Despite an early-morning pickup, everyone seemed bright-eyed and awake, filled with anticipation about the day of history and adventure ahead. The pickup van took us to another meeting place to board a coach, which would take us straight to Kanchanaburi, Thailand's third largest province, and famed for its World War II historical sites and breathtaking scenery.
The River Kwai tour is ideal for those interested in a combination of history and adventure. The itinerary is well thought-out with an easy start at the War Cemetery and War Museum, followed by an exhilarating boat ride on the historic rivers - ideal for those who love an adrenalin rush! - before concluding the tour with a sedate train ride through the lush jungle. Remember to wear light clothing and trainers. A hat or a head scarf also comes in handy when it gets too hot. This tour is not recommended for smaller children as the heat can be discomforting.
A moment of peace: The War Cemetery
Once the itineraries, candies, and tour stickers had been distributed, our bubbly English-speaking guide gave us a brief, yet informative lecture on our destination with quirky humour thrown in for good measure. We arrived at our first attraction, Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, the final resting place for nearly 7,000 prisoners of war during their captivity in the camps of the Japanese Army.
Following their invasion of Thailand during the second World War, the Japanese brought British, Dutch, Australian and American prisoners to Thailand to help them build a railway line running 415 kilometres from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbuyuzayat in Burma.
Inside the cemetery, a sense of solemnity shrouded the burial ground area, and everyone seemed to be in a contemplative mood. My contemplation, however, was broken when the guide approached me. He pointed to the building on the west side of the cemetery, and told me that it was a 'knowledge time'. The building turned out to be Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, an interactive museum, information and research facility dedicated to presenting the history of the Thailand-Burma Railway.
From planning and construction to the living conditions of the POWs, every aspect of the railway construction is meticulously displayed with lucid explanations. The museum is fully air-conditioned, complete with an in-house caf- and a souvenir shop.
Rapid rides on three rivers, and a famous bridge
After about 15 minutes on the coach, we pulled off at a riverside temple, where we were to embark on our rapid rides. The boat started off slowly, before zooming swiftly across three majestic rivers: Maeklong, Kwai Noi, and Kwai Yai. The banks along the rivers revealed many colourful floating houses and scenic views of unspoiled nature. The highlight was when the boat closed in on the famous bridge over the River Kwai - truly a spectacular sight to behold.
We were allowed some time to walk on the bridge, take pictures, and grab some fresh coconut juice before lunch is spent at Pakseng Pier near the Burmese border. A short bus ride got us to the restaurant just before noon. Bowls of chicken soup were promptly served, followed by stir-fried vegetables, Thai-style omelet, chicken curry, sweet and sour pork, and, finally, a plate of pineapple, which was a refreshing end to a perfect meal.
Please mind the gap between train and jungle
Re-energised, we happily hopped onto the bus that took us to 'Nam Tok' (waterfall) train station (so named due to the many waterfalls in the area). The train came laden with school kids who couldn't wait to make a splash. We got on the train and, taking our guide's advice, sat on the right side because that was where the best views could be seen. The train travelled at a steady pace, passing many streets and houses before entering the leafy forest and the world-renowned 'Death Railway'.
The train slowed down and suddenly everyone's heads were poking out of the windows to admire the grandeur of the river and the historic railway that claimed lives of thousands of people. Gleefully waving at us from down below was a group of people bobbing in the river from one float to another. By the time the train reached the final station, everyone was worn out and weary, and ready to go home.
Back on the bus...
Our guide made an announcement that, on the way back to Bangkok, we were to stop for a 15-minute ice cream break. As tempting as that might sound, it was clear that everyone - myself included! - was more interested in taking a nap. But when the bus stopped at a souvenir shop, almost all of us returned with a popsicle.
As we were approaching Bangkok, a spontaneous round of applause signaled our appreciation for the great adventure we had, blessed by the presence of a very knowledgeable guide, and of course sheer happiness to be back home.