No vehicle more than a Volkswagen stirs retro memories. Legions of those over the age of 40 bought them new and they have remained popular as a second-hand vehicle for subsequent generations. Although there is often a gap between age groups and different nationalities, those who have ever owned a VW are permanently bonded by their common ownership and willingness to wag their tongues at length about their experiences with the iconic vehicles.
The Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT), in recognition of the unifying power the car, organised a two-day caravan of VW’s to Kanchanaburi Province for Thai and foreign media based in Thailand. After we pulled away from the TAT office on a Friday morning in early August, our entourage of three ‘beetles’, a rare Notchback and about a dozen VW vans made heads turn as we motored down Highway 323 toward Kanchanaburi Province.
Our first stop was at the Kanchanaburi Allied War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi town. The well‑tended cemetery is the final resting place for 6,982 former POWs, mostly Australian, Dutch and British soldiers who died building the infamous ‘Death Railway’. Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the seemingly endless rows of graves are topped with plaques containing the names, nationality, age, military insignia and a short epitaph for the soldier interned below. Among other things, virtually everyone who visits the cemetery expresses shock at the youth of the men who lost their lives. Most were in the early twenties.
A short time later we stopped at what is often called the Bridge on the River Kwai. For those expecting a wooden bridge like the one in the famous movie, the present structure spanning the Mae Nam Khwae Yai is quite different. The first bridge, completed in February of 1943, was made of wood, but it was replaced by a second bridge made of steel shipped in from Java by the Imperial Japanese Army a couple of months later. In 1945, after 20 months of use, the bridge was destroyed by Allied bombs, but rebuilt after the war using much of the steel from the original structure. Today, to maintain historical accuracy, the bridge is most often referred to as the ‘Death Railway Bridge’.
Although there was a festive air and loads group pictures taken with the bridge in the background, for many it was a time for serious reflection. An estimated 90,000 to 100,000 conscripted labourers from Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia and 16,000 Allied POWs died constructing the bridge and the 415 kms Death Railway, a tragic reality commemorated by the current bridge.
After lunch at the Keeree Tara Restaurant overlooking the bridge and river, we clambered back into our vans and headed toward Thong Pha Phum district of Kanchanaburi Province. Highway 323 was suddenly transformed from an endless tedium of concrete shop-houses into a passage through lush greenery and beautiful mountains with lots of clear-watered streams and waterfalls.
Following a journey of about 50 kms we stopped at Tham Kra Sae railway station on a section of the railway that was built during World War II. Here the tracks clings to the side of a cliff supported by a wooden structure. It is possible to walk out onto the railway, an experience that provides dramatic views and an inkling of how precarious working on the line must have been. There is a large cave adjacent to the station that houses Buddha images and provides respite from the rains and the hot sun.
Before reaching our lodging for the night, we stopped at Vajiralongkorn Dam, a concrete-face rock-fill dam blocking the Khwae Noi River and forming a reservoir with a maximum storage capacity of 8,860 million cubic meters that provides water for a 300 MW hydro-electric power station. Interesting, but not really something to write home about. Phu Iyara Resort, our resting place for the night, consisted of rustic but extremely comfortable bamboo cabins with air-conditioning and en-suite bathrooms. The resort is set in the midst of a dense rainforest, creating an atmosphere that that is both peaceful and regenerating. The food at the restaurant was good and there was complimentary wi-fi, enabling our cadre of journalists to catch up on a little work.
In the morning, many of us headed for the Thong Pha Phum market. When we arrived around 7am, alms were being given to monks from nearby temples. As we wandered about munching on snacks with cameras at the ready, locals cheerfully posed for pictures. Other than some huge catfish cut into enormous fatty slabs, what really stood out at the market was the cheerful attitude of the people working it. The shouting and intense competition found at many markets in Thailand was missing.
As we headed back to Phu Iyara Resort, the rains began to fall, causing several of the adventure activities planned for the day to be cancelled. A hardy handful of our fellow VW adventurers decided to go through with a kayaking trip down the Khwae Noi River. When it was all over they all insisted they had a great time, in spite of several kayaks flipping, everyone being soaked to the skin and three kayaks passing the point on the river where vehicles were waiting to pick them up – a mishap that took five hours rectify!
When we returned, wet and bedraggled, to the resort, we packed and jumped into our vans for the return to Bangkok. Along the way we stopped Krua Pad Riew Restaurant, an event that proved a fitting conclusion to our VW adventure in Kanchanaburi. The food was excellent and included a delicious wild pig curry and some great crispy fried fish that many of our Thai companions claimed was the best they had ever tasted.
As we head back down Highway 323 to Bangkok, the greenery was replaced by the grey concrete found throughout Thailand and we were back to reality. Kanchanburi Province had been a welcome respite and the VW caravan an intriguing journey down memory lane. It was a journey we would all love to replicate, especially without the rain!
By Michael Moore