Thursday, July 2, 2009


The town of Sanklaburi is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited since coming to Thailand. It sits just north of a reservoir created about 30 years ago at the convergence of three rivers. During the rainy season the old temple – the only building left from the town that was flooded to create the reservoir – is almost entirely submerged. If the water is at just the right height and the temple only half covered, you can slip through the door in a long-tail boat and float out over the stairs. When I was there at the end of the dry season, we crossed the threshold on foot with the deserted shells of freshwater mussels crunching underfoot.

The first evening we ate dinner on bamboo platforms built out over a quickly-rushing mountain stream. The whole restaurant – platforms, kitchen, and all – has to be dismantled and moved every year before the wet season because the stream swells to fill its little ravine.

The stars are beautiful in these mountains. Electricity is not a given and the air is lovely and clear. The silence in the morning is profound, after the geckos have stopped singing and before the birds have begun. But with the first hint of sunlight, the fishermen head out on the lake in traditional boats suped-up with third class motors that sound like your grandfathers lawnmower after the cover has rusted away, and you gain a new appreciation for the noise-amplifying acoustic potential of large flat bodies of water ringed in mountains.

Spanning this large body of water is the pride of Sanklaburi, the Sappan Mon (Mon Bridge). It’s the longest wooden bridge in Thailand, stretching an impressive 400 meters from the mainland to the island village housing the local Mon community. The distinct cultural identity of the Mon people is evident throughout the area: in the art and architecture of the temples, the crafts for sale in the markets, and the food. I brought home an old Thai whisky bottle filled with honey. It comes from people in some of the most remote villages in the mountains; cloudy amber liquid, always fluid in the constant heat, frothy on top, almost too sweet but still sharp.

Many of the people in this area of Thailand are of the Mon or Karen ethnic groups, each of which have a well-organised militant faction engaged in more-or-less active warfare with the Thai army, the Myanmar government, and each other. Competition for control of major smuggling routes is fierce and bloody. Factor in small gangs of ordinary bandits, and you begin to see how complicated life can be in these mountains.

The mountains themselves are tall and jagged, with raw and rugged shapes that seem out-of-tune with their covering of foliage so green it’s almost deciduous, interspersed with pine. From Thailand we watched the sun set over Burma; high above the barred border gate, magnificent clouds drifted freely across the sky.

Note: My colleagues took some of these photos – you know who you are, I thank you!

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