There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 23 November 2015

Cha Am and the Thai 'Way of Beach': Part 15 of Thailand and Laos

We reached Cha Am mid-afternoon. Unlike Phuket and other well-known Thai resorts, Cha Am is not aimed at the Western market; it is first and foremost a Thai resort within day-tripping distance of Bangkok – a sort of Thai Brighton.

Cha Am on the map of Thailand

On arrival we found our hotel was still under construction, bringing to mind not Brighton but 1970s Spain. The pleasant swimming pool and two storey accommodation blocks around it were finished, but some areas were still being paved and reception resembled a furniture store.
Still working on the paving, Cha Am

Three teenage girls appeared to be in charge and they offered us a choice of rooms. We selected one on the first floor (or second floor for American readers) with a balcony over the pavers rather than a door opening onto their workplace. Two of them quickly volunteered to carry our suitcases upstairs in return for a few baht.

Once settled in we strolled up to the small, appropriately decorated, seaside square.

Seaside square, Cha Am
From here we looked out over the beach, a thin strand covered with a forest of umbrellas, beach chairs and tables stretching away in both directions. On a busy Saturday the Bangkok day trippers were making the most of their weekend.

Cha Am beach
The design of the blue phone box visible in the picture of the square appears to be based on Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s red phone box (and, no, I will not call it ‘iconic’) but the makers allowed for Thailand’s very different climate by omitting the glass. Public phone boxes are largely obsolete in Thailand as everywhere else, but this one now doubles a Wi-Fi hot spot.
Glassless phone box and Wi-Fi hotspot, Cha Am
 Back at the hotel I had a swim in the pool while Lynne looked on and wondered why people do such things, then we wandered down the main drag to locate a cold beer – not for pleasure, of course, hydration is so important in a hot climate.

The main beach side road, Cha Am
There were a few other Europeans around, some couples, but also a contingent of middle-aged men wandering the streets with a predatory look in their eye. Most were alone, but some were accompanied by much younger Thai women. ‘Sex tourists’, we said to ourselves, which may be a slur on a few, but is undoubtedly true of the majority. Men exuding sleaze are not a great advertisement for western civilization.

For dinner we picked a clean, bright looking establishment mainly on the basis that it offered a preliminary gin and tonic. The clientele turned out to be almost entirely (respectable) Europeans and the chef/patron was a Swede who had been running this restaurant for a dozen or more years in partnership with his Thai wife and latterly with the help of their adult son. As a cook he maintained his Scandinavian bias - Lynne's dinner being the Nordic staple of pork and potatoes - though his menu included many Thai-style dishes, including my fried pork. He was certainly not afraid to throw chillies around, but I felt he had not quite mastered the subtlety of Thai spicing.

After dinner we walked back to the square, starting on the beach but discovering that after dark small biting creatures made this a bad plan. There was a music event so we stopped to listen for a while.


In the morning we asked at reception where breakfast was and they put us on the back of a motorcycle rickshaw and drove us down the road to another hotel.

We did little for the next hour or two, idly exploring the main streets and buying some more plasters for my scraped toes. Thais being small people like the Lao, the plasters were smaller than I wanted, but being considerably wealthier they sold them by the packet rather than individually.

After coffee we ventured on to the beach, which was quieter on the Sunday, and selected some vacant seats. Very soon the woman in charge came over and charged us 50 baht (£1) each for the use of chairs and shade, which seemed reasonable. A few minutes later we realised she was waving at us with a bottle of Chang in her hand. That seemed a good idea and for a small fee she brought over two chilled bottles and a plastic ice-bucket to put them in. Two beers are universally available throughout Thailand. Sangha (lion), a well-made flavoursome brew is slightly more expensive than Chang (elephant) and comes in smaller bottles. Chang is cold and fizzy, lightweight and with little flavour although a fairly hefty 5% abv. It is just the sort of beer I would avoid at home, but in Thailand in the midday heat, a cold Chang does a very particular job and does it better than I would have thought possible.

A bottle of Chang, Cha Am beach
Various food vendors wandered by. At lunchtime we bought deep fried squid, prawns and soft shell crabs with chilli dipping sauce from one vendor and pineapple and water melon from another. Lunch, plus a couple more beers cost us under £5.

Lunch on the beach, Cha Am
Out on the water there were plenty of jet skis, one of them pulling a banana boat which deposited its riders into the water at appropriate intervals. I went for a swim - it is hardly a blue flag beach, but the guide book claimed it is not a serious health hazard. The water was blood temperature with gentle waves, so I floated around pleasantly, while keeping an eye out for the jet skis which charge onto the beach at regular intervals. A head bobbing about in the water is hardly visible to the drivers so I felt a little more vulnerable than I would really like.
Looking out for those jet skis, Cha Am
The Gulf of Thailand, like the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka, has no tide to speak of and the narrow strip of beach remained the same width all day. We find this disconcerting; early experiences of beach and sea for both of us were beside the Bristol Channel, where the 15m tidal range is the world’s second highest (the highest is 16.3m in the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) and we expect the sea to disappear into the distance every 12 hours or so.

As far into the seas as some will go, even in the warm waters of Cha Am
We filled the afternoon with beach activities and in the evening, having enjoyed our breakfast, we walked down to the same restaurant for dinner. Both Lynne's sweet and sour pork and my shrimps in chilli paste with green beans, peppers and coconut were excellent. As it was our last evening we finished with the un-Thai indulgence of a dessert - and very nice it was too.
Un-Thai indulgences, Cha Am

The following day passed in a similarly restful and relaxing way.

Passing the day in a relaxed and restful manner, Cha Am
'See you tomorrow,' said our friendly beer and shade provider as we left. We told her we were going home. 'Oh, no,' she said throwing her arms round Lynne and giving her a heartfelt hug.

In the early evening a man came to drive us to Bangkok airport. Part of me was hoping he would not turn up, it might have been inconvenient, but we could happily have spent longer in Thailand - which was also how we had felt about Laos.

The journey from Cha Am to Staffordshire was uneventful, which is how such journeys should be, though one minor event was worthy of remark. At midnight, as we rolled down the runway in Bangkok the outside temperature was 30 degrees. Over a dozen hours later we were about to leave Frankfurt for the final leg to Birmingham. Boarded and awaiting departure we were told there would be twenty minutes delay while they called in the de-icing crew. Why do I continue to live in the wrong climate?

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Following the Mae Klong to Samut Sangkhram and the Gulf of Thailand: Part 14 of Thailand and Laos

We were up early and on the road before nine, heading south towards the gulf of Thailand and the seaside.

Several stops were planned, but not until we had followed the Mae Klong River out of Kanchanaburi Province and across the flat land of Ratchaburi to Samut Songkhram, the smallest of Thailand’s 78 provinces and at 418km² only slightly larger than Rutland.
Thailand and with our day's journey from Kanchanaburi to the seaside marked in red
The low lying land near the river mouth is criss-crossed by waterways and the home of several floating markets. We visited Tha Kha, one of the smallest and more difficult to get to; largely unvisited by tourists it remains a genuine local market.
Parking some way down the road from a bridge, we walked past a line of shops and stalls mainly selling foodstuffs.
Tha Kha floating market, Samut Songkhram
The market was small, but colourful and undoubtedly real, we saw no other foreigners.
Tha Kha floating market, Samut Songkhram
Chart hired a boat for a gentle circular potter through the canals. The water may have been scummy but we enjoyed gliding peacefully past paddy fields and coconuts, well mostly we did….
Through the scummy waters of the canals, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
…One of those legendary, though possibly true, statistics is that more people are killed annually by falling coconuts than by shark attacks. This may be encouraging to those venturing into the sea around Australia or South Africa, but on a Thai canal, where the probability of encountering a Great White is vanishingly small, it is of little comfort. Even a near miss could punch a hole through the boat, immersing us in unpleasant water of unknown depth.
Potentially murderous coconuts, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
Despite our fears we returned unbombarded by nuts. Chart left us to our own devices for a while and we had a further look round before, perversely, buying a couple of (safely harvested) coconuts. There is no better drink on a scorchingly hot morning.
Lynne takes pre-emptive revenge on a coconut
Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram

Walking back through the stalls with Chart we stopped at a business making coconut based sweets. Being Saturday there was no production and little to see so Chart suggested we look round the owner’s house, which was above the manufacturing area, behind a small menagerie.

Removing our shoes we climbed the wide stairs to the first floor accommodation of a large rambling house of dark, polished wood. Despite our misgivings the inhabitants seemed to think it perfectly normal for a couple of complete strangers to be walking round their home.

There was, as always, a family shrine...
Family Shrine, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
.....but in Thailand it is also common to find a royal shrine, with pictures of the King (taken some time ago, he is much older than that [update: he died 13/10/2016 aged 88]) his queen consort and offspring.
Royal Shrine, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram
There was little furniture; South East Asians seem happy to sit, kneel or squat on the floor. Even the kitchen had no table - no one would think of working at the height we do. There is ample storage and equipment, but the cooker and sink are at floor level.
Foodie shrine, Tha Kha, Samut Songkhram

A short drive away, King Rama II Memorial Park consists of a museum, which was closed, and traditional Thai houses in pleasant parkland.
Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram
King Rama II, who was born near here, was a patron of the arts and the exhibits reflect that. Downstairs in the main house, next to the obligatory shop, a lesson in traditional dance was in progress.
Dancing lesson, Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram
Next door were models of local fishing craft while upstairs was an ethnographic exhibition where models showed aspects of daily life during Rama II's reign (1809-1824). Male and female roles were strictly defined, as Lynne noted (a little sourly, I thought) men worked, drank, wrestled and played games, while women raised children, cooked, sewed and took trouble with their appearance.
Fishing boat, Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram
Walking back to the car park we passed a pond with the most magnificent lily pads.
Lily pads, Rama II Memorial Park, Samut Songkhram

20 minutes away is Bang Kung Camp with its statues of boxers – Thai boxing involves kicking as well as punching. The camp was an important outpost of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya during Burmese incursions.
Thai Boxers, Bang Kung Camp

On the same site, Wat Bang Kung is small temple so overgrown by a banyan tree that if the door had not been hacked clear it would have been entirely encased.

Wat Bang Kung, encased in a banyan tree

Inside is one of those Buddha images that people like to cover with gold leaf. Unlike in Burma, they allow women to apply the gold, which is, I suppose, a step forward in terms of equality but I wonder how impressed the Buddha would have been by anyone believing they gained merit by putting gold leaf on a statute. (Yes, I know. It is totally inappropriate for a lapsed member of the Church of England to tell Buddhists how to practice Buddhism)
Wat Bang Kung Buddha image with a woman applying gold leaf

Once you have applied your gold leaf you should nobly share the merit gained by banging a bell. Lynne was keen to do this, despite not actually applying any gold leaf. One of the bells was part of a repurposed artillery shell, common in Vietnam and Laos where such things are easily come by, but rare in Thailand which has enjoyed 70 years of peace.

Lynne shares her merit, Wat Bang Kun
It was now lunchtime, and little further on we pulled off the road into a ‘resort hotel’, two words guaranteed to make my heart sink.

A tour group was already in residence in the open air restaurant pleasantly situated beside the Mae Klong River. We perused the menu more in hope than expectation, selecting fish cakes and squid.

The fish cakes arrived first.  The flakes of firm, fresh fish accompanied by a fiery dipping sauce exceeded our expectations by a wide margin. The squid turned out to be a cook-your-own meal in a fish shaped boiler. We have encountered these before and it is a tricky business. Raw squid is tough, overcooked squid resembles a squash ball, and the window between the two is small and sometimes elusive. Experience has taught us that once the broth is boiling, it is best to turn off the flame and let the squid poach gently in the cooling liquid. For once we got it spot on, the squid was a fresh as those we used to enjoy at Maria's in Portugal, and the broth was subtle, lemony and in every way delightful. Our initial misgivings had been entirely misplaced, this was possibly the best meal of the trip, indeed one of our best lunches full stop.

Fish cakes and squid beside the Mae Klong River
Well fed we continued south to the coast and the city of Samut Songkhram. Near here in 1811 the wife of a fisherman gave birth to a pair of conjoined twins, Chang and Eng. Locally they were known as 'The Chinese Twins' as their father was from Thailand's Chinese community, but when they were 'discovered' in 1829 by a Scottish entrepreneur and travelled the world as part of a freak show they became known as The Siamese Twins, a name which has stuck to their condition ever since.

In many ways the brothers were admirable. They took control of their lives and in 1839 they found they liked North Carolina and had enough money to settle there and buy a farm. They became American citizens, adopted the surname Bunker and married two local sisters. Between them they had 21 children. There are several questions I would love to ask about this, and maybe Chang and Eng (and their wives) would reply that it is none of my business. Their 1,500 or so living descendants meet at regular reunions.
Chang and Eng painted by an unknown artist in Paris in 1835 or 6
The painting is in the North Carolina Collection gallery, borrowed by me from Wikipedia
Other aspects of their life were less admirable; like most North Carolina farmers at that time, they were slave owners. The Bunkers supported the confederacy in the American Civil War, support which cost them much of their wealth. They died within hours of each other in 1874.

Samut Songkhram’s market is also, in its own way, a freak show. Strung alongside the railway track outside the station, some of the merchandise and parts of the stalls have to be moved every time a train comes through.
Samut Songkhram 'railway' market

The market sells an immense variety of goods and foods; we particularly liked the huge tiger prawns. The tiger prawns on menus all over the world come from Thailand and its neighbours. They look magnificent, but for both texture and flavour, I actually prefer the smaller cold water prawns of the north Atlantic.
Tiger prawns and other things, Samut Songkhram 'railway' market
The station had been closed for several months for engineering work so the market had been spared the continual moving and we did not get to see how it all works. I wonder if the locals might come to realise that a market uninterrupted by trains is a good idea and go somewhere else!

From Samut Songkhram we headed down the coast to Cha Am for two days lazing on the beach.

Thailand and Laos
               Part 1: Bangkok and the Train North

Friday, 20 November 2015

Kanchanaburi, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass: Part 13 of Thailand and Laos

A short drive took us into Kanchanaburi from our resort hotel. In 1942-3 the town had been the main depot at the southern end of the infamous Burma railway.

Our first stop was at the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum. Privately funded and run by Australian historian Rod Beattie, it naturally concentrates on the 60,000 POWs who worked on the railway - British and Australian troops captured at the fall of Singapore and Dutch taken when the Japanese overran the Dutch East Indies. 13,000 POWs died (7,000 British, 3,000 Australian, 3,000 Dutch), but it is important to remember that there were as many as 300,000 East Asian workers among whom the death rate was even higher. At first they were recruited on contracts, but these were never honoured and they became slave labourers. Later all pretence was dropped and men - Burmese, Thais and Malayans- were pressed into service, snatched from their homes, fields or market places.

Decades earlier the British had considered building a 400km railway from southern Thailand across the Three Pagodas Pass into Burma, but had abandoned the project after surveys suggested that driving a railway through such inhospitable country would be too expensive, both financially and terms of lives that would be lost. For the Japanese the cost was lower - they paid no wages and their workers were expendable.

The approximate route of the Burma Railway (in green)
While in the museum I picked up a copy of The Railway Man, Eric Lomax’s autobiography written in the 1990s. I read a few paragraphs where the author constructs a radio to obtain news of the outside world. It was a compelling and vivid account of bravery and resourcefulness.

We had intended to see the film when it was released in 2014 but it disappeared too fast from our local cinema. We watched a DVD after returning home. Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth head a powerful cast, but despite some dramatic set pieces the film failed to engage and it was easy to see why it stayed so briefly in the cinema. I later read the book. It tells of how a strange and solitary youth is socialised by his time in the army and how his early experiences as a prisoner make a man of him. After the discovery of the map and radio he and his companions had made, he endures the utmost brutality and takes desperate actions to survive. The end of the war does not end his suffering and decades later he makes the difficult decision to seek healing through reconciliation. It is a powerful and moving testament.

The Railway Man, film poster borrowed from Wikipedia
I re-watched the film. The chronology is distorted, the important chapters dealing with Lomax’s time in jail are omitted and the end is changed for cheap dramatic effect. In reality the first meeting in Kanchanaburi with his torturer’s translator (not his actual torturer) was carefully set up. The film ignores the important role of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and has Lomax ambushing the translator in a museum and threatening violence. The main theme of the book is the redemptive power of forgiveness and reconciliation, the main theme of the film is unclear.

Inevitably, the prisoners look too fit and well; make-up can simulate tropical ulcers but not starvation. The museum’s photographs show ribs like xylophones and high bony shoulders, but your eyes are always dragged to the prominent ring of the collar bone, through which the head of a recognizable young man, sometimes still capable of a grin, is threatening to fall. Those who are not skeletal are bloated with beriberi, an often fatal disease caused by malnutrition.

Eric Lomax survived. Those British, Australian and Dutch soldiers who did not were buried near where they died. After the war their remains were collected and re-buried, 7,000 in Kanchanaburi, 1,500 in nearby Chungkai and the remainder at Thanbyuzayat in Burma. The Kanchanaburi cemetery is a Dutch/Commonwealth cemetery differing slightly from the usual Commonwealth War Graves format, but every bit as well-kept. A service of Remembrance was taking place on the far side; not an unusual occurrence.

War Graves, Kanchanaburi
The bridge on the River Kwai is only a few minutes away. It does not resemble the bridge in the film (which was shot in Sri Lanka) nor is it in remote jungle, but it is the bridge about which Pierre Boule’s* 1952 novel was written - at least a repaired and restored version. It is not actually on the ‘River Kwai’ either. The two branches of the Mae Klong meet in Kanchanaburi. The bridge crosses the Khwae Yai (Big Branch) just above its confluence with the Khwae Noi (Small Branch) and Kwhae (Branch) became Kwai.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi

The Bridge remains in use, Kanchanaburi being the terminal for the small section of the railway still functioning, but tourists are free to walk across it and have a good look.

Walking across the Bridge on the River Kwai

Eric Lomax called his book The Railway Man not just because he was forced to work on the Burma Railway but because he was a train buff. He understood the irony, but could not help being interested in the trains the Japanese used, and two are on display at the end of the bridge.

Train used on the Burma Railway, Kanchanaburi

He was particularly fascinated by the trucks that could be modified to travel on road or rails.

Truck-Train, Burma Railway Kanchanaburi
My mother took me and some young friends to see The Bridge on the River Kwai many years ago. We all took it so seriously, but on re-viewing I wonder if there has ever been a worse multi-Oscar winning film. The demands of Hollywood required an American action hero be crow-barred into the plot. The bone of contention between the British colonel and the Japanese is that officers as well as men were being forced to work - maybe against the Geneva Convention but to 21st century sensibilities it seems he was fighting to maintain the class privileges two world wars did so much to erode. If the prisoners in The Railway Man looked too well, those in ‘Bridge’ were positively bronzed and fit, and finally a mistreated and eventually shot Alec Guinness, staggers around like the ham actor he was not.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, film poster borrowed from Wikipedia

A, our guide for the first part of this journey from Bangkok to Sukhothai and Laos told us that his father had been an officer in the Royal Thai Air Force. The first American attempts to bomb the bridge in 1945 led to the deaths of many civilians but left the bridge undamaged. On subsequent missions they carried Thai navigators, among them A's father. They were eventually successful, but precision bombing was in the future (if it exists at all) and A's father felt responsible not just for destroying a bridge, but also for the deaths of innocent people. He never spoke of it without weeping.

We drove north, the modern highway taking a different route from the railway. After a while we left the main road in what seemed a rural area, but soon found ourselves among buildings more like the edge of a town than a village. In densely populated Thailand it is not always easy to know where you are or what sort of area you are in. We stopped for lunch at a large open barn of a restaurant. There were a few other customers, mostly European, but Chart promised good food. My ‘beef with curry paste’ and Lynne’s tomyum soup were indeed good – far better than the much more expensive tourist food at our hotel.

After lunch we visited the nearest hospital so Lynne could have her wound checked and dressing changed. It was a 'government hospital', a little less smart and affluent than yesterday's private hospital, but clean, well-staffed and efficient. Lynne felt fine, the wound looked clean and we decided we did not need to visit any more hospitals.

We continued to the Hellfire Pass Museum, opened in 1996 at the top of a steep wooded slope. Jointly sponsored by the Royal Thai Armed Forces and the Australian Government, it covers much the same ground as the Kanchanaburi Museum, but with perhaps a little more emphasis on the huge numbers of Asian victims of the railway.

The path down the slope from the museum to Hellfire Pass

It also, of course, focuses on Hellfire Pass, a narrow cutting driven through solid rock by half-starved prisoners of war and local slave labour in six weeks, working eighteen hours a day. The sight of emaciated prisoners working at night by torchlight was said to resemble a scene from hell.

Working on a Thailand Railway Cutting, July 1943 by the official war artist Murray Griffin. This has become one of the most famous images of the hellish conditions experienced when constructing the Thai–Burma railway, though Griffin painted this from accounts by other POWs. He spent the whole of his captivity in Changi.
Picture and caption borrowed from Australian Prisoners of War on the Thai-Burma Railway

A trio of middle aged Thai women who had been photographing each other at every opportunity, prevailed on me to take a picture of them together. They were enjoying their visit, somewhat inappropriately, we thought, laughing and joking their way round the museum. Chart was upset, 'They should behave with respect,' he said. 'This is a serious place and a memorial.' He was, of course, right, though it was really only a museum, the 'serious place and memorial' was reached via a series of wooden staircases down the wooded slope behind the museum.

Looking west through the bamboo to the hills cross the valley we  commented, yet again, that places of great suffering are not marked out as such by nature. They are often banal, like the killing fields of Choeung Ek or the flat farm lands of Silesia, sometimes they are beautiful.

View acros the valley from the southern end of Hellfire Pass
 75m long and 25 deep Hellfire Pass was built by drilling holes in the rock using a hammer and metal pick, filling the resulting hole with explosives and then, after the detonation, clearing the rubble by hand. Little of the railway remains in situ. There are some sleepers...

Original sleepers, Hellfire Pass
 ... but the rails are not original.

Not original rails Hellfire Pass
Just before a tree that has made a sturdy start on reclaiming the pass for nature, the broken end of a pick embedded in the rock is the only other remnant of the men who worked and died here.

Lynne and Chart inspect a broken pick, Hellfire Pass
But they are not forgotten. At the end is a monument, and evidence of recent visits.

Australian Memorial, Hellfire Pass
I am not a great one for patriotism and national flags, but there are times when a flag can cause the stiffest upper lip to tremble.

The end of Hellfire Pass
 We climbed from the depths of the pass in the glare of the afternoon sun.

When I was growing up in Buckinghamshire Les and Pearl Price lived two doors down. Everybody knew Les had been an unwilling participant in the building of the Burma railway and that the Japanese had done 'horrible things to him', which was why Les and Pearl's children, Paul and Verity were adopted. I was six or seven, so my understanding was limited. Les and Pearl became friends of my parents - they attended the annual Burma Star gathering at the Royal Albert Hall as their guests on several occasions.

In the late fifties/early sixties, before the advent of supermarkets, even a commuter village on the outer London fringes boasted a full set of shops, a butcher, fishmonger, baker, grocer, greengrocer, two newsagent/tobacconists and more.

The shops changed hands occasionally and sometime around 1960, Hillary's the grocers became McTavish's. I remember Mr McTavish as being a big cheerful man with (I thought) a strange way of speaking. We soon learned that he was another Burma Railway survivor. Les went to visit. 'As soon as I saw him,' I heard Les tell my parents, 'I thought, "poor bugger”. We used to give people like him all the clothing we had, but they suffered terribly.'

It was years before I understood that remark. I have never suffered from sunburn, at that age I had probably never heard of it. McTavish was a fair-skinned, sandy-haired Scot with no natural defences to any sun, never mind the remorseless sun of Thailand. He and men like him would have endured another layer of suffering over and above that of their darker skinned comrades.

Although most of the railway was dismantled in 1947, a small section still exists, from south of Hellfire Pass through to Kanchanaburi.

Lynne waits on Wang Pho station
We drove to Wang Pho station, bought tickets and did not have long to wait for the train. The railway for which so many suffered and died is now a toy train taking tourist for a short trip beside and finally across the 'River Kwai'.

The train arrives, Wang Pho Station
 A cheerful bunch of brightly dressed well-fed people leant out of the windows to take pictures of themselves, the train and the railway, particularly where it crosses sections on wooden trellises vaguely reminiscent of the bridge in the film.

Crossing a trestle section of the Burma Railway
Were we being disloyal to the memory of Les Price and Mr McTavish? I don't know, I felt a little uncomfortable, but my behaviour was the same as everybody else's, so I have no grounds to feel superior. Perhaps they would be pleased that their efforts were not entirely in vain, part of the railway was at least being used and for a peaceful purpose….but still.

Children rafting on the 'River Kwai'
 We left the train at Ai Lit, the station before Kanchanaburi and drove back to our hotel arriving at dusk.

There was little outside our hotel except a dual carriageway, but on the far side we had spotted a small general store and as our 'Premium Lao Whisky' had survived no further than Champasak we needed a replacement. I would not wish to compare our situation with that of Les Price and Mr McTavish but resort hotels always feel like luxurious prison camps, perhaps more Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner than the real thing.

We walked up the drive to the exit where the security guard gave a smart salute but did not check our papers or advise us to turn back. Crossing the busy road was exciting but we discovered a well-worn path over the grass of the central reservation - others had been this way before. The woman in the little shop was obviously used to dealing with escapees and we soon found or way back to camp clutching a half bottle of SangSom Rum.

We approached dinner with trepidation but Lynne declared her spring rolls with chicken, prawn, mushroom and water chestnuts ‘delicious’, while my tilapia in three flavours was a touch ‘cheffy’ but so much better than last night’s gutless green curry.

*Pierre Boule was a French secret agent who was captured in 1943 and endured forced labour in Southeast Asia. He wrote over 20 novels, the only other one well known to an English speaking audience is, rather incongruously, Planet of the Apes.

Some names have been changed to protect privacy.