Kanchanaburi: Part 1, Land of Dirty Old Men

Gentle reader: This is the first of a series of posts concerning the wonders to be found in Kanchanaburi province in western central Thailand. In Part 1 you will be reminded why you might have heard of Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai, and why so many dirty old men call the place home. Thereafter we will travel to the far corners of the province to explore it’s wild jungles, mountains, rivers, and caves, and to meet the strange and interesting people who live there.

Just so you know where we are, let’s see Kanchanaburi province in it’s regional context (here shown in black).

Seventy five years ago during the height of WWII the Yellow Peril was on the march!

Their plan then, like ours today, was world domination. Only one power stood in their way, the British empire; so, after trouncing China the Japs attacked the Brits in Burma.

They assured the Western world that their only goal was to secure material resources such as oil and rubber, but we were quite certain that their real purpose was to carry off our women.

At the time the Brits were busy with Hitler; furthermore, they never expected the Japs to be so ambitious, so resistance proved futile.

The Japanese had a variety of strategic objectives, but one of the most important was for their troops and supplies to avoid the perilous 2000 plus mile sea journey from China south to Singapore then north to Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). The Straights of Malacca were full of British warships dispatched from India so there had to be a better way.

At the time there was no direct way to get from Rangoon to Bangkok overland, a potential route that would solve many of their problems including giving them a backdoor to fight the remaining Chinese nationalists.

The distance was less than 400 miles so they decided to build a railroad connecting the two cities. The only problem was that impenetrable jungles, rivers, and mountains stood in their way.

So it was that the Japanese constructed the infamous “Railway of Death“.

Needless to say the Japs did none of the work; instead, they built the railroad on the dead bodies of some 13,000 Allied troops and over 100,000 non combatants such as Thai and Burmese peasants. Some died from being shot or hung, but most died due to starvation, disease, and snakebite.

This epic of endurance was immortalized in the book and subsequent movie, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.

It was all very romantic, plucky Brits cheerfully building the bridge then sabotaging it. The reality was quite different.

Are we having fun yet? Probably not!

The story might be nonsense, but the railroad and bridge are quite real despite the fact that the name of the river and the location of the bridge had to be changed some years later to conform to the movie, a case of art imitating life (or in this case death), then life imitating art on behalf of tourism. More on that here.

Where you might ask is this famous bridge located? In the bucolic burg of Kanchanaburi about 70 miles northwest of Bangkok, Thailand.

The famous so called Bridge on the River Kwai

As you can see there really is a bridge, but it is a replacement, and it spans the Mae Khlong not the Kwai Noi. There really was a train.

A real ammunition train used by the Japs!

I have a vague memory of having visited Kanchanaburi sometime in the 1980s, but as with the Sixties, it you can remember them you weren’t really there.

In 2009 I visited a magnificent cave in the remote and wonderful Chaloem Rattanakosin National Park. (That adventure will be recounted in Part 2 of this series), after which I continued on to Kanchanaburi.

At that time the town was overrun with Hippie backpackers who stayed at the numerous hostels and raft houses that line the river. My favorite was the Jolly Frog where a weary wanderer could find refuge for a grand total of six dollars, there to while away the day swilling beer, smoking joints, eating great food, and meeting mysterious fellow travelers from the far corners of the earth.

The courtyard of the Jolly Frog

Here is a view across the river. Rather bucolic isn’t it? The red tint comes not from the setting sun but rather the incessant fires that are slowly but surely consuming southeast Asia.

Kanchanaburi burning

The main street was lined with bars, brothels, and bookstores that catered to all comers.

But apparently not everyone was welcome. I was personally affronted!

Thailand has the world’s best regional cuisine, but one must accommodate the tastes of foreign travelers.

The more things change the more they remain the same. By 2016 the Hippies had thinned out, but foreign hordes were still coming to pollute the gene pool. There had been a demographic shift from young travelers to mostly middle aged Western men who come to Kanchanaburi to carry off Thai women, eat all the food, and drink all the beer.

Yupscale perverts may go to places like Pattaya in search of Ladyboys, but nasty grizzled old men on a low budget prefer to shop the brothels of K’burg in search of affordable over the hill diagonal poon.

Not over the hill but still reasonably priced! Klaus the Kraut is having plenty of fun, but he had to get up early to arrange a “date” with #59. By mid afternoon he invariably looks like this.

Most of the degenerates are Brits, Aussies, and Krauts, along with a smattering of Gringos and assorted Eurotrash. The Thais make no such distinctions between Westerners, all of whom are known as “Farang” (Often pronounced “Falang”).

The word Farang is etymologically interesting. It is derived from ‘Franc’ as in France. The arrogance of the French, and by extension all white men, has caused them to be hated by non white people throughout the world.

It all started with the Arabs who had good reason to hate the French. From there the word spread to Africa and the Middle East, then to Asia. So it is that variants of the word Farang may be now found in the languages of India, Pakistan, Persia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China, and in numerous indigenous tribal languages.  All agree that the word applies to pasty faced perverts who come to abduct their women. I resemble that remark!

Most Farang get no further than the seedy strip of whorehouses and hotels along the river, but the western part of the province is still wild and beautiful. In the following parts of this series we will visit some of these wonderful places and meet the people who live there.

Stay tuned!