Christchurch: Rising from the Rubble

Christchurch Cathedral – a symbol of the city’s loss

“Ive just been watching my old offices being pulled down.”

“Weird isn’t it – I had to watch mine on video as we weren’t allowed nearby.”

Just a snippet of the conversation behind me in the corrugated steel shipping container-cum-coffee shop where I’m waiting for a cappuccino in the centre of earthquake-hit Christchurch.

A devastated city

Since February last year, this has become a normal conversation in this southern New Zealand city. A few blocks away, I’d just been watching yet another building being pulled down, as the long, ongoing process of flattening an entire city centre and rebuilding the whole lot from scratch continues.

Another building starts to come down

Almost every high-rise building in the CBD is set to be demolished – or deconstructed, to coin the phrase being used here – after the 6.3 magnitude quake wrecked foundations and left entire swathes of the city in ruins. Along with the devastation to the city and infrastructure, the February 22 disaster claimed the lives of 189 people, and daily life in this part of the south island shuddered to an abrupt halt.

A once bustling shopping area

It was the nightmare scenario many believed the area had avoided, after an even greater earthquake just a few months previous. Back in September 2010, the area was shaken by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, which caused damage but no deaths. The city lies right on top of previously unknown fault lines between two tectonic plates, a part of the infamous Pacific ring of fire. But people in New Zealand are familiar with their country’s unique geological make-up, and when the first major quake struck in 2010, causing relatively minor damage and injuries, there was a belief that the area and its people had dodged a bullet.

But there was a major difference in the type of earthquake that struck last year. In the first earthquake in 2010, the two plates largely slipped side by side, and in a much deeper location some six miles underground. In February last year, it was much shallower, at three miles deep, and there was a huge vertical shift – so much so, the hills around the city rose by an estimated 40cm in an instant. With the epicentre just 10 kilometres south-east of the centre of the country’s second largest city, there was only going to be one outcome.

Work ongoing at the city’s main theatre

Almost 18 months on, and parts of the city centre are still so unsafe, the public are kept away. Known as the red zone it covers most of the central area, and while some parts have recently reopened, there is still a long way to go with demolition work before the rest of the city is made safe.

One of the huge areas of space from cleared buildings

Yet this is a city, that despite its loss and devastation, is already looking forward. Speak to anyone on the streets, and it is more than likely you’ll get the strange response that the earthquake, aside from the loss of life, could actually be a good thing for the area.

The Red Zone

“It means we can start again. It’s quite exciting,” said one taxi driver as he drove me around the edge of the red zone.

And inside the city centre, there are already the green shoots of recovery thanks to one of the most surprising and novel ideas – the Re:Start Mall, an entire shopping precinct full of stores and cafes trading again from inside brightly-painted shipping containers.

At the Re:Start Mall

Container village

The bank

“I don’t know who thought about the containers, but it’s a great idea as we needed something to stimulate the city again,” says Bronwyn Jones, an assistant at Johnson’s Grocers.

Bronwyn with some Yorkshire Tea at the Grocers

“Christchurch is nothing like it was, and you need something positive to give people something to look forward to, to bring the community together again and be joyful.”

The owner, Colin Johnson, had been feared killed in the earthquake after the imported foods and produce he specialises in were shaken from the shelves, landing on top of him. At 72 years old, he was knocked unconscious.

Colin Johnson in his old shop

“He came out after a while, covered in red. It was tomato sauce, but everyone thought it was blood,” laughs Bronwyn, before revealing the store is doing better than it ever has done after relocating inside a number of black containers more commonly seen on the world’s largest ships.

“Colin’s busier now than he ever was before, and despite the earthquake, he’s still going,” she said.

“The shop has always been part of him – I can’t imagine him ever giving it up.”

Colin’s new shop…in shipping containers

But the costs for Colin, and every other home and business owner, can be crippling as insurance prices reach record levels.

“The excesses are so high now as a result of what happened. If anything breaks here now, it will have to cost thousands to replace or repair to even consider claiming on the insurance.”

The busy shop

Amid shelves full of Yorkshire Tea, Sherbet Fountains, HP Sauce and Tunnock’s Caramels, 82-year-old Christchurch resident Marianne is looking for a replacement for her beloved New Zealand Marmite.

There is currently a national shortage of the red-labelled yeast extract – a different flavour to the British version – after the Marmite factory in the city was badly damaged by the events of last year. So sought-after is the foodstuff by locals, it can sell for many dollars a jar online. Instead, I persuade Marianne to try the yellow-labelled variety from home.

Marianne, with my mate, Marmite

“If I don’t like it, I’ll come and find you,” she laughs, before revealing she’s only just plucked up the courage to return to the city centre.

“A lot of older people have been nervous about coming back into the city, but I have found it in me to return and I love it,” she said.

“I think the people who have stayed here and haven’t moved away from the city are handling it better than those who moved away. I think they have almost put a barrier up against a return now, so find it hard to do.”

But there is also a feeling that what happened in Christchurch has largely been forgotten by those overseas. While the death toll was limited, the cost will run into billions of dollars, with an estimated rebuild time of around 20 years. Most other cities around the world would have been obliterated by such an earthquake, but strong building regulations had helped minimise casualties. Yet few people know exactly what happened, largely because just over two weeks after the earthquake hit, Japan was devastated by a tsunami – directing news crews and the world’s attention to the far east.

The devastated main shopping street

“There has been 11,000 tremors since the earthquake – that’s one every four hours,” says Ross, a driver and tour guide of the London bus that now takes tourists around the ruined city.

“You don’t feel them all, particularly if you are out on the road or driving, but there are some 4,000 that have been strong enough to be felt.”

Ross heads back to his bus amid the ruins

On the bus are around 15 people who are all keen to have a look around the city and take in the damage. It follows a growing trend in people travelling to centres of natural disasters, either to pay their respects, volunteer or just to try to comprehend the events of the past year and a half. The tour is popular, running twice a day, and includes a stop at the once iconic cathedral, its famous façade now a gaping hole and mass of rubble.

Christchurch Cathedral

What will happen to the cathedral is perhaps the most controversial subject to have come out of the whole disaster here. There has been a huge argument between supporters of the church and the authorities who have deemed it unsafe, and more importantly, unsalvageable. While the cathedral still stands for now, the likelihood is it will be demolished, much to the anger of those who have been campaigning to save it.

But the tour isn’t the only indicator that tourists are once again beginning to return. Having scrapped Christchurch from its route map, Magic Bus, one of the three main backpacker buses that tour the islands, has recently put it back on the stop list, citing pressure from those who were using their services.

Magic Bus product manager Daryl Raven said: “The time was right to bring international tourists back to Christchurch. They were curious about what had happened and wanted to learn first-hand about the earthquakes and their impact on the Canterbury region.

“We want to give passengers the chance to say they were present during the rebuilding and rebirth of one of New Zealand’s most iconic cities, and to help the Christchurch economy get back on its feet.”

Christchurch YHA, a once popular spot for backpackers

One of the problems now is a lack of accommodation – most of the beds in the city centre, from backpacker dorms to five-star suites, were located in buildings which have now been condemned. Work is rapidly ongoing to refit, rebuild and repair some of the city’s main hotels, but in the meantime accommodation can be tight.

Christchurch railway station

As the bright red London bus passes the former railway station, the clocks are frozen in time. One is them is the time of the 2010 earthquake, a poignant reminder of how time has stood still for Christchurch.

4.35am, the time of the first earthquake

“We watched as it took just a week and a half to pull down a seven storey building,” says Hester Moore, who runs the Base Woodfired Pizza stall with Andy Thomson in the Re:Start Mall.

Hester and Andy at their pizza stall

“The whole façade was ripped away and people’s belongings were still there. It was like looking into people’s lives as they were a year ago,” she added.

But Hester agrees that as a city, the people of Christchurch are moving on with their lives.

“Generally, people are just happy to be here. You just have to accept the circumstances as they are and as they change,” she said.

“It is such a great opportunity now for business, and what they have done here with the containers is a unique and individual way to resurrect the CBD from the state it was in this time last year.”

In a ghost town area of Christchurch

While there are pockets of new beginnings springing up around the centre, there is still an eerie feel as you walk around the deserted city streets. The sound of clinking coffee cups and the hustle and bustle of business has been replaced with a permanent din of jackhammers and drills.

Familiar names like Starbucks and STA Travel sit boarded up and covered in dust and grime.

Markers left by search teams

In a newsagents, bars of chocolate lie scattered around on the counter in the places they came to rest after being thrown around by the force of the tremor. The walls and windows of buildings still show the spray-painted messages left by search and rescue teams from around the world in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Billboards in the red zone display posters for shows and concerts in March last year – a reminder how beyond the barriers, it is still February 22, 2011.

Search and rescue teams from around the world helped here

Vast areas of the city have already been made safe – empty spaces left behind on the footprints of huge office blocks have now been turned into carparks. All of the city’s multi-storey parking facilities remain closed, deemed unsafe for use. As a newcomer to the city, its easy to think that it just had an open-plan feel to the place, easy to forget that the streets here were once lined with shops, restaurants and places of work.

New initiatives have been started to help move the focus away from the city’s loss, to looking towards a brighter future. One of those is Gap Filler, filling the spaces left behind with anything from crazy golf to live music events. Others, like artist Mike Hewson, have created huge works of art that fill the gaping spaces left in many of the damaged buildings and walls.

185 Chairs.

But perhaps the most thought provoking is that of 185 chairs, a collection of white chairs arranged in a neat square on the site of the former Oxford Terrace Baptist Church. It’s a reminder of the loved ones the city lost on that awful day,

No words needed.

each chair being different to the next as a symbol of the individual people that lost their lives. On a railing to the east of the city centre, yellow ribbons still flutter in the wind with messages of love and hope for those who perished, and for the city as a whole.

As you follow the barriers that section off the ruined city, flowers and messages from loved ones catch the eye. Many are recent, having been left for birthdays or anniversaries.

Just one of many messages

By a huge empty space, once the home to the Canterbury Television Building, I find Tomo, a young Japanese man who is saying prayers and attaching a bunch of yellow flowers to the railings. More than 100 people died in the building, over half of the total fatalities in the city, after it collapsed within seconds of the earthquake. As well as being home to the local television station, an English languages school was situated inside.

Tomo tells me how 28 of his fellow countrymen died in the building, either killed by the collapse or who died in a subsequent fire. Visibly moved by being at the site, he struggled to contain his emotions.

“Those Japanese students came all of this way from home to study English, but died in the earthquake,” he tells me, eyes welling up.

Tomo remembers

“I have come here to learn English in their honour, to do it for them. They are no longer able to learn, but I am, and they inspired me to come here and study.

Looking back through the railings at the levelled-off rubble that remains, he sighs.

“I am doing it for them.”

There is no doubt that Christchurch will rise again from the ruins, but the human tragedy from one of New Zealand’s worst ever natural disasters will take a long time to heal. Now though, all thoughts are focussed on getting this city back on its feet as a fully functioning place to live and work.

New building regulations have been brought in – a seven-storey limit has been imposed on new structures, and strict earthquake proofing standards will have to be met. Early plans for the new city layout will make the picturesque river and parks a focal point, while an entirely new infrastructure, including potential for a light railway system, have now become a possibility.

It will, however, take time. It will be years even before the final damaged building has been made safe. The manpower alone to rebuild the city is phenomenal, aside from the incredible demand for building materials and supplies. Conservative estimates put the rebuild duration at between 15 and 20 years to complete, but that doesn’t bother Ross on the city tour bus.

“Our forefathers planted trees around the city, knowing they would never see them reach maturity, but instead they planted them to bring pleasure to others in the future,” he says.

“We’re rebuilding Christchurch. We are starting again and making it somewhere to be proud of again. But its not for us that live here now – it’s for our children, and our childrens’ children. And I’m happy with that.”

Bridging the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai

With just 49 hours to go before my flight out of Thailand, I find myself at one of the most famous bridges in the world.

While the Humber Bridge might just be the closest bridge to my heart, with us sharing the same birthday give or take a couple of hours, it isn’t a patch on the Bridge over the River Kwai in terms of historical significance.

I’m in Kanchanaburi, about 150km northwest of Bangkok and close to the border with Burma. It’s the proximity to the secretive country which saw the area become a vital supply line for the Japanese army during the Second World War.

Having endured a tiring 25-hour journey from the south, the overnight delays and sleeping rough on a bench had taken its toll, but there was no time for a snooze in the little floating room I’d found on the river.

With just two hours to see the main sights before sunset there was only one thing I could do to squeeze them all in, so I hired a motorbike and at 4pm set off around the town taking in as many sights as I could, starting with the famous bridge.

It was built to carry the Thailand – Burma railway as a way for the Japanese empire to get supplies into the north, and to help keep pressure off the sea routes, which until the railway’s construction were the only way of getting supplies through. It followed on from the occupation of Singapore and Malaysia, and the consequent surrender of thousands of British and allied troops that were unable to keep the enemy troops at bay.

As a result, thousands of allied soldiers were taken as prisoners of war by Japan, and forced to work on construction projects that would help their own war effort. Years of hard labour, under nourishment, disease, torture and beatings by the Japanese took their toll, especially in the construction of the railway. It had been dismissed years earlier by British experts as an impossible task, mainly because of the dense jungle which covered much of the route, mountains, marshes and countless rivers which would have to be crossed. But they wouldn’t have had the manpower that Japan now had control of, and set upon the huge project. More than 16,000 allied troops lost their lives in the process, mainly British and Australian – and as a result, it became known as the Death Railway.

A map of the Burma-Thailand railway

In total, about 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the 415km railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers died, along with 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians and New Zealanders.

They are staggering numbers, and mainly due to the forced labour conditions – brutal treatment by the Japanese, malnourishment, injuries and falls in construction and disease, which was rife throughout the POW camps, made worse by a lack of medicine and treatment.

The famous bridge

As a bridge, its fairly unremarkable but instantly recognisable, its curved black steel spans joining two angular stretches across the river. Of course, the bridge was made famous by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it, The Bridge on the River Kwai, but it’s a long time since I’d seen it. Besides, there are many people who say its completely unrealistic, and infact fails to portray the true horrific treatment of the prisoners by their captors during the construction period.

Between the rails

Arriving on my scooter, I found a bridge swarming with tourists, mainly European and Japanese tour groups who had arrived on a fleet of coaches from Bangkok. Surprisingly, despite it still being an operational railway bridge, you are free to walk across and spend time on the tracks. While it has got a solid appearance, it still feels rickety, with huge gaps between the wooden planks holding up the rails, the scores of bright t-shirt-wearing tour groups and their umbrella touting guides, me, and the occasional train.

On the Bridge on the River Kwai

I spent time looking at its construction, thinking of the prisoners who had tightened up the thousands of bolts and the conditions they must have been working under. I know the bridge was also bombed by the US and RAF air forces during and after its construction, which also led to the deaths of many POWs. It was a long way down to the fast flowing river below, and records show many fell to their deaths while trying to build the bridge. The fact it still stands now, and in full use, is probably the best tribute to their horrendous work.

Dodging trains

I walked to the far side of the bridge and was looking at a guard post when suddenly I heard a familiar horn in the distance. It was a train – and I was slap-bang in the middle of the track. Thankfully, I knew the trains slow to a crawl to pass over the bridge, but sure enough the locomotive appeared behind me. I ran down the track back to the main spans of the bridge so I could get some photos, and dived into a refuge area.

The safe area still left you dangerously close to hundreds of tonnes of train as it slowly made its way over the river on its way to Bangkok, complete with yet more tourists hanging out of the windows, pointing cameras and smiling as they pass. I’m hoping to make the journey myself the following day, but even now I’m still unsure whether I will have time.

I followed the train back off the bridge and made my way towards a nearby museum, right next to the bridge and at the site of the first wooden bridge that was built across the river before the main metal construction was finished. It was called the World War II and Jeath War Museum, for which I paid 40 Baht to enter (80p). It was possibly the most surreal museum I have ever been into, and when it comes to first impressions, an exhibit of televisions through the years just didn’t seem to fit somehow.

Odd

It wasn’t the only quirky addition to the exhibits. The models of people were bizarre, most of the displays were covered in layers and layers of dust, there was no particular link or explanation for most of the things you could look at, and a set of ‘life size’ main characters from the war were actually laughable…

Madame Tussauds is worried

If it wasn’t such an awful subject to be trying to educate myself about, most of the museum was laughable.

A bit weird

There was a scene depicting one of the bombings of the bridge, complete with cartoon-style paintings of aircraft, and possibly one of the best Thai-English ‘Tinglish’ translations I’ll ever see. ‘Bodies were laying higgledy piggledy’ apparently. I guess it helps to paint a picture of the scene.

Needless to say, I didn’t stay for long – not just because it was slightly disappointing, but mainly because the sun was beginning to set.

The sun goes down

I still had one more place to visit, the cemetery where some 6,000 British and Australian troops were buried after succumbing to their treatment in the construction of the Death Railway. Row upon row of headstones with familiar names – Smiths, Hills, McCalls, Norths – complete with their regiment badges and ages, mainly in their 20s or early 30s, who had once been in southeast Asia but were never to return home.

War graves in Kanchanaburi

The grounds are well manicured and clearly looked after and regarded highly by the Thai community around here. Infact, my cyclo rider who had found me accommodation on the river just a few hours earlier even gave the cemetery a nod as he cycled past earlier. He didn’t know much English, but he did say “Brave men” as we passed. Brave men indeed.

With night falling, I headed back to my accommodation on the river and watched as the sky went the most amazing red as the sun set behind the distant mountains. My room was an experience in itself – its actually a floating bedroom, with the river Kwai flowing underneath. Every now and then, a boat will go past causing the whole place to gently sway as it bobs over its wake. Its actually quite relaxing, if slightly strange – and feels like you’re on a boat rather than in a hotel room.

Sunset on the Kwai

Back in the restaurant, and being near Burma, I decided to sample a Burmese chicken curry that I found on the menu. The owner, and cook, it has to be said, did warn me its quite hot, but it was too late. Most of the people around me had heard me order it, so I couldn’t chicken out now (no pun intended) and then spent approximately half an hour trying to consume what was by far one of the hottest curries I’ve ever had to tackle. I managed it – just –  but at least the time between mouthfuls of iced Coke and curry gave me time to think about my next move.

The bridge by night

I know I have to be in Bangkok in 24 hours time, as I really want to spend one last night taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the Khao San Road. I also want to make it to Hellfire Pass, another famous part of the Death Railway. I also want to travel across the Kwai bridge on a train, adding to my railway themed trip so far. It seemed an impossible task. I spoke to the owner and cook, who had a bit of a smirk on her face after making me a chilli fest for tea, and asked if it was possible.

“You’ll need to be up early,” she said

“You can get to Hellfire Pass in time for an hour there before the last direct train back to Bangkok leaves,” she explained.

My first thought was ‘how early’.

“There’s a group leaving here at 5.45am on a taxi to the bus station. Then theres a bus around 6.30am that goes north to the Burma border. It passes Hellfire Pass. It’s the only way.”

Its early, but a necessity. With a basic calculation of two hours for the journey, it should get me to the Hellfire memorial centre for about 9am, giving me a few hours to take it in before somehow making my way  back to Nam Tok and catching the 1.15pm train. It would, however, mean taking all my rucksack, backpack and belongings with me.

Trying desperately not to press snooze, I dragged myself out of my floating bed and into the floating shower at about 5.30am. Outside, dawn was breaking and a tuk tuk was waiting. I was joined by three women heading back to Bangkok for their flights home, but we were all too tired to talk properly. At the main bus station, I was ushered onto one of the local buses – it’s a no frills affair, but at least I’ll be moving soon.

Wrong.

After 20 minutes of waiting on an empty bus, I leaned on my bag and fell asleep. I woke up again at 8am – and we still hadn’t moved. There were a few more people onboard, but there were no signs of us heading anywhere. Back to sleep again, having now mastered the art of grabbing sleep wherever and whenever you can, and another hour later the engine started.

The bus was packed – it had been waiting for a full load, as is often the case in Thailand, rendering my early start pointless. After three hours of being asleep on the bus in a station, it was finally on the move, but my time at Hellfire Pass had been drastically cut short.

The other slight problem was the language barrier on the bus. It might have only cost me the equivalent of 50p, but the conductor had no idea what I had asked for. I also had no idea where I was heading or what to look for. I was the only foreigner on the bus, packed with families and kids heading to various parts of north west Thailand. Completely off the beaten track, I was on my own and battled to keep my eyes open on the swelteringly hot bus as it rocked its way along the mountainous roads north. I noticed that when people want to get off, they simply shout out and they get dropped at the side of the road. A conductor then bellows a weird noise to the driver when he’s clear to get going again, before he does a little run alongside the bus and jumps on the steps at the back.

I passed through Nam Tok, a town where I need to be later to catch my train, so I knew I was near. We were cruising along and I was taking in the scenery when we passed a military post with some flags flying. Then I saw a small sign with something written in English on it. I quickly looked back – was that the Hellfire Pass centre?

I suddenly woke up from my half dozing trance and called back to the conductor.

“Hellfire pass?” I asked, quizzically, knowing he wouldn’t understand. He just made his weird noise, and suddenly the packed bus came to a halt. If it wasn’t my final destination, all this was about to become very embarrassing, but it was too late. My bag had already been thrown into the dirt at the side of the road, and whether I was right or wrong, I was getting off the bus!

Hellfire Pass Memorial Centre

Thankfully, it was the right place, albeit with a sweaty bag-laden hike around some military outpost to the memorial behind. Its actually run and part funded by the Australian government in memory of all the allied soldiers who lost their lives here. I stumbled in to the blissfully airconditioned reception amid strange looks from tour visitors who wondered whether I had somehow walked all the way here with my bags.

Into the cutting

The lady at reception was nice enough to look after all my belongings for me, but warned me I only had an hour, or an hour and a half tops, if I wanted to make the 1.15pm train.

The museum was brilliantly laid out. A video on entry shows some of the horrendous work that went on during the war in the Asia Pacific region, including footage of the railway being laid by emaciated prisoners. Gradually, with the help of a great audio guide featuring some of the soldiers who were forced to work in the area, the story about the Death Railway, and in particular, Hellfire Pass, is explained.

Amid the details of how earth and rock were broken by shovels and picks, of how embankments of stone and soil were heaped up by human hands, and how bridges were formed using wood from the surrounding jungles, there is one site that stands out – and I am at it.

Konyu Cutting was the hardest, most difficult part of the railway to construct. It was effectively a solid rock mountainside – a mountain the railway somehow had to negotiate. Of course, trains can’t go up or down steep gradients, and so they had to go through the mountain. In peacetime, a tunnel would be dug – but the Japanese realised that there would only be two points of construction at either end if that was the method of negotiating the mountain. Instead, they realised they could force prisoners to chisel their way down through the rock, making a passageway for the trains to pass through.

Hellfire Pass

The brutal conditions, the backbreaking work, the lack of any form of power tools meant that this point of construction was quickly feared by prisoners. But it got even worse, as from April 1943, and with a summer deadline looming, the Japanese needed to step up the pace. They introduced the ‘Speedo’ period – forcing prisoners to work 16 hour shifts, even at night, with the whole area lit by flickering bonfires and under the watching gaze of Japanese soldiers.

In Hellfire Pass

It was widely regarded by POWs as a living hell, and therefore acquiring the name Hellfire Pass.

Copyright Hellfire Pass Memorial

The Speedo period at Hellfire Pass coincided with the wet season, meaning disease was at its worst and outbreaks of Cholera claimed thousands of lives. Some 70-90,000 civilian labourers are also thought to have died on the railway, many at Konyu Cutting.

In Remembrance

After the war, Hellfire Pass was largely forgotten about, although not by those who witnessed the horror during its construction. Largely consumed by jungle, it was rediscovered in 1984 by Tom Morris, one of the thousands of POWs who had helped to construct it.

Today, it is a tasteful and thought provoking memorial. The sides to the deep cutting clearly show the manual work that took place to remove the thousands of tonnes of rock. Close to the bottom at one part, a broken drill bit remains stuck fast in the rock. Scrapes and drill marks in the rock face are a permanent reminder to future generations of days of unimaginable horror and suffering by those who had inflicted them on the mountain.

Broken drill bit, stuck fast

Its hard to picture just what those prisoners and labourers had to go through in order to construct what is actually an incredible engineering feat, the cutting completed in just a matter of months. It enabled around 220,000 tonnes of supplies to be carried along the railway by the Japanese before the end of the war.

In need of a lift!

It was time for me to head to the nearest town and catch a train to Bangkok, and complete my own journey along the Death Railway. Somehow I had to get there though, a distance of 20km, and so I headed to the main road in the hope of flagging down a bus or taxi heading in the direction of Nam Tok.

After 20 minutes, there was nothing. With my bags at the side of the road, hitchhiking was pretty much the only option left, when a silver minibus pulled over.

“Where are you heading,” shouted a man from inside.

“Nam Tok,” I shouted back.

“Jump in buddy, unless you’re British,” he seemingly half joked.

I put my bags in the boot and climbed in.

“Hello, we’re from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we’re Mormons, and delighted to help you,” said a fair-haired lady I sat myself next to.

Being dropped off in Nam Tok by my new friends

There was another half joke about converting me along the way before we began chatting about our reasons for being in this part of Thailand. Her name was Sister Katherine Noorda, a humanitarian worker. It turns out they had travelled from America and have been helping with the flood relief operation, delivering goods and supplies to those in need. They had been in Thailand for many months, and we enjoyed chatting about our love of the country. At one point, home made cookies were handed out which we all enjoyed.

It took around 20 minutes to reach Nam Tok, where I offered a donation for fuel and for the church, in gratitude for their help in getting me to the end of the railway line in plenty of time for my afternoon train.

“No, there’s no need for that, just promise us that if you ever see anyone in need, you’ll do as we do and give them some help,” Sister Noorda said. Of course, I agreed, and we had some photos taken outside together.

With my new friends after they picked me up

The train to Bangkok was late, as usual, but at 2pm we pulled out of Nam Tok and followed the route of the Death Railway, as was laid out and constructed during the Second World War.

Bangkok bound

It includes some breathtaking bridges and viaducts, including the wooden Wampo Viaduct that runs alongside a mountain and beside the river Kwai.

Crossing the Wampo Viaduct

Hold on tight!

Through another cutting

The beauty of Thailand’s railways, especially on a third class carriage like this one, is that all the windows open for some fantastic photograph opportunities. I went one step further, and clinging onto a handle on the side of the train, stood on the steps to the carriage for some great photos of the route.

About to cross the famous bridge

It included the moment we reached the Bridge over the River Kwai, which just 24 hours before I had been scampering along to take photos of the same train making the crossing. Now it was me that was hanging out of the train and smiling at those who were in the safe spots on the bridge.

Crossing the Bridge over the River Kwai

Originally scheduled to arrive into Bangkok at about 5.30pm, we were already horrendously late when suddenly one of the train guards ran through the carriage shouting.

No windows and trackside fires = covered in dirt. The beauty of third class rail travel!

The train shuddered to a halt. Incredibly, the Death Railway nearly lived up to its name, as somehow a teenage girl had been thrown out of one of the carriages. Somehow, she escaped with some cuts and a bang to the head, and was retrieved from the tracks by the train crew and sat back down with her friends.

My last sunset in Thailand

As she continued her journey, and we pulled in to Bangkok some three hours late, it was yet another moment that makes travelling in this brilliant country so fun. You really never know what is going to happen next.

Arriving back in Bangkok

I hailed a cab with two Dutch tourists and we headed to the Khao San Road. Against all the odds in my head, I’d managed to see everything I wanted to see, and probably in record time. A thought provoking pilgrimage to remember those who helped fight for us, but a fascinating look at some of the most historical parts of the country.