Friday 28 August 2009

Thailand 2: Rails Into History

Over the past few days I've been travelling with a group of travel writers through Thailand's Kanchanaburi province, northwest of the capital Bangkok, then to the resort town of Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand.

As trains and railways have formed a big part of the experience, I thought I'd share some images with you here.

First up is the famous bridge on the River Kwai, constructed by Allied PoWs and Asian labourers under appalling slave labour conditions as part of the Death Railway in World War II.

It was later made famous by the 1957 movie of the same name. Only it turns out that a) the film's plot was a load of inaccurate hearsay, and b) the river was actually called the Mae Klong, though the Thais obligingly renamed this section the Kwae Yai later on when tourists showed up to take photos.

The bridge is sturdily attractive. Note the squarish sections in the middle, which later replaced the sections bombed by Allied planes during World War II.

As you can see from the above image, you can wander across the bridge, even though it's still part of a working railway. There are only two trains a day, so there's plenty of time to get off the tracks. There's also a small tourist train that shunts visitors back and forth across the bridge at regular intervals for 20 baht (A$0.70).

At one end of the bridge there's quite a big tourism operation, with stalls and restaurants ranged around a large circular plaza. The above sculpture is part of a piece indicating the nearby 'war wall', which bears details of the bridge's back story.

The next day we visited Hellfire Pass, one of the most backbreaking sections of the railway for those who worked on it. The above image shows the rail bed as it appears today. This is beyond the railway's current terminus at Nam Tok, so there are no rails here; they were ripped up some decades ago.

This is approaching the heart of Hellfire Pass. The workers had to excavate a huge cutting from the rock here, using handheld tools aided by explosives. The Japanese overseers had the men working around the clock at this point, so the worksite was lit by kerosene lamps.

The lamp light on the exposed red rock, and the hellish working conditions, led the PoWs to name it Hellfire Pass. The short section of track you can see above has been laid as a reminder of the past.

What's notable is how peaceful the pass is today, green and shaded. The serenity provides some quiet mental space to reflect on the horror of the conditions under which the men lived and died. Some 13,000 Allied PoWs died in the course of the railway's construction, and some 90,000 Asian labourers.

On the following day we examined this viaduct, originally built as part of the Death Railway and still a going concern. It was a hard object to bomb from the air, as the rock wall afforded a certain amount of protection.

This is the view across the river from the viaduct. Apparently the river once flooded almost to the height of the viaduct itself; bye bye buildings on the opposite bank!

Finally, an image unconnected with the Death Railway but still related to the theme of historic Thai railways. This is the former royal waiting room at the beautiful timber train station at the coastal resort of Hua Hin. Thai monarchs would relax here while waiting (reluctantly, I imagine) to leave their seaside summer residence behind for the hustle and bustle of Bangkok...

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Thailand 1: Hot in the City

May the caffeine gods forgive me - I had a coffee today which contained a layer of condensed milk in the bottom of the glass.

But when in Bangkok, do as the locals do, and this style of coffee is a regional favourite. I can only assume that condensed milk became popular in the tropics before the invention of fridges, due to it having a half-life just short of that of plutonium.

It also cost 120 baht, about A$4, which was rather outrageous, as you'll see when I tell you how much my lunch cost. Not to mention my massage.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I had the coffee at Jim Thompson's House. No, not that of an old friend inviting me in for morning tea and then expecting payment; Thompson was an American soldier who settled in Bangkok in the 1940s and sparked international interest in Thai silk.

He also bought six traditional Thai timber houses and melded them together in a green shady spot on a canal, fusing Thai art and architecture with Western decor. For example, the home's spacious living room contains Buddha statues, a day bed and a chandelier.

The most fascinating element of Thompson's life, though, may be the way it ended. On a stroll in the Malaysian highlands in 1967, he disappeared utterly, and no trace of him or his body have ever been found. The fact he was involved in the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA, during the war has led to all manner of conspiracy theories. But we'll probably never know what happened to him, though his house makes a worthy monument to his life.

After my curiously non-sweet coffee (no matter how much you stir, the condensed milk tends to remain in a layer on the bottom), I walked west along the Khlong Saem Saeb canal, intending to have a look at the Baan Krua district on the other side, where Thompson's Muslim weavers lived and worked.

Then I found, just before the footbridge over the water, a humble eatery ranged along the cement path, with a selection of slightly bedraggled tropical plants forming a decorative border between the restaurant and the khlong. Local residents were sitting at plastic tables in their singlets, watching (for some reason) a nature documentary on a suspended TV. At the far end the kitchen smoked and sizzled.

Not knowing much Thai, I ordered pad thai, a standard noodle dish. It arrived with a cruet containing four jars, liberated from the lids they must have had once in the supermarket, containing a variety of means of adding chilli to your meal. I've always liked the Thai liking for hot stuff, so added a generous amount of both chilli flakes and the tiny red and green chopped chillies floating in oil. How hot could it get?

Actually, very hot. But damn good - the flat noodles were cooked up with egg, some prawns and other seafood, there was coriander on top and vegetables at one end, and a small helping of crumbled peanut on the side.

Sitting there in the humid open air at my plastic tableclothed table, watching ferries zoom past as the canals's green water sloshed alarmingly, I reflected what a deeply fulfilling thing it was to have an entire country full of cheap Thai restaurants serving food like this. The bill? Just 30 baht, about A$1.

Though it wasn't served with condensed milk.

(PS the massage at a streetside place I encountered on the way out of Baan Krua, where I walked after lunch, cost a mere 149 baht, A$5, for an hour's full body massage. Though the masseur did walk all over me. No, I mean he really did.)

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Clubbing in the Pacifique

There's something about islands, and the tiny airports that serve them. As our ferry pulled away from the quay next to Hamilton Island's airport, a big red Virgin Blue 737 roared unexpectedly over our heads, its takeoff having been concealed behind the headland we were passing.

This dramatic intersection of technology with nature seemed quite neat, as we were heading determinedly away from the high-tech outside world to the Club Med resort on Lindeman Island, part of the Whitsundays group between the Queensland mainland and the Great Barrier Reef.

Towards, in fact, a lack of mobile phone reception, unless you fancied a steep hike up to the 8th hole on the golfcourse above the resort.

Luckily there's wireless Internet access at the bar so, dear reader, I'm able to type this at you while seated on the outdoor terrace looking out over palm trees, a beach, a turquoise sea and a selection of vegetation-covered islands along the horizon.

Yes, I know, that sounds like a sample of bad copywriting for a travel agency poster, but what I can say? That's how it is. There's even a soft balmy breeze gently ruffling my hair. Well, not quite, it's too short to be ruffled, but you get the idea.

Anyhow, Club Med is... interesting. I'd never been to one, but had a vague idea of it being a place for sporty young couples and singles. It turns out that the Club Med in the Whitsunday Islands, at least, is very family-friendly. Partly that comes from the price, which is pretty reasonable for a week; partly from the kids' facilities and the fact that a self-contained island resort is a safe place for kids to run around; and partly from the all-inclusive nature of the tariff.

That's a very rare thing in the world of travel; you know once you're on the island that you won't be putting your hand in your pocket unless you want to use a few extra services such as massage. Though I can't help wondering what a non-drinker would think about subsidising everyone else's alcohol consumption. Though perhaps a non-drinker would go to a resort where they could pay a la carte instead.

Either way, it's liberating to leave the wallet in the room safe and simply eat and drink as you feel like it. It also eases all sorts of social issues such as whose turn it is to buy the drinks.

It's an unconventional business model which must limit the opportunities for the resort to make extra profits by offering tempting chances to spend more; and probaby explains why the standard of food and drink is firmly in the 3-star (actually 3-trident) range. However, the guests like the system a lot, so it must be a drawcard in itself, and certainly a point of difference.

And vive la différence. Another notable point about Club Med is the scraps of French terminology about the place, courtesy of its French ownership. The staff, for example, wear shirts with the initials GO, which stands for gentil organisateur; as opposed to gentil membre, a Club Med guest. There's something charming and faintly retro about the use of French in an Anglophone country with a mainly Anglophone clientele, a reminder of the time not so long ago when French was the langue internationale.

And, come to think of it, there's something pleasingly retro about the whole place. Although there's much more emphasis on guests making their own choices of activity (or non-activity) than there was back in the '60s when Club Meds were famous for their group activities, there are significant remnants of that era evident in the nightly cabaret shows performed by the indefatigable international staff (last night's had a Bollywood theme); and even more so by the curious 'crazy signs', a communal dance led by the staff, who assemble suddenly around the pool an gyrate energetially to loud music. It's deeply odd, but in a charmingly eccentric way.

It'll be interesting to see where this Club Med heads in the future. There's talk of an upgrade to 4-trident status, which would presumably raise the rates but allow for higher quality in facilities and services. The Club Méditerranée concept will be 60 years old next year, and obviously has to keep evolving further from its origins as a simple 1950s holiday camp.

It's not, frankly, a resort for those needing peace and quiet - there's a lot of sound and motion throughout the day, especially by the pool and the bar - but there's something attractive about its unaffected retro charm.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Virgin Blue and Club Med. Virgin Blue flies daily to Hamilton Island from Brisbane and Sydney.

Friday 7 August 2009

Signs and Portents: Poland 1

Looking through my photos, I've noticed that I love taking shots of strange and quirky signs. They're often quite irrelevant to a story I'm pursuing, and therefore won't get published, but they are a lot of fun and tell you much about the local culture. And make you scratch your head in puzzlememnt. Or at least give you a good chuckle.

So without further ado, here's the first in an irregular series of quirky signs I've encountered along the way. First up, that champion of bizarre posters and curious signs, Poland! This set of images was taken in February 2006, during my first Lonely Planet assignment in Polska.

Pedro was so going to sue his travel agent when he'd saved enough to return to Acapulco.

This pic was taken in the middle of a very cold winter in Kraków. This poor guy was charged with advertising the charms of a Mexican restaurant by standing outside in minus-5 degree weather. Yes, that is a pile of snow behind the bin. And no, I don't know why there were swings in the garden or who would use them in winter. Or why you would use them in summer, for that matter.

The management couldn't understand the drop-off in trade since they'd erected the new sign - had they chosen the wrong type of cola?

A somewhat unfortunate sign outside a cafe within Kraków's main train station. You might expect the food provided by Gastro Wars to set off an unpleasant sequence of intestinal events once eaten, but it's all just a horrible misunderstanding. The company that runs the place has simply added the "gastro" from gastronomy to its own company name, Wars (pronounced "vars"). Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Tomasz couldn't help thinking he'd created a better-shaped heart than Pawel.

It may not have been celebrated in Poland until after the fall of communism, but Valentine's Day now seems as popular there as anywhere else. Before its arrival, male Poles marked International Women's Day on 8 March by giving romantic gifts to the ladies, making it both an officially serious and unofficially whimsical occasion. This was taken on the main street of Łódź on 14 February.

For some reason, Władysław was dying for some fries.

You can't escape the big M! This gigantic drink cup was placed next to one of the statues commemorating famous locals along Łódź's main drag, ulica Piotrkowska. The gentleman depicted here is Władysław Reymont (1867-1925), writer and Nobel prize winner. Look carefully at the straw on the cup - it's shaped like an ice hockey stick in reference to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

Roman wondered if it was finally time to launch his celebrity dumpling chain restaurant concept.

And finally, one of the stars on the Walk of Fame along ulica Piotrkowska in Łódź. Poland's second-largest city is also its film-making hub, as the National Film School was established here after WWII when Warsaw lay in ruins. These stars commemorate numerous stars and production people, though the only three likely to be known to people outside Poland are Roman Polański (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist), Krzysztof Kieślowski (Three Colours trilogy), and Andrzej Wajda (whose 1981 Man of Iron won the Palme d’Or at Cannes).

Stay tuned for more curious pics! And if you have any odd or amusing signs you've encountered on your travel, feel free to email them to me at, to be featured in a future posting.