10 Jun 2016

Return to Sangkhlaburi II: the Mon village

Despite being overshadowed by Saphan Mon (as I showed in the previous post), Sangkhlaburi has actually many other interesting places that are well worth a visit and that are just a few minutes walk (or boat ride) away. One of them stands out in particular for its eerie location and the circumstances that surround it: the sunken temple, called Wat Saam Prasob. The temple (although in fact there are 3 different buildings), submerged partially under the waters when construction of the Vajiralongkorn Dam (formerly known as Khao Laem Dam) was completed in 1984, is the only remaining proof of the old Sangkhlaburi town that spread around it. Depending on the time of the year, the temple emerges from the waters completely (such as it was now, in the dry season) or just barely (after the end of the monsoon season, as in my previous visit).

The hole, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
A sunken temple emerges, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Meander, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Then there is the Mon village itself (Baan Wangka), which stretches on the slope of the hill, across Saphan Mon. Almost everyone living in this part of town is Burmese of Mon ethnicity, and walking its narrow, steep streets is a trip to another culture altogether. Life flows at a much slower pace here and, in the sunny hours of the afternoon, a sedated calm permeates the streets and bridges, the huts and houses, as if no one was living there at all. But there are always traces of human presence left behind, and a stroll around the winding roads at this fierce hours is an exercise on loneliness and limited encounters, feelings I also experienced while walking at night through the deserted, dimly lit roads.

Noon desertion, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Forgotten, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Animal audience, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Trash collectors I, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Trash collectors II, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Boss or customer?, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
There are, however, 2 groups of people that seem to populate the village in copious numbers and it's not difficult to cross paths with any of them while walking aimlessly through town: monks/nuns and kids. Pink and saffron robes appear and disappear faster than one would expect in any direction, giving color and character to the village, and reminding us how deeply ingrained Buddhism is in the people and cultures of Thailand and Myanmar.

Pink ensemble, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Banister rest, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Mundane chores, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Kids are seemingly everywhere you go in Mon Village: climbing trees or playing in the sun while everyone else is dozing, laying at the doors of the temple or eating in the shade of a porch, chasing chicken or watching loud TV, doing chores or getting ready to earn some money to support their families. Yet all of them have something in common that greets the traveler as soon as he or she enters their visual field of view: an innocent curiosity and a pure smile that stays in the mind longer than any photograph.

At home, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The swing, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Siblings, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The gong ringer, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Charming shyness, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Thanaka painters, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Brotherly love, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
But a trip to Sangkhlaburi is never complete without visiting its most renowned temple: Wat Wang Wiwekaram, which sits atop the hill, far past the village and surrounded by a conspicuous forest. This was my second incursion in the temple grounds after my first visit, two years back, but it felt as it I had never been there before, for I had the luck to see a scene that I did not witness in my first visit and that totally grabbed my attention: the temple dormitory, totally deserted last time I was there, was this time brimming with kids, all grouped by age in different corners of the long, dark hall, attending lessons by the monks, who commanded respect and attention and kept the whole building ordered and quiet. Only a few novices, older than the others, escaped this control, and gathered, hidden in the nooks of the vast building, chitchatting, eating, checking their phones, smoking. I tried to disturb as little as I could while absorbing everything that was happening around me, and time flew as fast that, all of a sudden, I realized I hadn't had lunch yet and afternoon soon would become evening, so I slowly walked away while the tunes of the students faded in the distance, refusing to let go of me. 

Lessons in the temple I, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Taking attendance, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Lessons in the temple II, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Playful silhouette, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The light shines in I, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The light shines in II, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm

4 Jun 2016

Return to Sangkhlaburi I: Saphan Mon

Monochrome transit, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Color transit, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Last 6th of May I had a long weekend ahead yet I had planned nothing for it so, following a whim, I packed my bag early in the morning and went to Victory Monument. There I took a van to Kanchanaburi's bus station where I transferred to another van that, in 4 more hours, would bring me to Sangkhlaburi. I had been there once, 2 years ago, at the end of the rainy season, when the level of the water in the lake was highest, and I had been deeply impressed by its landscapes and people. Ever since I returned I promised myself I would go back, preferably during the dry season, to see another side of the village, and that's what I did this time. Despite the public holiday, Sangkhlaburi is still a very quiet place, barely touched by tourism, so there was no need to book anything in advance. When I arrived, I grabbed a motorbike to the guesthouse where I had stayed the previous time, and my second visit started.

Evening arrival, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Tight-troopers, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Fishing, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Playful girl, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Monk's selfie, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
There is no doubt: Saphan Mon, or the Mon Bridge, which is the longest wooden bridge in Thailand, is the main attraction of this small town, nestled in the mountains between Thailand and Myanmar. Last time I was there, the central part of the bridge had collapsed, but it has been rebuilt since then and now it was possible, once more, to cross from one side (the Thai village) to the other (the Mon/Burmese town) above the waters of the dwindled lake. Not only the bridge acts as a magnet for Thai tourists, it is also a place where locals gather, socialize, and is also the most important link for all everyday matters between both sides of the lake. The bridge is never quiet or empty, there is always a stream of people traversing or staying on it, either contemplating the views from its majestic height, selling crafts, taking pictures or playing music.

Waiting for sunrise I, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Waiting for sunrise II, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Thanaka kids, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Thanaka lady, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Ochre loneliness, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Yes, the views from Saphan Mon are well worth a visit to Sangkhlaburi by themselves, and the peace that one feels while sitting atop, letting the morning or evening breeze blow gently, is a great experience. I spent hours just sitting on the benches or slowly strolling from one border to the other of the 400 meters bridge, taking in the atmosphere, the views, the vibe of the people who use it regularly for their everyday routines. I was completely on my own, I had none to direct me in any particular direction and, in the end, this was probably the best choice, letting my feet carry me wherever they wanted to go, free from any responsibility or compromise. There were no hurries nor obligations, just an endless ease of mind.

Sunrise over Saphan Mon, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
The jumper, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The first boat, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The giant's footprint, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Life in Sangkhlaburi revolves around the bridge (for the other areas see the next post here), and you are never too far from it as to not see it in the (not so long) distance. A handicraft market stretches at the end of it, vendors station themselves across it, boat drivers await for tourists at both ends; but there is also life under it, and the lower levels of water due to the dry season were no obstacle for the inhabitants to keep on going out and walking along the muddy banks looking for fish or mollusks. The waters that quietly stream under the bridge are a constant source of resources for them, but kids, despite helping their families in all their chorus from an early age, always find time and space for recreation and amusement.

Stranded wheel, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Walk for survival, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The acrobat in the mud, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Recess I, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Recess II, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
One key difference I encountered from my previous visit, other than the rebuilding of the bridge, was the aground floating houses on the shores of the lake, waiting for the water level to raise once more when the rainy season arrived. The thick bamboo platforms that once kept the huts safely bobbing on the water, now rested immobile in the swampy land, and only a few of them remained dancing quietly in the places where the waters were deepest.

Dry season, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Water and mud, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
The deepest spot of the lake, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Temporary retirement, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
There was one thing in particular, however, that strongly caught my attention since the first time I saw it in one of my multiple strolls along the bridge, something that was not there in my previous visit due to the higher level of the water: in the grassy bank of the lake, and delimitated with bamboo poles, they had drawn a football field, complete with 2 goals on both extremes, consisting of 2 vertical bamboo poles. There was something deeply touching in that temporary, isolated playing field that refused to leave my thoughts so, in the end, after a few strolls, I decided to walk down the gentle slope and set foot on the field myself. Much to my surprise, a couple of boys (brothers as I later learned) soon appeared from one of the nearby huts with two balls, and started practicing, enticing me into their game along the way. There are no photographs that can show the beautiful empathy that arouse between us that evening, despite the limited Thai language skills I posses, but those will be definitely my fondest memories from the whole trip, memories I will treasure for a long time.

Emerged footfall field, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
The goal keeper, GH3 + Panasonic Leica 42.5mm
Football training I, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Football training II, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Football training III, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Football training IV, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm