Sangkhlaburi: Thailand's authentic wild west

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

One of the wildest, most unexplored, off the beaten track areas of Thailand lies surprisingly close to the metropolitan madness of Bangkok, just a few hours' bus ride away. Sangkhlaburi, a small town in a remote western corner of Kanchanaburi Province, is surrounded with jungle, lakes, waterfalls, and tribal villages. Tourists are a very rare sight. Yet the region harbors numerous attractions, both natural and manmade. A sunken temple in the middle of a reservoir, for example, or a huge wooden bridge. The most attractive part, however, is the authenticity of it all. Not only mass tourism but excessive local development as well seem to have spared Sangkhlaburi for now. The proximity of Myanmar and traditional customs of Mon, the dominant ethnic group, contribute to the town’s cultural versatility. All in all, Sangkhlaburi is among the most interesting Thai districts to explore.

© Istock/blanscape

Sangkhlaburi proper

The main landmark of Sangkhlaburi is doubtlessly the 440 m long wooden Mon bridge. This crazy vertical web of giant teak logs resembles a piece of a fantasy movie set, apparently standing by magic alone, but is in fact sturdy enough to support intense pedestrian traffic. Below and around the bridge, raft houses float in the lake – the typical housing style of Mon people. Cross the bridge and explore the Mon village, Wangka, on the other shore. Founded by refugees from Burma just after World War II, the village mostly consists of bamboo houses on stilts. Mon women often sit underneath their homes, weaving traditional sarongs on manual looms, or making baskets. Aside from the tribal culture, Wat Wang Wiwekaram is worth a peek, although, admittedly, this concrete monastery looks better from a distance. In the morning, the rural market opens near the western end of the bridge – a good chance to try ethnic dishes, some of which involve “exotic” meat, i.e. toad.

© Istock/Sittipong Chananithitham

Around Sangkhlaburi

One slightly bizarre attraction is Wat Samprasob. This temple used to stand on a hill overlooking a local village until it was submerged in the 1980s to create a reservoir for Vajiralongkorn power plant. Now the ruined building sticks halfway out of the water like Thailand’s tribute to the lost kingdom of Atlantis. To visit it, one would have to hire a boat. If you do, make a detour through one of the floating villages. Most of the jungle surrounding Sangkhlaburi is in fact a national park, namely Khao Laem NP, with the usual assortment of wild fauna. This area is part of the lower Tenasserim watershed, and the abundant rainfall feeds a large number of waterfalls: Thung Nang Khruan, Chok Kradin, Kreng Krawia, and more. Finally, Sangkhlaburi district also serves as a national frontier with Myanmar encircling it from the north and the west. Traces of Burmese culture can be seen everywhere, but for the most authentic sample, head to the border checkpoint as Three Pagodas Pass. The pagodas themselves are nothing special, but even on the Thai side, the ambiance is decidedly Burmese, and so are most of the people. The market here is a good place to look for specialties like thanaka powder, pickled tea, and if you are a photographer - for ethnic portraits. Sangkhlaburi is well connected by bus to the provincial capital, Kanchanaburi, but of all the sights in its vicinity, only the Three Pagodas Pass can be conveniently reached by public transport. For the rest, you would need your own wheels. Most guesthouses in the town can arrange a motorbike rental.

© Istock/wuttichok

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