The Death Railway
Last weekend, I journeyed to the Kanchanaburi province with my French friend Leo. As soon as we got to town, we rented motorbikes and took off on a 90-minute ride to the Erawan Waterfall, one of Thailand's most beautiful natural destinations. The falls are seven stories high, and the water is perfectly clear. Fish swim around under giant trees where monkeys play, rockslides abound, and the whole scene is one of peace – except that the lower four levels are filled with tourists and a snack bar waits at the bottom. In addition to Erawan, we rode through rural areas, visiting caves, temples, and a great historic city built by the Khmer Empire in the 12th century.
Towards the end of our journey, we stopped along the famous Death Railway. This railroad runs from Thailand to Burma, or Myanmar, and it earned its name during World War II. Thailand fought on the side of the Japanese, who had grand plans to dominate Asia. The Japanese forced 200,000 Asian civilians and 60,000 POWs, or prisoners of war, to complete the railroad in just a year and a half, despite engineers' predications that it would take four or five to construct. The railway was built so quickly because the Japanese forced workers to build in horrible conditions. We now think that about 100,000 Asian civilians and 16,000 prisoners of war died during the construction of the railway.
POWs were forced to live in bamboo huts, where they had little to no food and often suffered from terrible diseases. Cruel punishments were normal for those who refused to work, and many awful stories survive from those days. Leo and I visited a small museum commemorating the railroad. The museum was interesting, but it only spoke of the prisoners of war, not the civilians. We also visited the memorial cemetery, located right in the center of Kanchanaburi. Each gravestone was inscribed with the dates of the soldiers' birth and death, their name, and an epitaph (some words to dedicate the burial). Some were as young as 20 or 21, and many epitaphs read "we're proud of you, son." It was a heavy experience.
There are some strange things about the modern-day memorial sites. If you want to walk on the actual railway, you can – and you'll be surrounded by dozens of people. The path to the railway is lined with 20 or 30 vendors, selling all sorts of souvenirs, ice cream treats, and even clothing. In the museum, there is no mention of Thailand's actions during the war – we even heard a tour guide explaining that Thailand was forced to fight on the side of Japan, which simply isn't true. And, there is almost no mention of the deaths of the forced civilian laborers, even though 100,000 of them passed away building the railway. Many visitors come to the area just because a Hollywood movie, "The Bridge Over the River Kwai," is loosely based on the region's history during the War. So, this weekend gave me lots to think about.
Living in Bangkok is a wild experience. This city is massive, and the noise of traffic is inescapable. However, unlike some of the big cities I've visited in the West, Bangkok is also approachable on a human level. Maybe it's because of all of the street vendors selling food and clothing. Maybe it's because of the laid-back attitudes of many Thai people. Maybe it's because of all the potted plants. In any case, there is always a chance of running into someone or something interesting and new here.
One day about a month ago, I took off on foot for the Tesco, a supermarket chain that is big in Europe and Asia. I got lost and ended up under a bridge, by a food vendor. I bought dinner and sat down next to some Thais playing a form of checkers. They immediately invited me to play and insisted that I keep playing. After 45 minutes, I pulled out a chess set which I bought in Budapest in the hopes of playing with people throughout my travels. They went wild. We barely spoke to each other, but we quickly became friends. Now, every Thursday, I have about 90 minutes of chess and checkers with some motorcycle taxi drivers under a bridge in Bangkok. Last week, I introduced them to Led Zeppelin and the Doors during a thunderstorm. It's pretty much everything that I could ever want.
It's also pretty remarkable that chess and checkers are played on different sides of the world – although the rules are different here. Thai chess is much slower, and many of the pieces can't move more than one tile at a time. As it turns out, though, chess actually came from this side of the world, in nearby India, over 1500 years ago. From India, the game traveled to Persia, and from there, Arabs took it to Europe, where it grew and changed into what we know today. However, as I've discovered, there are many different ways to play chess.
Khao Yai National Park
This past weekend, I went to Khao Yai National Park, which is located about 80 miles north of Bangkok. The park is heavily forested, with over 80% of the land covered by trees. And what trees they are! Numerous species call Khao Yai home, and many come with fantastic shapes and life strategies. Because there are so many plants in the jungle, plants often battle for sunlight. In Khao Yai, a number of plants, such as rattan, creep up from the ground and wrap themselves around bigger trees. That way, they can climb up to the light as quickly as possible. However, one side effect of this growth pattern is that the forest is very dense. It's almost impossible to walk anywhere without running into tangled plants! And with giant ants, spiders, leeches, monkeys, and even elephants, the park isn't always a welcoming place.
In fact, Khao Yai has only two trails that can be walked on without a guide. I discovered this after crashing through the forest (and falling through a rotten bridge) for several hours. Being in the park was a truly amazing experience. One got the sense that humans were pretty weak, after all. It got me thinking about the purpose of a national park.
During my first day in the park, I met some Thai college students who quickly invited me to live with them. During my second, I met a ranger and his family, who did the same. The ranger, Mr. Mung, said that about half of the rangers in the park spend all of their time protecting and preserving the park's natural areas, while the other half help visitors. While Khao Yai is Thailand's oldest national park, it's only been around for about 40 years. In many ways, people are still creating the park, and so far, they've put preservation above accessibility.
National Parks have a history that stretches back over 100 years. The world's first national park, Yellowstone, was founded in 1872 in the United States. Since then, thousands of parks have been established all over the world. However, there is still no clear definition of what a park is. At first, national parks were established "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Later on, many people believed that parks were important places for the protection of natural areas, and that people should keep out of many of these places. Today, many researchers view national parks as laboratories, places where we can discover how the natural world works, and try to figure out how we affect it as well. Still, no one is really sure what the most important thing about a national park is.
I've visited a number of American national parks, and many are very developed, with some areas that are just as crowded as Disneyland. It was interesting to be in a place where it wasn't even possible to walk in a straight line, let alone camp in "the wild." The next few years will be very interesting for Khao Yai. If I ever come back, will I find neatly groomed trails? Or will I find myself stumbling through the jungle once more? Only time will tell.
Ko Si Chang Island
This past weekend, I left Bangkok for the island of Ko Si Chang, which sits about 40 miles away in the Gulf of Thailand. After a five-hour journey, I arrived at the ferry with minutes to spare. Thailand is still a developing country, and its population has more than doubled over the last 30 years. As a result, traffic is very bad. However, once we got to the ferry, all the road noise melted away.
For thousands of years, Thailand has been a center of trade. Because most of the region's inland areas were heavily forested and filled with tigers, snakes, elephants, and bugs of all kinds, people lived by the ocean. Massive port cities developed, and goods from China, India, and even the Mediterranean came and went. Today, many giant ships use the channel between Ko Si Chang and the mainland as a rest stop. There must have been 50 or 60 within view from the shore. As the ferry wove through giant floating islands of steel, I couldn't help but think of Burning Man, an American festival I'm missing out on this year.
Ko Si Chang is a small island, and not nearly as busy as many of Thailand's attractions. My friends and I were some of the only white people there, which was nice for a change. We rented motorbikes and spent our days hiking, visiting temples, and eating fresh seafood.
Thailand is a Buddhist country, and everywhere you go, you're sure to find beautiful temples and shrines. Buddhism came from India about 2500 years ago. and it is an atheist religion, which means that while Buddhists have their own rituals and beliefs about the world, they do not believe in a god. However, in all other ways, they are very similar to many of the world's great religions. They have monasteries, artworks, and revered texts. They preach about not killing, recognizing the connections between beings, and controlling desire. Buddhism in Thailand is slightly different than other countries. Here, monks can leave monasteries whenever they want to. There is a custom for Thai men to be ordained a monk for 3 months, and live in a monastery, beg for food, and study the Dharma, or Buddhist beliefs. Then, they go back into society.
When you get away from the big cities, Thailand is very peaceful. My time on Ko Si Chang was a welcome relief from life in Bangkok.
Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
I've arrived in Bangkok for the next stage of my 9-month journey. Bangkok is the capital of Thailand, a country in South East Asia that borders Vietnam. Thailand has a very long and proud history, and it's one of the few countries in this part of the world to not be colonized. It is considered to be part of the developing world, which means that the country is growing fast, and that in some areas, like public health, there are still many problems. However, there is also much wealth in Bangkok, and it is a comfortable city by most standards.
The first weekend that I was here, I decided to join some friends from California on a trip to a national park. The park's named is Khao Sam Roi Yot, and it is located right on the coastline. When we arrived at the hotel, I went to swim, only to find hundreds of jellyfish floating through the water! After a few hours, during which we enjoyed fresh, spicy seafood, we got to the national park.
Khao Sam Roi Yot means "mountain with 300 peaks." The landscape is beautiful, with limestone cliffs covered in dense green vegetation, which included some familiar plants, like palm trees and cactuses. The mountains there are limestone, and many years ago, the region was underwater.
One of the most amazing things to see at the national park is the Phraya Nakhon Cave, which is a short walk from one of the park's main beaches. As my friends and I began our climb up to the cave mouth, it started to pour – really pour. Within a few minutes we were completely drenched. Luckily, it was also very warm, maybe 80 degrees Fahrenheit, so the water was enjoyable.
Soon, we found the cave opening, a gaping cavern at least 40 feet high and maybe 60 wide. The cave has two main chambers, and both have large openings in the ceiling, so light streams down and plants can grow within. Looking up as the rain cascaded through the cave opening felt like standing inside of a waterfall.
The main chamber of Phraya Nakhon Cave is special for the Thai people because it has been visited by many kings. Over 100 years ago, a small throne was built inside the cave. Constructed with traditional Thai aesthetics, it looks similar to a shrine or temple.
The cave also has many stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. These are formed when water makes its way through rock and drips down to the floor. As it drips, calcite, a mineral substance in limestone, comes with it, and over thousands of years, a stalagmite forms on the ground. Limestone has these substances because it is made up of the skeletons of coral and other sea creatures, many of them millions of years old.
Adam De Gree
I am a senior in college, studying philosophy, and am visiting family in the Czech Republic and travelling and studying in Europe and Asia.