Thailand - Sangkhlaburi
Travelling is full of unexpected surprises. A trip I had planned to the central region of Thailand in September 2005 would have taken me to Kanchanaburi, maybe Lopburi to see the monkeys, Ayuthaya and finally to Bangkok.
Local Mon people crossing the wooden footbridge in Sangkhlaburi
A Thai friend suggested I should go to Sangkhlaburi from Kanchanaburi. I had never heard of it and didn't know what to expect but I took her advice and I'm glad I did. As you might expect, Thais know their own country far better than foreigners and it pays to listen to their advice and suggestions.
Mon children on their way home from school
Sangkhlaburi is a district (amphoe) in Kanchanaburi province four hours away from Kanchanaburi town. Being close to the Burmese border, it has a large Mon population as well as ethnic Thais, Karen and Burmese.
It's a complete different world to the main tourist areas of Thailand and won't suit every visitor. Some people will love it, some won't.
If your idea of a good holiday in Thailand is staying at Nana Plaza, Koh Samui, Pattaya or Patong there's a pretty good chance that Sangkhlaburi won't suit you as what you are looking for doesn't exist there.
Big air con buses leave from Kanchanaburi bus station at 07:30, 08:30, 12:30 and 15:30. The fare is Bt137. After I had bought my ticket I noticed that local buses also go there. Provided the weather isn't too hot a local non A/C bus would be fine with open windows giving a better view of the countryside. This is the option I would have taken had I not already bought a ticket.
Mon man wearing a traditional style hat in Sangkhlaburi
It's a beautiful ride through gorgeous countryside. I went in late September (the rainy season) and there wasn't an inch of bare earth anywhere. Everything was green and extremely lush. The mountain road is windy with brooks, streams, rivers and vegetation everywhere. Rods of bamboo shoot upwards towards the sky. All this is set against the backdrop of mountains in the distance. It is the prettiest drive I have ever taken in Thailand.
Old man with a big sack of something crossing the wooden footbridge in Sangkhlaburi
There are rice fields, pastures with cows grazing, bright coloured birds and butterflies. The route goes through Khaolaem National Park. On the bus I wrote in my notebook that it was, "Stunningly beautiful," and I haven't changed my mind since.
This is only the second place in Thailand to take my breath away, the other being the Similan Islands. After a few hours on the bus it got even better.
About one hour (40km) before reaching Sangkhlaburi a large lake comes into view and this is where I heard myself saying, "Wow," out loud. There are many small bamboo and thatch huts on the lake where locals live and work.
Mon temple in Sangkhlaburi
Across the lake I noticed a gleaming golden Chedi of an unusual design. What I didn't realise at the time was that the Chedi is in Sangkhlaburi but it is necessary to drive around the lake to get there. (This photo was taken from P Guest House in Sangkhlaburi.)
Another place worth mentioning is a small town called Thongphapoom which we passed through. The bus stopped there briefly and it struck me as a lovely little place, one in which I would like to spend a few days some time in the future.
Local Mon people bathing in the river
The scenery in this area is so spectacular that if you are planning on spending a few days in Kanchanaburi it would even be worth going to Sangkhlaburi just for the ride and coming straight back again - even though it would be a shame to go and not stay for at least a night to meet some of the local people.
The real beauty of Sangkhlaburi lies with the Mon people who live there and you should allow some time to meet them and observe their way of life.
Normally when a bus pulls into a bus station in Thailand, hordes of tuk-tuk drivers and motorcycle taxi drivers rush forward to get some business. In Sangkhlaburi this didn't happen. I had nowhere to stay and I actually needed some help but there was no one until a woman working at the shop next door offered to help me.
Samprasob Resort where I stayed for a few days in Sangkhlaburi
She suggested a place called the Samprasob Resort and it was a nice place, set high up overlooking the lake. I think that the high season room rate is about Bt1,300 but I was told Bt800 and then given a Bt100 discount without any prompting.
Incidentally, in Sangkhlaburi the bus station is hardly a bus station. The buses arrive and depart at a small office with a desk outside. A young lad sells tickets and the bus times are posted outside. There would only appear to be two destinations. You can either go one way to Kanchanaburi or the other way to Three Pagodas Pass.
Some of the many Mon children I met in Sangkhlaburi
There is an area with several guest houses, some of which also overlook the lake and they look like nice places. Some have small bakeries attached while others offer vegetarian food using home grown organic produce.
When I visited Sangkhlaburi I didn't book in advance, but it is always a good idea to do so. The best hotels in Thailand get booked up quickly and walk-in rates are the most expensive. To make sure you get the best rate and stay where you want to stay, book on-line in advance.
At 850m long this is the longest wooden bridge in Thailand. It crosses the Songkalia River connecting the market area of Sangkhlaburi with a Mon village.
The famous wooden footbridge in Sangkhlaburi that leads to the Mon village
I referred to the water as a lake but I'm not sure if this is accurate. It's actually the confluence of three rivers, the Songkalia, Bikhli and Ranti.
Some locals crossing the Sangkhlaburi wooden footbridge
No motorised traffic is allowed on the bridge. It's a rickety affair but oozes character and has a lot of pedestrian traffic. As soon as I had checked in and eaten, after my bus journey, the bridge and the Mon village were my first ports of calls.
The bridge is more than just about connecting two pieces of land. The Mon people in the village lead a very simple lifestyle which is now quite rare in many parts of Thailand and it is almost like entering a time machine.
Sangkhlaburi at dusk
It is a centre of village activity and a lot of local life goes on around it. From the bridge you can see people working, relaxing, eating and it is a favourite place for children to play in the water.
Some just swim and lark around while young lads jump off the bridge in very acrobatic displays. They're not quite as innocent as they seem though and even in Sangkhlaburi the vast wealth of each and every farang visitor is well known.
These kids charged me Bt20 to take a photo!
A few kids I passed on the street held out their hands expectantly for a handout and these little scamps charged me Bt20 to take photos of them jumping off the bridge. I had no complaints.
It was just a pleasure for me being in such a peaceful environment with lots of friendly, warm-hearted people. The world is changing at an incredibly fast pace and not always for the better.
In two generations time will places like Sangkhlaburi still exist? I hope so but I am also grateful that I am living my life now and not some time in the future.
For me, the Mon people of Sangkhlaburi were the real highlight of my stay. The area is undoubtedly beautiful but it was much more satisfying meeting people who haven't been affected by consumerism and greed (apart from the kids who charged me Bt20 to take their photo!).
Mon mother and child in Sangkhlaburi
They are poor but most seem happy and content because they don't crave material things constantly like most of the rest of the population of Thailand these days.
More Mon schoolchildren
There are amazing contrasts in Thailand now. I met a family of Bangkokians who were visiting Sangkhlaburi for a few days. It had taken them four hours to drive from Bangkok and the two places can't be any more different.
Most Thai kids are great but the kids in Sangkhlaburi were really special. I stopped by a local school after the kids kept calling out as I walked past. As I spoke to them and took a few photos they could barely contain their excitement.
Two young Mon girls living in a house on the banks of the river
I have never taught very young children in Thailand but gave them an impromptu English lesson. The attention they gave me was incredible, repeating everything exactly, even mimicking my East London accent.
These kids have very little and appreciate being taught. I have never had a desire to teach youngsters in Thailand but I imagine that in somewhere like Sangkhlaburi it would be very satisfying.
The villagers are very keen to uphold Mon tradition and culture
A quick word about visiting schools in Thailand but this should be common sense anyway. Always speak to a teacher first and explain yourself. I did but evidently the teacher who I spoke to and who gave me permission to wander around didn't have sufficient authority.
After being mobbed by 20 youngsters trying to look at their photo on my camera I was approached by a rather stern-faced lady who had a few questions for me but I was able to reassure her quite quickly that my intentions were good and she then helped me continue my tour.
It helps to speak a little Thai. I was told that foreigners do stop at the school fairly often to meet the children but very rarely do they speak any Thai.
Life in Sangkhlaburi is based around the river and lake
Life revolves around the water and I enjoyed very much wandering around in the evenings observing local life. As children played, women washed their hair, their bodies and their laundry in the river.
The last time I had seen anything like this was in Bali, another part of the world that I like very much because of the simpler way of life and lack of greed.
Mon children working with computers at school
Nowhere can be completely separated from the modern world and that wouldn't be a good thing anyway. Schoolkids are taught computer studies at school and others are into playing computer games.
What I thought was interesting is that the Mons have Mon names but are forced to adopt Thai names at school. They also have their own language which they speak among themselves but they can speak Thai and they have to speak Thai at school even though almost 100% of the children are Mon.
Mon children amusing themselves with some very lo-tech computer games
There is little 'Political Correctness' in Thailand and people of other ethnicity living in Thailand are forced to assimilate into Thai society and adopt Thai culture.
In some ways it is a good thing. In other countries people resent immigrants who take advantage of living in their country but who try to hang on to their original culture and don't make an effort to adapt.
It works the other way though when a country tries to force people to change their culture. In my opinion, this is the main problem behind the current insurgency in the southern Thai provinces.
Things To Do
Don't expect a long list of activities in Sangkhlaburi and certainly don't expect any nightlife. It's really about experiencing a different way of life to that of the modern world and enjoying beautiful natural surroundings.
The Mon children are possibly even more shy than Thai children
The Mon temple, Wat Wang Wiwekaram, is worth visiting. There is a market next door with Mon and Burmese handicrafts, clothes and furniture.
The old Wang Wiwekaram temple was submerged under water when the Vachiralongkorn dam was constructed in 1979 and this can be visited by boat. Boat trips around the lake to sightsee or birdwatch are also available.
Mon girl selling souvenirs at the small market next to the Mon temple
Elephant rides are another possibility and the place to go for these is P Guest House (the Thai pronunciation sounds something like 'Picket House' which threw me for a while).
There is a two person minimum and a five hour ride costs Bt900 per person although five hours sitting on a large pachyderm sounds a little excessive. This guest house can also arrange other excursions and of course you can stay there. I didn't look at their rooms but the location is good.
Mon family in Sangkhlaburi who very kindly posed for this photo
Three Pagodas Pass is just over 20km away and can be reached fairly quickly by motorcycle taxi. The road has little traffic and I wasn't too concerned about accidents for once in my life on a motorbike in Thailand.
There are some pretty big potholes in the road though which need to be avoided. A return trip from Sangkhlaburi cost me Bt300 and took the best part of a morning. A quick visit into Myanmar would be an option but it's one I didn't take. Along with the appropriate paperwork there is a charge of 10 US dollars to cross the border.
Mon children playing traditional instruments and practising tradtional dancing
My best moments in Sangkhlaburi were people moments. Watching the evening activity in the lake was a highlight as was stumbling across a group of youngsters playing traditional instruments. I heard the music from outside and stopped.
I was invited in and allowed to take photos. It was explained to me that an effort is made to maintain Mon culture in the village and this mainly involves young people. As some played their instruments a young Mon girl practiced traditional Mon dancing.
Thailand for Tourists
Living In Thailand
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. I always use Agoda to book hotels in Thailand. The company was established in Thailand and has great local knowledge, as well as a huge inventory of hotels.
If you click on one of the destinations opposite you will get a list of hotel deals from Agoda. It's generally a good idea to book on-line because you will get a good room rate and you won't suffer the disappointment of arriving at a hotel to find that it is full.
I book hotels regularly in Thailand and I have always found Agoda to be the best on-line travel agent. At times I have spent a lot of time researching hotel prices and although other deals sometimes look better at first I always end up returning to Agoda.
If you don't wish to pay for your hotel at the time of booking, Booking.com normally allows you to pay when you check in at the hotel. Some people prefer this method, but I have always found Booking.com to be more expensive than Agoda.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined. However, you will normally find that Agoda is the cheapest and therefore you can save yourself time and money by just booking through Agoda in the first place.
Images of Thailand