This story appears in my book, A Casual Traveler
Kananchuburi Provence, Thailand
I booked a no-brainer trip from Pataya Beach to the Kananchuburi province in Thailand, near the Burma border. It is home to the Bridge on the River Kwai, that was made famous by the movie of the same name. For those unaware, it’s where the Japanese used allied prisoners of war to build a railway bridge over the river, and through the mountain pass into Burma.
The shuttle bus picked me up at my hotel at 5:30 a.m. sharp, a despicable time of the day. The birds weren’t up yet, but there were still a couple people drinking at the bar across the street. Not unusual in Pataya. I’d behaved the previous evening, opting for a movie at the local cinema, instead of being one of those people at the bar.
I climbed into the van and saw with my one open eye that there were other people on the bus. Three older black women had nabbed the best seats. The looked like a darker version of the Golden Girls. I wedged myself in and didn’t pay the driver much attention, until he got lost two blocks from my hotel.
He was looking for a certain hotel, and two missing people— who he assumed had cancelled. Probably the ones I’d seen at the bar. I thought it was a blessing in disguise, no vehicle goes anywhere in Asia unless every seat occupied. I was able to stretch out a bit.
We headed away from the neon and into the darkness. My open eye started to close, catching up with the napping one, so I leaned back in my seat to stretch out. Whoa! My seat flew straight back and crashed into the guy behind me. He hollered something in German, I think.
I was sitting on a fold down seat that was obviously broken. I imagined it was going to be a long three hour ride. I was fiddling with my seat when the driver flicked on the interior lights, and welcomed us to the tour.
He introduced himself as Eddie—like Eddie Murphy, he said. I chuckled because he looked more like a teen-aged Jackie Chan. Eddie Murphy told us he could speak English, and that he would be our guide for the entire tour. He added that we’d be in the cramped van for the whole trip, and not the big bus that was promised to us in the brochure.
I tried to nod off again, but the bouncing van, and constant nattering from the foreign group behind me, made it impossible. Every time the van hit a bump, it continued bouncing for another thirty seconds.
Eddie held up his left hand in the air until the bouncing stopped. He did that several times, on two occasions before the bumps—as a warning perhaps. I closed my eyes, trying desperately to get some beauty sleep.
The sun appeared on the horizon, and the Golden Girls came to life. Three widows on the trip of their life. They all took their cameras out, and got into a photo shooting contest to see who could capture the most pictures of the rising sun through the tinted windows of our bouncing van. If they’d hung out, and drank all night at the bars in Pataya, seeing a sunrise wouldn’t have been such a big deal.
I was distracted by the chatter in the back seat, and the paparazzi-like frenzy of the Golden Girls, but I heard the sound of a rooster crowing. How the was that possible from inside the van, going fifty miles per hour? It was Eddie Murphy’s mobile phone, timed perfectly with the sunrise.
I watched Eddie Murphy while he chatted on the phone, he kept checking his reflection in the side view mirror. It seemed he couldn’t get his hair just right—bed head, perhaps. He took a wet nap, and washed his face, neck, and arms. I guessed he didn’t have time for a proper shower before he left for work.
The Golden Girls had caught on to his shenanigans too, we laughed together. I made a sarcastic remark about his sponge bath, and could tell by their cackling, that they appreciated my sense of humor and we’d get along fine.
Pangs of hunger vibrated through my stomach. I recalled the travel agent had told me breakfast was included in the tour, but the hotel’s buffet wasn’t open when I left in the middle of the night.
Eddie Murphy helped himself to a prepared sandwich, and I inquired about our inclusive breakfast. Someone in the back of the van barked out in my support. Our driver looked back and said, okay—five minute for pee-pee and pooh-pooh. I shit you not.
He wheeled into the next service center, where we had to fend for ourselves, to scrounge up food. I should have known better when I asked if breakfast was included, and the guy said yes. They always said yes when they don’t understand English or have a clue what you’re asking.
After the potty break I bitched to Eddie Murphy about the problem with my seat. He flipped it back and forth several times, and then announced, it’s broken. Everyone, but me laughed. He managed to lock the seat into a 45 degree angle, and motioned for me to get back in.
Eddie Murphy’s English was pretty well limited to the introduction he’d rehearsed—he just stared at us whenever we asked him anything. The pit stop was the perfect opportunity for him to polish the Dirty Harry shades he had put on. Although the sun was behind us, I think it kept getting in his eyes when he fixed his hair in the mirror.
All of a sudden one of the Golden Girls screamed out in excitement. She pointed to a gargantuan three headed elephant on a pedestal, off the highway. It is a sacred beast to the Thais. Eddie Murphy pulled to the shoulder of the six lane highway, and told us to get out for a peeture.
Eight of us jockeyed for position on the narrow shoulder, as not to get run over by the huge trucks that zoomed by. I continued to fight with my seat, and get laughed at by the other passengers.
The next stop was at a wood carving tourist attraction. There were several artisans working on beautiful carvings of all shapes and sizes. I saw life-size elephants. At that point our group separated. Most went on to an elephant sanctuary, and rafting trip.
In considering the hot and humid conditions, I couldn’t imagine myself on a big smelly elephant in the jungle. Instead, I chose the tiger temple. It’s an animal sanctuary run by Buddhist Monks. They’ve taken in sick, injured, or orphaned jungle animals.
No one had bothered to tell me when I booked the trip, that you shouldn’t wear bright colors around the tigers—they might mistake you for a piece of meat. I was wearing a bright red Tiger Beer tee shirt that I thought was appropriate for the tour.
There were all sorts of wild animals roaming the grounds of the sanctuary, but many were like me, seeking shade from the hot sun. The tiger den was worth the trip. There were a dozen Siberian tigers spread out, inside an old rock quarry. They were on heavy chains, with a trainer personally attending to each one.
We were told they were docile at the time, because they had just finished lunch. It was their nap time. We lined up, and were escorted by a trainer, to individual tigers for photographs. Another trainer followed us with our cameras, snapping pictures.
We were allowed to pet them, but only on the head. I was tempted to rub one guy’s belly when he rolled over and stretched out, but the trainer said it wasn’t wise.
It was a two day tour, and Eddie Murphy gave us a choice of hotels. The very rustic, floating bamboo hotel on the smelly river, or the new hotel, with air conditioning, a hot shower, and TV. It was a no-brainer for me.
The next morning we went into the national park where there are a series of natural waterfalls. A six kilometer trail leads up to and along the seven different levels of rivers, and falls. It was a vigorous trek, Golden Girls were a little hesitant. One of them had a heart condition.
It was s tough climb up some of the rocky trails, but each level of waterfalls was unique and picturesque. The pools were crystal clear, and you were allowed to swim in any of them. Some people did so, but there kissing fish in them. It sounded harmless enough, until I saw the fish chasing people and nibbling on them.
I made it all the way to the top level, where a jungle river spills into the first pool. The water was aqua blue in color, because of the white mineral deposits covering the rocky bottom. Shady trees and shrubs hung over the pool making it look like paradise.
We got back on the road and drove across salt flats where large bags of sea salt were on display, and for sale along the road.
Our next stop was in Damnoen, where the Shang floating market is. The area is a crossroads of canals where we were ferried in a dug out canoe that had a powerful motor and propeller sticking out the back.
We zoomed along the canals, to a floating market, where everything is sold from boats. Fruits and vegetables, fish, stir fries cooked right on the boats, and cold beer on ice.
There were twice as many boats as there was room for, all jockeying for position to sell their wares. It was a virtual log jamb, but kaleidoscope of colored boats. The women wore different hats that looked like big lamp shades.
I bought a huge bag of saffron for two bucks, a cold beer from another boat, and some fried banana from yet another. All the while we were moving, and being bumped into. We passed goods and money from boat to boat, like hot dogs at the ball park. It’s impossible to justly describe the place, it’s one that you have to experience yourself to believe.
The next stop was at the Bridge on the River Kwai. The movie of the same name was about allied POW’s building a bridge that was also destroyed. It has been rebuilt and become a major tourist attraction. There is only the part of a foundation on one side of the river, that’s part of the original bridge.
People can walk or take the tourist train across the bridge. The train goes to the mountain pass where there’s a trussed bridge. It was used in the movie, The Casualties of War. It was the Viet Nam war, but that’s Hollywood!
We made one final stop before we headed back home, the war cemetery where the allied soldiers were buried. The white headstones set in neat rows, with neatly trimmed grass in between was a somber sight.
The cemetery was the transfer site for our ride home, where the big bus was supposed to pick us up. Nope, just another passenger van and a four hour ride back.