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Andy’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 03 Dec 2006

Location: Bangkok, Thailand

MapKANCHANABURI - FLOATING MARKET, BRIDGE OVER RIVER KWAI AND...A SUGAR FACTORY
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I realise this is not a spelling bee, but how do you spell excitement? I’ll tell you.

s.u.g.a.r.f.a.c.t.o.r.y

Our anticipation on the bus journey to this monumental human creation (a rival to the seven wonders of late antiquity indeed) was ferverous and palpable. Ruth’s bladder almost succumbed to the suspense.

A factory producing sugar.

Sugar!

Factory!!

Sightseeing!!!

A strange combination involving connections my less imaginative brain would never have made.

Actually sugar can be quite interesting. Sydney Mintz, in his seminal text, ‘Sweetness and Power’ articulates the remarkable history of sugar - a tale intimately tied into slavery, colonialism and globalization, the confluence of which mutually constituted tyhe entities of Europe, Asia, and Africa and played no insignificant role in the industrialisation of Great Britain and the development of capitalism.

Hence the reason we were taken there surely? Well no, the point of our trip had nothing to do with the interesting nature of sugar and instead concerned the large shop selling tacky tourist souvenirs located at he same site.

It was rubbish. But not disappointing. After all how many expectations can one hold about a factory making sugar?! My hopes were not high and watching a woman scoop a cocunut and then taste some of the sugar, which took 30 seconds greatly surpassed all of them. 15 minutes were graciously provided to peruse the items on sale. Crap.

Luckily this was just one of the tour stops. Postulating a similar experience at the wood carving factory we found ourselves pleasantly surprised. Although another chance to buy souvenirs it was actually quite engrossing. We stood and watched as large blocks of wood with pencilled drawings glued to the front were gradually chipped away by highly skilled artisans to reveal the sculpture beneath. Some of the works were complex geometrical designs. Others were depictions of traditional Thai landscapes. One in particular, a 9ft high and 3ft wide jungle scene was incredibly detailed and complete with monkeys playing inside of the trees - how they managed to sculpt these figures behind delicate tree branches is beyond me.

Next stop - the floating market. The name evokes an iconic image of traditional wooden canoes laden with lush fruit and vegetables of every colour, piled high and paddled by large, smiling local women. It is quintessentially Thai and unfortunately (largely) redundant.

We stepped into a speed-longboat where our picture was randomly and suddenly taken (only later would we find out why) and we were then whisked at high speed down streets of teak buildings with corrugated iron roofs nestling alongside dirty brown canals and waterways.

Eventually reaching the market we were herded onto a small longboat and gently paddled into the noise, heat and hullaballoo.

The market is a chaotic, bustling stretch of river, busy with boats stuck in endless jams or bumping into one another. All the while a soundtrack of constant banter and barter takes place between buyer and seller. On sale were mounds of yellow mangoes, carefully placed piles of apples, stacks of green leaf vegetables and the occassional longboat offering chicken smoking on a small makeshift BBQ. Mainly however the boats were full of the tourist hordes (like me) or cheap memorabilia. In the last twenty years an authentic expression of Thai economic and social life has decayed into a tourist trap. It demonstrated to me the harmful effects of mass tourism - and i was part of it. This is the essential paradox of backpacking. People desire to see and experience alternative cultures, societies and ways of living. However visiting these places undermines the very reason one has travelled many thousands of miles. It is necessary to tread a very fine line when backpacking. It’s called responsible travel. I try (and often succeed) - but not always.

From there we changed bus to arrive a few hours later in Kanchanaburi in western Thailand. We sat and ate lunch on the deck of a restaurant over the river Kwai Yai. The name should sound familiar - it is the site of an infamous bridge.

Before exploring the area however we visited the nearby cemetary commemorating the 16,000 predominantly British, Australian and Dutch POW’s who died constructing the bridge. It is often overlooked that around 100,000 civilians also perished building the death railway, either through malnutrition, poor living-conditions, mistreatment or torture.

It was interesting to note the dates given for the Second World War at the entrance to the cemetary. 1939 to 1945. This is the standard and dominant historical geography amongst western academic and layperson alike. It is a eurocentric temporal and spatial limitation of the war and though i realised this was pervasive and overwhelmingly unquestioned in the West i did not expect to encounter it in Asia.

After paying our respects to military and civilian alike we were taken to the JEATH war museum. This is a small institution. Inside we saw a section of the separate wooden bridge built by the POW’s before the iron structure was finished, memorabilia related to the death railway and Second World War, and a series of awful manequins depicting various scenes and experiences of those who suffered building this infamous structure.

Finally the bridge. The project was designed to link Burma (modern day Myanmar) and Thailand thereby facilitating and securing the Japanese invasion route to Rangoon and most likely India. Japanese engineers estimated a five year construction period. The army was forced to complete the 415km rail in 16 months!

The bridge was bombed in 1945 (by airplanes, not a daring demolition squad as the 1957 hollywood film would have you believe) and rebuilt after the war. It is insignificant in appearance and size - a functional steel and concrete structure that is neither high nor made of wood and bamboo as those more familiar with the movie imagine. It’s infamy derives solely from the means of its construction and the circumstances surrounding it.

I highly recommend the trip to the cematary and museum first. The walk across the bridge is all the more poignant and meaningful. It was a slow stroll, out of respect and also to avoid falling down one of the many gaping holes between the large black pylons.

On the way back a group of Thai people approached us to take our picture. Each dutifully stood next to us while another member of the group snapped away. Ruth and Sam were rather bemused by it all but this was the third or fourth time i have been an exhibit. Luckily it all finished without one of us stepping backwards off the pylon (one more motion to move back and the story would have been rather more interesting) and before the train corssed - the bridge is still in use today.

After a day of highs (finally seeing the bridge) and lows (the sugar factory) we relaxed on a bamboo raft down the river, leisurely enjoying the afternoon sun and quiet tranquility of our surroundings. The peace was unfortunately broken by a local Thai man who sat with us at our pick up point. Periodically, while gossiping about a liason between a young german backpacker and a local prostitute, he would open his mouth to let loud burps roll unashamedly off his tongue. The conversation would then continue unhindered as our hair quivvered.

“But wait! What about the photo in the longboat?” i hear you cry. We were later offered the delightful opportunity to purchase a small plate. Approaching the items we discovered each ‘couple’ had their faces laminated onto the middle. Due to the lack of warning that a picture was about to be taken most of the plates featured people with bleary-eyed frowns, faces of mild annoyance or mindless, blank expressions - i saw identicial facial contortions on most of the tourists leaving the sugar factory.

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Animal of the week:
Monitor Lizard which we saw swimming down one of the ‘roads’.