Saturday, June 16, 2012

Leaving Thailand again

Siam has many (hi)stories that offer enough intrigue and interest to be potentially good material for fascinating movies. Unfortunately, the King of Thailand (Siam) has frequently said no to any film-making done on location, and thus films on or about Thailand’s past were not filmed in Thailand. Two examples are ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘Anna and the King of Siam’.

When recently in Bangkok, we decided to visit the spot ABOUT WHICH the first of these films was made, i.e. the spot where it was NOT made! So we took a two-hour trip to Kanchanaburi and the Bridge over the River Kwai…

During 1942 and 1943 (World War II) the Japanese used Allied prisoners of war and civilian labour to build a 415km railway line between Burma and Siam (now known respectively as Myanmar and Thailand). This line became known as Death Railway as it cost the lives of over 15000 POWs and over 100000 Thai and Burmese civilians as a result of sickness, malnutrition, exhaustion and maltreatment.

The poignant but beautiful and immaculately maintained Allied War Cemetery for 7000 POWs stands near the site of the former Kanburi POW base camp.

Kanchanaburi was the site of notorious internment camps for the Allied troops; the history is really well presented at the Thai-Burmese Railway Centre (museum) and the JEATH War Museum, constructed by the Chief Abbot (and in the grounds of) Wat Chaichumpol, a Buddhist Temple. The bamboo museum’s construction resembles that of an Allied POW camp.

JEATH is an acronym for the nations that participated in the war effort here, as indicated by the flags: Japan, England, Australia, Thailand, Holland.

Just north of Kanchanaburi is The Bridge on the River Kwai.

This bridge was part of the Death Railway line, actually built to span the Mae Klong River. In the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, filmed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), the river is incorrectly identified. However, the extreme popularity of the film brought about an influx of tourists to Thailand, looking for the “Bridge on the River Kwai”, so in the 1960s the name of the river was pragmatically changed from Mae Klong to Kwae Yai! (The tourist buck clearly has power, as also seen by the number of towns now named Shangri-La after the book, one example being Zhongdian… now Shangri-La… the lovely city we visited in China).
Tourist train on "Bridge on the River Kwai"
The original POW timber bridge was bombed several times (with varying degrees of success) by the Allied forces; this is long gone and what we see today is the steel bridge that was built a few months later and a couple of hundred metres upstream and that has also been repaired after a successful bomb attack near the end of the war: the round truss spans are the originals and the angular replacements (see in pic above) were supplied by Japan as war reparations.
Kanchanaburi, the town, is actually a fun place to be, despite being surrounded by a tragic past, and three days spent enjoying the historical sites, eating and having massages is a wonderful way to spend time while waiting for a UK visa in Bangkok!

There is also a beautiful 7-tiered waterfall, Erewan Falls, that has a Thai twist;
... here, at stage three, you share the pool with cleaner fish… you know the little ones they have in glass boxes for “fish massage” at Thai tourist towns? Well, their huge grandparents are here in this pool, looking for your skin cells!
The return to Bangkok took us down typical Thai streets with evocative street-light decorations … and a reminder that the King is always around!
After Bangkok it was back to Ketoro in Phuket, where we had to acclimatise to days of more than 34 deg. C temperature and 95% humidity again. But we needed to get to Langkawi, Malaysia: a visa run for the two of us and the boat. After having had a fairly long break from sailing we were happy to get into it again, so cleared out of Thailand and set off with good winds which allowed the sails to work (for a change) but the uncomfortable rolly sea from many days of wind challenged our stomachs and reminded us that our sea legs needed exercise!

Three days later it became “interesting”! We were due to go first to an anchorage at Telaga (in Langkawi, Malaysia) which is shallow and has a bad reputation for providing poor holding for anchors, particularly with winds from the SW. Heading across there on the uncomfortable sea, the winds picked up from the SW and we decided to try to find an alternative place to anchor. We therefore turned back into Thai waters and spotted a number of fishing boats holed up on the south east side of Tarutao Island. The locals know what they are doing so that is where we anchored…
Staying two nights in the company of more than 35 fishing boats and a tug and barge, all taking refuge from the weather, we watched a moving world as Ketoro danced and slewed about in the winds (happily limited to 25 knots) that bulleted across us from different directions. The fishing boats gave us considerable swinging room and half the bay, while these heavy boats took up the other half of the bay, rafted together in lines of three to seven boats, and close to each other.
Fishing boats rafting up

There are 18 fishing boats in this small area
The shallow waters of the bay were churned up by erratic swells, and one morning we were treated to the sight of pink-marked dolphins enjoying their feed around us.

The decision not go to Telaga was fortuitous: we heard that there was chaos in the anchorage, with huge gusts of wind (50 to 60 knots) and some boats dragging anchor and crashing into each other. (In discussion with other yachties, we are quiet about the fact that our worst loss was Irene’s vodka and orange which was tossed everywhere when a big cushion was blown off the sunbed onto the table!) Our refuge off Tarutao (albeit with little sleep on the first night) had provided interest and also beauty from surprising sources.

We are now in a marina on Rebak Island, near Langkawi (Malaysia) and the notorious Telaga anchorage… which has the crumbling film-set of that other film on Siam.

A falling-apart old house on the beach at Telaga is all that remains of the Summer Palace of King Rama IV of Siam, as filmed for Anna and the King. When the real, current King of Thailand said “no”, that film was shot in Malaysia (in Langkawi, Penang and Ipoh); later, the Thai authorities did not allow the film’s distribution in Thailand as some scenes were construed to be disrespectful towards the King. The Summer Palace now provides a lovely backdrop for the wedding photos of this gorgeous Malay couple, a sight we were delighted to come upon some time ago.
Current status? Ketoro is to be left in this marina, safe from storms, until mid September while its crew travel to the UK and then SA to meet their two new grandchildren!