A while ago I went to Thailand. I pretended it was for work, but really it was a paid holiday. Wrote these for the Leader. Now I’ll reproduce this in the blog to fill space/ keep a record/ get hits,but not to be a general prick about getting a free holiday to Thailand.
Where our protagonist is introduced to the horrors of a famous war monument after developing an affinity for Business Class travel, and wherein he finally confronts mortality itself at the hands of a belligerent masseur.
The feeling of “Thai-ness” is apparently a verb here. Sounds like something one teeny bopper would say to another, but the brochures don’t lie. It encapsulates everything about being Thai; the culture, politics, food and people. Most Thais claim that an outsider can never realize what true ‘Thai-ness’ is because it’s such a multi-faceted concept, but they can come close. After five days there, I have only a vague idea.
I arrived in seats that actually reclined more than those in your average second class train. Business class is something a man can get used to. The stewardesses even know your name. And they also give unlimited refills of mixed nuts. I’m on a Cathay Pacific flight, and sleep comes easy in the three hours it takes to get from Colombo to Thailand.*
The bridge on the river Kwai is in the West of Thailand. Yes I know, you always thought it was in Kithulgala. But that was just a replica made for the movie. The real one is here, in a place called Kanchanaburi, which incidentally, has nothing to do with navels.
The bridge was a part of a railway that was built by the Japanese during the Second World War. They basically enslaved hundreds of thousands of Asian men, and used tens of thousands of Prisoners of War (PoWs). They needed the bridge and a massive 400km long rail track to supply their forces in Burma, which neighbours Thailand and was a key strategic location in the theater of war.
The Japanese lived up to their wartime image of merciless brutality. By the end of the railway’s construction, over a hundred thousand Asians were dead. But more importantly for conventional historians, about 12000 PoWs (mostly Brits and Aussies) also perished. Their killers were brutal labor, diseases like malaria and cholera and probably sheer hopelessness. Sadly, it is only the names of the PoWs that are remembered to this day. This grates the sentiments of many Thais. The city has five massive burial grounds that house the dead. They are kept spick and span with their names forever interred in marble headstones.
I suppose native Thai’s are a bit peeved about their own not being remembered. Our guide certainly seemed to be. But it hasn’t stopped them from marketing the bridge and the Death Railway (creative brilliance there) as an emerging historical site for tourism.
We stayed at the Felix Kwai Hotel. It’s a large complex by the river and very comfortable. I decided on a massage. The masseur was a beady eyed strong woman whom I’ll call the iron lady. She twisted me this way and that. And I discovered I owned various new muscle groups when they revealed themselves by screaming in response to her merciless tweaking. I had no idea my legs were so knotted. Half the time I was in pain and the other half I was unsure whether to scream in pain or laugh ‘cause I was being tickled. I imagined myself being tortured “you can do whatever you want to me but you’ll never get the truth outta me!” I kept saying to myself over and over and over. When she started on my back, head and shoulders though, it was utter bliss. Especially my head, I’ve had too much on the old mind lately. Massages can take between 60-90 minutes and leave you feeling utterly relaxed.
Later it was a cruise down the river Kwai on a barge. We had dinner on the said same barge. The river is quiet in the night. And the barge passes along Kanchanaburi’s empty waterside market. The bridge is all lit up in changing colors. David (the hotel manager) and his staff joined us for dinner and everyone ended up singing karaoke. I contributed to the fun by singing many songs in my toneless voice, which needless to say made everyone’s night.
After we disembarked from the barge, we lit some sky lanterns. These lanterns are supposed to drive away all embarrassing moments that happen at a lively night out. So I made sure to join in lighting one after my attempts at singing. Mine refused to fly until I had made a wish on it. So I wished for it to hurry up and fly. They are like mini hot air balloons and floated away into the night. They speckled the sky with glowing yellow dots as they flew upwards. I imagine they kept burning right up until they got stuck in some clouds.
Tomorrow we visit the Tiger Temple, we are expressly forewarned not to wear red and other bright colors. Apparently tigers take after Spanish bulls in these parts, and like to pounce on garish t-shirts. More on that next week.
*If you’re feeling more economical, Cathay also offers weekend packages to Thailand and back, call them up for more information.
(And obviously they are paying for my trip).
Where our protagonist steps lightly around fully grown tigers, rides elephants and cools down with a tranquil bamboo raft ride in the continuation of his adventures in Thailand.
The road is dusty and a strange smell of dung permeates the air. The very stench of the striped pelts of tigers, I realized only later. Souvenir shops dotted the road to the entrance. A ticket here costs about Rs. 1,800.
The tiger temple, as the story goes, was a regular Theravada Buddhist temple back in the day. One day, a wounded tiger was found inside the complex and was cared for by the monks. The tiger left, then came back and decided to stay. It also brought some friends along. And soon the temple was functioning as a refuge for tigers from the area. Somewhat implausibly, the temple also attracted boars, deer and other traditional tiger prey. And now it is a veritable zoo.
With one difference; visitors can get up close and personal with the tigers. You can pet them, take pictures with them and walk with them. Volunteers and workers will warn you to take precautions however, the tiger is still a wild beast and if you crouch down in front of it, you become the size of prey. It will then pounce on you and, if you are within the range of the chains that bind it to the ground, you are dead meat. Otherwise, you get a terrible fright, and the tiger gets a terribly sore neck.
The tigers aren’t drugged, but they are tame beasts. They frolic with the volunteers and the cubs are fed for and cared by the temple priests. Visitors sit behind the beasts and pat them on the rump while they get their pictures taken by temple workers. They can later walk the tigers to the feeding grounds.
The priests themselves are quite intriguing. Complex tattoos mark the visible parts of their skin. They are in whorls of colour and mystic designs and are drawn with bamboo needles. The tattoos are called Sak Yant (Sak means tattoo and Yant means sacred prayers), a cross between art and mysticism, they are supposed to render the wearer with magical powers of protection.
The Tiger Temple is also in Kanchanaburi Province, in the same location as the Bridge on the River Kwai. Visitors to the temple are only allowed in the afternoon. When the tigers have been fed and are sated enough not to make goggle eyes at the nearest piece of walking meat i.e., you.
In the morning before we visited the temple, we headed for a quiet boat ride on the river Kwai. We were transported on bamboo craft with a thatched roof that were pushed along by oars. Elephants bathe along the river and the water is shallow enough for penetrating sunlight to show silvery fish running along beside the boat. I trail my feet in the water and relax, thinking of the elephant I was riding not half an hour ago.
In the evening we take off to Hua Hin. A beachside district that was a favorite retreat of the Thai Royal Family. Thailand was never colonized, a source of pride for Thais, and their monarch is regarded with respect. The current king of Thailand is King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Await more on Hua Hin and the teeming city of Bangkok in weeks to come.
In reality the Tiger Temple stank a bit, and not only of tiger dung. The tigers are tigers only in appearance and are so meek that your average kitten shows more life when confronting a dead fish. I found out later that the place has faced a lot of controversy and is accused of some serious tiger abuse. Thanks Naren.
Full set of pictures can be found here.