Yesterday we drove to Kanchanaburi, where the Bridge On The River Kwai was set. Kwai is pronounced to rhyme with square.
We know this because when Kev told his students they were going, they laughed at him, because Kwai, pronounced to rhyme with why, is the word they use to describe somebody who is as stupid as a water buffalo.
It was a four hour drive to Kanchanaburi, Kev had told us it was about two, and we saw no reason to disbelieve him. As a consequence of his underestimation we arrived quite late in the day and very hungry.
The last time they’d been, they’d eaten at the Jolly Frog backpackers hostel and restaurant, which we found by asking a taxi driver.
Kev ordered the most dangerous dish on the menu, which was a bonfire, bought to us and dumped in the middle of the table. On top of this bonfire was a bowl of water at a rolling boil, which, after the boiling oil, seemed quite benevolent.
This was the fondou moo Nel had hoped for, and Kev set about breaking the plate of leaves and veg that had been bought together with pieces of moo, which, counter- intuitively, is pork. I don’t know why I expected it to be cow, as if food is named for the noise is makes.
If that were true then pork would be oink, or snort, and beef would be a long low fart, and a belch, and It would be embarrassing to ask for in the butcher’s. Fish would be plop, and vegetables and fruit would have no name at all, except for raspberries.
Talking of fruit though, last week Nel and Jayne bought durian fruit.
I’d heard of this, how it smells terrible but actually tastes fantastic. Well I can tell you that one of these things is true.
It came sealed in cling film. This wasn’t enough for my liking. It should come sealed in molten glass, like how nuclear waste is before being dropped into the Mariana Trench.
Unwrapping it is the first mistake and should be avoided. Far, far better to leave it in the wrapping and incinerate it. Opening the wrapper, the odour, or, more accurately, the foul stench is released.
The fruit – and god knows how it has the cheek to call itself that, is the colour and texture of a chicken, left in the sun for a week and the flavour haunts me still after days.
Gagging, I ran to spit it in the garden. ‘Not there!’ Kev protested, but it was either a mouthful of this foul stuff or my stomach lining that was going to end up in his roses.
Where was I going with this?
The fondou moo! Yes!
The meal was incredibly cheap, about 500 bats for seven or eight dishes. I’d ordered the fried lemon grass and they cooked it differently from when I’d had it before, cut into sections like spring onion. This time it came just deep fried, like springs, and the seeds were like tiny spears, hardened and painful. I’m not sure they’d cooked it before but we didn’t eat it.
The rooms also were fantastically cheap, the cheapest Kev and Jayne had ever seen.
Another table top incendiary
So then we went to see the bridge by where the bridge over the river Kwai used to be. The one built by the prisoners of war, and incidentally, Thai villagers, was bombed and nothing remains of it.
I won’t dwell on the death and suffering, look it up. There are monuments, though none to the many Thais who died, and this is because they don’t dwell on it. It’s gone and they’re Buddhist, it’s not a thing to commemorate. Kev told us, and we have no reason to disbelieve him, that they don’t go for old stuff and nostalgia in the way that we hold onto antiques, old stuff is creepy and invested with ghosts.
The setting is spectacular, forest jungle both sides of the river bed, the track running straight through it. The bridge itself was barely visible for the thousands upon thousands of tourists, and so we hired a long tail boat and went for a trip.
The views were breathtakingly stunning. The little stilted huts, the riverside bars, the boats and rafts, the birds, and all the time the forest.
We hammered along at, we guessed later, about 35 miles per hour, the boat slamming and bouncing over the water, slowing only for the wake from other boats.
There were tens of floating discos, massive rafts being towed by tiny long tails at snails pace, music pumping loud enough to shake the mountains.
We came to a rickety pier and climbed to the top of a steep path where an old man with extra bits welded onto his tiny Honda took us to the cave.
We paid twenty bats each to have a chubby young monk show us around, pointing at different formations, tigers teeth and crocodiles claw, and there was a sleeping Buddha, and gold plate statues everywhere.
The monks I’d expected to be far more aloof and, well, holy, and serious. In fact they’re as smiley and approachable as everybody here. They’re apart, but can often be seen, in their orange robes walking down a busy road, or in the shopping mall buying a new phone, or on the back of a tiny Honda.
Back at the top of the cliff that led down to the river we just stopped to look out over the river, alive with boats and rafts, with the green forested mountains behind.
Agog, unable to fit it all into the camera, there aren’t words to describe it, but I wet myself.
Back to the boat and the smiley boat man, he took us to the monument to the British dead.
The war graves commission maintaine these beautiful cemeteries in 150 odd countries around the world, and I don’t know why some of the headstones are engraved and others not, but one, for a thirty year old man bought a lump to my throat and read simply, ‘a righteous man, though he die before his time, shall be at rest.’ Mam and Dad.
No mention of god, or angels, no euphemistic mention of sleeping in heaven or meeting the lord, and I can’t believe that wasn’t deliberate.
On the trip back I ate a pound of gnats.
We called another tiny Honda with an open sidecar and four seats to take us the mile or so to the car. I was at the front, a position that forms the crumple zone in an accident and it was driven by a smiling fourteen year-old boy.
Accelerate and the thing lurched backwards, brake and it lunged forwards. I was clinging on, getting used to the rocking forward and back.
Jayne told the boy I was scared and he laughed, saying I must be scared of everything.
Another pant wettingly beautiful view
On the morning of new years eve, Jayne went out to buy breakfast of spicy moo, with steamed rice, and a fried egg on it. What the Thais call breakfast, but we think of more as a snack after the pub, to keep the strength up before a fight.
I will admit I approached this meal with a degree of trepidation, being more used to cigarettes and strong coffee for breakfast, or a hearty bowl of porridge maybe. But I can say that spicy pork with a fried egg for breakfast ain’t bad.
We went to central with Jayne, leaving Kev to work on a golfing app he’s making with an American pro golfer. Honestly.
Parking was horrific and finally, after circling the multi storey for twenty minutes, Jayne parked in front of a couple of cars, and left the handbrake off.
There’s a heartening pragmatism to this kind of simple solution to a simple problem. Why not? What does it matter? Why does our western perspective not allow us to even contemplate letting a stranger push our car out the way?
This, I think is one of the benefits of not living in a bloated and stinking, farting old bureaucracy.
The east might see our buildings and shiny factories and roads and infrastructure and glamour and order and think we’re better off than them, but they don’t know that they wouldn’t be allowed to take their family out on a tiny Honda, or be allowed to make a living, or set up a food stall, or look after their old at home. That playing music loud will get you arrested, wearing unfashionable trainers will get you laughed at and smiling is frowned upon.
The night of new years eve was spent at The Party, a swanky restaurant and music venue with a river pumped through it, and lanterns. And the smiley manageress, who lives near here, and recognized Jayne from walking her dog past every morning, which is very weird to Thais.
She introduced herself as Noi, which means small, and told us, patting her stomach and smiling happily ‘not so little now’
We were shown to the best leather seats, by the river and a menu was bought to us by five beautiful waitresses, four of whom scuttled off to get drinks while one took our order. Kev ordered most of the menu, with table-top incendiaries, and including a three flavoured fish, which, as far as I was concerned, tasted of three fish.
A beautiful waitress stood attentively bowing to us and pouring beer every time our glasses got half empty, which is why I can now say I only drink halves, and why I learned to say stop putting ice in my beer! Mai sai nam keng, no hard water!
Two boys sang with a guitar, trying a few western songs for us specifically, not really knowing the words but mumbling the same verse. They did Creep, by Radiohead, which was weird. Shortly afterwards we were entertained by a troupe of breakdancers, spinning on their heads, and their friends heads, and saying yo! and doing that annoying pointing thing the hip hoppists do.
I wouldn’t normally talk about going to the toilet, but this was probably the weirdest experience of my life so far.
I left the table and Kev said he was coming too. He’d hinted at some oriental weirdness going on in there earlier.
There were two young blokes in the gents, probably in their early twenties, and, as soon as I pointed Percy at the porcelain, I felt two strong hands on my shoulders.
Now, Kev had told me about this, and I had only half believed him, and if I was reading this I would be sure that I was pulling my leg but I swear it’s true.
One bloke was massaging me and one was massaging Kev and we were both giggling. Shoulders, down the arms while I was peeing! You can imagine this doesn’t help your aim at all!
By Christ! I was laughing and Kev was laughing and the two masseuse were laughing. Then down my spine right to my arse! While I was peeing!
When I was emptied, he made me clasp my hands behind my neck, elbows down, and then he attempted to hold me from behind, arms included, and pick me up.
Being a little feller, he couldn’t get me in a grip, and we were all laughing. I almost choked I laughed so hard! And then, I ran some water to wash my hands and he runs over to squirt soap into my hands – at least I hoped it was soap, and then give me a hot towel. This for a twenty baht tip. It was only ten o’clock and I was sure I’d need to go again later.
Kev explained that we don’t have this service in England in case they were wondering why we were red in the face and helpless with laughter, and one of them told him he needed the money.
We went back to the table and, for one of the only times in my life, I was speechless. Nel and Jayne were in fits. Nel asked me if I’d enjoyed it and my mouth just clacked open and shut. I was squeaking, red faced with hilarity.
Next time I went, I thought I’d got away with it, but half way emptied, the same two hands on my shoulders. This time he’d sussed it and made me stand in front of the step, him behind me while he put my hands behind my neck, elbows down and easily picked me up, making my spine click. Oof! I actually said Oof! And he did it again, and I went Oof! again.
We were laughing, and the bloke at the urinal next to me was laughing.
If I could claim to have made it all up, I could claim to have a better imagination than I do.
The next band were a bunch of talented young blokes who played until midnight, when the countdown happened and the fireworks went off and all the beautiful waitresses and a gay bloke danced in a line on the stage with the manageress singing.
They got Nel and Jayne and Kev up on stage but, despite three beautiful waitresses pulling me by the hand I stayed sat for that.
Nel, right, dwarfed by a Thai woman