Monday, April 20, 2009

Sangkhla Buri's iconic wooden bridge into Burma

Riveting frontier

Sangkhla Buri's iconic wooden bridge, scenic mountains and warm Mon hospitality mesmerise travellers

Published: 16/04/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Horizons

Sangkhla Buri, a cosy district in Kanchanaburi province, never fails to mesmerise visitors. Bordering Burma, its town area is a colourful mix of ethnic cultures _ Thai, Mon, Karen and Burmese.

The earliest settlers in Sangkhla Buri are believed to be Mons. Making my second trip there in close to a decade, I was eager to observe the changes it had undergone in that time. Back then it offered very little in terms of accommodation to the few tourists who took the trouble to venture to the sleepy little town traversing winding roads up mountain slopes. Tourism was still in its infancy but Sangkhla Buri's rich ethnic diversity, where each group held fast to its tradition and culture, made it an attractive proposition even then, inviting travellers to come and explore the district on their own.

This time, the improved state of roads and general infrastructure leading to the town area meant that tourism has since made great strides but without sacrificing its rustic appeal. Numerous types of tourist accommodations have sprung up throughout town. Locals have become business savvy, with rows of souvenir shops lining main tourist spots such as the landmark 850-metre-long wooden bridge, also called Saphan Mon, the link for villagers to Sangkhla Buri town. Close by, clusters of guesthouses built as floating rafts proved an eyesore.

The wooden bridge provides a stunning view of Khao Laem reservoir. A student doubling as tour guide said during rainy season the level of water flowing under the bridge rises, sometimes almost touching the horizontal beams, but at other times of the year most of the bridge is in view. Given its poor state, motorcycles are not allowed on the bridge, although you can ride bicycles.

Tourism's ugly side is beginning to surface in the town area, but away from it you can still spot communities that welcome visitors with a genuine smile. One such village is Fang Mon that can be reached by boat or a walk across the wooden bridge.

One of the most photographed landmarks in Sangkhla Buri, this wooden bridge is a place to catch the sunrise, the surrounding landscape and laid back lifestyle of the locals. However, the cheap wooden guesthouses under the bridge were an eye sore to what once was a picture perfect setting.

Sangkhla Buri's other landmark is Wat Wang Wiwekaram and its highly revered abbot Luang Pho Uttama. The temple's architecture is a mix of Thai, Indian and Mon influence. Sometimes it is also called Wat Mon because most of the monks and villagers in the area are of Mon origin. It has a striking white marble Buddha image built in Mon style and murals depicting various stages of Buddha's life. The top of its stupa contains Buddha's relics from Sri Lanka.

The former Wang Wiwekaram temple, also known as Muang Badan, is another attraction. Submerged as a result of building of the Vajiralongkorn Dam in 1979, it is only on view during the dry season when water level in the reservoir, spawned by the dam's building, has receded to a sufficient level. Visitors can take boats from the town area to the temple.

Last but not least, is the Three Pagodas Pass. The miniature pagodas are reminders of the route favoured by Burmese soldiers invading Thailand during the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). It is also the site of a border market selling everything from wooden handicrafts to herbal balm from Burma.

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