Death on the Kwai

In December, we were given the gift of a three day weekend, and, eager to see more of this strange country we now called home, three teachers from my school (Mikayla, Logan, Anna) and I, decided to take a trip to the town of Kanchanaburi, famous for being the home of the Bridge on the River Kwai.

images.jpgWe arrived at our rented bungalow, located on a small back road and standing in a garden with three others like it. It was owned by a short and incredibly softly-spoken Frenchman and his Thai wife. The bungalow had two double beds, and I found myself bunked up with our male companion, Logan. Or really, I should say, he found himself bunked up with me.

“I sleep right on the edge.” I assured him, which in all honesty, I do. Thai beds are not things you want to spread out on, to sink in to. They aren’t to be luxuriated in. They are to be endured. I sleep cat-like. Ready to awake at a moment’s notice and drop to the ground.

The journey from Bangkok had taken longer than we’d intended, and everyone agreed we should try and do something quickly to make the best use of the remaining light. The softly-spoken Frenchman informed us that we’d arrived on the weekend of the River Kwai festival. Imagine our luck. I say that – I assume he informed us. I heard everything from him second-hand through my compatriot, because I couldn’t hear a damn word out of his mouth. He suggested activities we might be interested in.

Now, if you’ve read anything I’ve written previously, you might have started to build a picture of me in your mind. In case you aren’t aware, I’ll make this important point about myself again: I. Am. Lazy. I’m a watcher, not a doer. I listen. I am sedentary. I had come on a trip with three people who were most certainly the opposite – young and active and healthy.

It was decided we would go kayaking down the Kwai. I agreed with some apprehension. The Frenchman rang a lady with a kayaking company, who promptly picked us up, and drove us down to the banks of the river.

“You get boat off now!”

I began to drag a kayak off the back of the van and toward the water.

“Don’t drag! No, no, no! Wrong way!”

“I’m doing my best.” I assured her, frazzled and red-faced.

“NOT LIKE THAT.” she said.

“I have never moved a kayak before.” I said, as if that wasn’t abundantly clear to everyone.

With some difficulty, we got the boats into the water. I decided to sit at the back, it seemed like less responsibility, and, after throwing our phones and valuables into a “waterproof” bag, we set off on our way. A leisurely cruise. My partner and I couldn’t get in sync. I chanted “left, right, left, right”, but we didn’t seem to be able to get the rhythm together. It’s like when you meet someone new, and you go for a handshake because you’re a terribly stunted human being, and they go for the hug and cheek kiss, and you find your hand jabbing impotently into their stomach, as they grasp towards you, you stuttering in their ear all the while. Not that I speak from experience, or anything.

“At bridge three, you see a beach. I meet you there!” shouted the woman as she waved us off.

We moved down the stream. Three bridges. The final bridge would be the famous one. The Bridge over the Ole’ River K. Easy. This was the sort of thing I’d be telling my nurse about in fifty years.

We took turn after turn and pushed on through largely deserted waters. Lots of water. Lots of turns. And big stretches of straightforward river. And yet, we still hadn’t reached the first bridge after an hour and a half. Maybe all the bridges were squashed very close together, we mused. It was the only way to keep ourselves sane.

More time passed. And more time. And still no bridge. My arms were hurting. Everyone’s arms were hurting. I was starting to lose coordination, and I hadn’t had much to begin with. I accidentally hit my boat partner in the face with my oar. At least, I think it was an accident. We spun around uselessly in the water, listing towards rocky clusters and wide expanses of weeds.

15400562_10209718209524343_5888498727213532111_n.jpg
Jesus, take the wheel.

“Shall we ring the woman and say we can’t make it?” I asked.

“No, I think we should push ahead.” agreed the group.

Shit.

Three hours in, and things were getting ridiculous, and, not to mention, dark. The sun was fast descending and we were starting to get a bit worried. We saw a boat that seemed to be hosting a party, and decided to pull up alongside, as Anna, my fellow kindergarten teacher, and Logan, both needed to make use of facilities not commonly found on kayaks. A Thai woman very graciously clung onto us, as they clambered aboard to relieve themselves. I considered abandoning everyone and refusing to get back in my kayak again, but I did the honourable thing and, upon the teachers’ return, we carried on into the unknown, pressing ever onward.

Logan decided to stop and check his phone to see if we had been missed in all this time.

“I have three missed calls. I think the woman’s been trying to get in touch.”

“She’ll think we’re lost. We’ve been ages.”

“Why would she drop us so far up the river? Doesn’t this happen literally every single time, unless she happens to rent exclusively to professional kayakers in every instance except this one? Did she not see us? Do we look like professional kayakers?” I asked.

Logan called her back.

“Hello, we have not reached the bridge yet.”

“WHERE ARE YOU? I AM ON BEACH!” shouted the woman.

“Yes, I –” said Logan.

“YOU MEET ME ON BEACH!”

“We –”

“WHERE ARE YOU?”

“I’m trying to –”

“IT GET DARK, WHERE ARE YOU?”

“Just put the phone down.” Anna interjected, “What’s the point?” And he did.

The next hour continued in the same fashion as the previous three – the occasional fit of exhaustion giggles and generally slow progress. We moved down the Kwai until we eventually passed the first two bridges. It was pitch black and the only light came from riverside restaurants.

Finally, we saw the last bridge. The Bridge. Our elation was palpable.

As we approached it, we realised we were passing lots of floating objects in the water.

“Those are fireworks for the festival.” someone pointed out.

“There’s quite a lot of them.”

“We’re surrounded by them.”

It was then I realised that we were going to be blown up. People were gathering in a large seated auditorium on the bank to see the impending display. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to the two kayaks floating between the ten tonnes of explosions laid out, and seemingly, our kayak lady had not risk assessed the situation we’d be finding ourselves in. We moved around trying to find our appointed meeting beach, but, and I cannot stress this enough, there was no beach. A police boat on the horizon began jetting our way. Finally, I thought, something sensible happening. It whizzed right past us and out of sight. Brilliant. Eventually,  slightly panicked, we travelled a bit further and to a docked boat.

My friend dialled the kayak woman, and handed up her phone to a Thai woman stood aboard, who managed to be heard over the incessant shouting on the other end of the line.

“Go to the beach.” said the Thai woman.

“There is no beach.” we said.

“There.” she pointed. We strained our eyes through the darkness. She was pointing at a small patch of dirt on the bank.

We thanked her and piloted toward our final destination, back as quickly as possible through the fireworks. We saw the kayak woman standing on the “beach”, clearly unhappy at our poor timekeeping, as though this were all somehow our fault. Still, I was happy to see her. The nightmare of exercise and potential firework-related maiming was over. I clambered back to dry land and, upon instruction, began dragging the kayak up a hill. I must have “work-donkey” tattooed on my forehead. Kayak woman then drove us back to town so that we could rent motorbikes and get back to our hostel.

The town of Kanchanaburi is surprisingly seedy. We hopped off the back of the van, and were greeted with the sight of a hundred white men, with greasy hair and straining shirt buttons and leering eyes. The bike rental place was closed. The kayak woman motioned to a bar down the street and said we’d find bikes there.

We approached. The bar was, in fact, a brothel, but they did have four bikes to rent. Mikayla, very generously, left her passport with the owner as insurance, and we drove away. My bike was rather rattley, though looking at the three others, I could have had it much worse. We found a restaurant right opposite the bridge and sat down to eat. As we did, the fireworks began to explode. Hopefully, there were no other late kayakers still down there. We finished up and drove back to the hostel.

That night, I awoke to near-paralysing pain in my arms. Everyone else was asleep. I sat bolt upright. You know when you get a cramp in your leg, and it’s the most excruciating pain, but at least it’s over fairly quickly? Imagine that, but it goes on, and on, and on. A bit like kayaking down the Kwai. There was no relief. I crawled out of bed and went and sat in the garden to let my mother know I wasn’t long for this world.

“I think I’m having a heart attack.” I said.

“It’s probably just from the kayaking. It’ll be OK.” she replied.

I was found dead the following morning, stiff on the lawn, phone clasped in cold, lifeless hand.

…Well, maybe not, but still.

I awoke on Saturday morning thinking that the hard part was over. How wrong I was. Quite frankly, I think it was thoroughly unethical of my fellow teachers to drag a fat woman around doing all these active things.

Our plan was to head to Erawan Falls. Not, as we had originally decided, on our bikes, but on a bus. Our bikes were too shit and we didn’t want to tempt death a second time that weekend.

The plan was to hike up the seven levels of waterfalls in the park. I assumed this would be a gentle hike; a gentlemanly stroll.

I have a recurring nightmare about having to climb a very steep slope. It becomes almost vertical, and I’m scared, and I’m slipping and hurting myself, and it feels like I’ll never get home. Sometimes, it flips, and I’m suddenly crawling upside down, with the sky below me. Steep things fill me with dread. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

The hike started easily enough. We passed Thai people enjoying picnics and splashing around in the natural pools on the lower levels. It was, at that stage, a simple forest walk. The weather was hot, but I had brought water, and I could deal with it.

15259782_10209701395183995_6884664359445446041_o.jpg
Notice how much redder I am than everyone else, including Satan.

Mikayla was in front of me, and she turned to say “You have to take your shoes off here.”

I couldn’t see ahead of her, and assumed we must be about to step onto some sort of holy ground. I was in the Thai temple mind set.

“Shall I take my socks off too?” I asked.

“They’ll get pretty wet if you don’t.”

It was then I realised we were shedding shoes because we were about to traverse a raging current, covered in rocky outcroppings. I dutifully complied, tied my Converse to my backpack, and made my way like a ninety year old woman over the rocks and stream. Things got tougher from then on out. I climbed and jumped and pulled and scrambled my way up, slipping up wooden ladders with missing rungs, and making all sorts of unhappy, uncontrollable noises and faces as I did so.

Had I been alone, I definitely would have given up and stopped at maybe the fourth level. With my friends, however, I made it all the way to the top of Erawan. Not a bad achievement, I should say. I’m really very grateful to them for dragging my ass up there. To celebrate, we stripped to our swimming costumes, and dipped into the pools. It was time to have our photos taken standing under the raging seventh-level waterfall.

I got into position. The temperature and ferocity of the water immediately took my breath away, and I couldn’t stand up straight. There’s no getting used to that feeling.

“FUCK!” I shouted, involuntarily. Several concerned onlookers snapped to attention. “I’M SORRY FOR SWEARING,” I shouted, “FUCK! FUCK THIS! FUUUUCK!”

My friend began to snap photos. I stood for a while, attempting to pose, trying to look as normal and picture-ready as humanly possible, and then waded out to get my breath back.

“Oh, I don’t think we can keep any of these, Jade, it looks like you’re being taken from behind.”

I looked. Every photo seemed more obscene than the last.

“You should probably delete those.” I said, in-between gasping for air in the frigid pool.

We lingered for a little longer, the others getting their photos taken. They looked like they were in FHM photoshoots. I looked like a sort of damp, frightened Judy Finnegan.

Of course, the ordeal was far from over at that point, as I now had to climb all the way back down the seven levels. And this time, it was personal slippery. I remained permanently around twenty metres behind my group, making small, careful advances down the wet rocks, allowing young children to skip on past me. I have never felt quite so relieved, as when I put my foot down onto solid earth, knowing that now, all that awaited me was a simple, relatively level, downhill hike.

The next day, Monday, the three others had been planning to wake up at 5am to ride on the Death Railway. Could do that, I thought, or I could go back to Bangkok and order a big-fuck-off burger and chips. After some discussion, we all decided to return back to the city together, at a reasonable hour, and spend our remaining cash on a nice meal.

What keeps me awake at night, is that I’m going on holiday with two of these people again in two days. No doubt I’ll be being pushed out of a plane by Sunday evening.

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