Lost in Thailand: Looking for Kanchunaburi
We get lost in our own cities and we get lost when we visit new cities. Enjoy getting lost once in a while because you never know where it may lead.
I heard about Kanchunaburi from backpackers, saw the posters of its legendary Bridge on the River Kwai in Bangkok travel agencies and had even seen the 1957 movie years ago. Visiting Kanchunaburi definitely seemed like a worthwhile trip. Finding it would be the only problem.
Winding around the south end of Bangkok’s Victory Monument and tucked amidst food stalls and coffee kiosks, an endless row of minibuses departed every thirty minutes to dozens of towns and cities outside of Bangkok. “Where you go?” a driver asked.
He pointed to a man sitting at a plastic table, smoking a cigarette and counting 100 baht banknotes.
“Kanchunaburi.” I said.
He asked for 110 baht and pointed his cigarette at a minibus.
“Kanchunaburi, chai mai kraup?” I confirmed with the driver. You’re going to Kanchunaburi, aren’t you?
He nodded. “Kraup! Kraup!” Yes! Yes!
I climbed inside the minibus, nudged between a woman with a cylinder of nasal spray dangling from her right nostril and a man with a dozen Buddhist amulets charmed around his neck. The bus pulled out, the Thai pop music cranked up and I was out – absent from the world, sleeping upright and dreaming of the Bridge on the River Kwai. Two hours later I awoke.
“Farang! Farang!” the driver shouted above the music. Foreigner! Foreigner! He pointed to the sliding door. “You! Now!”
I looked out the tinted window as we slowed past a fish-shaped road sign. I’d read these signs were everywhere in Kanchunaburi, symbolizing its freshwater cuisine.
The minibus suddenly jerked to a stop and the driver pointed to the door again. “Now! You!”
At each intersection, I searched up and down the soi side streets for guesthouses, cooking schools, girlie bars, massage parlors, CD and DVD shops — all the types of entertainment that surround tourist attractions in Thailand. Nothing. Not even an English sign. Not even another farang.
I passed a group of motorbike taxi drivers, uniformed in numbered vests. “You go Pattaya?” asked number thirty-nine.
Kanchunaburi is the hilly Myanmar border town where tourists come to learn about the construction of the Burma Railway during WW II. Pattaya is the beach resort city on the Gulf of Thailand, where tourists bask in the sunshine and indulge the nightlife. Why would I want to travel almost 300 kilometers to Pattaya and why would I want to go by motorbike taxi?
“Phom ao bi Chiang Mai.” I jokingly said, referring to the popular Northern city. I want to go to Chiang Mai. They laughed.
I stopped in front of a pedestrian bridge and watched the motorbikes zigzag between cars and converted pick-up trucks called sawngthaews. Kanchunaburi’s a small town, I assured myself. I should be able to walk to from here.
A woman in a yellow polo shirt pulled her wheeled suitcase in front of her and stopped beside me.
“Sawaddii kraup.” I said.
A highway bus raced toward us – honking its horn, spraying diesel and abruptly extinguishing whatever conversation might’ve just been ignited. A teenage bus attendant jumped from the slowing bus and squeezed the woman’s suitcase into the underneath compartment. He pointed to me. “Pattaya?”
The bus attendant nodded, then followed the woman onto the bus. It accelerated down the road again, until it eventually blurred in the heat and vanished in the distance.
I sank to the bottom step of the pedestrian bridge and thought. Why was there direct transport between Kanchunaburi and Pattaya? Was there a national event in Pattaya this week? Regardless, where were the hills? The trees? The scent of nature? The sound of trains? Where were all the farang?
I unzipped my backpack and pulled out my guidebook. Apparently, my location was somewhere off the Kanchunaburi map – somewhere Lonely Planet hadn’t deemed important, but somewhere others had. Hoping an English-speaking employee could point me in the right direction, I crossed the pedestrian bridge and entered McDonalds.
“Khun phu phuuttttt phu…” I said to the female cashier, but stumbled in my words and had to restart. “Khun phuut phassaa Angrit dai mai kraup?” Can you speak English?
“Dai nitnoi.” she said. A little.
“Is this Kanchunaburi?”
“Kanchunaburi? Are you sure?”
She nodded again. “Sure.”
Convinced she misunderstood, I borrowed her pen and wrote K-a-n-c-h-u-n-a-b-u-r-i on a discarded cheeseburger receipt. I pointed to the receipt. “Ok?”
I pointed outside. “Kanchunaburi, chai mai kraup?” Is this Kanchunaburi?
“Chai kha.” she said. Yes.
I unzipped my backpack and turned to page 217 of Lonely Planet and showed her the colorful picture of the River Kwai Bridge.
“Klai!” she said.
Klai is the Thai word for ‘near,’ but klai is also the word for ‘far.’ Or did I have it backwards? Tone markers separated the two. My untrained ears separated nothing.
She smiled goodbye and signaled for the next customer.
I trudged past a laughing Ronald McDonald statue and back up the pedestrian bridge. From the center of the bridge, I watched the traffic below. The sawngthaews, motorbikes and highway buses were supposed to be boats and karaoke barges. The cracks in the blacktop were supposed to be ripples in the water. Instead of oil spills and skid marks, I should’ve been able to see the bridge’s reflection. Where was the river? Where was the bridge? Where was I? Near or far? Klai or klai?
I passed the motorbike taxis again. “Go to Chiang Mai?” asked number thirty-three.
“Klai.” he agreed.
I was lost.
I continued walked along the road, searching for Kanchunaburi signage and other farang.
I eventually stopped at a clinic with an English sign outside and computers, couches and white elephant paintings in the lobby. As soon as the receptionist said, “Good morning,” I imagined checking into a nearby river raft guesthouse and spending the rest of the day exploring Kanchunaburi.
I explained that I was looking for the street that led to the river.
“The river with the bridge.”
“I’m looking for Kanchunaburi.”
“You’re here!” she exclaimed.
“Are you sure?”
I showed her the picture of the bridge in my guidebook. “Can I walk or do I need a motorbike taxi?”
“You need to go to Bangkok.”
“This is Chonburi."
She opened her desk and pulled out a yellow pad of paper and wrote, Kanchunaburi.
“That’s it!” I said. “Kanchunaburi!”
You’re on the wrong side of the country.” she said. “You need to go west, not east. You’re near Pattaya. This is Chonburi.”
I pointed at the pad of paper. “This isn’t Kanchunaburi?”
She crossed out Kanchunaburi and rewrote it, then underlined it. “Thai people pronounce it Kan-chun-nop-bu-rii.
“But what about the fish-shaped road signs?” I said, referring to the signs I saw from the minibus.
“Probably just advertising seafood. Chonburi’s a gulf city.”
I compared the pronunciations. “Kanchunaburi. Chonburi. Kanchun... ”
“If you pronounce Kanchunaburi in Thai like you do in English, we hear Chonburi. “Be careful!” she added. “We also call Kanchunaburi, Kan Buri or just Kan.”
I finally dropped my backpack at a river raft guesthouse at 10:00 pm in Kanchunaburi. At a candlelit restaurant, I met an American and Canadian. We listened to a band of bearded Thais drumming and singing reggae music. “Know any good songs?” asked the Canadian.
“How about a story," I said. “Have you ever heard of Chonburi?”