If you are aiming for a holiday destination, that gracefully combines breathtaking natural splendour, ancient cultural and religious sites, luxurious accommodation, endless shopping, exciting cuisine plus a vibrant nightlife, then you perhaps can't beat Thailand- an amazing Asian nation of wild and vivid contrasts that not only offers enormous cultural and topographical diversity, but also all the modern conveniences to ensure most pleasurable travel experience. Despite some political unrest, it still props up as a highly sought- after tourist haven, that offers value for money and richly rewards a discriminating visitor.
I have been there a number of times and don't mind when friends stamp me a Thailand addict.
I have meandered through every quarter of Bangkok, the nation's vibrant capital city, which boasts of myriad of attractions that never fail to seduce someone with an itchy foot.
What captivates me the most there, are the 400 odd imposing temples and shrines that sprawl the 1500 square kilometers of the city, built on the banks of Chao Phraya River, in the 18th century by the famed Rama kings of the Charki dynasty.
I find their shinning golden architecture so inviting, that I never mind going back to some of them ever and ever again.The smell of burning incense sticks, presence of saffron clad monks, sanctity of the devotess and the surrounding transcendent ambiance simply mesmerize me every time I step into a shrine, whether it's the Wat Phra Kaew, the most important Buddhist place of worship in Thailand or the Mariamannn Temple where the local Hindus gather.
At times, when Bangkok becomes claustrophobic, I have lost myself in the cool jungle-clad mountainous landscapes around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, in the northern part of the country, where architectural and cultural treasures of the 13th century Lanna Kings are tucked in between rolling hills and verdant forests.
Or I have pampered myself in the unspoilt beaches of powdery white sand and turquoise blue waters of Andaman Sea in Phuket , a pristine and peaceful island in the south.
I am on Thai soil again, this time to saunter around the scenic Kanchanaburi region, 130 km west from central Bangkok. Because of its picturesque setting and charming beauty, it has emerged as a major tourist haunted joint in Thailand.
Besides sites of great historical and cultural significance, the region features array of natural attractions that includes pristine national parks, virgin forests, timid waterfalls and tranquil rivers, which hand out excellent opportunities for fishing, rafting, canoeing, mountain biking, bird-watching, star-gazing, golfing, elephant and jungle trekking.
The highlight of any visit to the region is the Thai- Burma Railway, built by the Japanese during World War II, during their occupation of the Siamese land. The line connected Kanchanaburi in Thailand with Thanbyuzayat in Burma, through the legendary Three Pagoda Pass, an overland route from India through which Buddhism is said to have reached Thailand.
For construction of this 415 km long track, which passed through a very rugged mountainous terrain, the Japanese deployed 60000 prisoners of war from England, Australia, America and Holland and over 270000 forced local labour, most of whom died because malnutrition, disease and hard labour, thus giving it the name, Death Railway. It's said the number of people died is the equivalent of one person for every sleeper laid along the railway.
The momentous facet of this notorious railway that draws most tourist attention, is the Bridge on the River Kwai, which became internationally famous after release of David Lean's award winning 1957 film of the same name.
Though the motion picture was filmed at a location in Sri Lanka, visitors in thousands started pouring into Kanchanaburi to see the bridge as depicted in the movie. That created a little problem for the Thais, as the referred bridge was not built on River Kwai, but on nearby River Khlung, both rivers originating from the mountainous ranges of Kanchanaburi. To avoid the fallacy, the Thais with admirable lateral thinking renamed Khlung as Big Kwai while other became known as Little Kwai.
In technical terms, the 378m long steel bridge, supported on concrete piers, consists of nine semicircular spans which are 1942 original and two straight sided spans, installed after allied bombing damaged the bridge in 1945.
Standing in front of the bridge, you like me will find it hard to believe that this piece of metallic structure was built in record time of eighteen months, by unskilled labourers without proper training, tools, machinery and technology. It looks are pretty ordinary, but the distressing story of brutality and cruelty it tells, makes it historically significant.
The Thai-Burma Railway Center at Kanchanaburi is an interactive museum where numerous exhibits in forms of photographs, documents and relics present how the railway line was built. It's painful to see photographs of the allied prisoners and Asian workers - they were nothing but living skeletons, breaking earth and rock with shovels and carrying them in sacks and cane baskets. Their meagre diet chart exhibited says daily food consisted of 150 grams of rice ,dried vegetable and dried fish. Uniform was only a scanty piece of cloth, called "Jap Happy", wrapped around the waist line.
When dead, they were buried in camp grounds, but after the war, three cemeteries were built in the region to lay the allied prisoners in rest in a respectful way. The one in Kanchanaburi is the biggest, where 6982 army personnel have been finally rested. With neatly arranged tombstones and poignant messages and shrouded by a deep sense of solemnity, it's perhaps one of the most moving montage in South East Asia.
Unfortunately there is nothing in the memory of the poor Asian labourers.
You can walk on the railway line including the bridge . However care has to be taken as State Railways of Thailand still runs passenger trains from Bangkok, through Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok, the current terminus. The journey being very scenic, I go for a ride and as the train rolls, a sense of eeriness grips me. Rather enjoying the spectacular scenery outside, I keep thinking about the lives of men and women this railway has claimed. I end my Kanchanaburi trip with a deep sense of poignancy.