Travel Report: Sangkhlaburi, Thailand.
April, 2015. From the moment David and I stepped off the bus I knew that Sangkhlaburi was going to be different. Indeed I’d read that this isolated rural district, home to around forty thousand people, often gets championed as Thailand’s so-called Wild West. And it certainly felt like that as we negotiated the deserted, dusty country road towards our lodgings.
Nestled in and around a large reservoir beneath the thick forests and rolling peaks of the Tenasserim Hills, Sangkhlaburi is a visual delight. And with P Guesthouse it seemed we’d landed ourselves some of the best views in town.
Moreover, our twin cabin (although somewhat cramped) oozed a rustic charm with its log and stone furnishings. Having dumped our bags and taken much-needed showers after the bus ride from Kanchanburi, we headed outside to order some lunch.
I’d met David back in Kanchanaburi. We were heading in the same direction, so figured we should cut costs and share a room. Despite the fogginess of the day, P Guesthouse’s open air restaurant proved a magnificent spot to devour our Pad Thais.
In fact, it was so nice up there we forgot to set off and explore. Gazing out over the calm waters, I spotted an eagle soaring overhead. And then the light sound of scampering feet up a nearby tree revealed a gorgeous, multicoloured lizard. Luckily, as I lined my camera up, the lizard froze for just a split second, allowing me to secure my shot.
It took us around twenty minutes to walk down to the reservoir. There, we took in Sangkhlaburi’s stupendous wooden footbridge, built in 1987 under the supervision of a revered Buddhist monk called Luangpho Uttama.
Uttama fled his native Burma in the 1940s, along with several thousand of his fellow Mons, a Burmese ethnic group. Having settled in Sangkhlaburi, Uttama used his blossoming reputation to build the bridge and unite the region’s mutually suspicious Mon and Thai communities. Thus the structure enjoys a number of titles, including Uttama Memorial Bridge and Mon Bridge.
We found the bridge deliciously quiet that day. At eight hundred and fifty metres it stands as the longest wooden bridge in Thailand, the second longest in the world. Unfortunately, vicious storms all but destroyed the original structure in 2013 and it had to be rebuilt the following year.
I’d heard that the bridge is where Mon children come to sell flowers and homemade crafts. However, there was no sign of them that afternoon. Rather, we passed a few sauntering Thai couples and the occasional old man sittin’ doin’ nothin’.
Khao Laem Reservoir.
Wherever you are on the bridge, dramatic views of Khao Laem Reservoir unfold from both sides. The manmade reservoir dates back to 1984 when it grew out of the Vajiralongkorn Dam. Fascinatingly, it ended up submerging an abandoned village, of which numerous buildings are still visible today when the water level allows.
Consequently, a boat cruise around the reservoir is Sangkhlaburi’s most popular activity. Strangely, and probably due to its out-of-the-way location, Sangkhlaburi isn’t popular with western travellers and most tourists that come here are Thai.
With sunset just around the corner, we concluded that a couple of beers would go down nicely. Hence we set off back towards the Thai side of town to see if we could track down a bar.
Befitting its Wild West reputation, there aren’t many watering holes in Sangkhlaburi. Nevertheless, we soon found Garden Home, a cosy guesthouse with an extensive food menu and trendy bar. I also appreciated the bathroom, with its handwritten messages and Hamburg-era John Lennon photograph.
Back on the bridge, beers in hand, we witnessed a lovely, peaceful sunset. The foot traffic had livened up a bit, as you’d expect, but nothing too intrusive. Just a low wave of communal chatter as the sky morphed from grey into a light orange-blue.
We were up early the next day. So damn early that the sunrise was still weaving its magic, which made for some spectral views of Mon Bridge.
Down by the water, it didn’t take us long to find someone who would give us a private boat tour. This old man didn’t speak English, but his eight year old grandson did a fine job of translating for us and negotiating the price. If memory serves me well, I think we paid around 630 Baht ($20).
I’ll never forget that morning cruise around Khao Laem Reservoir. Ours was the only boat on the water, allowing for quiet, unblemished views.
Eventually, through the morning mist, the shimmering form of Buddhakaya Chedi came into focus. Built in 1982, it stands as a golden replica of Mahabodhi Stupa in India. Where, they say, the Buddha attained enlightenment.
The chedi stands four hundred metres from a temple, Wat Wang Wiwekaram, which is occupied by Mon monks. I made sure to bookmark them both for later, especially as the temple hosts the remains of none other than Luangpho Uttama.
A short while later our captain pulled up in front of one of Sangkhlaburi’s famed sunken temples. It was an incredible sight, and one that we were lucky to even witness. Indeed, I’d read numerous accounts from travellers who hadn’t managed to see any above water at the time of their visits.
Another temple lies abandoned on a small island atop a forested hill. We’d had not an inkling of its existence until the captain deposited us on a rocky beach. With a grunt he stabbed his bony hand towards a sketchy looking forest trail. Glancing at each other, David and I shrugged our shoulders and headed up the path.
Ten minutes later we arrived at the temple, sweaty and breathless from our uphill exertions. The building, abandoned for decades, is called Wat Somdet Gao. Apparently Gao means ancient in old Thai and right enough there’s a new modern temple called Wat Somdet located at the edge of town.
The temple is tiny, consisting of just a single, open-air chamber. Some locals still come here to pray, as evidenced by the availability of fresh incense sticks. Furthermore, someone had gone to the trouble of protecting the main shrine from the elements by hanging some black sheets over a portion of the roof.
Wat Somdet Gao.
With its wicker prayer mats and bars of sunlight slanting through the window frames, I found Wat Somdet Gao really charming. Definitely different from any of the other temples I’d seen during my travels across Thailand.
Back on the boat, our captain chugged us over to the other side of the reservoir. There, we disembarked to see another abandoned but much larger temple, Wat Sam Prasop.
This temple also finds itself submerged from time to time, so we were delighted to have the chance to go inside. Concrete info on when and how it was built remains thin on the ground. Though from what I understand the Mon constructed it sometime in the 1920s in collaboration with another ethnic group, The Karen.
This locals keep a makeshift shrine for the dry months. It was also cool to see the many carved niches in the wall, which once housed tiny Buddha figurines.
Wat Sam Prasop.
Through one of the windows, there are views of several lush fields. I was playing with the zoom on my camera when I noticed a young girl wading through the greenery carrying a bucket.
She appeared to be heading for the reservoir, possibly to wash, or take some water back home. Whatever she was doing, I couldn’t help but feel she wore the expression of someone who hadn’t had an easy life.
A short distance from Wat Sam Prasop, lies a single stone watchtower. It was crumbling to bits, but good enough apparently to serve as a flower selling station for a group of Mon children.
It seemed an unusual place to set up camp, far away from the main town at such a discreet spot. While having no interest in the flowers, I made sure to drop them a few notes before we moved on.
After the cruise we made our way on foot through the Mon Village towards the chedi we’d seen from the reservoir. The walk took us past dozens of wooden houses and bridges.
We found the entrance of the chedi protected by two lion guardians, known in Thai as Singha. Built in 1982, I was slightly amused and a touch disappointed to discover that the tower is actually made of cement. Which was then painted gold.
Inside there are all the typical Buddhist shrines and murals. One thing that stood out was this golden chest with a so-called Buddha footprint carved into it. Visitors leave flowers and coins inside as tributes. What’s more, if you can set your coin down so that it stays perfectly balanced, Buddha will grant you a lifetime of good fortune. Or so I’m told.
Seeing the chedi close up is pretty cool. I remember being almost blinded when I gazed up at the top, the sun’s merry dance creating crisscrossing streams of golden light.
A little further down the road we ducked into Wat Wang Wiwekaram. What I didn’t realise is that the entire temple stands in honour of Uttama and his legacy. And no wonder, as it was Uttama himself who built it in the mid 1980s. First, I saw giant photographs of him placed around the main courtyard.
Then, inside the main shrine, I came face to face with a life-size dummy of the man sat on a wooden throne. His remains are also there in a coffin set between all the sculptures and bouquets of flowers.
Wat Wang Wiwekaram.
It’s an incredible tribute to a man who escaped civil war, built a bridge and a temple, united different ethnic groups and became a friend of Thai royalty. He died in Bangkok aged 96 in October 2006.
It was also lovely to stroll through the temple’s well-kept gardens, where there’s now a Buddhist school and residential complex. Peeking through a few open doors, I saw a number of monks going about their daily tasks.
One was reading, another whipping up a stir-fry of some sort on a portable stove. An older man, his bare back facing towards me, set about sharpening a wooden stick with his knife. I was mesmerised by all of these scenes, which felt like they could belong to a whole other world.
We were making our way back home when I noticed a flurry of activity on Mon Bridge. Suddenly, there were bodies streaming onto the wooden structure from the far side. Everyone dressed in purple, Thailand’s royal colour.
Approaching the excitement, we learned that it was Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s 60th birthday. And this, right here on the bridge, was Sangkhlaburi’s official celebration. A pair of military guards held up a painting of the princess, while a suited man gave a rousing speech from a loudspeaker.
Elsewhere, old women waved flags as others clapped, wept and took photographs. There was also a group of teenagers dressed in traditional clothing and face paint.
On my last day in Sangkhlaburi I took it easy. Sleeping in, I enjoyed a lazy, eggy breakfast at P Guesthouse with more wonderful reservoir views. Later, in the afternoon, I spent an hour or so exploring nearby Sangkhlaburi Town Market.
Housed in what looks like a dusty parking lot, this lively food market specialises in fresh fruit, veg and fish. There are also a handful of stalls cooking up fresh noodle and rice dishes.
In one corner, a group of local boys played football with a ball and rusting set of goalposts that had both seen better days. The kid in the black t-shirt scored with a beautiful bottom corner finish, seconds after I took my photograph.
Subsequently, I found myself wandering Sangkhlaburi’s country lanes. When I stumbled upon Birdland Books, I felt more than a touch curious. Inside, a grizzled American expat sat slumped in a hammock watching episodes of M*A*S*H on a bulbous old TV.
“Hey, I’m Jimmy Birdland!” he croaked, offering me a seat. His bookshop-cafe-restaurant was like an old antique store. There were stacks of vinyl records, chipped American automobile number plates and black and white Muhammed Ali photos. Jimmy was clearly the man of the house, telling his Burmese wife to go do this and that. Ordering his young son to fetch him a cold lemonade.
In between Jimmy’s endless anecdotes and dubious Vietnam War stories, I managed to order a Burmese Beef Curry. Which his wife promptly cooked on the spot. It was absolutely magnificent, the defining culinary memory from my time in Sangkhlaburi.
And how could I ever forget Blue Rock Bar and its owner, a British bulldog of a man who may have been called Chris. From what I can recall he was an avid West Ham fan and every third word out of his mouth was either a fuck or a shit. Amusingly, he bluntly refused my order of a cocktail, growling that “Whatja wanna drink that for? F****ing woman’s drink”.
He was an absolute character, no doubt. But still more palatable than one of his regular customers, a shameless racist, Dirk from The Netherlands. No wonder David and I hastily finished up our beers and set off home. Much like Birdland Books, I see that Blue Rock has also gone the way of the dodo. I guess it’s tough surviving in The Wild Wild West.
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