Kanchanaburi

Bea and I pulled into Kanch absolutely exhausted. We’d been up at 5.30am, had been on the road all day long, and had managed the whole day on only one meager meal and some rice crackers. This is the part people don’t tell you about travelling – that it can be a downright trial sometimes.

We checked into Canaan lethargically, a pair of zombies wilting in the heat, and collapsed onto our beds as soon as we were shown into our rooms. To say it was hot would be a gross understatement. It was sweltering. No – not just sweltering: it was torrid and oppressive and muggy. It felt like we were inside a slow cooker, simmering away in our own sweat. The fan didn’t help at all, it was just pushing the same heated, heavy air around – the way the fans inside ovens do: ensuring we were getting cooked evenly, but not cooling us down one whit.

We’d been worried, when booking, about the fact that our rooms only had cold showers, but they were a small blessing (although lukewarm more than cold). It was so humid that our towels were rather redundant – as soon as you wiped yourself off you’d be wet again with sweat – it made more sense to just shower and put your clothes on – the water meant that you had a little longer before your sweat glands kicked into overdrive.

Eventually the need for food pushed us onto our feet, but we had no idea where to go. Our hostel was right next to the bus station, which was ages away from the main part of town, and there was no way we had the energy to walk more than a kilometer’s radius away.

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Sometimes it’s quite nice to stay somewhere out of the way. This was not one of those times. We were in the proper Thai part of town, where we couldn’t see a single other non-Thai person (which was fine) and where nothing was in English and nobody could understand a single word of what we were saying (which was less fine).

We managed to find a fruit stand and pick up some longans, but other than that we couldn’t find anything that looked appealing. There were food stands around – but they all had really traditional Thai fare, with strange looking and smelling things that we couldn’t identify. Fish balls in slimy liquid, bits of offal – things that I’m guessing taste lovely if you’re used to them, but that were a little bit too daunting after a long day of travelling and motion sickness for us to try.

We wandered in every direction, hunger gnawing at our stomachs and our desperation growing, wondering if we should just toss in the towel and settle for some dried fruits and nuts from the 7eleven when – hallelujah! – we finally stumbled upon a little local market.

Some people seem to think that you get a better experience when you eat somewhere where they can’t speak English. Our experiences pointed to the contrary: we’d found a stall that was serving amazing looking food but, as with the rest of the locality, they couldn’t speak English and the menu didn’t have pictures.

We ended up ordering by miming and it did not go well; we didn’t even know what we’d ordered, although I’d been trying for a curry and Bea for soup.

We kept getting excited as we saw dish after delicious dish emerge, the smells tantalising and intoxicating in our ravenous states, but none of them came to our table. And then we saw them assemble something really sorry looking and quite unappetising… Which of course – Murphy’s Law – was what we were served.

Is there anything more disappointing than when you’re absolutely famished and led to believe that your appetite is about to be sated in a rather ambrosial fashion, only to be instead presented with a meal that, I’d go so far as to say, was diametrically opposed to those expectations? (I suppose there are in fact a plethora of more disappointing circumstances, but at that point it certainly felt like this was the worst.)

Thus ended our first day in Kanchanaburi, mired in disappointment and leaving us rather low in the morale department. In Sydney terms, it was like finding yourself in Auburn after expecting to arrive  in Byron.

As we lay in bed, waiting for sleep to provide a sweet balm to the hardships of the day, I did a little bed time Googling. Surely, I remembered, Kanch was meant to be peaceful and quaint and pretty – that was why we’d decided to visit.

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Google said I was right – but only in regards to the other side of Kanch, a healthy distance away from where we were staying. ‘I think,’ I told Bea, ‘that this is one of those towns where you need to know where to go, and we just found ourselves in the bad part.’ We decided we’d do better the next day.

The next morning saw us poring over our maps as we breakfasted on ice-cream and yoghurt. We’d decided to start with San Chuto Rd and Maenam Kwan Rd, which both looked like enticing prospects – at a very unenticing distance away. Neither of us were keen to walk that far in the sun.

Bea and I looked at each other; “Bikes?” Our hostel had bicycles for hire for just 30baht/day – you really couldn’t get cheaper than that. We picked up some water at the 7eleven and rode off.

Cycling may be big in Thailand, but you have to know how to do it – there aren’t bike lanes, everyone drives like a maniac and you have to ride your bike the way you cross the roads – just go without paying attention to the traffic, and let them negotiate their way around you.

Easier said than done. We tried to stick as close to the side of the road as we could, and switched to walking our bikes across the road whenever we needed to make right turns.

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An attempt to use the back streets instead of the main road found us accidentally stumbling upon another local market, through some chaotic streets and maneouvering our way around fishmongers and butchers all in a flurry of activity, desperately trying not to get splashed by the puddles of meat-water that littered our path.

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We sojourned a little further on at the Chinese Cemetry, which had some really fascinating architecture, as well as an eerie number of unmarked graves with just numbers on them. There weren’t any signs at the cemetery with information about it or about the people who’d been buried there, and we wandered around trying in vain to puzzle out the distinctions between the different sections in the cemetery, each with graves in a different style.

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The heat pushed us on before long, and after another stretch of cycling we took refuge in a cute little cafe, ordering coffee and then popping next door to buy ice cream to mix with the coffee for DIY affogatos.

The Family Mart itself was an adventure, particularly the health and beauty section. Thai society is really obsessed with whitening products, which, having fairly dark skin, I actually found kind of alienating and awful. What does it say about Asian culture that they’re so fixated on skin colour?

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They even had Pink Nipple cream to “make nipples color soft”, and a huge range of strange products like snail cream (exactly what you think it is) and bee cream.

It was kind of creepy, especially when people would stare at Bea since she’s so pale, or ask to take photos with her  (something that I heard from other pale friends happens a lot there).

I’m not sure what the implications are in terms of racism (reverse racism? Please share your thoughts with me if you have any opinions on this because I’d be sincerely interested in hearing them) but it made me uncomfortable.

Anyway, that aside, coming onto the main drag was a welcome relief as the temperatures continued to rise. We popped into the very first masseuse we came across, just looking to get out of the sun – which turned out to be a mistake;  I’d had really sore feet and forked out for a foot massage while Bea got a Thai massage – her very first massage ever – and it was all rather disappointing.

Mine was a bit limp, leaving my feet feeling exactly the same, while Bea felt like she’d just gotten rather unpleasantly beaten up,  but the masseuse was sweet and at least we’d gotten to rest so we soldiered on.

After a week in Surin my hair had become one huge knot – with a huge dreadlock around my hair wrap – that I was not particularly keen on tackling myself so we headed across the street to a hairdresser to have them try.

Mine managed to get most out but didn’t even touch the deadlock, then went and blowdried it straight (against my wishes, I’d just wanted it towel dried but the language barrier proved problematic again) so that I was left walking around with mostly straight hair and one huge, messy deadlock, looking utterly ridiculous.

Despite those complaints though, we were in good spirits. We meandered our way down the road, stopping at a used book shop and at various clothing and food stalls, pausing frequently for coconuts, and just enjoying riding around.

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This was the quaint part of town, and it was lovely to peruse on bike, detouring down side streets to cross the River Kwai and ride through the more rural parts, enjoying feeling carefree.

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Eventually we made our way over to the famous Bridge on the river Kwai, the Death Railway. It was torture just to walk across, the day having reached the extreme heights of temperature again, and it was chilling to think that so many POWs and locals had had to build it under worse conditions, and been brutalised while doing so – they say one person died for each sleeper on the track.

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Of course there were also a lot of tourists in short shorts taking selfies on the bridge, but I guess it is just a bridge – of which most has been rebuilt anyway – and it is a nice view from it,  so there’s no point having too many sensibilities about it.

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We hid from the sun in yet another cafe until it set, then meandered over to the night markets, which were cool. This was where the good food was – including this incredibly moreish garlic chicken for only 10 baht each – ridiculously cheap but also in very small portions – that I bought four of. I also wasted a few hundred on a power pack that didn’t work, which was an important lesson – don’t buy electronics from night markets unless you can test them first.

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Still, it was a day well spent and our animosity towards Kanchanaburi from the previous night had been well and truly extinguished. We popped off to Erawan for a night, and came back to spend a night on one of the rafts along the river – Nita Rafthouse.

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It was good that we were only spending a single night on the raft as we soon realised that it swayed enough to make us mildly seasick whenever we lay down. The rafthouse was beautiful though, with gorgeous River views.
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We found these amazing fruit called plum mangoes that tasted kind of like a cross between apricots and mangoes, but more tart and a little citrusy, and sat eating them in the evening on the porch overlooking the other boats, which felt magical. The river was definitely the place to hang; if only we’d walked here on our first night instead of the other direction, we’d have had a much better evening.

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We spent the rest of our time in Kanch doing some more exploring, trying another massage – again subpar, I think Kanch may just be a place where massages should be avoided – and just relaxing by the river, enjoying the (very small but still highly appreciated) cool breezes coming off the water.

Finally it was time to leave and we toddled up to the bus station, laden with our bags, to head to Bangkok. Anyone who’s ever made this trip in the middle of the day in March will appreciate just how hot it is being stuck in a minivan for hours, but it was our bad luck that:

  1. The air conditioning wasn’t working and was spitting out hot air, but:
  2. Because the air con was on, the driver insisted on keeping the windows all closed, so that we were pretty much getting cooked.

It was excruciating. When we got to Bangkok I couldn’t even complain about the heat, I was just so happy to get some (comparatively) fresh air (smoggy and polluted as it was).

Still, at least the majority of our Kanchanaburi experience had been relaxing – and for the rest, as Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, “From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger.” I guess we have Kanch to thank for improving our tolerance for heat and ability to recover from disappointment.

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