Short back and sides on platform 6, bug heaven in the train carriage, and finding ourselves in a bit of a hot pot spot.

Day 44: Ayutthaya & Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand. We were up and about early to pack for the next stage of our trip. Today we left Ayutthaya (just as we were getting better at pronouncing it correctly) and headed down the south coast, to Prachuap Khiri Khan.

We slung our backpacks on and walked out to the main road to hail a tuk tuk. It was Saturday morning and things were a little more relaxed than usual – usually tuk tuks are everywhere and hassling for business. We found one outside a cafe, with its driver scoffing breakfast inside – as soon as he saw us he asked the standard question “Where you go?” We agreed a price to the station, and off we went at speed through the back streets of the town.

Tuk tuks in Ayutthaya are very different to any we’ve seen elsewhere – they bring to mind those little 3 wheel German Messerschmitt cars. The passenger area at the back is small – Jim had to duck the whole way to the railway station as there wasn’t enough room for him to sit upright.

We caught the train to Bangkok, an easy 90 minute journey. Hua Lamphong (Bangkok) station was crazy busy. As we shuffled impatiently along the platform behind the slow moving crowds, we spotted some open air hairdressing happening on the platform opposite. We were the only ones pointing and photographing, so guess it’s a normal thing and a useful way of spending the time while waiting for trains, which often run late here.

Early next year Bangkok station is moving about 9km outside the city which will be a lot better. The current location is congested and noisy and lots of travellers have to sit on the ground while waiting for trains, as seating is very limited.

The queue for tickets was long and it took ages to reach the window. We asked for two second class tickets to Prachuap Khiri Khan, but were told they were all sold, so we ended up with third class seats. The train journey was also long – it was scheduled to take 5 and a half hours, but crawled along in parts, stopped in others, and the total journey ended up being over 7 hours.

As the evening grew dark, the carriage turned into bug heaven as hundreds of insects, attracted to the lights, flew in through the open windows. Lil applied a thick layer of DEET insect repellent and slapped herself continuously, much to the amusement of other passengers who didn’t seem at all affected. Insect repellent seems to deal with lots of bugs, but not all. In future we’ll try and avoid travelling at night time – at least in third class open-window carriages.

We arrived in Prachuap Khiri Khan at 8pm, and caught a tuk tuk outside the station – this one appeared to be a wooden platform with seats, attached to a motor bike. It wobbled alarmingly as we clambered on with our backpacks. We arrived safely at our guesthouse, a few kilometres outside the town, dumped our bags and headed out for dinner. The guesthouse has a golf pitching range in the back garden, which is a little bizarre.

It was getting quite late and most local restaurants had closed, but we found a Mu kratha (Thai Hot Pot) restaurant a couple of blocks away which was still open, with dozens of tables set out in a massive warehouse-style building. For 199 Baht (less than 10 Australian dollars) they offer a massive meat and seafood buffet that you cook yourself on a hot pot, with heaps of vegetables and salads. They don’t sell beer, but one of the guys at the restaurant will happily take your beer order and cash, and run down the street to the local shop.

Mu kratha means ‘pan pork’ in Thai – it uses charcoal and resembles a combination of Korean barbecue and Chinese hot pot. Sliced meat is grilled on a dome in the centre of the hot pot, while vegetables and dumplings cook in stock around the base. It comes with a range of chilli and soy sauces to add to meat before or after cooking. It’s fabulous when you know what you’re doing – except neither of us has had Thai hot pot before – so there was a lot of watching other people to see how it’s done, trial and error, scraping bits of burnt meat off the frying dome, rescuing bits of meat that slid into the bubbling stock – we caused a fair bit of amusement. Jim was in seafood heaven trying anything and everything, including razor clams.

The buffet included a big dessert table – chunks of watermelon; crystallised fruits and shredded wheat soaked in syrup, which were all sickly sweet; triangles of chocolate cake that perhaps wasn’t chocolate cake after all (it certainly didn’t taste like it); and ice cream that you self-serve from a huge freezer.

Lil grabbed a wafer cone and scooped out some vanilla ice cream, which turned out not be vanilla – it was very strong tasting durian. Despite being the ‘king of fruits’, durian is an acquired taste that neither of us have quite acquired yet. She put the durian ice cream aside, went to have another look in the freezer, and this time returned with what she called ‘safe mint ice cream’. Except it wasn’t mint. Neither of us could guess what it was, but it tasted decidedly odd. So that went on the ice cream scrap heap too.

With tummies full, we walked back to the guesthouse through dark streets, very ready for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we’ll explore Prachuap Khiri Khan town and the beach, and maybe try a little golf.

More then.

Feeling a little templed out, Lil gets trapped between a cranky dog and a venemous snake, and time to pack for the coast.

Day 43: Ayutthaya, Thailand. We had a chilled out day today – our last day in Ayutthaya. We were feeling a little ‘templed out’ so decided to go and take a look at the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, to get some more historical context.

The museum is a sprawling exhibition of artifacts discovered during excavation works and restorations of the ancient temples around Ayutthaya. The pieces on display were fascinating, however the layout and supporting information was a little disappointing – perhaps our expectations were just a bit too high after the great museums in Kanchanaburi. It was still a worthwhile visit and we learnt lots, though taking our shoes off and putting them on again repeatedly as we walked from one building to another got a little tiresome after a bit.

Afterwards as we were walking back in the direction of our guesthouse, Lil spotted the tourist office and we popped in to have a look around. There were signs pointing to a history exhibition upstairs, so we headed up to the next level, and the display there was excellent. We haven’t seen the exhibition advertised anywhere, and we were the only two people walking around. It’s a huge shame as there was lots of great historical details on Ayutthaya and more contemporary information on places to visit, markets and local food, and it was all really well put together.

By now, Jim’s feet were killing him after walking around museums in bare feet all afternoon, so we decided to keep our shoes on and go for another caffeine hit. Last night when we visited the tiny bar with live music, the daughter of the musician invited us to visit her coffee shop, so we set off to try and find it. Lil had taken a photograph of the map the girl was showing us, which is just as well as the coffee shop was tucked away down a very small back alley. The girl from the restaurant was thrilled when she saw us and whipped up two great cappuccinos. By then it was late afternoon, and time to head home to change before wandering out for dinner.

As we walked into the town again, we saw a restaurant sign pointing down a small lane. We wandered down, and at the end of the lane there was an old rickety wooden bridge across the river. Lil decided to go and take some pics of boats on the water from the bridge. She was almost half way across when she saw an unfriendly looking dog just ahead, which stopped her in her tracks. At exactly the same time, Jim yelled “Lil – snake, don’t walk back!”. Which left her in a bit of a dilemma – as she was now trapped between a cranky dog, and a venomous snake. She decided the best option was to run crazy fast past the snake, which had already started to move.

We recognised the snake straight away from our visit to the snake farm in Bangkok. It’s a green tree pit viper (the pits are on its nose and are heat sensitive), and even the handlers at the farm gave it a lot of respect, saying they’d be in hospital for three days with blood poisoning if they got bitten. These snakes usually live in trees and when they bite they don’t let go for fear of losing their prey. Gnarly! The lady from the restaurant was standing at her gate and still hoping we might eat at her place. She said “oh yes, we get lots of snakes here”. We decided to move right along.

We had beers at an open air bar in the old town. While Lil de-stressed after the snake drama, we watched a couple of guys beating each other up at the Muai Thai Academy right next door. Never a dull moment.

We went back to Earls tonight for dinner – the eclectic restaurant resembling Aladdin’s Cave – which was fab. Then home for an early night. Tomorrow we pack up again, and head down south to the coast.

More tomorrow.

Monkey mania in the old town, stepping over a sunbeam snake, and a tiny local music gig.

Day 42: Ayutthaya, Thailand. We started the day with a much needed morning of admin – catching up on messages, checking our online post re-direction service, sorting out finances. Lil prefers to write one long list and blast through a heap of stuff in one go, rather than doing bits and pieces every day.

We were thinking of going to Chao Sam Phraya museum or to the Summer Palace this afternoon, but ended up doing something entirely different.

Lil had read about Lopburi, another historical city and one of the oldest in the country. But while the old buildings and history are a draw, what really caught our attention was the thousands of monkeys that roam the old town in Lopburi. Any opportunity to get close to wildlife, and we’re there.

We headed out of the guesthouse, and just around the corner Lil yelped as she almost stood on the tail of a snake, over a metre long. Turns out it was dead though it looked like it had only recently been killed – probably hit by a car or a motorbike and managed to slither as far as the hedgerow before dying. A beautiful snake (we think it’s probably a sunbeam snake), but again we were happy not to encounter the live version that closely. A layer of bright red insects had already started to crawl over it to nibble at his flesh, urgh.

We walked to Ayutthaya train station, southeast of where we’re staying. It’s a 5km walk along busy streets, up a rickety set of concrete steps underneath a motorway, then along the side of the motorway itself, while traffic screams past. There was a painted sign on the ground indicating it’s a good idea to hang onto your kids (or is that a rabbit?)

We’ve noticed that hardly anyone walks anywhere here – transport is either motorbikes, cars or occasionally bicycles. The town doesn’t cater well for pedestrians, and pavements are either in a state of ruin, or impassable due to street stalls, parked cars or bikes, or construction.

We made it safely to Ayutthaya train station. The station was built in 1921 and the original structure is still in use, making it one of Thailand’s oldest railway stations. The main building and ticket hall have been superbly preserved – lots of exposed wood, old train time signs and notice boards, and fabulous curved teak seats on the station platform.

The train arrived on time and we headed towards Lopburi, happy with our 3rd class seats and open windows.

Lopburi is a pretty relaxed small town split into two parts, the old town and the new town. The majority of sights are found in the older, historic area and it’s easy to walk from place to place.

We headed straight to Phra Prang Sam Yod, an ancient Khmer temple from the 13th century, and otherwise known as ‘Monkey Temple’. This is where most of the town’s Long Tailed Macaque population hang out. And holy crap, there are thousands of them – roaming around the temple grounds and streets, draped over railings, hanging off balconies and power lines, sitting on top of cars, running across busy streets and generally causing mayhem. We’d been warned to put hats, sunglasses, jewellery, drink bottles and phones in our bags, as they’ll quickly snatch anything in sight.

Lil wasn’t keen on entering the temple grounds, where there were hundreds of them running around the grounds and climbing on and over people – one guy had three on his shoulders and one sitting on his head. We both love wildlife, but we’re still very wary of getting bitten or scratched by animals. Some people also buy food to hand feed the monkeys, but there’s no way in heck we were going to do that either.

Every afternoon a couple of volunteers stand at a small concrete area across from the temple, and feed the monkeys. They call out to them and they come scampering from the temple and across the busy street in front of cars. Traffic tends to give way to the monkeys, though we could tell a lot of drivers were frustrated with them getting in the way and climbing on their cars and into the backs of their utes. We saw one monkey catching a ride by climbing inside a tuk tuk where some terrified tourists tried to remove it by swiping a bag at it.

When we’d had our fill of watching monkeys (with Lil shrieking occasionally when they got too close or we had to walk past a bunch of them on the footpath), we decided to check out the rest of the town, then had a late lunch and headed back to the station for the return trip home.

Lopburi station is another fabulous railway station, with a great old fashioned ticket room, robust teak seats and a large slightly goofy looking gold monkey statue at the end of the platform. A cleaner had rested their mop against the monkey, making it look even more comical.

The train journey back to Ayutthaya was spectacular, as we watched the sun setting across banana plantations and rice paddies.

We got back to Ayutthaya, made our way back through the town, and decided to pop into a tiny restaurant and bar close to our guesthouse that we’d spotted the previous evening. It’s only the size of a small living room, with a few small tables covered with printed plastic tablecloths with flowers and cats. It can seat around 15 though this evening there was only the owner, his family, us and three other locals. The owner is a musician who sings and plays guitar and harmonica, he was awesome. He played a selection of English songs from Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton and Neil Young and then got his younger brother to sing a number of Thai ballads – his voice was just incredible. We had no idea what the lyrics were, but were totally engrossed. It was just the best evening and we were made to feel so welcome – the guys next to us kept clinking our glasses and shouting “family!”

Then home to the guesthouse, for a bit more travel planning and a good night’s sleep. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

More then.

A special saddle for Jim, traipsing around temples, and a close call with a giant water monitor.

Day 41: Ayutthaya, Thailand. After a quick breakfast this morning, it was time to slap on sunscreen and head out and explore the temples of Ayutthaya.

We decided renting bicycles was the way to go – the tourist map makes the central area of Ayutthaya look pretty small, but in reality the distances are a little too big for walking around in a day.

The guesthouse rents out bicycles so we asked for two; the young guy in charge of the bikes took one look at Jim and selected a nice black number for him. With the biggest padded saddle you’ve ever seen. Perhaps he’s read our earlier blog posts about bike riding, and knows all about Jim’s delicate bum.

Even better, the word ‘Special’ was written across the back of the big padded saddle. Lil spent a couple of minutes falling about laughing before she could get on her own bike and head off. The guy at the guesthouse had no idea what was so funny, which is probably a good thing.

The bikes were supposedly equipped with a few gears each, but as always with rented bikes, they didn’t work. So we had only one gear to work with all day. Unfortunately for both of us it was the lowest gear possible, so we set off down the street with legs spinning furiously like cartoon characters.

Ayutthaya is a fascinating place, soaked in history and packed with the remains of temples, palaces and city walls. The old city is located on an island surrounded by canals and bridges and lots of green spaces. Founded around 1350, it became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai in the north, and one of the biggest cities in southeast Asia, with three palaces and over 400 temples.

It was attacked by the Burmese army in 1767, who burnt the city to the ground and forced inhabitants to flee. The city was never rebuilt was is now an extensive archaeological site. It was granted UNESCO status in 1991 and is a very popular tourist attraction – thankfully we’re here during low season when visitor numbers are a lot lower.

We reached the first temple, Phra Nam, and chained our bikes to a railing (not that we thought the chances of anyone stealing them were particularly high). We wandered through a market next to the temple, where stalls were selling all sorts of interesting foods, including Roti Sai Mai, a traditional Ayutthaya sweet which is Persian fairy floss wrapped in a pancake coloured with pandan leaf.

For a couple of dollars, you get a big bag of pancakes and another big bag of multi-coloured fairy floss, and you ‘roll your own’. They were nice, but sickly sweet – way too sweet for Lil who had one bite and decided enough was enough. Jim managed to make (and scoff) a few rolls, then devoured all the pancakes and threw away the rest of the fairy floss. That was definitely a one hit wonder, but good to try.

Lil spotted a donation box for ‘Food and medicine for dog’, and put some money in. There was no indication of what charity was collecting the money, but given the donation box was right outside the office of the Tourist Police, we assumed it must be legit. There are lots of stray dogs in this town, though so far we haven’t been intimidated by any of them. We regularly see rice left on the ground for them – either that’s the charity doing its good work, or some kind locals. Either way, it makes us happy.

We spent a while exploring what’s left of Wat Phra Nam. There’s an impressive prang (a corn-cob shaped tower) in the centre, surrounded by remains of chapels and accommodation blocks. There are many stupas (spired towers), and Buddha statues are on every surface. Interestingly the Buddhas are nearly all missing their heads – perhaps that was part of the ransacking process.

Next we headed to Mahathat Temple, one of the oldest and most significant temples in Thailand. The prang in this temple fell over about a century ago, having stood for over 500 years, but there are many beautiful stupas still standing. There is the head of a Buddha statue trapped in some tree roots which is considered very holy and a big tourist attraction.

Then it was back on our bikes and off to the next temple, about 5km southwest of the town centre, outside the city walls. Wat Chai Watthanaram is a Khmer style Royal temple that was used by the King and other members of the Royal family. Built in 1630 by the King as a means to gain Buddhist merit and also as a memorial to his mother, it was one of the finest monuments of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. This was Jim’s favourite because there are stupas that have open areas underneath which were once highly decorated with paints, gold leaf and stucco, some of which remains. Sadly some of the palace is still under renovation having been damaged by the floods of 2011.

By then, it was late afternoon and time to head home. We chose a smaller side road for the return journey to get away from the loud traffic. On one quiet tree-lined stretch, Lil almost wobbled off her bike as she nearly rode over the tail of a giant water monitor by the side of the road – so big that Lil was convinced it was a crocodile. It took off, crashing through the bushes and we heard it making a very loud splash as it jumped into the river below.

We had a look online later to see if there are any crocs in Ayutthaya. The last time they roamed the area was when over 100 of them escaped from a crocodile farm in 2011. At the time the Public Health Minister announced a 1,000 Baht bounty for each crocodile caught alive – less than $50 – which doesn’t sound like a large reward for pinning down a crocodile and tying it up for return to the croc farm. At the time though, it was worth more than 3 days’ salary, and with the devastation caused by the 2011 floods, they were going to need the money for repairs.

Looking through some more pics online, Lil decided the stripey monster she’d nearly ridden over was definitely a giant water monitor. There have been reports of some huge ones found in the area, weighing over 100kg – yikes.

We got home, showered and changed and headed out for dinner. We stopped at a small bar and restaurant close to home for a quick pre-dinner beer and chose seats in the outside area. As we drank our beer and chatted, there were very dark clouds gathering above our heads. One of the waitresses came out and showed us her phone screen which displayed the (presumably Google translated) words “The rain is about to fall”. And indeed it did – it came crashing down. We moved inside, waited until it stopped and then headed into the town for dinner.

We ate this evening at a restaurant called Burinda – the food was outstanding. Spiced fried pork with ginger, chilli and egg; chicken with morning glory and mushrooms in a savoury sauce; vermicelli noodles and rice. And tonight’s Chang beer was elegantly served in an ice bucket.

Then it was time to head home, do some more travel planning and catch up with emails. Tomorrow, depending on the weather, we may spend some time at the Chao Sam Praya Museum, or head 20km south to visit the Summer Palace, or do something else entirely.

More then.

Acrobatics in the bathroom, elephants have right of way, and dinner in Aladdin’s cave.

Day 40: Kanchanaburi & Ayutthaya, Thailand. This morning we packed up again, and walked to the Kanchanaburi bus station a couple of kilometres away to catch the bus to Suphanburi, then on to Ayutthaya.

The bus station was chaotic, with countless guys jumping in front of us, demanding to know “Where you go? Where you go?” – all trying to sell us trips by taxi or mini van. However, we really just wanted the public bus.

We eventually worked out the Suphanburi bus leaves from Bay 5. We bought two tickets, and were told to get on board straight away, as the bus was leaving in 10 minutes.

Lil jumped on with her backpack, then did a quick sprint to the station bathroom. As usual there were no western toilets (they’re rare in stations). These ones however were the ones she dreads the most – squat toilets raised about 8 inches off the ground. She reckons you need to be a well balanced acrobat to feel comfortable using them.

The bus left on time – again no air conditioning, just doors and windows left wide open, and a bunch of fans on the ceiling to stir the air around. At one point the wide comfy seat at the back of the bus came available, so we moved back there. The only downside was the open back door which meant hanging onto your belongings tightly – anything dropped on the floor quickly bounced out the back door never to be seen again (we watched an empty water bottle drop to its death).

A guy got on about an hour from Suphanburi, sat next to us on the back seat and pulled on his beanie – guess the warm wind whistling through the bus windows and doors was too much for him. He insisted on prodding Jim on the arm every time we passed a temple, to which he was offering prayers, providing some narrative in Thai (we couldn’t understand a word of it, so we just smiled).

We arrived in Suphanburi, and hopped off the bus to find a minivan to take us to Ayutthaya, as public buses no longer service the route. A minivan driver approached us, said we needed buy to tickets in the station, and to “be very quick, I go in 4 minutes”. We ran inside, got tickets and barely made it back and into the minivan before he hit the gas, and we rocketed out of the car park and onto the highway.

The trip went by quickly, largely thanks to the driver’s Michael Schumacher antics. Some great scenery whizzed past, a little too fast to take it all in. A German couple took the opportunity to review their 100 page travel itinerary, and read out many pages of it to each other. Then we unexpectedly stopped for a 5 minute break just 25km from Ayutthaya – largely because the driver fancied an ice cream. We sat in the minivan while we waited for him to finish his choc-ice, lick the wooden stick 50 or so times, and then get back into the driver’s seat to finish the journey.

We arrived in Ayutthaya around 3.30pm to a scorching hot afternoon. Thankfully we were able to get the minivan guy to drop us a kilometre or so from our guesthouse, so we didn’t have to haggle with tuk tuk drivers at the out-of-town bus station.

We were walking through town along a gravel path by one of the many ancient temples, when we realised that we needed to get out of the way, and quickly. Coming towards us was a huge magnificent elephant, with a lady and her son on its back, being ridden around the temples. Apparently we had been walking on the elephant walkway (we hadn’t spotted the signs). While neither of us are fans of elephant riding, it was definitely an unexpected and spectacular sight.

We arrived at our guesthouse and got settled in our room. Then Lil spotted the door was wonky and there was a big gap where insects could and definitely would crawl or fly through. Lil went and got the guesthouse owner, who speaks hardly any English, and through a combination of repeatedly pointing at the hole and flapping her arms like a madwoman to mimic insects coming to bite her, she convinced the lady to let us change rooms.

Once we’d settled in room number two, we headed out to explore a chunk of the town. After a few kilometres, huge dark clouds appeared overhead, so we scurried into a great little bar and waited there for the storm to pass over.

An English couple and their two kids, aged about 6 and 8, came in to the bar while we were there and we got chatting. Interesting story – they sold their house and all their possessions in the UK, and have been travelling with their two kids since January. So far they’ve been to the US, New Zealand, Fiji and Thailand and in a couple of months they’re heading to Spain, to look at potentially settling there. It’s always fascinating to hear other travellers’ tales, and what inspired them to throw in their lives back home.

The rain stopped and we wandered off around the local streets in search of dinner. We passed a quirky looking restaurant called Earl’s which Jim liked the look of, so we plonked ourselves on one of the huge old wooden benches. The restaurant feels like an Aladdin’s Cave full of old memorabilia including vintage Cola-Cola and Pepsi signs, old lemonade bottles, a collection of toy cars, a petrol pump, and Star Wars figures.

The food was good too – straight forward Thai dishes, but cooked well – red curry, minced pork salad, pad thai and rice. We declined the offer of straws for our beers.

Then we headed home through the dark but still lively streets. Along the way we passed a locally designed ‘petrol station’ – a row of different coloured fuels in bottles with hosepipes, and hand written signs and prices. Glad we’re not driving.

Tomorrow we’re planning to cycle around some of the dozens of temple remains around Ayutthaya (or Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, to give it its full name).

More then.

Wandering the streets at 5.30am, meeting Dougal the hairy caterpillar, and Jim’s birthday flying car.

Day 39: We were up crazy early today at 4.45am, to catch a 6am train to Nam Tok, then a bus to Hellfire Pass, a memorial centre to commemorate the prisoners of war and Asian labourers who worked on the Thai-Burma railway.

We left to walk to the station at 5.30am in early morning darkness. Despite it being silly o’clock, the town was already kicking into action with cars and motorbikes on the streets and people setting out fresh meat and other goods on roadside stalls.

We bought our tickets and boarded the train to Nam Tok. The first carriage we wandered into had fabulous old style hard wooden benches. In the interests of comfort, we changed carriages to one with padded seats.

The train trip took about an hour and a half – it’s billed as being one of the scenic in Thailand, and it was spectacular. With all the windows wide open (no air conditioning on this one either), we clickety-clacked across the River Kwai bridge, past green fields and small villages, and passing at slow speed over the very impressive wooden Wampo Viaduct which hugs the cliff face.

We arrived in Nam Tok and set off in search of the public bus to Hellfire Pass. We walked less than a kilometre to the main road, and sat waiting at a wooden bus seat with a couple of locals. The buses seldom run to schedule (if indeed a schedule even exists) so the advice is to just turn up and wait. Which we did.

After a while the public bus came into view – and in some bizarre turn of fate, we found ourselves climbing onto a swish VIP bus! The bus company mixes and matches buses depending on what’s available – we struck lucky this time. We walked up the bus steps to the air conditioned upper deck, and plonked ourselves in luxury padded reclining chairs. This was exactly what we expected when we booked a series of VIP bus trips in Laos, but continually found ourselves squashed into rickety old mini vans and sleeper buses.

The bus dropped us right outside the Hellfire Pass memorial centre, and we walked down the driveway to the centre entrance. The memorial centre is managed by the Office of Australian War Graves, and is clearly very well funded. A sparkling clean and modern building, with excellent exhibits on the story of the Thai-Burma railway and the lives and suffering of the prisoners of war. The centre also offers free audio tour guides that are very well constructed, with lots of commentary and quotes from surviving prisoners of war.

After we’d toured the exhibits, we headed outside to the lookout and walkway. The Australian Government has cleared around 7km of the old railway track-bed as part of the memorial. The shorter walk goes to the Memorial Obelisk through Hellfire Pass. The longer one (around 4km each way) goes to Hintok Road, the original site of one of the POW river camps. Sadly due to a landslide last month, only a small section of the longer walk is currently accessible, which was disappointing. It was still a beautiful walk, and very very peaceful.

Hellfire Pass (also known as Konyu Cutting) was the largest cutting along the length of the railway, and the most deadly for the people forced to construct it. It was completed using only hand tools over a 12 week period – mind blowing.

The name comes from the appalling work conditions imposed on POWs and Asian labourers. In 1943, when the Japanese introduced the ‘speedo’ period to meet accelerated deadlines for completing the railway, prisoners were forced to work through the night. The flickering lights of oil lamps and bamboo fires, along with the noise of rock being drilled, and the shuffling of hundreds of weak prisoners, conveyed an image of hell.

We started the walk back to the centre, and suddenly Jim yelled ‘snake!’ And there on the steps that Lil had just walked up, was a stripey snake that we later identified as a Banded Kukri snake. It seems that snakes are everywhere here…

We also saw a mad looking big white hairy caterpillar, which was crawling along on a rock next to the path. It reminded us of Dougal in the Magic Roundabout (for anyone who remembers the TV series). A quick look online confirmed it’s a Thai Silk Moth caterpillar, and thankfully not dangerous.

With enough history and wildlife for one day, we had a quick coffee at the centre cafe, then walked out to the main road to wait for the bus back to Kanchanaburi.

We waited about 25 minutes and then the bus came into sight. No VIP bus this time – it was a good old local bus, with open doors and windows, harder seats and no air conditioning. It was still comfortable though, and very cheap – the 2 hour journey cost us the equivalent of $2.50 each.

The driver’s rear view mirror was a carved wooden affair, like something straight from grandma’s house. And there was a cute metal pig clock hanging above him too, though it was broken so not very useful for telling the time. From time to time the driver flicked switches on a panel above his head to operate tiny ceiling fans – there was also a spare one at Lil’s feet, though quite where that would plug in if needed, we have no idea.

We got back to Kanchanaburi, had another tussle with the guesthouse washing machine, then headed out for drinks and dinner.

It was Jim’s birthday today. Lil was planning to buy him some books, then realised he’d have to drag them around Asia for the next year, so he got some scoffable sweet treats instead. Including a Kinder Egg – because no birthday is ever quite complete without a sickly chocolate egg and plastic flying car.

Jim was hankering for pizza for his birthday dinner, which we haven’t had in over 2 months. We found a restaurant that has a wood fired oven and excellent pizza, washed down with some not-so-excellent red wine.

We also had a couple of beers at one of the local bars, and chatted to some more English, Australian and South African expats about how they ended up living in Kanchanaburi, and what they do every day (drinking beers at the pub seemed to be a common daily theme).

And then home to bed, after another huge day. Tomorrow we pack up again, and head to the ancient Thai capital, Ayutthaya.

More tomorrow.

Pedalling over snakes, a visit to a big tree, and why you should always check your shoes.

Day 38: We were up and about earlyish to rent bikes to pedal to a big tree. It’s not often that we’d consider a 30km round trip on a bike just to see a tree, but that’s exactly what we did today.

We walked to a bike rental shop down the street. All of the bikes lined up on the pavement were fixies with cute little wire baskets – not ideal for what we needed. We were busy googling on our phones to see if there were other bike rental options in town when the owner said “I have gears bikes!” and dragged us inside a dark shed where he proudly waved to his selection of two dusty mountain bikes. One for ‘big man’, one for ‘not big girl’ apparently.

He spent a bit of time removing thick layers of dust from the bikes with an old rag, put air in the tyres, then pumped the brakes to show they were all working (they weren’t). We paid our money, hopped on the bikes and headed off.

The tree we were pedalling to is called the Giant Rain Tree. It’s a massive Monkey Pod Tree, a native of South America, which is believed to be over 100 years old. The trunk measures an impressive 15 metres in perimeter and the tree is 20 metres in height, with the branches spreading out over 25 metres. One article called it ‘one of Kanchanaburi’s latest attractions’, with its popularity growth apparently fuelled by social media.

The tree has been the subject of some recent controversy due to a raised walkway being built around its base. Presumably it was done to protect the tree and stop the soil and roots around it being compacted, however many are now suggesting the walkway is an unnecessary eyesore which destroys the ‘feeling of nature’.

As we arrived on our bikes, there were no ‘feeling of nature’ about at all – we discovered it was a mini-party town, with loud music and crowds of people scoffing food from market stalls and posing for endless pics on the wooden walkway under the tree. We parked our bikes and walked around for a bit. A highlight of the visit (apart from posing from endless pics of course) was a group of young boys who were doing some sort of aerobics class mixed with martial arts. We assumed it was either fitness or dance at first, but then they started wrestling each other to the ground and getting a bit tough – so perhaps there was a bit more to it.

The scenery on the ride to and from the big tree was phenomenal – fields of sugar cane and other crops, vivid green rice paddies, rice laid out drying in the sun, with very few cars and bikes on the smaller roads we were pedalling along.

But while there was less traffic on the roads, there was a heap of dead snakes – we pedalled over dozens of the things along the way. Being at such close proximity, it’s perhaps better they were dead – still seems a shame that so many get killed though.

Jim jumped off his bike at one point to photograph something and he called Lil over to take a look. And there on the side of the road was a large black scorpion (Lil’s biggest nightmare). As oh-so-practical Jim pointed out: “And that’s why you should always check your shoes before putting them on”.

We pedalled back to Kanchanaburi, dropped off the bikes, and then decided it was time to chuck our walking shoes in the guesthouse washing machine. After some tussling with coins and buttons and nothing useful happening, we had to ask for help – the guesthouse manager came around and after a bit of rough poking and prodding got the machine to do its stuff. Then it was time to head out for dinner.

The eating choices in this town are vast – so many fabulous restaurants. If we stayed here for a month we wouldn’t get bored with the food options. Tonight we chose a small Thai restaurant which was spectacular. Northern Thai spicy beef curry, spicy Thai sausage, green chicken curry, Vietnamese sausage and blue sticky rice (the blue colour comes from butterfly pea flower). All washed down with icy cold Chang beer, which we’ve become quite fond of.

Tomorrow is Jim’s birthday – we have a fun day lined up to celebrate, and a hellishly early start.

More then.

A morning at the museum, drinks on special at Hangovers R Us, and eating dinner in the traffic.

Day 37: We woke to an already scorching hot day. By the time we left the guesthouse at 10.30am for a visit to the Thai-Burma Railway Centre, it was pushing 32C and the mercury continued to soar as the day went on.

Walking along the street, we found ourselves jumping into even the tiniest patches of shade whenever we could, the sun was searing. We spotted the cheap drinks bar the English couple invited us to yesterday, somewhat imaginatively called “Get Drunk for 10B” – we’ve renamed it Hangovers R Us. The shots are 10 Baht, around 50c and not surprisingly, use very low quality local spirits. You also have to buy 5 shots at a time – hooly dooly – thank goodness we declined that invite.

We were super happy to get inside the air conditioned Railway museum – we paid our entry fee and then spent over two hours wandering around the exhibits. It was one of the best museums either of us have been to – lots of great content and information, in manageable and easy to read and view exhibits.

The Museum and research centre was established to present the story of the Thai-Burma Railway in a fair and balanced way. It was set up and funded by Rod Beattie, an Australian ex-army and engineer, and now a long time resident of Kanchanaburi. Rod spent over 10 years exploring the entire railway, uncovering the location of abandoned sections and former campsites, and meeting with a large number of former prisoners of war and members of their families. He wanted to build a true and complete picture of the Thai-Burma Railway story, and provide answers to those who lost family members during the railway construction. What he has managed to achieve single-handed is phenomenal.

At the start of the museum is an exhibit showing the Japanese expansion into Asia in WWII. The ambition of Japan in Thailand was to invade India via Burma. The sea route from Bangkok to Rangoon was treacherous due to allied navies so a rail route across land was conceived. The British had surveyed a similar route in the 1890s but had decided the cost both financial and human wasn’t worth the investment, but with the war in Asia in full swing, the route became critical for Japan. The following exhibits then took us through maps of the railway’s route, the camps, the appalling conditions and human misery endured through both rain and drought, and finally to some of the personal effects of the POWs, including personal diaries and artworks scratched on the back of cigarette tins. All incredibly thought provoking and emotional.

The death toll – each railway spike represents 500 deaths – from left to right, British POWs, Javanese, Australian POWs, Dutch POWs

Afterwards we wandered around the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery across the street and next to an older Chinese cemetery. It’s the main POW cemetery in the town and as with the Chungkai War Cemetery we visited yesterday, it’s immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Once again, there were lots of little Australian flags in the Australian section of the cemetery. Scanning the rows and rows of graves, it really brings home just how many POWs suffered and died during the railway construction.

Then we walked back into town, past the River Kwai train station and across the bridge again, to explore the other side of the river. Jim clambered aboard an old steam engine that was sitting near the train station (there were no obvious signs saying not to, so he climbed up into the cab). There are lots of abandoned trains placed around the local area.

Our original plan was to rent bikes this afternoon to visit a big tree, however with the crazy heat, it didn’t seem like a great idea. So we headed back to the guesthouse for some down-time to read our books, and for Lil to start researching the next chunk of our trip. On the way home, we spotted an old English style phone box, except this one was blue instead of red – not sure if it’s a tourist-special ornament or not, but it was pretty cool regardless.

This evening we had dinner at a fab little restaurant in the main street. Jim chose a table on the street with traffic whizzing past. Risk-averse Lil suggested sitting in the seats closest to the pavement for fear we and our dinner ended up in a collision with some passing traffic.

It was one of our best dinners so far (and yes, there have been many many great meals) – we had pork belly with chilli and coriander; sliced chilli pork salad; spicy chicken penang; and a big basket of greens, mint and raw morning glory (also known as water spinach) with sensational side dipping sauces. Superb.

As we wandered back to our guesthouse, the ‘Get drunk for $10 Baht’ bar was going off – plus we spotted a $5 Daiquiri bar right next door to it – though at that one, you have to buy 10 drinks at a time. Oh my. Sore heads all round.

Tomorrow we’re hoping to get up earlyish and rent bikes before the day gets too hot, to cycle to a big tree.

More then.

Unpacking the facts, an open air self-serve laundry, and listening to Sweet Home Alabumbum.

Day 36: We had a snooze-on today until nearly 9am – unusual for us, but it’s good to have a lazy start to the day every now and then. After breakfast, we threw on our walking gear, grabbed our map and headed out to explore a chunk of Kanchanaburi.

The town is really interesting – endless sights and historical landmarks to walk around, but it can be a little tricky to get to the bottom of the real story behind the Burma-Thailand railway, also called the Death Railway. The 1957 British-American movie “Bridge on the River Kwai” (itself based on the 1952 novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai) contains lots of fiction, and the bridge as it stands today has been rebuilt a number of times.

We thought we’d start by getting our heads around some real facts – so walked to the JEATH Museum – its name derived from countries that were involved in the WWII death railway construction from 1942 to 1945: Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland. It’s an excellent, though harrowing, exhibition depicting the harsh living conditions of the prisoners of war through a collection of original black and white photographs, letters, newspaper articles and war relics.

There’s also an unexploded Allied bomb at the museum, which was dropped with the intention of destroying the bridge.

The British had already surveyed the railway route in the 19th century, but never built it, as it was deemed to be too difficult and expensive to complete. During the second world war, after the Japanese seized control of Burma from the British, they took on the railway project as a military supply line for the movement of troops and goods to the Burma front, and ultimately in preparation for their invasion of India.

The project had an initial anticipated time frame of 5 years to completion, however by forcing the Allied prisoners of war to work on the railway line, for up to 18 hours per day, and engaging hundreds of thousands of Asian laborers, they completed the 415km line in only 16 months, on 17 October, 1943.

A combination of overwork, hideous brutality from Japanese and Korean engineers and guards, sickness (particularly dysentery, malaria, beriberi and cholera) and starvation took its toll. The POW diet comprised only rice and vegetables twice a day. Over 12,000 Allied prisoners, plus around 100,000 Malays, Tamils, Burmese, Javanese and Thai laborers, died during its construction.

The bridge as it stands today is a concrete and steel construction and was completed in April 1943, a few months after the original wooden bridge up-river of which there are no remains. Both bridges were regularly bombed and damaged but were quickly repaired, until a final bomb in June 1945 put the entire railway out of action. The square spans of the bridge are the replacements for the arched spans which were destroyed.

When we’d finished at the museum, we walked along one of the main roads to the Chungkai War Cemetery, the larger of the town’s two war cemeteries.

Of the nearly 7,000 soldiers buried there, nearly half were British. The rest were mainly from Australia and the Netherlands (there were a number of small Australian flags planted one some of the graves). The immaculate grounds are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We spent a while wandering around, reading inscriptions on the gravestones – sobering stuff.

With enough history under our belts for one day, we headed home for a quick rest, then wandered out to one of the local bars popular with Australians and English. Usually we tend to avoid them, but felt like a bit of lively activity and banter after the visits of the morning. We joined a long table of people sinking beers outside on the street, and quickly found ourselves in conversation with the guys sitting next to us – it’s always fascinating to hear about people’s lives.

One guy has just started a 2 month volunteering program 25km outside Kanchanaburi, teaching English to very young kids. He got divorced, lost his house, chucked in his job as a nurse in Brisbane and decided to start a new life abroad. The English couple sitting opposite have retired – they sold everything they owned, and headed to Asia with just two suitcases, their entire remaining possessions. They’ve lived in Thailand for nearly a year on a study visa, and while they don’t know where is next, they’re adamant they won’t be going back to the UK. The guy to Lil’s left has lived in Kanchanaburi for 10 years – he said he ‘didn’t mean to stay’ but is now happily settled – though we suspect a large number of his waking hours are spent happily settled in the pub.

The English couple tried to convince us to join them for 50 cent shots at a bar up the road, but we sensibly declined and headed for dinner. Hangovers aren’t something we can easily handle any more. As we walked up the street, we spotted a fabulous hand-drawn banner ripping off the Starbucks logo. We were tempted to pop in and ask for a Grande skinny extra hot soy caramel latte with extra foam.

We also passed a bunch of ‘self-serve’ public washing machines which have seen a lot of action – the numbers on the front depict the number of Baht for a load of washing.

A Thai vegetarian restaurant called On’s Thai-Issan was recommended to us so decided to give it a go, and wow it was ridiculously good. We wrote our choices on a small lined pad then the the whole Thai family got involved in cooking our dinner. The dishes were awesome – a Massaman curry with tofu; banana flower salad, and fried curry rice – all superb.

Earlier in the day we spotted one of the local bars had a sign saying a blues-rock band was playing at 8.30pm, so we wandered along to have a listen. Our expectations weren’t high, but it turns out the band was really great. In one of the breaks, we chatted about how amazing it is that non-English speakers can learn the vocals to so many English songs (probably without understanding what most of them mean). There were a few glitches like “Blushing her long brond hair”, and “Sweet Home Alabumbum” – but really, who cares? Given we speak zero Thai (or pretty much any language other than English really), we were seriously impressed. Lovely guys too.

And then home to bed at the end of another fabulous packed day. Tomorrow we’ll do some more exploring, and we may even rent bikes to pedal to a big tree.

More tomorrow.

Jim gets weighed on the luggage scales, beers by the River Kwai, and horizontal wedding pics.

Day 35: We were up and about early today to get packed up and work our way northwest to Kanchaniburi.

Bangkok has been a great experience, however after a week of constant noise, heavy pollution and packed streets and transport, we’re ready for a change and happy to be heading somewhere quieter.

We managed to miss rush hour on the sky train, which we were thankful for – the thought of trying to wrestle ourselves and our backpacks into heavily packed carriages wasn’t a good one.

We got off at Saphan Taksin station, then walked along the pier to find Wharf No. 1 to catch a ferry to Thonburi Station, where the Kanchaniburi train leaves from. The public ferry is a popular commuter boat and there was a constant flow of people getting on and off at every ferry wharf – our wharf was No. 11 so it took a little while to get there. It’s a very cool way to travel and a great way of sightseeing new and old buildings and temples along the banks of the Chao Phraya river.

Once we got off at Thonburi Station wharf and wobbled up the ramp with our backpacks, it was a quick 10 minute walk to the station itself, where we bought our tickets and then sat and read our books while we waited for the train.

Jim also grabbed the opportunity to weigh himself on the station luggage scales (meant for luggage only) with lots of people watching. No pics of that one – Lil was hiding her head in embarrassment.

We had 3rd class tickets – the only option available. While the train was old and the seats were a bit raggy, it was actually pretty comfortable. There was also a toilet on the train – though unless you were desperate, perhaps best to wait until later.

And as the sign says – Travelling by train is Train is Comfort, Economical, Fast and Safe.

The travel conditions on the back of our tickets warned that no pets or strong smell foods are allowed in air conditioned carriages. Had we wanted to take our pet dog or donkey with us we would have been fine, given our carriage had no air conditioning – just the blast of warm air coming through the open windows. Plus some small rusty fans whirring on the ceiling to help stir the air around a bit. Perhaps we’ll bring an animal along for the ride next time, just for fun.

The train left right on time at 13.55. The station master clanged the large brass station bell one minute before it was due to leave, the last passengers scrambled up the steps of the train, and we were off.

The train snaked its way slowly through the Bangkok suburbs, stopping at a few stations along the way, then gathered speed for the rest of the journey. Jim downloaded an app to check what speed we were doing – it felt a little bone rattling at times. The maximum we got up to was around 75 kmh – not quite bullet train speed, but by local standards, and given the state and age of the train, it was pretty impressive. We whizzed past spectacular scenery as we left the high rises of Bangkok behind, and soaked up the vistas of fields full of sugar cane and bananas, and vibrant green rice paddies.

Throughout the train ride, people got on and off at different stations and walked up and down, selling food from baskets and platters – everything from donuts to fried banana chips, pad thai in banana leaves, pork and rice in bamboo cups. Plus some odd looking fried meat pieces which may have been chicken, but may also have been something else entirely. We weren’t keen to find out.

We arrived in Kanchanaburi around 4.30pm, walked to our guest house then headed out to explore a bit of the town and track down some food and cold beers. On the way out of our room, Lil pointed to a slightly random print on the wall with a goofy quote: “The best part about being alone is that you really don’t have to answer to anybody. You do what you want.” The source of the quote? That well known philosopher, Mr Justin Timberlake.

We turned left when we left our guest house, walked for about a kilometre and around the next corner found ourselves staring at the famous Bridge on the River Kwai, built by prisoners of war during WWII. We had expected the area was going to be a mini Disneyland, and were pleasantly surprised to find it was pretty quiet and restrained with a just a few market and food stalls scattered about. Being low season helps too of course. The only street side entertainment was two little kids doing some music busking – we happily threw some money in their cardboard box as we wandered past.

The bridge is pretty impressive – we walked across it and back again, then headed to a bar by the water for cold beers and dinner, and to watch the sun set over the bridge.

Next to the bar, there were a few fishermen on the pier catching different types of fish, and occasional pieces of rubbish. A newly married couple wearing red dress and red suit also turned up to have some wedding photos taken by the water. The fishermen weren’t moving, so the couple squeezed onto a corner of the concrete pier, and we watched as the photo session got underway. We’re not sure whether wedding photography here is a little different, or whether the photographer was trying to be overly creative, but at one point the bride and groom were both lying down on the pier, with the groom lying on the bride’s dress train. And all while the fishermen continued to reel in their catch.

Bride and groom lying down for a creative photo session.

And then it was back to our guesthouse for an early night. Tomorrow we’ll head out to explore some of the local sights and immerse ourselves in some history of the local area. It will be fascinating and no doubt a little disturbing too.

More then.