The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Monday, 10 October 2011

Sangkhlaburi - Sweeping the wild west frontier

This monsoon season has been particularly bad for the Land of Smiles with the widespread flooding affecting most of the country and is reportedly the worst in half a century.  So much so, even the officials are now calling upon the Water Goddess for her divine intervention.  I’m praying she can hear them.  This constant flow of water from both the skies and the rivers has cause Big M and I to hopscotch around the country in search of a patch of dry land.  Thank goodness we’ve no actual set plans, but places earmarked for visiting are now completely off the list of must see’s.  Tossing our ‘pebble’ into the provinces, we found our feet landing into the western corner of Thailand and the district of Kanchanaburi – touted as Thailand’s “Westernmost Paradise and Land of Plenteous.”  

 Since arriving in Kanchanaburi, the downpours have become worse and the flooding is now surging towards the capital, Bangkok.  This in turn has relegated us into becoming almost ‘Kanchanaburian Locals’ as we enter our ninth day in the township.  And as any local knows, sometimes a little break from routine is required.  We decide to hire a car and head to the hills for a week-end getaway. 
Big M was chomping at the bit to get behind the wheel again and with great gusto let everyone and everything know about his joy with his hand held fast to the horn; honking like a local every five minutes at temples lining the roadside, honking at stray dogs that line and lie on the road as if they own it and tooting at other motorist to let them know he’s passing them… or even if he’s not. 
Meanwhile, whilst Big M is have a honking good time; I in turn am having a wailing of a time.  My stress levels had already risen slightly - partly due to hopscotching the floods and partly due to the very emotional feelings that Kanchanaburi has brought to me as both a person and an Aussie (but more on that later).  Now they’ve skyrocketed into outer space as I find myself hurtling towards our destination.  We weren’t just going into the hills, but heading to the western frontier of the Thai-Burma border, to Sangkhlaburi, an area described in the 1989 LP as an “interesting wild west sort of place” and according to today’s guide book, sees few tourists and is an outpost for NGO aid workers working with the refugees who arrive in Thailand from Burma.  To heighten the senses even further, the day we’ve chosen to go comes with intermitted torrential rain, flooded roads of red mud slush and clouds of mist descending into the valleys as we drive though.

Instead of breathing in the truly incredible beauty that surrounds me all I can envision is disaster.  My imagination is running riot – a stunning waterfall rushing at full force becomes a flood trapping us high in the hills for days, the incredible limestone mountains that stand like stupas and medieval castles high above us become landslide possibilities and the dense green jungle hugging the side of the road appears threatening; a haven for bandits and wild bitie things. 
Then the absolute breaking point happens!  After driving for nearly five hours (the length of the journey is only 220kms, but winding and at times narrow) and coming upon dusk (we had left latish and underestimated the time), still miles away from Sangkhlaburi and when after hauling the car up an incredibly steep mountain pass full of hairpin corners, it breaks down…stops….refuses to start.  My floodgates open.  Poor Big M he doesn’t know what to do first – fix the car, calm his neurotic wife or wander into the dense green wet jungle for a pee in private.  I won’t let him walk five foot away from the car, I’m terrified he’ll be eaten by a tiger or worse get bitten by some diseased ridden mosquito….and to really make things worse, there’s not a single spanner or screwdriver in the whole damn car, the only tool being a pointy serrated steak knife, not much use fending off a tiger and stuff all use for repairing a car!  The gods Big M had tooted to earlier must have taken pity on him….and decided he needed rescuing more from his hysterical ranting wife; as after a few minutes of pushing on some plastic bits and wobbling a connection or two, the car started and we were in Sangkhlaburi quick smart. 
Entering Sangkhlaburi gave us a bit of a surprise to say the least.  We expected a small township; perhaps dusty dirt roads filled with chickens and tuk-tuks and lined with small shanty style buildings.  Instead, Sangkhlaburi is a beautiful town with wide streets, neat modern buildings, gardens and fluttering flags.  The town hugged the side of a beautiful lake and so picturesque, tranquil and cool it could have been sitting in some European alpine area.  We booked into the most gorgeous stone and timber guesthouse I’d ever seen.  Perched on the edge of the lake, the view from our private balcony was spectacular.  Suddenly everything felt right again. 
Life revolves around the lake; on the other side of the lake sits a small village of thatched huts and floating houses – the Mon Village where many on the Myanmar refugees now lived -  this village is attached to the main township of Sangkhlaburi by a long wooden walk bridge.  On the lake we could see fish traps and water gardens, fast long boats with long outboard motors race across at great speeds ferrying people to their various destinations, in contrast, a couple of canoes paddle slowly towards the fish traps and one has a fisherman pulling his net behind.  Closer to shore, children jump off a pier into the lake shrieking and laughing with delight, further along a woman bathes her child before turning to do some clothes washing. 
Above the village is a pyramid – gold and carved, it reminded me of the front cover of the book “Temple” by Matthew Riley.  At night, the Pyramid shone and its glow falls across the lakes dark waters.  At its top sits a beacon, like a lighthouse that glows even brighter.
The next morning we were treated to a taste of mountain living as overnight a mist had descended onto the lake shrouding everything from view, then quickly rose revealing sparkling waters, brilliant green hills and a clarity of blue in the sky of such I’ve never seen before. 
It was if someone had presented us with a perfect landscape painting.  This only lasted for the briefest of time when we were plunged into another rain downpour that looked like it was settling in for the day…. then as quickly as it had come, it was gone and for the rest of the day we relished in sunshine.

Our first venture was across the 850meter wooden Mon Bridge – also known as the Uttamanuson Bridge and has the claim of being Thailand’s longest wooden bridge.  Big M and I wandered across  to the Mon Village where we, or should I say, I, enjoyed shopping for some traditional Myanmar textiles while Big M discovered a local mechanic and became a bit of a voyeur of ‘traditional’ mechanics. 
On the way back across the bridge we watch in fascination as a family ‘moves house’ literally.  The whole house sat of large bamboo rafts and was manoeuvred into its new spot by just two chaps with the help of a pole and rope.  And it didn’t, not even once, touch, tap or bump another house or the bridge as it was being moved.

From the Mon Village we headed over to the Pyramid that looked so mysterious and loomed large across the lake.  This is the Watt Wang Wiwekaram, a replacement temple for the old Wangwiwagaram Temple, now called ‘Underwater World’, that was flooded in 1979 by the building of the Vachiralogkorn Dam.  Apparently when the lake is low you can see the original temple rising from its watery depths. 
Sometimes a mystical looking thing should remain as such.  My quest to visit as many temples as possible should sometimes remain an unfilled dream…as up close the Wiwekaram was far from impressive.  There are times when I need to sternly remind myself that a temple is really a place for worship not sightseeing… and this was one of those times.  After giving myself a good talking too, we left Sangkhlaburi and drove to what was the real reason for our visit to this area – Three Pagoda Pass.  This was a place that I’d read about, heard about and was firmly etched on my lifes “Must Do List”. 
Twenty kilometres further west of Sangkhlaburi, now we really were heading into a ‘wild west frontier’.  The road was straight, dusty and peppered with army checkpoints.  There was nothing else along the route, except for some very bizarre reason, lots of broom sellers.  Now just about everywhere you go along the roads will be small stalls selling water, bananas, coconut fruit even temple paraphilia, but along this stretch the only stalls here sold brooms.  And they weren’t really stalls as such, just a bamboo pole on two sticks with a couple of brooms leaning across it.  It puzzled us as to who would drive all the way out here, literally the middle of no-where, to buy a broom.   
We arrived at Three Pagoda Pass, a flat wide area straddling the Thai – Burma boarder with a check point guarded by two very serious looking green camouflaged clad chaps complete with loaded machine guns, a temple and a market filled with precious gem jewellery and highly polished timber furniture (the type you’d pay a fortune for back home and would look fabulous in a board room).  And also one amazing, fantastic, the-best-I’ve-ever-tasted coffee stall !!! 
But the ‘Pièce de résistance' of the site is of course the three pagodas.  Three small ancient pagodas sat in the middle of a grassed area, tall mountains surround them, dwarfing them even further.  They look insignificant yet they are huge in the psyche of Thailand, Myanmar and of course Australia.  For the Thai – Burma people, these pagodas stand as memorials to the traditional invasion route during the Ayutthaya period when Siam was the prize of both the Burmese and the Khmer.  To Australia and her WWII allies, this site was the linking point of the infamous Thai-Burma Death Railway.  Back in the mid 1940’s the pagodas were extensively damaged,  they have since been restored although probably not back to their former glory, but definitely back to their former mystic. 

The drive back to Kanchanaburi was in stark contrast to the previous day.  Under blue skies we merrily passed ute loads of monks, whole families on motorbikes and motorbikes disguised as trucks carrying all sorts of goods; no load was too big, bulky or inconceivable.  Big M cheered with joy when he beat the locals at tooting the temples and even tried his hand at quadruple passing on a two lane road.  We arrived on dusk and as we stepped out of the car into the street, were greeted like friends by some of the locals. 
Yes, Kanchanaburi is definitely starting to feel like home.