Hi! dunno when I’ll update due to lack of time and connectivity.
Today I was eager to wake up despite having to do it way to early at 5:00 am, since I was eager to go to the River Kwai and its famous bridge (anybody remember the tune they whistled in the movie? Thankfully they weren’t piping it through speakers.). This time I was a bit luckier since a lot of the people on the tour were English speakers: one American, some Irish, some Aussies and so on.
It was quite a long trip on the bus since the bridge is some 160 km / 100 miles from Bangkok, in Kanchanburi. I don’t know about the others, but I took a very refreshing nap. Before that, however, they gave us some info on the bridge and railroad, so here goes.
The railroad is some 415 km long and was built to join other existing railroads between Shanghai and Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). It was used by the Japanese to move war material towards India to support the war effort in that area once they invaded Eastern Asia during WW2. Construction of the railroad should’ve taken some 4 years, but the Japanese pushed their workers so hard it was done in 17 months. The bridge itself was taken from China and rebuilt here. Again, it should’ve taken a couple years to rebuild it, but it was done in 9 months. Under those conditions it’s no wonder that thousands of people died.
As an aside, the weather was not exactly sunny, but rather cloudy with a constant drizzle. I, silly tourist, left the umbrella in the hotel because such genius ideas don’t occur to me at 6 in the am. So, what to do, what to do? It’s obvious: get wet.
Our first stop was at the WW2 Cemetery. It’s quite small and discrete but incredibly well kept. It seems that they don’t have any actual bodies buried there, just the headstones since all bodies were cremated on the spot and there are no remains. The headstones belong to soldiers from the countries whose soldiers were POWs there: USA, England, Australia and Holland.
Our next stop was a small war museum beside the river. It’s very small and has a few artifacts like guns and shells from the bombings, but the most interesting aspect is the collection of pictures from the camps. It’s incredible that, despite the less than favorable conditions of constant rain and humidity and the work conditions, there were any survivors and that the bridge and railway were built in such a short time.
Since the museum was by the river, we went to the actual bridge on a longboat, one of those typical Thai long boats with a car engine (or truck if you need more oomph) that has an axle almost as long as the boat sticking out the back with the prop at the business end. James Bond supposedly made it famous in… The Man with the Golden Gun? Anyway, they seem innocent enough but with those engines these things haul serious ass. Our driver got in a racing mood and we overtook another of the boats. Of course, you end up somewhat splashed too, but since it was raining, no biggie.
The bridge itself, to be honest, is nothing to write home about; what’s important is its history. It’s still interesting to cross it on foot thinking how it got there. And, curiously, we saw an elephant at the far end of it! Not everybody saw it because most people turned around halfway through, so the American and I are the only ones with pics of it. Funny anecdote: the owner came out and wanted to charge us 20 baht (less than a buck) for the pic, so we walked away. When he wasn’t looking we sneaked back and snapped a shot. We’re so mean!
After this we went back to the bus. A truckload of people must come to this place because we were taken past what looked like a hangar, full of stalls where ‘jewels’ and other trinkets are sold.
We finally went to a train station where we hopped on a train that uses the railway built during WW2 to take us to the restaurant where we had lunch. I apparently ended up being the nut in the bunch since I asked a kid to take a picture of me hanging out the door of the train. Next thing he and one of his two sisters are doing the same. As we were going into the restaurant their mother jokes by asking me what kind of crazy antics I was teaching her kids. Even better, when I told their dad that I suggested the three of them hang out at the same time but they didn’t do it, his reply was that it was dumb of them not to have done it. These Aussies are a fun bunch.
Dangit, the political rally is on its second day and with no signs of ending anytime soon.
Today I went to Ayutthaya, one of the four capitals that Thailand has had. I was picked up early in the morning and we went there by bus, and we returned to Bangkok on a boat on the Chao Phraya river, the River of Kings.
On the way there, the guide gave us a whole bunch of information on Thailand. Usually this kind of stuff goes in one ear and out the other, but this time I tried to put a little effort into it and I took some notes. So, here’s a collection of random stuff regarding Thailand.
It’s had 4 capitals: Sukothai, Ayutthaya, Thonburi and Bangkok. Bangkok in thai is Krung Thep, and that’s the hort version. It borders Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. With Myanmar it’s had 44 wars, 29 of which it won. The largest source of income for the country is rice; the second, tourism. They have an alphabet with 44 characters which was created by one of their kings a way back. All of the kings of the last dynasty are called Rama, and the current king is Rama IX. Rama VII abolished absolute monarchical power and put a constitutional monarchy in its place. That’s according to the guide; I also read that there was a coup d’etat and that he didn’t really have that much choice. They’ve assigned color to each day of the week. Starting on Monday, they are: yellow, pink, green, orange, blue, purple and red. Rama IX was born on a Monday, and that’s why yellow is all over the place and half the people wear shirts of that color (it’s a bit disconcerting to see so many people fawning over the king). Siam, the old name for Thailand, means “dark skinned”. Most of the population is buddhist, and all buddhists have to be an apprentice to a monk for at least 7 days; seems it’s quite an ordeal because they can only eat once a day, and furthermore, only what other people give them (they can’t be picky). And it’s not really food for them, but an offering so that they’ll take it to a loved one. The buddhist calendar is 453 years ahead of the christian one. They have 5 basic and simple principles: don’t kill, don’t steal, only one wife/husband, (missed the fourth) and no drinking. Buddhist statues have 4 favorite positions: sitting, standing, walking and reclining. Well, enough with the factoids…
We spent the day looking at wats, although we stopped first at the Summer Palace in Bang Pa-In, which is now open to the public. It’s still used for official event, and it appears that King Juan Carlos and Doña Sofia stayed there during their visit. The architecture is of Thai, Chinese and Western styles, and curiously, the music you hear in the gardens was composed by Rama IX himself. The whole compound is very well cared for and tranquil. It must very nice to live there when there are no tourists milling around.
From here on wats and more wats. The first was in ruins because of the wars, and its Wat Mahathat. I’m pretty sure I’ll mess up the names because there’s over 40,000 wats in the country. We continued to another wat with a huge Buddha inside, Wat Prahameru. This one we had to take our shoes off to get inside (good thing I was wearing sandals). Finally, we went to a wat (didn’t get the name) where the third largest reclining Buddha is located.
The trip concluded returning to Bangkok on a boat where we had lunch. A good thing about the meals here is that they are buffets, so you can pig out shamelessly. Good thing, because with thai food you will be hungry in a couple of hours. On the boat I met a Spanish couple and we ended up talking quite a bit, which made the return fly by.
They finally dropped me off at the hotel, and on the way I discovered that a couple of streets from my hotel there is a commercial area with tonnes of stores and restaurants. Whew, what a relief, because I was wondering what to do for dinner, but now I know where to go. So, I headed over there to take it all in (lot’s of trinkets… The most curious, a frog made of wood that seems to actually croak when you scrape it with a stick) and to get a bite. I sat down, ordered dinner and a beer and I spent a while people watching. Eventually I had to go to the hotel to get some sleep for the trip to river Kwai the next day.
Monday, July 2, 2007
Yesterday I was on my own since Alex had to go to work. I took it easy in the morning, hopped on the metro and went to the COEX, the World Trade Center in Seoul. As you can see in the pictures, big buildings and pavilions. Below the whole thing there’s a huge shopping mall, so I took a stroll there, too. It’s a mall, what can I say. However, I got a kick of seeing that they were brewing Antigua Guatemala coffee at Starbucks. Sadly, the Korean characters in the picture don’t say that, although I did read “mocha” somewhere there.
Yep, I read it. On the tourist map I have there’s a section where they tell you how to romanize Korean so that you can pronounce it (the meaning is a whole different story). That’s how I found out that bibimbob is “hot pot”, which is what I had for lunch.
After the mall and lunch I decided to take a stroll by the river. It looked close enough, but the map is not to scale or proportional. I stumbled upon a meditation center with a huge Buddha, an I kept walking. And walking. And walking. And walking. And walking. And walking. And walking until I hit the bridge, which I crossed to the other side. I saw there was a path by the riverside and people were walking there, so I went to take a look. Sadly, there wasn’t much to see. There is a path by the river, but it’s not exactly a great view. Even a so-so one. Too much cement, it could use some vegetation.
The ferry terminal was there, too. I went to see if I could take it to the other side, but the place was practically abandoned. There were 3 guys yakking away like nobody’s business but with no intention of going anywhere and a poor girl at the coffee shop. I doubt she sold anything the day, it was so empty. So, I went to the metro, which was fortunately right there. I didn’t really feel like walking back to the COEX again.
The metro dropped me off at the same street where we go for a night stroll with Alex, but a bit further north. I thought it would take hours to get home, seeing that the distance on the map was the same as that from COEX to the river, but no, in blatant display of “drawing not to scale” it took 15 minute or so. On the way I stepped into a small side street and I entered a different world. It was a local street market on the streets, full of little shops with food and all sorts of wares and you would have to snake between the different posts, it was so tight.
Eventually I got home, waited for Alex to get back from work and went to get some dinner. We tried a Korean BBQ, which ended being quite delicious. The lady who served us spoke some English and was delightful and tremendously chatty: where were we from, what were we doing there, we were very handsome, we resembled so-and-so actors… hilarious!
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Easy day today, I’ve just packed and I’m waiting to go to the airport to go to Thailand in a few hours.
I changed the picture links a bit. Pictures that I take with the phone and upload on the fly will be, as before, at http://fotos.asia.ducaquis.com. Those that I take with the camera and manage to upload will be at http://camara.asia.ducaquis.com although once away from Seoul I doubt I’ll be able to.
Saturday, June 30, 2007
I’m finally in Seoul. The flight here was pretty uneventful, but long. I had time to mess around with the screen, play games, eat twice, watch 4(!!) movies, some of them bad but I had to so something, and fall asleep, usually during the movies. Going through immigration and customs was just like anywhere else, although its funny to see what different countries care about when asking questions on the immigration form: the US is worried about somebody sneaking in a, umm…”firecracker”, Korea is more worried about somebody sneaking in porn.
The airport is really far away from Seoul, to the west in Incheon. Actually, a little bit further west even, on an island called “New Airport Island” according to my brother. Whatever it is, it took us around an hour or so to get from the airport to my brother’s place. Once there, I unpacked (threw the backpack on the floor) and we went out to get dinner. We ended up in “Marché” (it might ring a bell for those in Boston), where I tried something korean and I also tried kimchi. Strong stuff, really.
Going off on a tangent for a moment, Korea is full of Koreans. Before you go “duh!”, what I mean is that there is a serious lack of foreigners around here. I’ve seen a handful between yesterday and today. Such is the lack, that little kids look at us like circus exhibits, almost. We were at the restaurant and I saw these two little kids staring at us. A short while later they came over with their father because they wanted to talk to us and if we’d mind. Totally cute, but seriously, it’s like we’re the bearded lady around here.
After this, we walked home going through the street with all the bars. Nothing out of the ordinary there, a bar is a bar is a bar. However, all the Korean women are hot from behind. The word “fat” does not exist here. Also, you can lump them in two groups: young and not-so-young. Inside each group there is no way to figure out what age they are, and huge number of them look like they’re made of porcelain. You’re kinda afraid to bump into them on the street just in case they break.
Sunday, July 1, 2007
Today we got up somewhat early and rolled out of bed at around 9-ish. We weren’t in rush and I was still dealing with jet-lag, so we took it easy. We left at around midday and we took the metro to go visit N Korea Tower, the highest tower in Korea, which is located on top of Mt. Namsan. As we walked out of the underground, we just started walking up a street and ended up in Dongguk University. We didn’t want to go there, so we just took a path around it. Stupid path, it led us up an interminable flight of stairs until we reached a road that was snaking up the mount. It turns out the mount is a natural reserve, so people were just strolling on the road. Some were even practicing their archery skills at a range there. The road took us to the National Theatre (which is nothing fancy from outside), and from there we took a bus to N Korea Tower. Smart move since it started raining and it was some 2 or 3 kilometers away. Once there we had lunch. I went for something Korean again: bibibob with octopus. Yeah, funny name but no idea what it was. It ended up being rice, veggies, mushrooms and octopus in a broth, and quite spicy at that. But good.
We then went up to the observatory. You could see the whole city, but since it was raining the mist didn’t let you see much, which was a pity. You can see in the pictures. Once finished there we took the bus again to Namsankol, the “Village of Traditional Korean Houses”. And sure enough, that it was. Also, the funniest thing all day happened to us here.
We were sitting enjoying the view from a pavilion when a lady brought out a drum. We thought they were going to put on a traditional show, and sure enough, that they did. Things, however, started going haywire when the drum lady went on a rant and suddenly a couple bolted. Then another girl gave us a small package with some arm attachments. To give you an idea, think of sleeves on a shirt, but tie them around your wrist with an elastic, pull them out and an let them hang to the ground. Why did we get them? Turns out that we were going to put on the show. So, yes, ladies an gentlemen, my brother and I ended up learning how to dance a traditional Korean dance! Together with a handful of other Koreans and an American who were lucky enough to be there. They even taped us (to sell us the film?), and the camera crew were having a riot with the american, who was horribly, terribly bad at it. The lady with the drum was starting to lose her composure, it was that bad.
After that, which ended up being quite a workout, we came back downtown and had dinner. Since it wasn’t terribly late, we went to the movies and saw Transformers. Yep, it’s already playing here, neener, neener. It’s actually quite good, with some truly hilarious scenes.
Oh, yeah, out of the blue I might end up going to Argentina next year, heh.
So, it’s getting warm in here. I was going to crank up the a/c a wee bit, but hey, look what I found (pic 3). Can you guess what’s missing? The a/c vents! Maybe that’s how they keep costs down.
This is how they call the rows that are boarding at Korean Air (click on pictures link)