Friday, 16 August 2013

Hammock on the River Kwai

Just a few hours’ drive from Bangkok, there’s a wilderness steeped in mystery, a jungle that’s deep, dark and penetrating with a fascinating history. This is the Kanchanburi region bordering exotic Burma, and the location of the legendary River Kwai. 

Immortalised by Hollywood in the 1957 movie starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, the area is infamous for the horrors inflicted on Allied POWs during World War II by the Japanese, who forced their prisoners to build the ‘Death Railway’ in the depths of the jungle. For anyone with an interest in history, Kanchanaburi is a must-visit, with an excellent museum at Hellfire Pass, war cemeteries and the actual bridge a poignant reminder of the insanity of war. 

But I’ve come to the region not so much for education, but for relaxation. Several of my friends have recommended the River Kwai Jungle Rafts as a cool place to stay on the river, where you can chill out in a beautiful wild location and lap up the nuances of the jungle. 

Established in 1976, this was the original raft house hotel on the river - there are several now - and a bold experiment in eco-tourism long before the phrase was coined - a low-impact tourist venture built from sustainable materials, with a strong environmental focus, and incorporating and employing residents from the neighbouring Mon village. 

As well as the ‘floatel’ providing men and women from the village with jobs, visitors are able to walk to the village, where they can visit the temple, help out at the little school, feed elephants bananas and support the community by buying handicrafts. 

Local women also offer massages at the hotel - though be warned, it may not be the best rub down you’ve ever had ... my ‘therapist’ was clearly untrained, not particularly skilled and spent half the time swatting away mosquitoes with one hand whilst giving me bruises on my calves with the other ... 

Tours of the local area are available through the hotel, but these can be a little sporadic and chances are one won’t be running during your visit. The other popular activity is jumping in the river at the head of the rafts and floating down to the end - an activity that seems to be a particular favourite amongst Russian tour groups staying at the hotel. Nothing like the sight of 40 squawking tourists wearing life jackets to provide half an hour’s entertainment... 

Early in the morning, several elephants kept in the village come down to the river to bathe; guests are welcome to then feed them a fruity breakfast before sitting down to their own. This daily routine adds a nice little touch of culture and a welcome pachyderm fix for people like me who just can't get enough of elephants!

As for the rest of the day, I’m content to just lie in my hammock and watch the river float by. In fact, for three days, there is really very little else I can do ... with no power, and a generator that only runs for a couple of hours at night for recharging batteries, I can’t even do any work on my computer. 

Thank goodness for a good book and a healthy work ethic! ie ... not doing any ...


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