River Kwai at Sunset

I was in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, and I hadn't been sleeping well. The walls of my hostel room looked solid, but I was pretty sure they were actually painted paper. My neighbors might as well have been making their late night calls in there with me. Still, for 300 THB (around $10) a night, I could live with it. I just hoped that no one was around the night before, when I had belted out that Air Supply tune.

I've heard Thailand described as "International Travel 101" because it's a country where one can easily travel by bus or train, many people speak English, it's inexpensive, and it's relatively safe for a single female adventurer. More importantly, it's so far removed from anything that one could experience in the Midwest. I was a novice traveler who wanted a taste of the exotic, but with a safety-net. This was Thailand.

Hellfire Pass

My plan for the day was to hike along Hellfire Pass, where the Japanese forced Allied POWs to cut through rocky hillside to lay dow railroad tracks during World War II. Most tourists join a day tour to do this. They climb into an air-conditioned van to go to the pass and at least one other destination, such as Sai Yok Noi Falls or the Tiger Temple. I had no interest in the Falls or the Temple, so I shunned all of the package tours. Besides, they didn't include a ride on the famous "Death Train" -- the Thailand-Burma Railway built by Japan -- or the chance to cross the equally famous bridge over the River Kwai. There was no way I was missing those.

Because they are subject to the schedule of the day tours, many tourists only get to see the visitor center and the first section of track at Hellfire Pass. Apart from being in Nam Tok by 2:00pm to catch the Death Train, my schedule was my own. I could take my time exploring the extra three kilometers accessible to hikers. I continued to the next spot on the line where the rock had to be cut to lay down track, not nearly as deep as Hellfire Pass, but deep enough to feel like a tomb. I took all the historical information I had gleaned from various sources and allowed my imagination to conjure up scenes of overworked, undernourished POWs subjected to brutal working conditions so that the Japanese engineers could make their deadlines. Emaciated figures casting demonic-shaped shadows on the walls of rock as they work into the night by firelight. The teeth-gnashing sound of metal striking rock, and the heart-rending atmosphere of the human spirit trying to endure long after the body is ready to call it quits. After a few minutes in this world, I was sufficiently spooked to do an about-face and head back to the visitors center.

And what of the captors? When I had visited Thailand-Burma railway museum a few days before, I'd seen a video that included an interview with one of the Japanese engineers who worked on the River Kwai bridge. He didn’t seem to feel any remorse. He didn’t say that he was under orders. His only comment had to do with an inaccuracy in the film version of the story. He wanted to let the record show that the Japanese engineers did not consult the expertise of the British engineers while building the Bridge on the River Kwai. The mere suggestion outraged him. Incredible!

POW cemetery in Kanchanaburi

Hellfire pass is in the middle of nowhere, so to get to Nam Tok requires backtracking about 20 kilometers. There's no defined bus stop outside of the visitor’s center, but it’s along a road that’s used by many buses to do the Kanchanaburi-Sangkhlaburi run. I knew that I wouldn’t be waiting for a ride for very long. Still, ten minutes in mid-day Thailand heat can feel like an eternity. There was a small patch of shade close by, but some Thai women with a tamarind stand had already claimed it as their own. I hoped they would share it, but as I approached their conversation stopped and they glared at me. I had no interest in purchasing tamarind, so I felt very unwelcome. Somewhere a loudspeaker was playing a Thai pop song. It was like a rasp to my nerves. I decided to walk in the direction of Nam Tok, if anything to get away from that music.

I was walking for about five minutes when a truck pulled over. The driver asked me where I was going and I told him my destination. He offered me a ride to Nam Tok. I asked him how much he wanted. He said he would do it for free. I was 99% sure that nothing would happen if I got in that truck, but it was that nagging 1% that made me decline his offer. I felt bad about insulting him, but if he had a wife or daughters, I’m sure he understood. Besides, even with my limited experience I knew that nothing in Asia is free.

I only had to walk another five minutes before I was able to flag down a passing bus. They asked for 5 THB to get to Nam Tok, and I was happy to hand it over. I had a moment of self-congratulations. I pitied the folks on the package tours. They had to pay so much and visit places they didn't want to go. I patted my own back again when I successfully found the Nam Tok train station. It's not too far off of the main road and there is a sign that points the way. I arrived on time, but, in true Thai fashion, the train was more than 40 minutes late. I had to wait on the platform with several hundred primary school students who were on an outing. They were full of energy, but well-behaved. “Hello” seemed to be the only word they knew in English, and I had to say it in reply about 50 or 60 times before I found a safe little hiding place behind a sign.

Fellow passengers on the "Death Train"

The ride on the Death Train was very similar to other train rides I've done in Thailand. You sit on hard, straight-backed seats, withering in the heat as food, drink and useless trinket vendors move up and down the aisles. They drone on about their item in a melancholy Thai mantra as they bump past you for the umpteenth time. I was weary and irritable when we finally approached Kanchanaburi. I thought maybe I had been a bit hasty about disrespecting the package tours in their air-conditioned buses, but then the train stopped. We had come to the famous bridge. Everyone perked up to full attention, myself included.

We all gathered at the windows as the train slowly started rolling over the bridge. There were also tourists gathered at the far side of the bridge watching the train come in. They all cheered as the train cars passed. On the train, off the train everyone was waving and cheering. All of the day's frustrations melted away in an instant. The train pulled into the station at Kanchanaburi. I jumped onto the platform with renewed energy, my head held high and a smile on my face. I had successfully planned and executed a day trip in a foreign country with very little assistance. Me, a novice traveler. The kid my mother always worried about wandering into traffic while chasing a butterfly. I had a bounce in my step as I walked back to my painted-paper wall hostel, visions of future travel adventures unfolding in my mind’s eye.

Of course, Kanachanaburi has more to offer than a history lesson....