13 Jan 2014

Amazing Sangkhlaburi. Part I: the landscapes

A chain of disappointing events that were totally out of my control led to a single, devastating fact: I had the whole Christmas week free, yet I was out of plan, and I had nobody to share it with. After a few days of fruitless anger, I took the only decision that made any sense: I would pack my bag and travel somewhere by myself. Once I made up my mind, everything started to fall into place quickly, and, out of the blue, one name appeared in the fringe of my mind: Sangkhlaburi. What brought it there? I'm not sure, but as soon as it did, I had no more doubts on where I would spend the following days. I booked the first guesthouse that I came across in the web, and the next morning I took an early van there. What an incredibly fortunate choice this was, as very soon I would find out!

On harmony and reflections, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The road home, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
I intended to visit Sangkhlaburi during my summer break, last August; I had seen some pictures of its famous handmade wooden bridge, Saphan Mon (the longest in Thailand with 800 meters in length) and it seemed an interesting place to visit, out of tourist's radars and far enough from Bangkok to let me feel that I was on holiday, disconnected from my everyday life. The fact that it is in the border with Myanmar was an added bonus. But last 28th of July the unexpected happened, and the intense rains and currents made the central portion of the bridge collapse. Luckily, there were no human casualties, but Sangkhlaburi's biggest attraction got badly injured, and the prospect of visiting faded in my mind. Until now.

Misleading strenght, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The wound, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Sangkhlaburi, as it is known today, consists on two clearly differentiated areas, both sides of the bridge: on one side, the Thai locals; on the other, the Mon and Burmese community. Sangkhlaburi enjoys a special political status due to its proximity to Myanmar and the high number of Mon and Burmese people who inhabit the area; they can freely stay in this village but are not allowed to advance further inside Thailand without the proper documentation. This status gives the village a special, different vibe, and despite the clear division in 2 neighborhoods, the villagers of  both sides form a unique and integrated community, and they all interact with each other in a seamless way. Proof of this communion is the fact that, in a matter of just one week, they all built a bamboo raft to close the 400 meters gap that separated them until the bridge (God willing) is rebuilt.

Sunset over Saphan Mon, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Saphan Mon & bamboo raft, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
December in Western Thailand is usually cool. This year, however, we could call it cold and we would not be lying. Mornings had a temperature of about 14 degrees and, being beside a lake, another guest used to wander around in the early morning before the sun was too high, a visitor I had never had the chance to see in Thailand during my previous 3 years in this country, not at least this close and powerful: fog. Not traces or shreds of it, but a thick, dense blanket of pale invisibility. I woke up early as I wanted to see the sunrise over the lake, but what I found instead was one of the most surreal and breathtaking scenes I have had the pleasure to witness in this country.

Saphan Mon through the mist, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Floating sleep, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
The verge of the hill, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Khao Laem Dam was built on 1968 and what used to be a flat land between lush mountains, bathed by three rivers, became a lake, as it is know today. In the point where those rivers merged, a temple had been built in the decade before, aptly named Wat Saam Prasob for that reason, but what was supposed to be a place for prayers and devotion for the villagers of the old Sangkhlaburi, which laid not far from there, suffered the fate of the whole valley and soon was to be submerged under the waters. The village was then moved and rebuilt in higher grounds, where it remains today. However, the Temple didn't enjoy a second chance and stayed immobile and silent as the waters raised, erasing its presence. Yet the height of the walls was too high for the waters to swallow it completely, and so the uppermost part of the temple can still be seen, ghostly floating on still waters during the wet season.

Wat Saam Prasob, the sunken temple, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
The sun that wakes up the waters, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
The proud steeple, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
I walked down to the lake shore and took a boat ridden by a local man at the bamboo raft. It was slightly earlier than sunrise and, for about an hour, the wise old man slowly sailed across the lake, making our way through the mist and the silence, my eyes wide open, trying to absorb so much peace and beauty, discovering here and there strokes of a house, a flock of birds catching early fish, a sizzling boat, a distant mountain, outlines of lonely trees, the sun rising.

The lonely hut, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Solitude, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
All fogs eventually clear, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm 
Wooden legs, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
One thing that became very clear in our voyage is that, during the wet season, boats become the most important and ubiquitous object in these grounds or, should I say, waters: they carry people, old and young, to their intended destinations; they sail and wriggle in search of fish to bring home; they ride curious travelers around to earn an extra bit of income to support their families. The sight of diminutive boats appearing from within the fog, not too far from us, quietly slicing the waters, was one that will stay long time in my mind, as it encapsulates the life of these people to perfection.

Breaking the silence, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
The guiding bird, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
A moment of peace, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Nervous waters, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
In the dry season, from February onwards, the waters go out and the sunken temple resurfaces once more, showing its moldy walls and its glassless openings. I visited in the middle of the cold season, when the water level is at its peak, so I will try to come back during summer to discover how different this place looks and feels when I can explore it by foot at my own pace. Not far from it, however, there is another sight that can be enjoyed throughout the year, no matter the level of the waters, as it stands on the top of a nearby hill: Buddhakaya Chedi. As the boat slowly approached the shore below the Chedi, the mist gradually cleared and the sun broke through the fog, which suddenly turned the grey, vague tower into a glittering, golden pyramid high above the waters and the trees.

First glimpse, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
Buddhakaya Chedi rises, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm 
Buddhakaya Chedi shines, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Only the Chedi remains reasonably well kept, while the rest of the temple around it suffers a big decay and abandonment; some rebuilding is under place, but it looks like they advance very slowly. Behind the Chedi there is a small path leading to a cemetery, and this side of the temple there is a local market with lots of wood work and handicrafts. It was still very early so there was not much happening there yet, so I decided to walk back to the bridge, some 3 km away from where I was. Little did I suspect then that it would take me some 7 hours to complete those few km to return to Saphan Mon, for I was going to walk through a couple of unexpected places that deserved lots of time and attention, the most important of which was a Thai style temple that rested isolated on the top of another hill: Wat Wang Wiwekaram. There used to be a very revered monk at this temple years ago, Luang Phaw Utama, for whom even the King of Thailand came here to visit. Nowadays the temple remains a very secluded place where a respectable number of monks, both adult and novices, mostly Mon, live in complete quietude and calm.

Wat Wang Wiwekaram I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Wat Wang Wiwekaram II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
I spent quite a big amount of time in the temple grounds, strolling around the multiple buildings that it hosts; the morning light was clear and beautiful, there were very few people visiting and I had, literally, all the time and spaces for myself. I felt so at peace with the environment that I lost track of the time and just leisurely walked, grabbing pictures of every small detail that caught my attention (you can see those images at my previous post here). And when I thought I had seen everything, a silent row of monks emerged from the dark dormitory and started walking towards the community building, where they would have lunch with the neighbors from the village. But that's a story that deserves a post of its own (for all the pictures of the monks and the people I met in this beautiful village, head here). I finally walked back to the bridge, I had a frugal lunch at a local restaurant, and negotiated a trip with a motorbike driver to bring me to the 2 spots that most people visiting these lands want to see. The first and obvious one: the Three Pagodas Pass.

The road to Myanmar I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
The road to Myanmar II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
A few kilometers from Sangkhlaburi, as you ride straight into the mountains, you reach the border between Thailand and Myanmar. This used to be the main pass between both countries for many centuries, and still remains a key communication point by land. There is a small market around the red barrier that signals the border, and Burmese people wander both sides of it selling their goods at ease. Thai citizens can also cross to the other side easily, but for foreigners such as me things are more complicated, so I just had a short look around, tasted some Burmese snacks sold by a friendly vendor, and hop on the bike again to reach our second destination: Songkaria River.

The fallen tree, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Songkaria River, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The same river that a few kilometers down the forest becomes the lake that bathes Sankhlaburi, forms here a perfect mirror of clear, transparent waters as it turns in a big meander between the mountains. Many locals like to gather in the banks of the river to enjoy a meal at some small floating huts that have been carefully arranged for such purpose, while the kids enjoy jumping into the waters and swimming down the river in total freedom. I contemplated these familiar scenes and felt suddenly touched by how simple and quiet are most of the defining moments in a lifetime. No fancy celebrations, events or parties: a lunch with the ones you love by the silent waters of a crystal clear river. But twilight was drawing near and I wanted to see the sun setting over the lake, so my patient rider brought me back to the village in time to see the golden colors in the sky and on the waters. The next morning I was leaving already, so these were my last memories of a trip that happened by chance and that awarded me unforgettable memories. See you soon again, Sangkhlaburi!

Sangkhlaburi evening, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
Adrift, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm


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    1. Thanks a lot docgipe!
      For me, the main motto is always "less is more", I spend time capturing the best photo I can right in camera and then only process in the computer to enhance it without changing much. Hope this helps!