Historical Travel

History unveils itself as you travel.  If you get to know tourist sites, local people (even as a tourist) then you can find out and gain real insights into the places you travel to – or the people in the places!

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In each country I visited I found this.  Sometimes natural history, sometimes political.  Nowhere more than SE Asia was the politics made clear – from Machu Pichuu and Angkor Wat from the 10th Century, to WWII escapades and atrocities in my lifetime!  Yes, that’s now history!  😮

I have, this week, been reminded of this and one experience in particular, as I went along to listen to a friend relay the story around a WWII runway he and I, with his wife, ‘discovered’ in Ubon Ratchathani!   I was and am excited to be part of history here as it’s something I love to learn about and being part of this new discovery and the growth in interest around it, is gratifying!

So, arriving in Ubon in September 2015, I stayed with Ray and Kammah at their home in a small village where Kammah was born, and her family live, as well as the extended area in Issan – north east Thailand.

I came over the border by bus from Laos, not yet setting foot in Vietnam and Cambodia with their own histories and stories to be shared later on.

I was included in trips out, special visits to show me around, and then this one day Ray had put aside to explore and achieve his goal to find this airstrip he had identified through war studies he started around a medal for his dad from France.  Dad was 92 years old this year (2017) and a veteran of the world war.   He got his French medal too, a little late especially for some too late, but at least it came.

We drove out to an area of Ubon where Ray believed this airstrip was.  He had seen it on Google Earth amongst the dense jungle, following leads in accounts he read and researched.   Kammah came and was helpful, as ever, in translating as few people in Ubon spoke English (not a tourist route generally) and of course, interested to help Ray in his quest too.

We drove down lanes through densely set trees and plants, jungle uncleared except for the town areas where people had homes and schools.  We didn’t see anything.  Then Ray saw a secondary school and said we would pull in to see if they could help.   I dismissed the idea with: “As if there will be anyone in a school who will know that, just because it’s in the area”.  And hey presto – amazingly, there was!   (And this sort of fortune has been around Ray during the research and events he’s attended since starting his historical quest around the war heros and personnel!)

I stayed in the car, he went to the door and asked the man who opened it.  I was watching expecting disappointment.  Then, the man pointed to his left, and we looked as a woman, about 30-40, came along and chatted to Ray.   Would you believe that this woman, a cleaner at the school, was the daughter of a man who was a young boy in the area when the war was on and the Japanese were in the area!   He KNEW the PoW camp and other sites, and, having disturbed his attendance at a friend’s funeral, came in the car to show us around with his daughter, translating with Kammah’s help!

We found the airstrip.   I had read some stuff on it from Ray’s writings and as we wandered the vicinity, after parking up at the edge of a concreted runway now, quite short, Ray and Kammah found more from Nong and I noticed the worn away dirt uncovered marble stone – that the runway had been built from!   I was SO excited and told Ray.  We continued to wander, found a bomb hole we were told about, and a small plane hanger.  A white 4 x 4 had driven off at the other end of the runway but otherwise no one else around.

Nong took us to the site where 1000 horses were buried after being euthanized (shot by Cnl Toosey himself, a hero of the war who helped manage and release the PoW in this area and others throughout the war).  They were so badly cared for and worked so hard they were not able to recover sufficiently.  A vet was sent out to check this was the right option and sadly so many had to die.  Nong, at 90 years old, dressed in black shirt and pants, simple sandals on too, came along an uneasy route to this field through bushes, and a small unkempt edging to this mass grave.  I was impressed with him, his help, ability and memory especially!

He was just 8 years old when the camp was there, and sneaked in as boys will, even making friends with some of the prisoners and no doubt helping to get them some food when they could.  The Thai’s are resourceful and opportunities to make some small amount of money for extra food for the prisoners (they were paid for their work on constructing the Thai-Burma  Railway (Death Railway as it is nicknamed as so many men, soldiers of the world, died in inhumane and cruel conditions yet constructing such a magnificent legacy for this country now).

As well as the PoW camp where we were taken to see – now just an empty field, which was initially taken from the owners who grew rice there, to become a camp for the 1400 soldiers captured, worked and beaten there.   Here, though, conditions improved as time went on and was better than other sites and camps along the railway path.  Even so, the son of one PoW and another whose father was the camp band leader for the troupes there, told us their fathers were merely 6 stone in weight when they were freed!

We toured around seeing where, as the war ended for most of these men, and celebrations and changes took place for them, a horse race was arranged with locals, soldiers and saviours coming together for some much needed fun!

It was a privilege to see these sites, hear the stories, be part of the discovery of this airstrip that locals and formal authorities didn’t know about, and now Ray talks to groups, there and here, about it and shares the war strategies and PoW stories he’s found.

They are many.   I have now bought the book that one of the prisoner’s sons has written about his father’s situation although his dad prefers not to talk about it.  Not many do.

I met an ex SAS member in his 90s once who told me stories and shared memories but was afraid to tell his family about this exploits because of both the Official Secrets Act which he felt was still in force for him, and also his own experiences and acts that he was afraid would colour other’s views of him perhaps.   It didn’t for me and I was proud of him and his comrades in arms, who saved us from the German invasion; but in the end, having opened up confidentially with me he could open up to his family, and his daughter – for his 90th birthday which I couldn’t sadly attend – got his war medals from the war office to give to him!   How lovely and how proud his family were of him and how that alone might well have lifted a long-held weight from his shoulders.   No doubt, the same for many if not all those soldiers of war!

I read Two Years of Tenko by Cecil Lowry, a book he gave me at the talk, about a 16 yo girl and her family taken prisoners of the Japanese and how her island home was invaded and taken over, and how they were treated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bridge over the River Kwai

Sitting on the train after Kwai crossing and WangPho viaduct on Friday 14th August 2015 on my way to Bangkok, then Chiang Mai tomorrow.   This latest trip offered history with beautiful views…if scary with open doors on the train to a drop along the Wang Po viaduct built by PoW in WWII!   It now has a luxury lodge opposite across the river, something the boys back then would never have believed!   Not only did they make travel possible between Burma and Thailand – begrudgingly and unwillingly but with little choice – for our enemies at that time,  but their legacy lives on with the railway still in use, and boosting tourism for this fascinating country!

 

There were people wanting to get by me and a teacher taking photos, against this open doorway that dropped directly to the track and the gorge, on a relatively fast moving train!   One of the many exciting times I am due to have it seems, but this was sad, awe-inspiring in what they achieved, and as a traveller, learning the culture with the people on board too – third class in some trains are hard wooden benches against the coach side, but great views instead of facing forward!

I got some good videos along the river, albeit not the original River Kwai but the Muong Khlong. To avoid tourist problems the Thais renamed it Big Kwai or Roi Kwae. Nice and simple, the way the Thai people like it! 😄  The original River Kwai is one that joins this river somewhere on it’s journey I believe!  It was, of course, made famous by the war film Bridge over the River Kwai that showed their work and suffering but made out the glory too.

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I met a lovely Thai man at Wang Pho on his way back to work at Thakasae Bridge station where he maintains radio equipment on the railway. Previously in the Air Force as an engineer where he learned his English to speak with Americans, too.  Told me how to get from Thomburi to  Lamphong on the 40 bus so I would be safe with crime around the stations.

He said he liked to talk to people so we chatted about my travels, his wish to see England one day, etc etc.

We shook hands and I gave him a hug when he got off, which seemed ok.

Travelling isn’t all fun..

15.8.15 Bangkok Oldtown

A difficult day today after a noisy, cold night (yes, cold!). The Oldtown Hostel I booked online through Booking.com was different to my first experienced at Hua Hin with shared dorm ok but shared showers/toilets for a floor. And mine was at the other end of corridor!

Looking good at Hua Hin dorm (errmmm??!?!)

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The air con turned on and off all night, right above me and no-one seems to question it. At least in the other we could control it.  It was freezing!

Then it was on a busy road so traffic all night – sounded like I was on the street with them!!! The mattresses is quite hard but the pillow too last night, so better in that respect!

My bed-mate on the top bunk was within three feet of me so very friendly!

All in all, I couldn’t stay again. Then as I as I was first up and didn’t want to disturb the lads still sleeping (how??!!) the other girl was outside sorting her bag, and I dragged mine out to do the same.  Rattling my plastic flat pack bags to fit in my rucksack was noisy, along with my huffing and puffing and here in the hall, where needed, no air con!!!!  Hot, sweaty and frustrated, as well as tired from sorting bag there and then, I hauled it down stairs.

The hostel itself was nice and a few facilities, but not really for me.

As I was able to leave my bag and come back later, for the Internet and air con downstairs too, I can sit down before going back to the station.

After days of hearing and reading about trains being hard to book to Chiang Mai I looked at options and almost booked an expensive temple tour, hotel tonight in BKK and then train from Auythetya there, and another hotel of their choosing when I was taken there by a tuk tuk.  I was sent there for advice by a school teacher who saw me lost and indecisive on the street and could speak English – however, these are touts for customers lost and confused, easy targets for charging well over the odds for things.  But after trying my card and then sending me off with someone to get the cash I drew the line!

In ‘bed’ on the train…

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All I wanted was to see and go on the river but I never actually got there!!! Another taxi took me to a boat booking pier but I had already done it for less and that was over the odds!!!

Another taxi from Thonburi station, across the river, he didn’t know the way through the one ways so dropped me again, and without directions from a local would have wandered around, as I did earlier today, for hours!!!!  People are generally very helpful!  I know the locals have to earn a living too, and tourism is ‘it’ but still irritating when it’s you being dumped in a place you don’t know, hot sun beating down and pushed to buy things too pricey that you don’t really want!  Glad I got past that this time!

Difficult, to say the least, but I know I’ve been lucky so far… one bad day amongst so many good ones can’t be bad!

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Bangkok roads from the Skytrain …

 

Koh Pha’ngan/Full Moon Party!

Joe from Co Down, who says he’s average when we were talking  and he said his friend had commented ‘there seem to be no fat travellers’ as most are thin, attractive if not stunning!!   (Then there are exceptions like me…! He looked awkward!  :o)

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But he was nice, attractive as the Irish are!  Red haired almost, pale skinned, he was wary of the sunshine sitting under a brolly looking out at the sea, relaxed.

We had a really good chat –  sitting in the sea on deckchairs under a brolly (really!) or me lounging in the shallow blue waters – when we first met, and I’d asked him how he and his friend had managed in the storm the day before – they stayed out as the rest of us dashed inside as it came in off the sea!  We sat for ages just talking about this and that, travel, the upcoming party and all sorts.   Just a lovely relaxing, friendly day travelling again …

As it happened, we shared a songthew with several Germans from the hostel too and they at times adapted me as we wandered, danced and met up again!  He seemed shy in the taxi with the Germans, the girls who were very good looking, and for me, the guy with a bun who actually got burned legs on jumping the fires at the FMP too, ouch!

I was also adopted by some English girls who dragged me up to dance on the stage, but it was fun and they are lovely – still Facebook friends today too!

He came to sit with me when he and Cormack got back from the FMP at 11.30 am after the Full Moon Party the next day, and we chatted about it until he had to get to bed!  He had invited me o share their taxi as I didn’t know where it was or how to get there.

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When I first got to Greenpeace Bungalows on the Friday, the owner told me, as I stood an older woman with a backpack, not looking my best I guess either – that there is a full moon party on the Sunday.  I told him that’s why I was there – he looked stunned and said, pointing to the left of him, “My mother she no party!” at which I laughed and said “My daughters – they say My mother party’s!”   The staff all found it amusing I was really going to go and that I went, and I survived until 4 am too!  I loved it – dancing, wandering, sitting, even lying on the beach in a designated area to chill out a while and rest!  Great fun!

 

 

 

 

Fly to your dream ….

Well, the day is here!  Setting off on that dream trip around the world (at least part of it!) which I’ve been dreaming of for years.   I have to leave my girls at the airport as they insist on coming along to see me off, which restricts my excitement a little until I am on the escalator up to departures – then I smile, pose for a photo (that I never saw) I asked Amy to take when I should have perhaps been more sad to leave them …

I was sad but also excited to see the countries I planned, the people I’d meet and the wonders of the world to witness!  Who would be excited?

I sat in departures after the passport and luggage control.  All alone.  Waiting for my plane.  In a cold airport in the UK …

Then I felt the reality of leaving, of missing my children and adventures awaiting!   I did it! I was off!   Phew, it felt weird, but wonderful too!

img_0048The Bangkok Skytrain from my hotel window the first night …

On the plane, I sat next to Lester, an IT programmer who made funfair rides happen – from ideas to designing and moving his business was to create the systems behind the big, wild rides!   Interesting guy, friendly and we talked for hours during the 11 hour flight UK=-Bangkok.   His message to me – along with the book I was reading and the film I watched “Nothing is impossible.  Everything is possible”.   Wow!   It was amazing as I finished the book with those words, ended the film almost with those words and then talking to Lester in between he used those exact same words and phrases!

We ate, chatted, chilled, thought.  He was off to a meeting – what an exciting life he has, I thought, and wondered if to ask to meet for dinner as he had no plans it seemed and I was to be alone in a new city, a new country …

But then he was late, as our flight left half an hour late, flight took longer and we had to dash across Doha airport to our connecting flight!   I wasn’t fit to run, especially with bags and he hesitated to wait with me but I sent him off to hold the plane for those like me who were struggling!

We made it but his meeting was almost as soon as he arrived so it was going to be delayed, and he wouldn’t have been happy to make plans after the fraught flight delays and meeting his clients so I left it.  I wasn’t sure how I’d feel either, what time I’d get to my hotel and if I’d even find it.

I had planned it’s location, near the Skytrain but then my niece had said to get a taxi for ease and wouldn’t cost much… £12 and the Skytrain was so easy once I’d started to use it and took it back for my flights out and in all the time, as well as getting around.

As the traffic in Bangkok (BKK) is so heavy the train travels on rails overhead, like flyovers so you get some great views of the city, slums and high rise modern buildings on the trip!  As well as the traffic jams below…

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I enjoyed the flight, with a choice of films and food, chance to read and chat to interesting people – what a great start to my trip it was, and will remember it always!  Flying with the Oneworld Alliance – Qatar Airways this time, and hence they were my ticket-holding airline (unhelpful throughout – wouldn’t change flights, staff didn’t even try, abrupt emails that didn’t respond or elaborate!) …not quite the five star they claim to be, at least for me as an economy passenger, it cost enough I guess on the ticket.

It was a round the world ticket – four continents and three flights within each, so UK out and back was two flights for Europe, and Madrid;  BKK was one and then out to Vietnam later was two and from BKK to Australia three.

The other flights were Australia to Sydney, then to Cairns and Adelaide and out to New Zealand;  NZ to Santiago, Chile on to Peru Lima & then Cusco.  Out from Lima to Madrid and then home to London but I didn’t actually take that one either (the other was Cairns to Adelaide – see Australian section) as I side-tracked to Ibiza to meet the girls on the way back, as it coincided with their holiday week at half term too!

The ticket was £3300 including taxes and the agent (also not helpful or even knowledgeable at times, and not efficient either at times… certainly not tailor made travel for my needs as I wanted to travel mainly overland but then got this ticket with the flights included!   The whole buying process just added more and more restriction to my plans, day after day,  and as it was rushed (three weeks from house sale to leaving date) it took a long time, almost a week and three different people!  In hindsight I wished I had booked my own flights as I went, as a friend had, and travel overland as intended by bus or trains, or even car in places, as it cost the £5000 he suggested without the ticket, anyway!  In future I will, using Skyscanner which I learned from a fellow traveller, and it was a great facility to use and plan with!