Monday, March 16, 2009

Three Days in Thailand

Having Monday off for Foundation Day, and never having class on Fridays, I decided to go to Thailand for a few days.

I spent most of my time in a small town called Kanchanaburi. It's about two hours west of Bangkok, on the River Kwai (made famous by David Lean in the classic Bridge On The River Kwai), and is a very pleasant place to spend a few days. The town itself only has two real attractions. The excellent Thai-Burma Railway Centre is a museum documenting the experience of the Allied POWs who built the railroad linking Thailand to Burma during World War II. Captured when the Japanese conquered most of Southeast Asia in 1941 and 1942, thousands of British, Dutch, and Australian soldiers (and some Americans) were slave labor for the Japanese military effort to build a railroad that would eventually connect Singapore to Burma and facilitate the Japanese advance towards British India. Malnourished and diseased, apparently some 38 POWs and Asian laborers died for every kilometer of track constructed. (It would be impossible to document, but I wonder how this ratio measures up to the ratio for the Great Wall of China). Some 6,000 of these POWs are buried in a cemetery near the museum, the second attraction of note.

Kanchanaburi's real draw is the natural scenery surrounding the town. Erawan National Park, about 65km away from the city, was definitely the highlight of my trip. There weren't many foreign tourists when I visited, mostly Thais out for a weekend excursion. The park contains a seven-tiered waterfall, with a number of natural pools that are perfect for swimming. It was an hour's trek to the seventh tier, at which point the path became a bit more tricky. Getting from the path to the falls themselves required some careful navigation across a series of extremely slippery rocks - I saw a European tourist take a very nasty spill on one particularly treacherous section. After making it safely to the top I cooled off with a half-hour swim in the various pools, watched by a family of monkeys that had come down from the trees for a drink of water. I spent my last few hours in Kanchanaburi seeing the current Bridge on the River Kwai (the original was destroyed by Allied bombers in the last years of the war), then took a minibus back to Bangkok.

Khao San Road, in Bangkok... never in my life have I wanted to leave a place so quickly. Every negative tourist stereotype is on display there: the freshly dreadlocked white guy covered in new tattoos, beer in hand and god knows what in his bloodstream; the florid, obese middle-aged man, sunburned and balding, sweating through his polo shirt and leering at the Thai girl on his arm, young enough to be his daughter; and, of course, the type who clearly thinks that being on vacation gives one an excuse to dress and act like a complete a**hole.

The street was crawling with them, and packed with every sort of business that would cater to their interests. T-shirt shops, hostels, tattoo parlors, salons advertising dreadlocks, beads, and extensions, bars blasting loud pop music, stalls selling cheap trinkets, and plenty of familiar Western restaurants (Burger King and McDonalds, among others).

Ordinarily I would have made every effort to avoid this place, but under the circumstances it made sense to be there, unfortunately. I was only staying in Bangkok for one night, and then planning to catch a minibus to the coast and then traveling on to the island of Ko Samet by ferry. The hostels in Khao San are very cheap, and the abundance of local travel agencies/tour companies make the neighborhood an easy place in which to arrange transport out of Bangkok. So, there I was.

While I was asking a hostel employee about Ko Samet, a sunburned Westerner (Austrian, as it turned out) approached, a beer in one hand and a Coke in the other. His teeth were yellow, broken and crooked, his hair was stringy, and his eyes seemed to have some difficulty focusing. He told me how Ko Samet was a wonderful island, and how he'd been going there for ten years. Then he gave me the name of the hostel that he stayed at, and told me to tell the owner (someone named Yud, apparently) that he had just come back from Lao and was about to return to Austria. He wrote all this down for me: "Koh Samet Puolsa Bangolouws Yud Greadings from Koert."

After meeting Koert, I decided to skip Ko Samet and leave the country a day early. I was quite certain that I did not want to spend my time and money in a place that appealed to Koert so much that he has apparently made annual pilgrimages for the past decade. Given its relative proximity to Bangkok, I could only imagine how many other Koerts there would be on that island.

There's a sad irony in the fact that Thailand, the only Southeast Asian nation to avoid European rule during the colonial period, has been so transformed by the throngs of hedonistic Westerners that pour into the country on a daily basis that it's barely possible to discern what lies beneath the bars, tattoo parlors, sex shows, dreadlock shops and youth hostels. I was only in the country for a few days, but a number of my friends spent more time there, and in different places; almost without exception, they came away with the same impressions. They loved Thailand's natural beauty - the beaches, the rivers, the forests - but they were shocked and disgusted by everything that had sprung up around it. One of my friends summed it up very succinctly: "It's like there's not even a country, just a bunch of dirty backpackers."

So, if you're thinking of going to Thailand, spend as little time in Bangkok as possible, unless you are a) a complete degenerate, b) unspeakably perverted, c) an unwashed hippie in search of like-minded persons, or d) not particularly picky about where you spend your free time, as long as they sell t-shirts and beer. If you're reading this blog, I sincerely hope that you are none of these things.

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