Fear and Floating in Kanchanaburi

Posted on April 30, 2013

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Away from the usual tourist traps, REENA KARIM visits The Float House, befriends the Mon locals, and even faces her terror of the water.

A short shuttle bus ride outside Kanchanaburi, I arrived at the appointed pier where I was escorted down a wooden rope bridge to a floating deck and onto my personal long-tailed boat. I imagined this is what Captain Nemo felt like when he braved through mysterious waters in the Nautilus. As the boat made its way through the winding Kwai River, the mighty mountains barricaded me from all things worldly, while the trees welcomed me by stooping into the waters.

A few minutes and a steep curve later, we approached the Float House, a lavish floating villa on the river. The reception area, where we docked, stood in the middle of the elongated property. Made entirely of wood and bamboo and styled with ropes, it swayed gently with  every passing boat. After checking in, I went behind the reception and followed a long corridor, open on one side and lined with villas on the other. Separated from the banks with 20 feet of water, the Float House was bright with streaming daylight.

A BUOYANT HAVEN

My 90-sqm villa, modelled after traditional Thai homes, came with its own balcony and private pier. Made from materials sourced locally, the extraordinary floating resort is designed to complement its naturally beautiful surroundings. The high-ceilinged villa was padded by a thatched truss and came with a sun roof, great for natural light. Decorated with teakwood furniture, the room was packed with all modern amenities, such as high-speed Internet, satellite television with a DVD player, a safe, and a stocked mini-bar.

If the romanticism of the towels shaped into kissing swans and scattered rose petals was not enough, I squealed in delight when I saw a canopy of lacy mosquito net hung over the bed on bamboo poles. There was an additional king-sized day bed, surrounded by shuttered windows.

After a tour of my living quarters, I headed outside to my private balcony and then to the wooden pier. The deck had a charming swing, sheltered by a pagoda made with hay. As I enjoyed the constant swaying of the villa, I could imagine being on a ship. In many ways, this was a buoyant vessel.

RIVER DINING

After unpacking, I headed to the restaurant. Keeping in theme with the rest of the Float House, the Pontoon restaurant had thatched ceilings, tied together with thick ropes. The restaurant had a rustic feel, with teakwood furniture, coloured cushions, and low canvas blade ceiling fans. The square-shaped bar situated in the middle of the restaurant was particularly interesting, as it was made entirely of braided ropes on a wooden frame.

The menu consisted mainly of Thai cuisine and a small list of international food, available a la carte and buffet-style. Phon, my waiter, recommended I try the Thai set for lunch. I ordered an iced tea, while he brought out a seafood clear soup. The mains included a dish of broccoli with shrimp, squid in coconut sauce, and crispy chicken with garlic, followed by a healthy dose of fruit. The drinks menu offered the usual cocktails, a short wine list, liquors, and aperitifs. Phon also informed me, that on request, the Float House arranges for evening entertainment for the guests with a traditional Mon dance show. As the carb overload had set in, I was beginning to get drowsy. Trying to avoid my afternoon nap, I headed out for a bit of sightseeing.

A WAY AROUND

The receptionist informed me that I could trek to nearby places with the complimentary bicycles that they provide.  But for that, I had to go across a short bridge and then take the mysterious set of stairs from the banks, all the way to the top of the hill. Up top, I happened to bump into Suwat, a lively tour guide who also doubled as a waiter in the restaurant. I confessed that I did not know how to ride a bicycle and he kindly offered to drive me around in a side car attached to his motorcycle. Off we went on the uneven narrow dirt road. Even though I had to hang on for my dear life, the ride was exciting.

Suwat took me to the local Mon village school, which was merely a shed. But I appreciated the pride with which he showed me Mon alphabets written with chalk on the blackboard. The multipurpose shed, he informed me, also served as an event hall for weddings and birthday parties. From there, Suwat took me to an orchard owned by his farmer friend. Interestingly, along with the property on the hill, a part of the orchard is owned by the Float House’s parent company Serenata Group, which helps local farmers plant fruits and maintain their orchards. The farmer welcomed me with a cool refreshing coconut, which he had just cut from a tree, while Suwat had me taste a sweet pomelo. Before I left, the smiling orchard owner let me photograph him and even gave me piece of sweet tamarind.

Suwat also told that the staff, most of whom are from the local Mon community, had migrated across the border from Myanmar. Even though he was born in Thailand, he admitted to being from “that” side of the river. As we made our way home, our ride broke down half-way through. But my well-resourced guide rescued us by borrowing his friend’s motorbike.

The scorching heat at midday had me consider jumping into the cool tempting waters of the Kwai. At the Float House, guests are encouraged to swim, provided they wear life vests. For those not-so-skilled swimmers, like me, a small sectioned off area behind the resort is ideal, as the water by the banks is only two metres deep. But my vivid imagination saw the sea serpents waiting to feed on me. Disappointed for not having the courage to try something new, I went back to my room. The lovely rain shower in my bathroom was of some comfort.

While I stood in my wooden floored bathroom, I couldn’t help but notice how the intentional gaps—that ran throughout the villa—between the planks revealed running green waters of the Kwai. I would have felt guilty about polluting the waters, but the Float House’s commitment to eco-conservation means their soaps and shampoo are made using natural ingredients. In case you were wondering, the sewage waste leads out to a septic tank, not into the river.

Afterwards, I headed out to my deck and read on the swing. Soon, the skies turned dark, and it began to rain. The deck was now rocking hard, and I went back in. Luckily, my room was equipped with an umbrella and I was able to get to the restaurant without getting soaked. I happened to meet John and TC, who were visiting from Singapore. While we rattled on about what we loved most about this trip—which was everything—Suwat suddenly showed up to invite us to a wedding.

With umbrellas in tow, we piled onto the side car of Suwat’s motorcycle. The hazardous terrain, now covered with muddy potholes, was even scarier than I remembered. But we flung ourselves at the mercy of Suwat’s manoeuvring skills. For the second time that day, I went to the village school, now transformed with bright lights and loud music and filled with locals. Despite being under-dressed, we were welcomed and given a table at the celebration. While the locals kept piling us with more food, Suwat kept refilling our glasses with beer.

UPSTREAM AHEAD

The next morning, a loud chattering outside of my bedroom woke me. A group of Russian tourists in bright orange vests were swimming down the Kwai, and I remembered with some anguish that I’d yet to try my river legs. I asked Suwat about swimming in the Kwai, and he promptly proposed to take a group of us down the stream later that day.

After breakfast, I met with Sutat Yopani, the general manager of the Float House and he graciously offered to take me on a boat ride to explore the Kwai. Our first stop was the Mon village, which was just behind the nearby Jungle Rafts lodge. Even though most Mons live without electricity, some of them use solar panels. On our tour, I saw several placed outside their thatched homes. Small makeshift stores selling handmade souvenirs lined the muddy pathway. Used to the regular footfall of farangs passing by, the Mons were now indifferent to the amused Russian tour group and their cameras.

Later that afternoon, I went back to the Jungle Raft where Suwat, TC, John, and a British couple were waiting for me. With plenty of hesitation, I decided to brave the waters. After all, how hard could it be? I had my life vest on, and Suwat would be following us closely on a canoe. I said a quick prayer, closed my eyes, and jumped right in. The strong currents split our group, but I tried to stay as close as possible to my Singaporean friends. Once we swung around the corner, we were far from our starting point, and I literally went with the flow. The view around us was breathtaking and helped me get over my fear. Occasionally, the loose harness of my vest would brush against my leg and my nervousness would creep up on me, but for the most part I enjoyed being in the water.

Once we got back to the Float House, it was time for me to pack up and check out. As I stepped into the long-tailed boat, I said farewell to the hospitable staff, my new Singaporean friends, Mr Yopani, and of course, my sweet tour guide Suwat, without whose urging I would never had faced my fear.

As the boat sped away, I kept looking back until I could no longer see my lonesome swing on the pier. As I retraced my steps back to Bangkok, I thought of my floating Nautilus and the swimming experience of a lifetime.

Featured in Masala magazine, April 2013, Thailand

For original PDF please click here Fear and Floating in Kanchanaburi

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