Saturday, March 22, 2014

Surprise - more temples!

Remember the Muaeng Sing temple ruins from the last blog post? If you, dear reader, already had enough after looking at those photos, then don't read any further. Because in Ayutthaya and in Sukhothai there are shitloads of more temple ruins!

So let me clear things up a little bit (I know it's not the first time I write this). Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, both now UNESCO world heritage sites, were once not only the de-facto capitals of Siam/Thailand, but also independent kingdoms that carried on trade throughout all Asia, if not even with other continents!  Nowadays it's hard to believe that these two cities were once really big players in world history, especially if you never heard of them before.

But let's take first a look at Ayutthaya. Situated 70 kilometers north of Bangkok (or 150 kilometers west of Kanchanaburi where I was before) it first seems like a small town inmidst of dry plains and some other remote Thai towns. Some malicious tongues might even say that there is not so much glory left from the days when that very same city was once one of the most influential kingdoms in Asia. But despite the tragic fall of that empire, some fragments of the ancient Ayutthaya stood the test of time and are still accessible; and of course I'm talking of the temple ruins.
Welcome to Ayutthaya, farang.

It's interesting that the Thais were actually able to rebuild the modern town of Ayutthaya just next to all those temple ruins, so the new town's location hasn't been relocated like in Sukhothai for example. Imagine that you're just wandering through the modern part of the city, and 5 minutes later and some streets away you already get to see some of the country's most spectacular temple ruins.

But first, what was the city's big deal back in time anyway? So between the 14th and 18th century the kingdom of Ayutthaya grew into a huge empire that (during its period of prosperity) was inhabited by more than 1 million (!) Siamese and even some foreigners from all possible nationalities. During the city's existence it was the place of residence of more than 30 reigns of kings who all lived in a palace similar to Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. The main capital was built on a quasi-island surrounded by the Lopburi, Pa Sak and Chao Phraya river, making it an excellent location for traders who came visiting the city on the maritime route. Surprisingly, the most accurate historical sources of how the city looked like are actually of western origin!

French and Dutch illustrators drew several maps back then.
Back then the city was spelled as «Iudea».

While Ayutthaya continiously carried on trade with other kingdoms like China, Vietnam, India, Japan or Persia, they even got into contact with western countries like France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands! Common Ayutthayan export goods were for example wood, pottery, natrual lacquers, local food products and even ivory.

It's of course needless to say that many western missionaries and royal delegates tried to convert the Siamese and even the king himself to Christianity or to gain enough political influence over Ayutthaya, but it seems that apart from some trade agreements and the authorization of small settlements near Ayutthaya the farangs didn't made any other progress in their plans.

A French delegation visits king Narai in 1685.

A contemporary illustration of the Ayutthayan boat traffic

But just as dramatic as the kingdom rose, it also fell. In 1765 the Burmese army, which was in war with Ayutthaya for quite some time, invaded the city and burned it down almost completely. After the Burmese retreated, the former kingdom fell into chaos and later Thonburi (and after that Bangkok) was proclaimed as the new capital of Siam, nowadays known as Thailand. So much for history, but now let's get back to the present and the remains of the once great kingdom:

Wat Ratchaburana at night...

... and at day. Note the headless Buddhas.

Lots of trees reign now over the once holy compounds

There are broken remains of statues everywhere

Siamese elephants now show the tourists around

This huge reclining Buddha is still frequently visited by monks

All structures are actually built of bricks

Unlike the others, this one kept his head...

Only the fundaments remain of most former temples

Such Stupas, also called Chedis, are all over this place...

And who's missing this head?

... and at least they're giving some shade.

This one can't be helped either...
These big cupolas are actually inspired by Khmer architecture

Sukhothai, another 390 kilometers in the north and a five hour bus trip away, could be described as «same same but different», when it comes to compare it with Ayutthaya. While it is quite similar to Ayutthaya in terms of architecture, or being an  UNESCO world heritage and a former Thai capital as well, there are still some significant differences.

First of all is Sukhothai divided in an «old» and in an «new» city, that are both separated by approximately 15 kilometers. This simply means that the temple ruins of Sukhothai are part of a separate historical park, while the modern town of Sukhothai is «just» a regular Thai town without ancient ruins. Because my guesthouse was located in the new town, I once more rented a trusty scooter to dash to the ruins and the nearby sightseeing areas. Speaking of nearby sightseeing areas, Sukhothai furthermore has more to offer in terms of national parks, waterfalls, lonely roads and other temples.

I guess if I'd have to pick one of those two temple sites, I'd choose Sukhothai over Ayutthaya. From my point of view it was a more quiet and authentic experience than Ayutthaya, which of course was still OK after all.

Just like Ayutthaya, Sukthothai was literally built with bricks
All temple roofs and walls broke down as well

Now where's your big trunk, huh?

Next to the Sukhothai ruins dozens of such ponds prettify the scenery

It's believed that thieves broke down the heads to sell them.

These cupolas are scientifically called «Prangs».

Again Khmer-like constructions

OK, that's enough temple ruins for today I guess. A few kilometers away from the temple ruins lies another national park called Ramkhamhaeng, which is crowned with the 1200 meters high Khao Laem mountain. For me as a proud Swiss it was of course no question to hike up that very hill. But when I just arrived that place like at 3 PM, the female park ranger at the park entrance told me to my biggest surprise that «mountain trail close now, you come tommorow», but I still could take a quick look at the forest if I wanted. Meh. But of course I wouldn't listen to reason and after all I covertly hiked up anyway. I simply didn't want that lady to spoil my day, by all means.

Well it turned out that the hiking trail wasn't guarded or anything, so I was free to go. After a 2 hour sweat-inducing march (don't forget that it was like about 33°C and humid as hell) I finally reached the peak. The view from up there was simply fantastic!

This splendid road to the national park was literally empty...
The start of the hiking trail
It's a good sign when it goes upwards...
The forest itself was again untouched beauty...

Seldomly there were some areas covered with high grass

This hiking trail was just amazing

... where some kind of radio station stood.

Finally at the peak...

But of course I came because of the view!

A perfect place for a well-deserved rest!

Down again the mountain looked even more impressive!

At the ride back to the new town of Sukhothai I also got literally destroyed by thousands of incoming mosquitoes who were reckless enough to fly into an overspeeding scooter. This lesson also taught me to never open your mouth when driving a scooter in Thailand after 6 PM...

And what else did I learn from Ayutthaya and Sukhothai? Probably that Thai toilets are the best ones on earth!

Pure, simple awesomeness. Note the «flush system» on the right.

The instructions were even better.

These general behaviour rules were quite helpful too - it's still fun to see how many tourists ignore them.

Next time I'll tell you about my trips to the towns of Chiang Mai and Pai, two everlasting destinations of common backpackers. Wohoo.
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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Prisoners of War, some old brick buildings and big cats...

My original travelling plan was to head north after seeing the southern parts of Thailand, and so far I've successfully sticked to my itinerary. Most tourists or other backpackers without that much time as me just move straight ahead to Chiang Mai (the most popular city in the north) after visiting Bangkok. But hey, in fact there's a lot more to see in the north, for example places like Kanchanaburi.

As a big history and movie buff I always was fascinated by classic World War II flicks like «A Bridge too Far» or «Cross of Iron». Although these movies are more than 30 years old, they still seduce me with a certain charme that nowadays movies simply can't overcome. One of these all-time classics is «The Bridge on the River Kwai» starring Sir Alec Guinness in his perfectly played role as Colonel Nicholson. I first saw that movie on TV when I was like 7 years old, and that motion picture still remains in my fondest memories as one the biggest cinematic classics ever produced. I mean there was splendid theatrical performance, an authentic historical context, real explosions (not like that CGI shit from nowadays) and probably one of the best military tunes ever chosen for a movie theme.

So what has this to do with my trip? Well it's a known fact that the Bridge on the River Kwai actually really exists, to be more precisely in Kanchanaburi, 109km North West of Bangkok.

To enlighten all of you who never heard of that bridge or whatsoever: From 1942 to 1943 the Japanese Army constructed a railway between Burma and Thailand to ensure their supplies by land to Burma (as before they only could use the dangerous maritime route to deliver supplies to the Japanese troops in Burma). Trouble was that the terrain in between was so unpredictable and hardly negotiable, that building a railway through all these jungles and rivers almost seemed impossible to specialists. But within only one year and the «help» of Prisoners of War from all parts of the British Commonwealth the Japanese finally were able to build such a railway, nowadays known as the «Death Railway».
The Burma-Thailand railway, better known as Death Railway.
The construction of the Death Railway earned its name from the extremely harsh conditions that these Prisoners of War faced when building it, resulting in the death of over 16'000 P.O.W.s and another 90'000 Asian forced labourers. Throughout that 415km line the labourers were forced to construct hundreds railway cuttings and bridges, with the most famous one being the Bridge on the River Kwai. So let us compare the present reality, the past and the movie fiction of that iconic bridge.

The bridge on the river Kwai as seen today
Still intact...
... and accessible.

That steel bridge is still the same one that the P.O.W.s constructed over 70 years ago, and nowadays serves as an iconic touristic sightseeing monument. It's noteworthy that Allied bombers bombed that very bridge in 1944 (contrary to the common belief that there was an Allied commando unit who blew up the bridge just like in the movie). Later the bridge was rebuilt and sold to the Thai government, that still operates it up to today.

An aerial photo of the steel bridge (the bottom one)...
...that got bombed in 1944.

As you may see in the aerial photo above, there was in fact another wooden bridge 300m downstream, that served as a temporary supply bridge in the event that the steel bridge would be damaged. Some sources claim that this wooden bridge was bombed and rebuilt for several times, but it seems that one day it actually got completely destroyed by heavy floodings and that it was never rebuilt again. Today there is no trace of that bridge or whatsoever. So it seems like that wooden bridge served as an inspiration for the one from the before-mentioned movie «The Bridge on the River Kwai», which was spectacularly blown up at the end of the film.

Sir Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa in front...
... of the fictional bridge on the river Kwai.

The whole stay at that location proved to be a very fascinating experience for me as there were lots of museums and historical sites to visit. Partly I got a completely new viewpoint at the whole topic and I'm thankful to finally have witnessed the «real thing».

Let's take a look on a few more things I went to see:

The main train station of Kanchanaburi

A better view on the river Kwai

A recreated P.O.W. barrack at...
... the JEATH musem.

The Japanese Memorial Monument

One of two war cemeteries in Kanchanaburi

That Japanese Memorial Monument above is actually really interesting: It was built by the Japanese during WWII to commemorate the P.O.W.s that worked and died on the Death Railway! According to some sources the Japanese honor codex was one of the main reason the Japanese actually built this shrine for their own Prisoners of War! Pretty ironic, isn't it? This monument also can be seen in the upper left corner of the before-mentioned aerial photo.

View from the Tham Kra Sae Bridge which is
still in its original state since WWII.
Because most of these trestle bridges were destroyed during the war, it represents a very unique structure of the remaining Death Railway!

... quite impressive too!

The landscape around Kanchanaburi was actually...

Another 80km North West of Kanchanaburi, high in the Tenasserim Hills, lies also one of the most infamous construction site of the Death Railway called the «Hellfire Pass». That railway section earned its reputation from the enormous railway cuttings the labourers had to chisel through huge rock segments. It was one of the most tragic sections of the railway as most labourer fatalities actually occurred from working on the Hellfire Pass. On the former site now stands a memorial museum that partly was funded by the Australian government (note that many former P.O.W.s were actually Australian). It was a very professionally arranged museum and absolutely worth the visit. Besides of an indoor exhibition it was of course also possible to walk along the actual Hellfire Pass, where many men died over 70 years ago.

Japanese occupation money

Inside the museum, in front a diorama of the Death Railway

A secret foxhole radio that P.O.Ws used to receive news from BBC

Common P.O.W. working tools

While the museum was great of course, there was something that really annoyed me and almost spoiled my day. In the rear part of the museum was a small cinema section where graphic pictures (both photos and sketches) of mistreated prisoners of war were shown. Many P.O.W.s suffered from cholera, malnutrition, malaria, dysentry and other illnesses or were simply beaten to death.

Of course I had no problem with the photos themselves, but there was this huge group of American swag teenies who just were laughing at those pictures, while making one hell of a noise without interruption or any respect at all. Good for them that they simply walked away after a few moments, but this incindent clearly made losing some faith in nowadays humanity. I mean there's even no common sense in that.

Really? Is such stuff funny to look at? Seriously?!
However, I decided to move on to the original railway sections of the Hellfire Pass. The museum commitee made a very good job in preserving the railway cuttings and the walking trail through it.

Nature is trying to get back its territory...
There still are railway fragments all the way up

Some other tools like this cart were put to display
One of the many rock cuttings of the Hellfire Pass

A memorial stone the Australians set up

One of these railway cuttings back then in WWII

Because the railway cuttings were creepily illuminated in the night, this place earned its nick name «Hellfire Pass».

Earlier a trestle bridge stood here, now there's just rubble

Near the end of the trail

An original Japanese train wagon

... of horrors from bygone times. Note the remembrance poppies.

On that trail many historic artifacts still witness...

Of course I also went to see no-WWII related stuff, like the Mueang Singh Temple Ruins. These ruins were part of a bigger Khmer temple city a few kilometers away from Kanchanaburi. From an architectural point of view you can actually compare it with the more famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

The main temple ruins of Mueang Sing
And what fruits bears this tree?

Sadly no Durians, but Jackfruits.

Even more amazing at sunset...

The ruins were actually deserted, nobody around.
The ruins are still in perfect condition!

Near the ruins we find some burial sites of former settlers

Simply an amazing place!

To round things up I also went to visit the kitschy Tiger Temple of Kanchanaburi. It's in fact a Buddhist temple which holds quite a lot of tigers and other animals.

This Tiger sculpture welcomes the tourists at the gate

And what's there to see? Tigers of course.


... it's actually the temple monks who look after the tigers.

Along with professional staff...

Although it may look like the animals are chained all the day long for the tourists only, I guess it's still better than it looks like. While the tigers are only chained for about 3-4 hours a day, most of the time they stay in open air compounds that surprisingly remind me of the Bear Park in Berne in terms of dimensions and facilities. The tigers also get lots of exercise by staff who train them.

However, I just realized how long it takes to write a single blog post, and there's still to write about Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai (where I'm at the moment). I'll try to be brief next time. :)
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