeks of rehearsals in between lounging round the indoor pool. He's beaten me to the 150 sq m presidential suite (costing a cool 50,000 baht a night) so I content myself  in a studio suite.

Blame drunk photographer
Never mind all the fancy amenities: Tuesdays from 6:30-7:30 it's free drinks and snacks, jing jing. (I should clarify, that's 6:30-7:30 PM as I know those in Bangkok like to get an early start some days!)

Wanpen tells me the concept of the rooms is "discover", clean lines with everything tucked away in drawers, cupboards and panels. I discover a lot of things -- for instance, that most of Bangkok can see me languishing in the bath. It is one of the most impressive bathrooms I've ever experienced, though, with a feeling of somehow soaking yourself in the Starship Enterprise. A floating sensation ...

Ok, maybe that last claim had something to do with the free drinks. Or the screaming girls.

Monday 9 May 2011

Amazing Thailand Grand Sale 2011 - big sale starting soon

Attention Shopaholics, crazy sale fans and bargain hunters!

 There's just over one month to go, folks, before the kick-off of the two month long Amazing Thailand Grand Sale 2011 on June 15.

Fifteen thousand, yes, 15000 shops, department stores, duty-free outlets, airlines, hotels, spas and even golf courses have signed up for what will be the 14th staging of this fun and value-filled event.

So, is this all about coming home with arms-full of branded goods and designer stuff or can shoppers who've enjoyed this sale before expect anything different?

Yes, for the first time, locally made products will be the focus, underlining two of Thailand's current economic initiatives. One is the Creative Thailand economic drive, and the other is the One Tambon One Product program. OTOP as it is known encourages each village (tambon) to specialise in the design and production of one item, which is how you end up with 1,000,000 umbrella makers in Borsang, for instance. (What, you just thought it was a coincidence?)

Other villages produce silks, handicrafts, apparel, and home-use goods, all of which will be specially featured.

OTOP is a Royal Thai Government project which supports the sales, marketing and distribution of the villages' products.

Around Bangkok you can head to the favourite haunts of JJ Mall, Chatuchak Market (the famous 'weekend market'), the gigantic Pratunam Platinum and Outlet Mall among others to find these products and tons -- truckloads and tuk tuk loads! -- more.

And it's not just in BKK of course ... it is the Amazing THAILAND Sale after all. So if you find yourself in Pattaya, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui, Had Yai or Hua Hin between June 15 and August 15, make sure you rev up your shopping cart and head to the designated shopping streets.

That's 7 cities for 2 months. Now that's what I call a BIG sale, jing jing.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Phuket Thailand: Trip Advisor's Top 10 Island Paradises list

Trip Advisor has just voted Phuket has just been voted in Top10 island getaway spots in the world.

For your convenience, here are their best hotels and top hotels (according to reviews):

1 Villa Zolitude5.0 of 5 stars50 reviews
2  Boomerang Village Resort4.5 of 5 stars288 reviews
3 Rising Sun Residence5.0 of 5 stars23 reviews
5 BYD Lofts4.5 of 5 stars81 reviews

And the top-rated attractions, activities and things to do are:

3 Wat Chalong4.5 of 5 stars16 reviews

The only surprise is that Koh Samui, Koh Samet, Koh Chang, etc, didn't make that list, but I guess Amazing Thailand has to give other countries a chance now and then, jing jing.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

The fastest hotel internet in Thailand? That'd be Conrad Bangkok.

One of Conrad's 22 meeting rooms

As someone who virtually lives on the internet for work (yes, this IS work, jing jing) this news release is something that will have business travellers to Thailand whistling while they work ...


The Conrad has made a decisive step toward being the best business hotel in Bangkok by upgrading its internet bandwidth line speed throughout the 391-room hotel to 50Mpbs.

“High-speed connectivity in business is an absolute necessity these days, and the Conrad wants to make sure our tech-savvy guests enjoy the best technology facilities that this city can offer,” says Manfred Pieper, General Manager.

This is the second time since he came on board in August 2008 that the hotel has undertaken an across-the-board speed upgrade. In January 2009, the hotel moved up to 30Mpbs.

“30Mbps was a big deal back then, and this underlines how fast the technology is changing. We have to anticipate those changes and invest in them on behalf of our guests to exceed their expectations. Information is sometimes confusing to guests because some devices’ capacity is advertised, not actual line speed. And others have a fast line speed but it is a shared line, not an individual one. Anyway, at 50Mbps our internet service is now two to three times the speed of some of our competitors.”

The hotel has invested in state-of-the-art Ruckus ZoneFlex 2942 wireless systems, considered to be the world’s smartest 802.11g access points, with no configuration required by guests.

”This smart system automatically steers your wi-fi signal to the best route to avoid any signal interference and maintain high-speed integrity without dropout,” says Pieper. “Our guests will also be pleased that it is available on a complimentary basis in all our executive rooms, suites, executive floor lounge, hotel lobby, swimming pool, and all our restaurants and bars. That means it’s free in around two thirds of the hotel.” In public areas, the complimentary time limit is one hour.
Elsewhere throughout the hotel the top-speed wireless can be enjoyed on a chargeable basis.

This technology upgrade bolsters Conrad Bangkok’s aims of being the city’s first choice business and meeting hotel. (It has previously won the Business Traveller Asia-Pacific ‘Best Business Hotel in Bangkok’ award.)

With 22 meeting rooms covering more than 20,000 square feet, its facilities are best-in-class, especially their audio-video conference facilities, including teleprompters, and video conferencing."


So maybe the tin cans and string the sales guy sold me as state-of-the-art are not quite up to speed. State of the ark, more like. Time for me to upgrade to thicker string me thinks ...

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Of 3 Pagodas and a bunch of Wangkas in Kanchanaburi Thailand

For about six years I've dreamed of hammering up Route 323 on my motor bike. Today I did it.

Kicking off from the lovely grounds of the Pung Waan Resort at Nam Tok (near Sai Yok Noi waterfall, where an old Japanese loco sits eerily on a section of track which is now the railhead), we were immediately enjoying the wide, flat and smooth surface of the 323.

Not just for Mazdas ...
Route 323 runs riot for approximately 300 km, starting near Nakhon Pathom (just west of Bangkok) and out through Ban Pong (where the PoWs arrived in cattle carts from Singapore to build the death railway), through Kanchanaburi, out past Sangkhlaburi and ends at Three Pagodas pass on the Burma Thai border.

Originally it was a muddy track, the one used by the Japanese to march the PoWs up to various notorious Death Railway work camps in the Second World War. It was also their main supply route north, but virtually impassable in the heavy monsoons of 1943.

The vistas to the west are ruggedly awesome - beautiful mist clad mountains, purplish green.

We soon came to the Hellfire Pass turnoff, with nurseries opposite in full tropical bloom. All of this beauty disguises the fact that the dreaded Cholera Hill (as it was nicknamed) sits just behind.

Several signs spruiked resorts and floating jungle rafts, cool hotels anchored in the Kwai Noi river. It is brilliant fun to put on a life-jacket and just float for kilometres downstream with cave-riven steep cliffs soaring abruptly 200 or 300 metres above you (warning: do not try this in wet season; a boat once had to come racing after me when I missed my 'stop').

Sai Yok Yai falls is quite splendid when in full cry, and riverside restaurants and boat hire outfits here do a roaring trade. Literally. Have you ever heard a V8 longtail boat in full cry? It makes my BMW bike sound positively whiny in comparison.

Still, I enjoyed making that comparison along the many straight stretches of the highway, seeing if there was anything after the red zone on the rpm metre ... well, you know, perhaps, it just goes around the clock and starts again or something. I wasn't going to die wondering.

I always enjoy the coffee shops along the way in Amazing Thailand. Cute little places in the middle of nowhere that can whip up a latte as fine as any you'll find in downtown London, Sydney or New York.

We stopped for a coffee just before the turnoff to Thong Pha Phum (I like that place name ... it sounds like sound-checking a drum kit, jing jing.) Thong! Pha!! Phum!!!

And this is where confusion set in ...

Note digital lights even out here ...
On my map (the trusty Roadway Thailand Atlas) the road to Thong! Pha! Phum! is a sharp left, and the road to the 3 Pagodas Pass is straight ahead. However, what we were presented with in reality was a 90-degree turn off at the lights to 3 Pagodas, while the road to Thong! Pha! Phum! carried on straight.

I put my helmet down on the road shoulder to go and speak to some soldiers/ customs/ police/ miscellaneous uniformed personnel at the nearby checkpoint. Yes, Three Pagodas is here, a right turn. Oh, so the road signs were correct then (never, ever, NEVER assume anything in Thailand!)

I put my helmet back on and ... hey ... what the? ... aaaargh!!! An ant. Biting my neck. Bastard! Then another on my ear. Aaaargh! Then all over my head. I ripped off my helmet, to see it infested with a whole colony of tiny black ants, drawn in no doubt by the heady (pardon the pun) pheromone of sweat built up over tens of thousands of kilometres done on Thailand's roads.

It took a full five minutes of swatting, slapping, scraping and smearing the little blighters to render my helmet secure again (OK, that doesn't make me a great Buddhist).

The case against opium 
The road now took a windier demeanour, curving hither and thither through forested hills. Rounding one bend, the road was suddenly blocked by a meandering crowd and a fleet of pick-up trucks. A Karen hilltribe festival. Perhaps an ordination. Splendid day-glo costumes adorned the kids, cleverly tied cloths festooned the adults' heads. Some guy was pounding out tunes on a weathered set of skins. Thong! Pha! Phum! An elderly couple danced like they meant it. They were either drunk on rice whiskey, high on opium poppies, or crazy. I bet a dollar on the latter.

Then the road descended wildly, with huge concrete lane dividers which made it feel like a luge run. This was Cool Runnings Thai-style.

Out into the open again, the countryside opened up magnificently, a huge flood plain where the Kwai Noi has been dammed and the Khao Laem reservoir has buried villages and temples but given life to a lively amount of traditional fishing villages and water sports. Er, and whisk broom empires. Forget what your broker's telling you about Google; get into whisk brooms, these people must know something on the inside I'm telling you.

Richer folks in the area have jagged top spots for their houses with commanding lakeside views of where the two ends of the Death Railway finally joined in October 1943.

Further on a huge bridge across the Ranti River afforded money-shot valley views. Then climb climb climb to Sangkhla Buri, a refreshingly prosperous town, with fancy median strips, a massive gold reclining Buddha, and ... tah daaaaaa ... the 3 Pagodas.

Hold on a minute. I thought the pagodas were supposed to be white? And we're still a few kilometres short of the border. These were pirated pagodas!

Sangkhla Buri is clearly a popular town for locals to visit (about 6-7 hours by road from Bangkok). A swathe of small guest houses and restaurants lined many many back roads that I took, looking for Thailand's longest wooden bridge, the Mon Bridge. Easy to miss really, it's only 400 metres long!

Can you spot the Wangkas?
On the other side is a Mon tribal village (they exiled from Burma in 1949) called ... wait for it ... Wangka, jing jing.

Today there are about 25,000 Wangkas living on that side of the river. So approximately half the town are Wangkas.

And so, with childish smirks on our faces, we left the Wangkas and headed up toward the border. Lord knows how the Japanese thought you could get a train line up through the Tenasserim Hills here, but they did, exacting a dreadful toll on the allied men of A Force.

The 3 Pagodas are actually a tad underwhelming. Not huge. Not impressive. But distinctive all the same.

They symbolize the area at which Buddhism entered the country from India in the 3rd century, and also mark the area through which several Burmese invasions against Thailand were launched (and vice versa), and of course was the point at which the Thai Burma Railway exited the country. A small section of track commemorates that (although this section of the railway was ripped up immediately post-war to ensure Karen separatists did not make use of it).

A huge Thai flag fluttered limply to one side. A starry/ stripy Myanmar flag on the other. A queue of cars, trucks and three-wheelers, all groaning under the weight of baggage, lined up to exit Amazing Thailand.

Some Wangka on a BMW
We posed for photos. Asked Thai soldiers to shoot us (er, with the camera I mean) but were politely declined as they preferred to sit in the shade of the customs office veranda. The Burmese soldiers however were much more co-operative. At the first sight of the camera they sprung to their feet, cradled their AK-47s, and couldn't wait to shoot us. On sight. Fingering their triggers, and pacing up and down, they motioned my friend to point his camera away. He didn't. I urged him to, otherwise I myself would shoot him. Wangka!

Like any border town, markets have sprung up here. Selling Thai and Burmese handicrafts, clothes, whiskey, and Chinese crap. Kids played with remote controlled cars at the base of the Thai flag.

Kid ordering 2 goat soups
One stall had a large pot sitting on the counter. Out the top seemed to be some kind of horn. On further inspection, it was a goat's horn. Still attached to a whole goat's head. In the soup. Shit! It was goat's head soup. (Is this where the Rolling Stones got their inspiration for their seminal album?)

The shop owner indicated in the universal fashion that this could put lead in your pencil.

As my friend coerced the head from the pot trying to get the thing to smile for a photo, I noticed a bunch of kids materialising from a gaping hole in the side wall of the shop.

"Is that Burma?" I asked. Yes, he replied, grinning. There was nothing to stop people or goods simply climbing through from one country to another via his shop wall. I took a step forward -- he raised a hand indicating I shouldn't try it ...

Other World War 2 military sites around Kanchanaburi Thailand

Apart from the Bridge on the River Kwai, being a really fun town, and a very popular getaway for Bangkokians, there are many other WW2 related military sites in Kanchanaburi.

The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery: 7000 Allies rest in peace here along Sanggchuto Road. The most visited of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s 25,000 sites worldwide. Immaculately maintained by a team of gardeners.

The Chung Kai cemetery: 1384 British rest in peace in this original cemetery not far from the main one above
The Thai Burma Railway Centre: Museum and research centre. A work of passion by Aussie founder Rod Beattie. The definitive account of the whole Death Railway experience, plus invaluable resources for relatives of POWs. 

The JEATH Memorial: Not a mis-spelling of Death, actually an acronym for Japan, England, Australia, Thailand and Holland, soldiers of which helped construct the infamous Death Railway. Built by the chief abbot of Wat Chaichumpol, this monk-run museum is a good repository of photos and artefacts.

The World War II Museum: Situated just west of the bridge on the city side of the river. Houses some Japanese trains and artefacts, and life-like reconstructions of camp life.

Take your time to steep yourself in the atmosphere of the world war 11 stuff, but don't forget to enjoy Kanchanaburi for the natural beauty of the river and mountains, and for the fun restaurants, resorts and bars on offer.

You can treat it as a day trip from Bangkok (2.5 hours by train, bus or car), or why not come up for a few days.

Some lesser known facts about The Bridge on River Kwai, Thailand

Did you know?

+ The Japanese simply called it 'Bridge # 277' and, in one case, the ‘Mekuron Bridge’ (bastardisation of Mae Khlong).

+ The 378-metre long bridge is not wooden -- it is the only one of 688 POW-made bridges made of cement and steel in Thailand, jing jing.

+ It was made from materials purloined from Java Railways, Indonesia, while the rails came from the British-built Federated Malay States Railways.

+ The use of Azon bombs against the Death Railway bridges was one of the first instances of guided bombs used in warfare. Within three months, 23 bridges along the line were taken out.

+ The Imperial Japanese Army transported some 220,000 tons of military supplies between December 1943 and August 1945 up the POW-built line into Burma. The line was also instrumental in their subsequent withdrawal from Burma.

So how did YOU score on this little test?

The REAL story of the Bridge on River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

‘What a load of shite, eh?’ says Dick Lee, in a thick cockney accent. The octogenarian former-HQ dispatch rider is building up quite a head of steam about the seven-Oscar-winning Bridge on the River Kwai. It is 54 years since the movie premiered to worldwide acclaim, but he is not alone among ex-POWs who still voice their disenchantment.

Note well-fed PoW on left
A friend, Paul, remembers attending a screening for veterans in London in 1958 with his father, Captain Hugh Pilkington. ‘He turned to the doorman and said “what a lot of tripe”.’

But perhaps the biggest idea of how wide of the mark the script was comes from Colonel Philip Toosey, the commanding officer played by Alec Guinness. ‘He didn’t even recognise himself as the character portrayed in the movie,’ Julie Summers, Toosey’s grand-daughter and author of The Colonel of Tamarkan, tells me. ‘The film made millions of people think they were seeing something realistic when they were not.’ Unsuccessful entreaties were made to the film’s flamboyant producer, Sam Spiegel, to add a supertitle that branded the movie ‘fiction’.

So where did the movie go wrong?

Bombshell: there never was a River Kwai. Jing jing!

Blame Pierre Boulle. In 1952 the French author published his novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai. A POW himself, he’d heard survivors talk of building two bridges on Khwae Mae Klong; and many railway camps were along the adjoining Khwae Noi. The ‘khwae’ part obviously stuck in his head. But khwae is simply the Thai word for river. ‘So he inadvertently named it “River River”,’ laughs Summers.

In 1942, the Japanese desperately needed a railway link between Bangkok and Rangoon Burma to fuel their push into India. Use was made of 60,000 Allied POWs in Singapore and Java, a windfall labour force. A further 200,000 native labourers were also chain-ganged.

With the route fording rugged terrain adjacent the Burma border, 688 bridges spanning nearly 13 kilometres were needed along the 415 kilometre sector that became notorious as ‘The Death Railway’.

The rather ugly asymmetrical bridge
One bridge had to span 378 metres across Khwae Mae Klong at the provincial town of Kanchanaburi (‘city of gold’). Tamarkan, on the south bank near the confluence, was historically where the Burmese crossed the river in their bid to sack the ancient kingdom. The POWs swelled the usual population of 5000 and local vendors enjoyed a boom, trading much-prized duck eggs which supplemented meager rice rations.

Kanchanaburi was also headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army 9th Railway Engineering Division. ‘They was no mugs, they knew what they was doing,’ Lee reckons. Some of the best minds behind the Thai Burma Railway – including engineer Yoshihiko Futamatsu went on to design Japan’s ‘Bullet Train’.

For eight months POWs toiled in blistering sun and driving downpours to complete The Bridge, with little mechanical assistance. Materials from an 11-arched steel bridge in Java were shipped up, and British-laid railway tracks in Malaya were recycled.

Train coming ... #$%&!!!
While never sabotaged with explosives, quality control was deliberately lax, the admixture of the concrete pylons diluted when guards’ backs were turned. The wooden service bridge adjacent was also home to a fine colony of white ants, introduced by the very men who’d built it.

One humorous episode involved two Japanese guards who disappeared during a lunch break, presumably consumed by the setting concrete. They were subsequently found, AWOL with their local girlfriends!

Nine POWs lost their lives during construction, but a further 400 of 2600 Australians, English, Dutch, and Americans based at Tamarkan perished from disease, malnutrition, and wayward Allied bombs. (The attrition was low compared to 24% of all POWs who died in Japanese hands --12,800 Allies and up to 100,000 Asians died building the railway.) Credit to Toosey, a strict disciplinarian and stickler for maintaining hygiene and dignity. And, unlike in the movie, he did encourage – even covered for – one escape attempt.

With little or no fanfare, the bridge was completed at the end of April 1943. After a foot regiment, the first train crossed May 1. Many POWs probably willed The Bridge to come tumbling down. But it stood defiant.

Again, unlike in the movie, The Bridge did its job, enabling 1000 tons of goods and munitions each day to reach Japanese troops in Burma, despite the RAF and USAAF trying to blow it back to Indonesia. Hitting a narrow-gauge rail line from several thousand feet proved tricky, so American military boffins devised the Azon: radio-controlled bombs with adjustable fins. BOOM! On June 24 1945, three curved spans were blasted into the river. A couple of months before war’s end, The Bridge was out of action.

Post-war, the bridge was repaired. Two rectangular spans lend an awkward asymmetrical look. With the movie achieving ‘classic’ status, the Seventies saw a new army arriving in Kanchanaburi – backpackers. Lee says: ‘There was nothing there at the time except a couple of rooms and a shack.’ They all wanted to see the bridge on the River Kwai. But there was no such thing. So Amazing Thailand responded by changing the name from Mae Khlong to River Kwai. Happy now?

The Bridge remains one of the biggest drawcards in a kingdom with a royal flush of drawcards.

Friendly but persuasive ...
Kanchanaburi -- three hours northwest of Bangkok and gateway to Erawan Falls, the Tiger Temple and Hellfire Pass -- is a buzzing low-rise town where everything screams ‘tourism’ … T-shirt stalls, friendly but persuasive post-card vendors, T-shirts, pirated CDs, T-shirts, hawkers cooking Unidentified Frying Objects, T-shirts, and bars where you can ‘get shit-faced on a shoestring’ (as one sign exhorts) while watching screenings of The Movie. Cue infectious Colonel Bogey March soundtrack. Pencil-sharp V8-engined long-tail craft cannon along the river like Brock at Bathurst. Floating karaoke bars pump out insidious music each evening, surely a war crime in itself.

There is a dramatic beauty. Depending on the season, the backdrop is either the purple peaks of the Burma Ranges, or a hazy grey painterly rendition. But, no, Thailand was deemed not jungley enough -- the film was shot in Sri Lanka (Spiegel sending the movie footage home on five separate flights).

The train line insinuates itself into the burgeoning tapioca-and-sugar cane provincial centre of 175,000 it helped foster. We hop off the third-class rattler at Kwai Bridge Station, where vintage locomotives and Japanese diesel truck-trains litter the station. 

‘Do you think that’s it?’ my travel mate, Kerry, asks.

The Bridge is not as heroic as it looks in the film. It does not have the iconic gravitas of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, nor the Golden Gate. Mainly because its matt-black arches sit at street level. We approach it side-on from water level for a more theatrical impression. ‘But that can’t be it … it’s metal,’ says John from Murwillumbah, derailed by the movie.

We walk the planks. They creak underfoot, as a scrum of tourists pick their way across the metal spans. When the train and tour buses arrive from Bangkok it is standing room only, as we sardine our way from one end of the bridge to the other. Yawning gaps open to a watery grave 20 metres below. ‘No OH & S issues here then,’ quips John.

The shady Theerawat
Khun Theerawat, a Tourist Police officer, confirms that once a year a careless tourist will fall into the river below.

 TOOOOTTT!!! A short, sharp horn blast. Expletives deleted! A yellow-and-red loco chugs into view. Fortunately it stops at the platform. Relieved, nervous giggles. The train inches gingerly forward to the slaps and groans of displaced planks. Further horn blasts shoo stragglers. Beaming faces peer from open sash windows. Motor-drives click and whir in syncopation with the train’s squeaking wheels. Two Muslim girls give a super-friendly wave. The train clatters above umbrella-ed vendor carts, past tapioca fields, then swallowed by the jungle ...

‘I walked into the jungle where a bit of the old railway was still lying,’ Lee says. ‘It was so silent, you think, “Did that all really happen?” Like a bleedin’ dream.’

More like a recurrent nightmare. Which is why, to me, the most resonant line in the movie is when Alec Guinness says: ‘I hope in years to come, when the war is over, people remember who built it and how they built it.’ Amen. Ironically, certainly not by watching that movie.

Now, if I could just get that damn Colonel Bogey March tune out of my head.

Question: been to Kanchanaburi lately? How do YOU find the place now?