Beyond the River Kwai

Fancy the morning after on a raft through gorges after elephant and ox cart ride, and a night atop a tree

A Story by JARUNEE TAEMSAMRAN

If you relish a challenge, if you want to experience the rough and tough lifestyle of people in the mountains, and if you are prepared to endure a night or two without electricity and tap water amid the pristine beauty of natural forests, streams and rivers, then go to Thong Pha Phum in Kanchanaburi, a province bordering Burma and the confluence of Mon, Karen and Thai cultures.

The primitive charms of this western region of Thailand remain mostly unexplored because few foreign tourists go further than the notoriously famous Death Railway built by Allied prisoners of war during the Second World War and the War Cemetery.

However if you are not prepared to tough it out you might as well forget it because you may end up in a situation similar to a couple on a trip recently. They started quarrelling after the husband found the experience too taxing.

"The husband didn't seem to be happy, probably he didn't like the tough experience but the woman thoroughly enjoyed herself," recalled the owner of a lodge where I was staying for the night.

You can't expect any modern comfort here. Set in a deep forest rarely visited by tourists, getting there was not easy. To get there we had to take an "E-tan" truck, the only mode of transport available in the jungle. It was a bumpy ride through 14 kilometres of muddy trails and glades, with the last three kilometres the most difficult road conditions I have ever experienced.

"Even the best four-wheel drives can possibly get stuck in such conditions," said the driver implying that the E-tan was most perfect vehicle for the task.

The lodge was a simple wooden house with thatched roof built on a large tree and hidden in a remote jungle in Thong Pha Phum district of Kanchanaburi. You had to climb a bamboo ladder to get to it. It was more like a bird's nest but spacious enough to accommodate eight persons.

Located by the Noi River, the lodge has neither tap water nor electricity. Arriving there at night we had to light candles. They were soon replaced by lamps and we could see better. Even without tap water, the lodge provided decent bath and toilet facilities. It was raining as we arrived there and the sound of the river flowing made for a perfect night's rest.

I tried to recollect the events of the day and asked myself whether I had made the right decision in coming here and spending the night atop a tree without electricity and no semblance of comfort and modern amenity.

I had signed up for an exclusive two-day/one night package offered by RSP Jumbo Travel, a local tour operator, to explore the unseen attractions of Kanchanaburi.

The tour began in the morning with a three-hour ride from the provincial centre to Rantee Bridge at Khao Laem hydroelectric dam.

From there we took a boat to tour sites unlike any other I have seen before. We reached Samprasob, the point where Songalia, Rantee and Beeklee rivers meet. The confluence of the three rivers had led to the creation of a huge reservoir following the construction of Khao Lam dam in 1983.

We proceeded to visit what is left of the original bridge built during the Second World War to link Thailand with Burma.

You can only see the remains of the original bridge if the water level in the reservoir is low during the summer season. From there we proceeded on the most unsual leg of our journey to Sangkhla Buri, a district bordering Burma that is blessed with some of the most spectacular views of mountains, forests and natural landscape in the country, and a settlement of ethnic Mons and Karens that lies submerged in water following the construction of Khao Lam Dam.

We reached Muang Badaan, the local name for the submerged settlement. During March to May when the water level is low you can see old houses, temples and a hospital, or whatever is left of them today, that belonged to ethnic Mon and Karen hilltribes people who once lived there, but were forced to move to higher ground after the government decided to build the dam.

Looking at this lost settlement, a monument to once thriving Mon and Karen cultures on the Thai-Burmese border, can leave a bad taste, but nonetheless, the view of the gigantic reservoir with boats and rafts plying the lake make for a stunning spectacle.

"It gives me a sad feeling looking at the lost villages and temples,"said Poo, a local resident.

We made a stop at the longest wooden bridge in Thailand. The bridge over the Rantee epitomises the centuries-old ties between Thai, Mon and Karen people. This is probably the largest and most distinct Mon community in the whole of Thailand. Most of its inhabitants are families that were forced to move to higher ground after the dam was built.

I was shown to Banmai, a Karen village, for an elephant ride through the pristine jungle.

"This route is off the beaten track. Very few tourists are aware of its existence," said Jumbo Jatupornpaisarn, the owner of the tour company.

I rode a 25-year-old mother elephant with her young baby in escort, accompanied by my guide and the mahout through the remote jungle. For an hour and a half I rode up and down the hills past towering trees and dense foliage feasting my eyes on mountains, lakes, streams, rivers and Karen villages, paddy fields and plantations as they came and disappeared from view. From that vantage point, the ride through the remote jungle was mind-opening and peaceful, the silence occasionally broken by the sounds of birds singing in the bushes.

Every now and then I had to duck to avoid hitting trees. Being this close to nature was something I had never experienced before. It was a remarkably exotic feeling and it must have left me in some sort of a trance for the next thing I remember was that my guide, Sukchay Yenklom, was nudging me to get ready for the next part of the trip _ a ride in a bullock cart.

At first I thought it was a tourist trap and almost said no to it, but here we were, at the entrance to a Karen village and I could see the cart in front of me and a Karen woman and her son waiting to ride us to the village which was still a long way from there. I dismounted and thanked the mahout, promising him to come back for more some time later.

I had never seen a bullock cart before _ actually I thought it was obsolete. The only feature that I was familiar with were the huge wheels used as props by some restaurants, taverns or bars to give those places the desired country effect. Here I was, about to experience it for real. And what a ride it turned out to be, bumpy. We hurtled past rice fields, orchards and plantations admiring the rugged landscape. I saw water buffaloes tilling the fields.

"We just grow enough to feed ourselves. We don't sell our produce because we don't know where to sell them," the Karen lady explained.

"Karen households are usually self-sufficient. Fruits and vegetable such as banana, pineapple, lychee, and papaya are grown in the house compound for domestic consumption," explained Sukchay, pointing to the backyard of a house where we saw a cluster of banana and papaya trees. What ever food they ate was grown naturally and therefore hygienic because the villagers didn't know the use of insecticides and chemical fertilisers.

At the village an elderly Karen woman greeted us with the traditional Bai Sri ceremony that is usually held to offer blessings during New Year or Songkran festivals, and welcome guests visiting their homes.

That was the last activity of the day. From there we were transported back to our lodge in an E-tan truck. The ride along the muddy road was bumpy, if not outright uncomfortable, made worse by the torrential downpour. It added up well to the spirit of adventure that gripped us all day.

We arrived at our tree-top lodge at dusk and since it was already dark there wasn't much that we could do. It rained all night and as I retired for the day I kept wondering what the weather would be like tomorrow.

The heavens cleared next morning and after breakfast we ventured deeper into the jungle to a point on a river where rafts made from bamboo were waiting for us to take us for a ride along a remote and riveting patch of this mountainous terrain.

"This rafting experience was going to be exclusive," we were told by our minders, and rightly so we soon found out as the raft made its way through a refreshingly pristine terrain past natural wilderness devoid of any traces of human civilisation. It was virtually inaccessible by land and the only way to admire nature here was by raft or by boat.

We were rafting through the most abundant of rainforests in Kanchanaburi. It was drizzling again, morning mist hung heavy in the air and the cool breeze caressed our senses as we negotiated the rapids. The currents were not too strong, just about right to provide the thrills as we struggled to keep balance on the bamboo raft.

Being back with nature was sheer joy. For some 20 minutes we were completely shut out from the outside world.

In just two days I accomplished something that could have easily taken me a week if I was doing it on my own. Right from the time I took the bus from Kanchanaburi to Sangkhla Buri, to the boat cruise at Khao Lam Dam, the elephant ride, riding a bullock cart, and taking an E-tan truck to Noi River and spending the night in a house atop a tree, it's been one hell of a riveting experience.

RSP Jumbo also organises 3 days/2 nights packages that include health activities.

Travel tips

Getting there: To travel from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, take the bus (air-con and ordinary) running daily from Bangkok's Southern Bus Terminal (tel 02-435-1199-200).

By train: Trains leave Bangkok Noi station two times a day (tel. 02-223-7010, 02-223-7020).

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