Thailand: A bridge of tears in the land of smiles
'It looked like a scene out of Dante's 'Inferno'. The burning fires at intervals of 20 feet, the shadows of the Japanese with their sticks belting men.
"The naked prisoners moved rocks around, hammering and clearing. There was shouting and bellowing. This went on all night."
This was how an Australian squaddie described Hellfire Pass, the most notorious stretch of Thailand's 'Death Railway' built using forced labour in the Second World War and made famous in the movie 'Bridge On the River Kwai'.
In humbled silence, our tour group walked through the museum at the site in western Thailand near the town of Kanchanaburi, which commemorated the 100,000 people who lost their lives constructing the railway.
The trip so far had been a delightfully relaxed meander through history-steeped parts of Thailand rarely seen by tourists. We journeyed by train, bus and boat, never far from great food, a beer and a laugh.
So the war museum came as a little jolt back to reality.
After visiting the nearby pass itself, we returned to the air-conditioned bus lathered in a thin film of sweat and a thick layer of mosquito bites. Even our jolly tour guide Pok, always quick to smile, was sombre.
The Death Railway is but a small part of Thailand's rich history, which has been shaped by many influences including China, Cambodia and India.
But looming large everywhere you go is a devotion to Buddha.
We saw it as we arrived in Bangkok on the first afternoon of our 11-day trip to see the sights of old Siam, as Thailand was known until 1939.
With time to spare before we headed north the next day, the group of six Canadians, two English and myself wandered through this bustling city of 14 million people.
Every street seemed to hide at least one temple (or 'wat') to Buddha, most open to the public. Some of these are modest affairs smaller than a hut, others soar out of the tenements, their spires gleaming in the sun.
There are about 25,000 temples in Thailand, Pok told us with a proud grin. Amid the smells and clamour of Bangkok, each shrine is a hive of praying locals.
Some are simply spectacular, such as the Temple of Dawn, or Wat Arun, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River that runs through the city. Vertiginous stairs chase the sky amid pillars and stepped walls decorated Gaudi-style with mosaic ceramics.
Nothing prepared us, though, for the ostentatious splendour of the Grand Palace, once the official residence of the kings of Thailand with 50 acres of glitz now used as government offices.
At 7pm, we boarded a busy train for the city of Chiang Mai, 14 hours and 700km away in Thailand's north. Two hours later we were still rolling through Bangkok's suburbs in stop-start fits on the 'special express'.
The Canadians had wisely opted for first class, leaving the rest of us crammed into a tiny four-berth sleeper. We didn't expect much shuteye but, filled with a tasty hot meal washed down by several beers, the night passed quickly.
Chiang Mai is Thailand's largest northern city, home to 300,000 people and a long cultural history. While not the prettiest of places, it has a certain weather-beaten charm.
It stands in the shadow of a mountain on which is perched another of Thailand's most celebrated temples, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Accessed by a winding road, the wat, which dates to 1383, was breathtaking.
That was partly because it sits atop more than 300 steps (a lift is also available), but also because it seemed to feature more gold per square inch than Fort Knox.
Back down in Chiang Mai, Pok threaded us through the hubbub of a food and flower market, inviting us to sample its unfamiliar delights.
While the group had no problem testing sweet exotics such as dragonfruit and pomelo, only one idiot accepted Pok's dare to chow down on silkworms, fried maggots and cockroaches.
I can confirm that they tasted mostly of salty peanuts gone rancid.
Early the next morning, we drove the short distance to Lamphun elephant sanctuary, which cares for animals rescued across Southeast Asia.
As we stepped off the bus, a dozen elephants came loping across the compound, stopping to nuzzle the tourists in return for sticks of sugarcane.
After a playful bath in a nearby pool, the animals did something astonishing. We watched in wonder as several picked up artists' brushes with their huge trunks and painted self-portraits, using only a little guidance from their trainers.
The resulting artwork sells for anything up to 1,000 baht (€25).
We met many friendly Thai people during our 11 days but none as effervescent and, well, crazy as Perm Nabnian, a chef who runs evening Thai cooking courses for tourists.
Ducking down a Chiang Mai sidestreet, he led us into hidden markets to find the best local produce before driving to an ordinary suburban house, where we learnt to cook.
With a wok each, we tried to keep pace with Perm the whirlwind as he whipped up five courses, including pad Thai, tom yum and penang curry.
Clearly, this is a man auditioning for a role as TV chef while running a cookery school. But in those few hours he did make us realise how easy it is to prepare great Thai grub. You get to scoff the lot, too.
A four-hour drive south by bus brought us from Chiang Mai to Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai, twin cities full of gently ruined temples amid acres of peaceful woodland.
They were once the centre of the Thai empire before power shifted south.
Our gentle expedition on hired bikes worked up a raging hunger we quenched that evening with a feast of seafood.
Quite how we thought raw prawns and sea bass were a good idea hundreds of miles from the ocean was another question, but they were delectable.
Back on the bus, another four-hour drive took the group to a barge on the Chao Phraya river, which runs all the way back to Bangkok.
Some of us were doubtful the vessel -- a former rice barge now towed by a motorboat -- would last to the other side, never mind the leisurely 20km excursion to the next stop.
But it was a tranquil delight, with a delicious hot meal cooked on board by the barge owner's family as we drifted drowsily downstream.
Next morning, after a visit to a teeming local market -- women skinning frogs alive, the air thick with the scent of spices, meats and vegetables -- we drove to Ayutthaya, home of the famous Yai Chai Mongkhon temple.
Although another ancient capital dotted with gorgeous old wats, temple fatigue was beginning to set in, and we turned our minds to the next leg, a visit to the River Kwai and the Death Railway memorial a couple of hours away.
The bridge itself is not much to look at -- overrun by tourist kitsch -- but the short train ride to the museum is worth it for the sobering glance into history.
After almost nine days of travel, the final stop was always going to be the most relaxing. A brisk trip aboard motorised canoes called long tails landed us at the Jungle Rafts, an inn anchored at the riverside in a peaceful valley.
With no electricity or hot water, it was like floating 100 years into the past, though the rooms were comfortable and clean. We ate dinner by the light of a lantern and marvelled at the quiet.
The only sounds came from the muted whine of the cicadas in the forest and the soft whisper of the fast-flowing river three feet below.
As we sped back to Bangkok by bus two days of chillout later, we complained to Pok that we hadn't visited any temples in ages. His brow creased for a second and then broadened into his trademark grin.
He knew we were joking.