The Bridge On The River Kwai

 

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The rusty kickstand gave a metallic squeal as I flicked it toward the ground with my right foot. Lifting the daypack I noticed the wire basket had chewed a thumb size hole through the packs thin skin. The two dollar a day bicycle came with a lock as rusted as its kickstand and so flimsy a three legged poodle could open it with one kick. But it was hard to imagine anyone would want to steal a pink single-speed clunker with faulty brakes and cracked dry rotted tires. It was equally difficult to imagine anyone would want to go for a bike ride a on a 108 degree day. Of course when I rented it the sun was struggling to climb above the mountains and the temperature was only in the nineties. Peculiar as it sounds, with the wind flowing across my sweaty skin I barely noticed the extreme heat while riding. On the other hand, I immediately began to melt as I stood motionless at intersections waiting for the light to change.   

My destination was the Bridge on the River Kwai. After riding a few miles of crumbling shoulder on the left side of the road I rolled up to the broad river where two monks wrapped in saffron robes clicked photos of the famous bridge. The trestles rested on white concrete pillars streaked with black. The bridge had been bombed a few times during the Second World War and the pillars were the only original feature. On the far shore was a Chinese temple with a massive stone Buddha. His head rose above the girders of the railroad bridge and looked down on the mindful monks and sweaty me.

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Like seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, the bridge didn’t seem real. I had seen the more elegant wooden version on the big screen many times. It was an intricate lashing of bamboo and timbers surrounded by honorable British officers and hardened shirtless soldiers straining to hoist beams and pound spikes. This basic steel bridge was  surrounded by monks, T-shirt salesmen, and soft overfed tourists, which made the Hollywood version seem like the real deal and the bridge in front of me the Las Vegas knockoff.

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Like Alec Guinness in the movie, Bridge On The River Kwai, I walked to its center, gazed down at the fast moving green waters and reflected on my life. In his real life Guinness was also a Naval Officer and part of the D-Day invasion. In the movie he was the senior POW in the twilight of a long military career and pondered what he had to show for his time on earth. It’s a question that many ask at the tail end of life and careers and one you don’t want to assess too harshly while standing on the edge of a tall bridge. 

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Tourists walked along both sides of the rails as they journeyed to the other side and back. One Asian woman struggled for some time arranging stuffed dolls ‘just so’ on the tracks before pushing the button on her camera. As in other parts of Asia selfie sticks were abundant and held high. A grim faced woman sat down in the center of tracks with her legs stretched straight out in front of her and a rail hugging each hip. Trains travel up and down those tracks daily and she sat in the middle of them staring into her iPhone. She dueled with her selfie-stick for as long as I was on the bridge attempting to capture that perfect Instagram, Facebook or Youtube post.

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As a photographer I appreciate patience and diligence. Trial and error is sometimes essential to capturing a fine image and in my opinion it doesn’t matter whether you use an iPhone or Leica, film or digital. The ‘decisive moment’ has been captured by all kinds of cameras. But I wonder sometimes if people focus too much on their online presence and not enough on being in the moment. 

As I studied the woman wedged between the rails an Asian accent called out, “Can my husband take a picture with you?” 

It was the second time on this trip a stranger asked to take a photo with me. I have no idea why her husband wanted a photograph but considering the railways’ cruel history I thought a picture of a dark Asian and pale Western arm-in-arm smiling was a good idea. In fact I thought it was such a good idea I asked the woman to capture a shot of it with my camera. I seldom (perhaps too seldom) take photos of myself while traveling. Her eyes widened in fear as I handed her my Olympus EM1 with all its buttons and dials. I changed the buttons from manual to auto and assured her all she had to do was point and shoot. Her husband and I huddled up again. We leaned into each other like old friends, she aimed, fired and captured a wonderful image, one of my favorite of the trip.

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Despite the heat and my bicycles’ shortcomings I happily pedaled around town for hours stopping to explore markets filled with cheap hats and baggy elephant print pants and watched carvers shape lumps of jade into brilliant green statutes of prophets and dragons.  At the hottest, most oppressive part of the day I hunkered down at one of the few cafes with air conditioning. It was a treat to write in my journal without sweat cementing my forearm to the page. After a serving of Pad Thai, a sweet pudding, some tea and many refills of water I moved on. I followed a bend in the river to a colorful Buddhist Temple manned by mangy dogs whose barks and growls were so convincing I agreed with them that I didn’t need to go inside. Uphill from there I parked my bike under a shady grove of trees outside a Buddhist training center or school. In Thailand Buddhist temples are more prevalent than churches in the Bible Belt, and like Mormons doing two year missions, it’s common for school age boys to spend at least part of their youth training at a Buddhist monastery. As I rested on a bench in the shade a pair of bald headed pint size monks no more than 10 years old came up to talk. Their English was better than they let on but nonetheless they did a lot more giggling than talking. Nothing substantial was discussed and it reminded me of conversations with young boys back in America. 

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A little before closing I coasted up to the curbside shop and leathery old man who rented me the bike. Despite the occasional rough or missing shoulder Kanchanaburi was a wonderful place to wander around on a single speed bicycle. There’s plenty of quiet roads and temple grounds to explore and since it’s in a valley the terrain is flat. One speed is enough. And as I hoped, no one attempted to steal my pink clunker. Perhaps the potential thief couldn’t find a three legged poodle to break the lock. 

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Categories: Travel

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10 replies

  1. Very interesting modern view of the River Kwai and famous bridge. Like the pic of you and friendly Asian man. It captured the joy of the day.

  2. One of the best, Tom! I especially laughed out loud on your contemplation of life while on the edge of a tall bridge! Great descriptions. Felt like I was there… Hi to Sue…

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Thanks, Phil. I’m happy you saw the humor. You never know if others will laugh at the things you laugh at. The area had some great swimming holes by the way. I think you would have enjoyed yourself there. Have a great summer and stay cool.

  3. I enjoyed the humor in the bridge comment too. The “take-a-selfie-with-a-foreigner” is quite popular in India, and often makes one feel like a celebrity star. In Rajasthan I was even asked just to take pictures of people’s families with my camera. As for the selfies though, I was also really disheartened to see the amount of selfie sticks on my travels. It often seems more about being in a place to get that perfect picture for social media than actually *being* in a place. Hats off to you for riding around in that kind of heat. I hope you were able to enjoy a nice Thai iced tea for your efforts!

    • Hi, Denise. It’s interesting to hear the Indian version of selfies-with-strangers. I don’t think Americans do that but like you say it does make you feel special (and confused). It was crazy hot there but I did have a few Thai ice teas to maintain my sanity. 🙂

  4. I really enjoyed this adventure, Thomas. Your writing is a supreme pleasure to read, and I smiled and laughed out loud a couple of times. The three-legged poodle, the funky bike, the tourists on the track, the bridge sights. I really liked your reflections on how authentic the fake Hollywood version was to the real thing. Loved the photo with you and your new friend, and how that scene unfolded. Marvelous post, thank you.

    • Hi, Jet! You are very kind to read and give such a detailed, positive review. I truly appreciate it. Thanks for following. And keep writing, your work and Athena’s photography are a joy. Best wishes. Tom

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