Damnoen Saduak Floating Market & River Kwai
Bangkok Floating Markets
As our minivan sped through Samut Sakhon province we admired a flat semi-wilderness shaped by coconut palms, fruit orchards and salt fields. Neil, our fact-filled guide for the day, wasted no time in bestowing on us the benefits of this private Floating Market and River Kwai tour. "Here in Mae Khlong the market takes place on the railway tracks" he announced. "When trains come people move everything, only to set up shop again as soon as it's gone". Our driver slowed down, so we could admire this wacky slice of life on the tracks. It was a classic 'Only in Thailand' sight that a tour bus would never dream of slowing down for, and we savoured its authenticity.
At a crafts centre we learnt what happens to the offspring of Samut Songkhram's ubiquitous coconut trees. Neil demonstrated the backbreaking way coconut milk was once made, and how palm sugar is extracted from the sap of coconut flowers. Huge woks bubbled over a blazing furnace, and the result was crumbly and coarse with a distinct caramel flavour.
The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
Over 30 years ago, the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market featured in a classic James Bond chase scene was already a tourist attraction. Thankfully, we outclassed it beforehand with a twisty long-tail ride though nearby canals and past temples, stilt houses and waving children. It was an unsullied glimpse into a charismatic way of life.
Once we arrived we got stuck in, enjoyed it for what it is: an aquatic cultural show festooned with abundant colour and souvenirs. The variety of goods - everything from rattan balls, traditional puppets and fresh fruits to embroidered handbags, noodle soup and wide brimmed bamboo hats - was impressive, and, much of what we saw, undeniably photogenic. The sight of old ladies nimbly paddling sampans packed with tourists twice their size - and probably less than half their age - was a joy.
Lunch on the River Kwai
Made famous by the 1957 Oscar-winning film, The Bridge on the River Kwai remains a poignant place. Here POWs and Asian labourers were forced to build a railroad bridge to connect the Japanese supply route from Thailand to Burma, and so extend the Rising Sun's thrust into Asia. The cruelty of their captors meant 100,000 people died in the process - if not from exhaustion, then hunger, brutality or disease.
After lunch overlooking its iron girders and scorched white pillars, we crossed. Tourist trains rumble back and forth, but we opted to walk. Pacing over a bridge I'd only seen on TV cast it in a new, morbid light. How much pain went into sealing every rivet? How many lives were spent laying each yard of track? The sun lashed down with all the mercy of a Japanese soldier's bamboo stick; it's no wonder, I thought, few survived both.
Death Railway Museum and Research Centre
Here we gained an interactive and air-conditioned insight into every aspect of the bridge and its construction. The museum refused to trivialize the tragic, and we learnt much: the motivations for building the bridge and the problems encountered.
Most poignant of all were the belongings left languishing in the dust. The mess tins with crude drawings and messages scratched into them - silent screams to the outside world - were haunting. Afterwards, we strolled the adjacent Kanchanaburi cemetery, where a further 7,000 Australian, British and Dutch troops are buried. It was a fitting end to a sombre, enlightening journey.
After an hour's drive towards Bangkok, our minivan approached the vast chedi (or stupa) that dominates the centre of the ancient city of Nakhom Pathom - it was time for a dose of the sacred. Standing 120 metres tall and built by King Rama IV, it's the biggest in the world. Learning that this low slung city was the first to espouse Buddhism only heightened its stature. We crept up steep steps and into the elevated temple complex. The large Buddha statue in the stop-fighting posture - one-hand raised in a pacifying plea - was gorgeous and serene.
Meanwhile, a queue of the faithful were writing their names, and those of loved ones, on a huge saffron sash. We wasted no time in joining them. Called a 'paa hom', it would be wrapped around the base of the stupa from where it would bestow us good luck. Beyond, encircling the stupa, was a wide courtyard with alcoves containing many Buddha images. Herein lied a mystery that, as the sounds of monks chanting permeated the air, made me want to linger - as if the statues were about to reveal some strange, exotic secret. It was just one of many we encountered on our journey.