Like Butterflies to the Face: 5 Days in Kanchanaburi, Thailand (& The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan)

(1) War

Decades would pass. A few short sections would be cleared by those who thought memory mattered, transformed in time into strangely resurrected, trunkless legs – tourist sites

(-from The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan)

I seem to spend a lot of my holidays visiting war memorials. I’m not sure if this says more about my own travel inclinations, or about war in general (i.e. that it is – or has been at some point – everywhere). In South Korea I went to Seodaemun Prison and the DMZ. In Japan I visited both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In Vietnam the War Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels. And in Cambodia Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields. So it felt natural, when we decided to spend our Thailand trip in Kanchanaburi, to visit Hellfire Pass – a museum built by the Australian government and dedicated to POWs tasked with building an impossible railroad during World War II. Hellfire Pass is an incredible experience – the museum is coupled with a walking trail along the old railway route, through Hellfire Pass itself. An audio guide provides info and interviews with surviving Australian prisoners of war. It is powerful, sobering, moving. There are official memorials as well as personal tributes along the trail: Aussie flags, letters, and knitted poppies harassed by hopeful orange butterflies.


But there is something odd about coming to places like this while on holiday. We didn’t come to Thailand to see Hellfire Pass. We came because we had time off work, because we wanted to see our friends, and because we hadn’t explored this part of Southeast Asia before. Visiting the war memorial was secondary. We went because that is what tourists do when they’re in Kanchanaburi. We went because we wanted to drive our motorbikes somewhere. And we went because we were interested – in the history, the stories, the atmosphere. Not as students, or historians, or relatives of those who suffered or died. But as tourists. Enjoying our experience. Free, (relatively) wealthy, well-fed. Lucky.

At the same time, visiting Kanchanaburi and not going to the museum would have felt disrespectful. So you just have to go, and it just has to feel not-quite-right to listen to stories of hundreds of men dying in the wet jungle of cholera, and then go out for lunch.

For he loved poetry above all, and the Emperor was a poem of one word – perhaps, he thought, the greatest poem – a poem that encompassed the universe and transcended all morality and all suffering. And like all great art, it was beyond good and evil

(-from The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

Being in Kanchanaburi did, however, lead me to want to know more about the effect of World War II in this part of the world. Most rewardingly, it inspired me to download Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, based largely on the accounts of his father, who was a POW on the railway. The book is complex; an epic, a work of art that delves deep into the unpleasantness and psyche of war in a way that a museum can’t (even with a really good audio guide). Coming not just from the point of view of POWs but also from that of Japanese officers, Flanagan’s novel is able to go deeper; questions raised by the Hellfire Pass museum are stretched and expanded in The Narrow Road. Most notably, the idea of violence coming not from individuals but through something larger and less definable – human nature, the ‘system’, grand notions of a meaning greater than single men or women (notions like culture, poetry, love, the Emperor).

[H]e put the bugle to his lips with his good arm and once more saw the smoke and smelt the flesh burning, and suddenly he knew it was the only thing that had ever happened to him

(-from The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

Flanagan’s novel also examines the complicated nature of going on after living through a war. Surviving, ageing, and then dying and realising that the most meaningful experience of your life was the war. How to make sense of that? How to reconcile the fact that living through the most horrific suffering was the experience that gave your life the most purpose, the thing that made you feel most alive?

Does this mean that in order to really live we need war? Or, or least, situations that test us and fill us with fear and adrenaline and purpose?

Maybe yes. But then if, in our lives, we are never faced with these difficulties, should we seek them out? Do we go looking for pain? For violence, for madness, for malaria?

Or should we just be grateful to have lives where we are safe, comfortable, lucky – but not ever quite alive?

Seeing war memorials, at least, should be more uncomfortable – like walking the Hellfire Pass trail. It should be unbearably hot. It should be rocky underfoot. You should be bitten by ants and wary of snakes. And you should get violently, mercilessly, rained on.

The things I remember most about Hellfire Pass are the little details that almost made the war feel real. The split-second flashes of reality, like watching a movie in HFR and realising what you’re seeing is real actors. The things that almost did that for me at Hellfire Pass were the letters to Glebe in Sydney, a place I’ve been, where my friends have lived. The multiple choice postcards, provided by the Japanese officers. The telegrams delivering good and bad news to named individuals at actual addresses. And the personal memorials strewn along the trail. The knitted poppies, buzzed by real, living butterflies.11350013_10153262526914123_398122028_n

(2) Trip Advisor

No one makes love like they make a wall or a house. They catch it like a cold.

(-from The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

Wi-Fi, Trip Advisor, and being able to download books anywhere anytime to my Kindle has replaced the Lonely Planet pre-planning travel ritual. Last year in Vietnam Emma Chan and I used Trip Advisor every day – to find hotels, restaurants, transport. We ate wonderful food, stayed in great places, and spent a minimal amount of time researching.

My boyfriend isn’t as big a Trip Advisor fan as I am. His argument is that using Trip Advisor takes the surprise out of travelling. It makes your trip easier, more comfortable – but is that really always what you want? Do you really want to erase all opportunity for surprise, for adventure, for something unpleasant to happen (something that might feel more meaningful – if more uncomfortable – than anything else)?

Between the four of us we had a few discussions about whether to use Trip Advisor or not. As expected, all the Trip Advisor places we visited were great. Most of the others were just okay, a couple were absolutely terrible, but one or two were amazing.

While Trip Advisor was able to make most of our holiday smooth and enjoyable the one thing it couldn’t control for us was the weather. At the end of our Hellfire Pass walk it poured. We were soaked, shivering, and hungry. Scared the storm might keep up until evening, we started the long drive back to town in the midst of it, teeth chattering, rain pelting our cheeks like pebbles. We stopped for a late lunch at a roadside restaurant where Brett had the best cashew chicken of his life, and Emma and I had red curry shrimp that was equally delicious and painfully spicy.

This is the thing about travel. Sometimes the best parts are inextricably tied up with the worst. It’s like being hit in the face with dozens of butterflies while you’re on a motorbike – beautiful, slightly magical … and also annoying and kind of dangerous.

Does that mean we should seek out rainstorms?

No. But maybe it does mean not trying so hard to avoid them. Maybe it means less Trip Advisor. And maybe it means recognising that the most memorable moments are rarely the planned ones; that the best things in life seem to happen to us, rather than because of us. Falling in love, getting all the green lights, spotting a Dalmatian puppy in a cafe. Our only agency – really – lies in being open and available to those moments, letting them happen, recognising them when they are happening, and – most importantly – enjoying them.

(3) Flame Trees

Bird with bright blue back

Surprises me in profile

With long orange beak.

You never see the best moments coming.IMG_20150516_105208

They arise out of a hundred different variables coming together at just the right time, in just the right place. Like monkeys at typewriters, somehow creating poetry.

This happened – for me – on our last day in Kanchanaburi. We went back to The Bridge on the River Kwai in the late morning, just before getting ready to leave. It was my blood sugar rising again after a hypo. It was having a good, long chat with Emma Chan the night before. It was sunshine, and people busking ‘We Will Rock You’ along the bridge. It was my boyfriend photo-bombing people’s selfies with his monkey face. It was the dark grey sturdy there-ness of the bridge, its history, the thought that those POWs who built it might be happy to see this carnival-like atmosphere. It was the bright blue sky and the brilliant red flame trees against it. Trees I didn’t know the name of before coming to Kanchanaburi. But now I do.

Like a drug it faded quickly. Walking back, getting hotter, noticing children busking/begging, and it was gone. What remains is the knowledge that these moments can happen, do happen, and that life is always the potential for them.

Just in case you don’t want to leave too much to chance…

We stayed at…

The Dang Derm Hotel, Khao San Road, Bangkok

Good Times Resort, Kanchanaburi

We ate at…

Nut’s Restaurant, Kanchanaburi

MANGO Vegetarian and Vegan Restaurant and Art Gallery, Bangkok (just around the corner from Khao San Road)

We drank at…

Golf Bar, Khao San Road, Bangkok

We went to…

Hellfire Pass, about 90 kilometres outside Kanchanaburi

Erawan Waterfall, about 45 kilometres outside Kanchanaburi

(To get to Hellfire Pass and Erawan Waterfall we rented motorbikes for about $5 per day from a shop just around the corner from Good Times Resort, on Maenamkwai Road)

Central World Shopping Mall, Bangkok



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