I found that getting to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok was an adventure in itself. Kanchanaburi is not far from the Burmese border. It is the home to the infamous 415 km long Thailand – Burma Death Railway, which was built by Allied prisoners of war and conscripted Asian labourers under the control of the imperial Japanese army during the Second World War.
I took a bus from Bangkok’s Southern bus terminal which is pretty chaotic. It’s really hot inside (and I do mean crazy hot). Trying to find the correct ticket counter, out of the endless numbered lines, can be tricky as you navigate the maze of people milling around or tripping up over those sat on the floor, all waiting for buses to take them to various locations across Thailand.
If you’re heading to Kanchanaburi, walk out of the terminal and across the way from the coaches towards the line upon line of minivans with ticket operators sat in individual little kiosks, under the corrugated iron roofed shelter.
I was accosted by an elderly man (who had probably seen me aimlessly walking backwards and forwards for a good 20 minutes trying to find the correct kiosk). He came over to me asking where I was going, and when I said Kanchanaburi his face lit up as he told me that this was an excellent place to visit and that I should follow him.
He led me to a ticket desk where I purchased my ticket after being promised ‘luxury travel in an air-conditioned minivan’. He was probably on commission, I now realise. At the time, I didn’t really care as the ticket was cheap, and by this point I had already experienced a number of faffings upon faffings including: getting off the BTS sky train a stop too late, dropping my back-pack down the exit staircase (literally thud thud thud as it cascaded down narrowly missing taking out some children en route) and wandering the streets of Bangkok like Dora the Explorer except dazed and confused in temperatures in excess of 100 degrees trying to track down the Southern Bus Station.
I bought some drinks and snacks for the journey and took my place amongst the rows of people sitting, fanning themselves (and getting stuck to the plastic chairs) in the sweltering temperatures, as we waited for this ‘luxury’ minibus to appear.
After about 20 minutes, the van comes screeching into the station, stopping abruptly in front of me. I’m looking at it and trying to join together the concepts of ‘luxury’ and ‘the bus that’s parked in front of me’. I give up. Its bumper is bashed in and its small and grey. I’m surveying the waiting area around me. I count 12 other people (not including myself), 3 of whom are massive guys dressed in military outfits. As I’m looking at the bus and then back at the crowd of waiting passengers, trying to fathom exactly how in the hell we are all going to squeeze into this little bus with all of our luggage, the ticket officer shouts towards us all, waving his arms indicating that it’s time to board.
We all pile into the van. I swear to god it’s hotter inside this tin pot than outside. I feel like Grettel entering the oven. A fan twirls up front spitting out oven warm air. I can feel my hair frizzing and beads of sweat forming at my temples. I’m already muttering a number of FFS’ and considering abandoning the ship. Then my luggage, and the luggage of the women sat next to me gets thrown in, and I can’t get out now even if I want to. I’m pinned in with my super heavy backpack on my knees. An elderly couple get in up front, smiling at me, as white plastic boxes get loaded into the foot-well of the van’s exit by my feet, trapping me further.
And then, the (oven) door slams shut, and we all sit in this devil heat waiting for the driver to get in. Some of the other passengers get out sweet cakes and fruit which we share between us (with my harribo) as we sit waiting.
5 minutes go by. 10 minutes. 15 minutes. 20 minutes. At this point two of the guys at the back pick their way to the front, climbing over the bag and box obstacle course and literally throw themselves outside into the (dubiously) cooler air, slamming the door shut after them. 25 minutes. 30 minutes. 40 minutes. By now my hair is pretty much as curly as a poodle in the repressive heat. Marvellous.
I look out of the window wondering what possible reason there could be for this god-dam delay? I spot the driver stood with a pretty Thai girl, chatting her up, seemingly with his best Julio Iglesias act.
As I wipe the beads of sweat that are literally pouring off my face, I’m pretty much seething now. We’ve been sat in the van for an eternity. The older man up front, equally mad, leans over to the driver’s side and bangs the horn and then the window, breaking up the driver’s tete-a tete, shouting at him, in Thai, telling him (I imagine) to get in the ruddy van and drive. The driver shoots a few furious glances towards us all, wraps up his conversation and comes bounding back over to the van. The guys all get back in, tripping up over the boxes. Standard. And hey presto we’re ready to go.
When I say go, I mean go. The driver floors it. We go hurtling out of the station at close to 50 mph. The fan starts twirling faster now and more (allegedly air conditioned) warm air seeps out.
I quickly conclude that the driver is simply mad. He’s veering chaotically in and out of the lanes of traffic seemingly intent on a suicide mission. If we stay in a lane for longer than maybe 3 minutes he gets restless and has to switch to another. If there’s a car in front of us, then God-help them, because he becomes borderline incensed and thumps the horn repeatedly making wild hand gestures until they’ve moved over (that is until we encounter another vehicle in front and the charade starts again). I look over at the guy sat opposite me and he’s holding tightly onto the roof handle. I scrabble around trying to find a seat belt. None. Amazing. I’m wondering if I’m going to survive this journey, and if I do then the bonus is that the estimated 3 hour journey is probably going to be more like an hour at these speeds.
About an hour in, a strange burning smell escapes from the engine and the van starts making loud revving noises. We splutter into a garage and all pile out. I nearly fall out as my cramped up pins and needle filled legs touch the ground. Great.
The driver pops the hood and starts shaking his head. Looking over at me he says ‘it’s no good’. I take this to mean that the engine is pretty much screwed. We all head into the café and sit eating soup and sharing my harribo (avoiding the horrific toilets) until help arrives in the form of a replacement van an hour later. Yay!
Round two. We pile back in and, almost just before the last person takes their seat, the driver floors it out of the garage causing one of the military guys to fall into the lap of the girl behind me. The driver’s not bothered and steps even more heavily onto the accelerator.
We zoom out at a steady 65 mph skidding to the right (almost tipping up) as we join the main highway. Again, we are weaving in and out of lanes, horn beepings begin as do the manic arm gestures. I spot heavy roadwork traffic approaching up ahead. The driver (disguised by way of his best Nigel Mansell impression) has already seen this obstacle and veers dramatically left onto the gravel track, at the side of the road. The girl next to me falls into me, nearly pushing me off my seat into the narrow aisle. She pulls me back across.
The gravel track we are now commandeering is essentially a hard shoulder however today it’s being utilised as a race track in our Wacky Races escapade. I don’t see Mutley or Penelope Pitstop however and surveying the faces in the van no one’s much up for laughing now. A girl further back is looking green and bends over a bag she is holding close to her face. I’m holding my nose trying not to vom’.
The road surface is loose and uneven. The van’s tyres have limited traction and we swerve right and left veering up and down through huge pot holes as he keeps a steady foot firmly pressed down on the gas pedal. I see a huge lorry ahead that is taking up some of our track space. I shut my eyes as we zoom through the narrow space fearing that we’re all going to be crushed to the size of a rubix cube. We got through. Just.
Suddenly the van starts trembling and begins to slow down. We have a puncture. Amazing. Right by the side of a manic highway (this happened to me in India too!!!!!).
We start to disembark from the van. As we do, one of the military guys kicks the white boxes out of the van, by accident, and out spill about 100 oranges into the road. We all frantically chase the oranges, trying to pick up the ones that are safe to reach, whilst watching cars splat the others into highway pulp, as the elderly lady who owns the fruit shouts at us all to save more. She’s looking pretty mad as we put the few retrieved oranges back into the box. Whoopsies.
We stand at the side of the road for ages whilst the tyre is being changed. I’m trying to stand as far away as possible from the cars hurtling along, and I lean back into the bushes until a creature from the deep walks off one of the branches and onto my shoulder. I pretty much nearly pass out on the spot. By the time I’ve regained my senses, the puncture has been patched up and we climb back in for the final leg of our journey.
The journey from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi is supposed to take between 3- 4 hours.
We came crashing into town after about 7 hours. Hot and weary. I’d do it all again though for these heavenly views over the River Kwai (Khwae Yai River). Dreamy.