The blue destination dot on Google Maps seemed far away as my two friends and I crawled out of the minibus at the Kanchanaburi bus station. It was nearing 8 p.m. We’d left Bangkok around 4:30 p.m. The driver shut the door and drove off, leaving us standing dumbly in the street. My two friends, one a fellow expat also living in Bangkok and the other a friend visiting from the US, looked at me. I’d planned the trip. I’d booked the accommodations and looked up transportation options. What I hadn’t done was confirm that the mini bus would drop us near our hotel for the night. I tapped ‘directions’ on Google Maps. The blue line scrolled up the screen. We were still 50 km away.
Kanchanaburi is home Erawan National Park, one of Thailand’s three national parks. It borders Myanmar and is most well-known for the infamous Death Railway and “bridge over the River Kwai.” I’d originally planned the weekend getaway to show my visiting friend a part of Thailand that wasn’t Bangkok or a touristy island. I thought we’d spend the weekend just floating on the river and tromping through the jungle: peaceful and relaxing.
Then, days before my friend arrived, I broke up with a guy I had been dating exclusively for a few months. The split was drawn out and messier than I’d expected. My US friend was visiting after splitting with her husband. I invited my Bangkok friend along the moment she texted about her own love travails. Just like that, the trip to the River Kwai flipped from a “hey let’s lounge, eat, and sleep” trip to a “girls rule, boys drool” therapy session.
Three men at the bus station approached us. They asked where we wanted to go. I showed them the map on my phone.
“Oh very far,” one man said.
“Is there a way there?”
The hotel was in the countryside. We weren’t staying at the floating resort the first night because longboats stopped at 6 p.m. I’d booked a stay at a place nearby.
“You can take taxi,” the man said. He pointed across the parking lot.
My Bangkok friend and I looked at each other. Thai taxis are either solid pink or green and yellow sedans. The only vehicles we could see were motorbikes and songtheaws (pick-up trucks with cage-like roofs over open beds).
“Is he pointing to that songtheaw?” I asked my friend. She shrugged. “Are you pointing at the songtheaw?” I asked the man.
“A songtheaw all the way to the hotel?”
“Yes. About one hour.”
I looked at my Bangkok friend for advice. “I think it’s our only choice,” she said.
We told the man we needed to run to the 7-11 first.
“Are we going to need beer?” my US friend asked.
The longest songtheaw ride I’d ever taken was about twenty minutes. The open beds contain only two long metal benches. Songtheaws are meant for quick hop on and offs, not long distance travel.
“We’re definitely going to need beer,” I said.
The next morning we learned we were still nearly 40 km away from where we needed to catch a longboat. A man from our countryside hotel offered to drive us, and by noon we finally arrived at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts Resort.
I’d learned about the resort from friends who had stayed there during a long Thai holiday. I didn’t know what to expect except the resort was on the river and supposedly an elephant lived nearby and liked to frequent the river.
The River Kwai Jungle Rafts Resort floats on the bend of the river. There are about 100 bamboo rooms each with a double bed and a twin bed. The rooms rest atop buoys tied together with twine. Small bridges connect each section of rooms.
We tried to go for a swim, but ended up being swept away by the strong current. I managed to grab the last ladder of the resort and pull myself onto the dock of a room. My Bangkok friend grabbed a buoy further down. Two Thai men lifted her out of the water. My US friend missed the resort completely and ended up at a beach a few yards away. The Thai men (who we termed the official “farang catchers” of the resort) told her to walk through the woods and swim where a rope tied the resort to the bank. We gave up on swimming after that.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing: sleeping in hammocks, reading, writing, and intermittently spilling our problems to each other. A German tour group arrived and for two ours we watched them excel at jumping into the river, floating to the end of the resort, pulling themselves up the same ladder I had just barely grabbed, and repeating the process over and over. Had they been around to witness our swimming kerfuffle I would have taken their machine-like jumping and floating as bragging, but I think they were just smarter.
Outside of the kitchen, the resort didn’t have electricity. As the sun set, staff members lit oil lamps and tiki torches. The only sources of light in our room: an electric candle, a battery-powered lantern, a small flashlight, and our phones, which we used sparingly since they couldn’t be recharged. Once it was dark, we followed the torches to the riverside dining area. All room reservations come with set breakfasts and dinners included. A waiter brought us six different plates of food. Tiki torches and oil lamps don’t provide the most ample lighting, so I have no idea what we ate, but I think there was chicken, veggies, maybe fish, and rice–always rice.
We spent the rest of the evening drinking wine and gin and tonics. We joined some of the waitstaff as they sang old rock n’ roll songs on guitar. Everything was pitch black except the orange orbs of the oil lamps. Tokay geckos chirped periodically. I once thought they were supposed to be a sign of love, but seeing as the three of us were nursing broken hearts, what love were they a sign of? That we’d made the right choices in our relationships? That we didn’t? That we should love ourselves?
I’m about to get really cheesy here. Try to stay with me…
As the tokay geckos called to us and we started to ad-lib songs with the waitstaff, I thought about the power of female friendships. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since my boyfriend of seven years dumped me unexpectedly. After he dumped me and I (quite literally) felt like someone had chopped an arm and a leg off my body, women from every avenue in my life came out to send me love and support.
First, there were my female college students: they didn’t know what had happened except that their teacher (me) was unable to show up for their final exam (because he dumped me over the phone on the eve of final exams). A dear friend of mine subbed the exam timeslot for me, and told my students, “If you care about Ms. Georgia, send her some love. She wanted to be here today, but she got some bad news last night.” Three of my female students emailed me to say how much they enjoyed my class and appreciated having a space where they felt they could open up and confide in a teacher. The wife of one of my colleague’s messaged me to tell me what a strong, adventurous person I am, and that even though we hadn’t had a chance to hangout much, she wanted to send along words of encouragement. Female acquaintances from undergrad reached out to me, family friends, etc. One of my best friends flew from Wisconsin to help me move; past coworkers from Chicago and Colorado reached out; a previous boss sent me her Spotify account so I could listen to her breakup playlist; friends from undergrad, grad school, and a seasonal summer job drove hours just to spend weekends with me; even brand new female friends at my temporary summer job took me out for drinks and checked up on me throughout the summer. The out-pour of love and empathy was astounding, unexpected, and so so needed.
Society dictates women to be caretakers and communicators. This can obviously be a bad thing when we get into the “women are taught to be too nice and never stand up for themselves” area, but it can also be wonderful. Women not only have a tremendous amount of care and empathy to give to the world, but there’s something about a woman in distress that brings other women to the frontlines. My friend from the US and I had spoken only sporadically over the past three years. Most of what I knew about her came from Facebook and Twitter posts. Still, the moment I learned of her divorce I invited her to Thailand without hesitation. My Bangkok friend, too, was someone I’d only seen a handful of times over the past year. Our schedules rarely aligned. Once she divulged her own love troubles, inviting her along for the weekend getaway felt like a no-brainer. In the week and a half I’d been single, every girl friend I’d made in the past twelve months showed up to let me vent, cry, groan, and just generally be a bouncy ball of emotions. I’m someone who takes a while to fully open up to people, but lately it feels as though I should treat every new female friend like a close family relation, because that’s certainly how they’ve been treating me.
I’m not saying guys don’t turn up for each other, nor am I saying that I’ve never received any support from guy pals (because that would be a blatant lie–thanks Mike, Simon, Roe, Rob, and Carl–to name a few), but there is something about women coming to the aide of other women that just feels powerful. And I can think of a million examples where this has happened in my life even before my breakup with the seven year bf. When my father passed away, three of my best girl friends from high school were at my door in 24 hours. Two of my mother’s girl friends were there within about 10 hours, and I’m still not even sure how they found out so fast. Women turn up when there’s a tragedy–no matter how big or small. And, actually, that’s part of the beauty of female friendships. They never treat any tragedy as small or insignificant because we know that to the person who is hurting, that hurt doesn’t feel small or insignificant.
Maybe, as women, we show up for each other because we know what it’s like to have strong feelings and emotions that are often pushed aside as “crazy,” “too much,” and “just get over it already.” Maybe it’s the knowledge that I’ve been there, too. Maybe it’s an unspoken sisterhood among the whole sex. Or maybe women are just awesome. Either way, I think all ladies should spend their next girls getaway trip along the River Kwai.