Briefly Sangkhlaburi, pt. 1

Things were good in Kanchanaburi. I looked at the river, swarmed with lily pads and pink lotus flowers. I crossed the reconstructed bridge. I ate copious amounts of glorious food at Blue Rice Restaurant while three men stood chest-deep in the river, in regular street clothes, scything up river weeds and then flinging them back into the water. After dark, I found myself drinking with some Thais around my age and an older British expat who alternately infuriated and charmed me. This is unwise according to my guidebook and common sense, but the presence of a woman—the effervescent Chil—and being situated in a very public location near my guesthouse made it seem okay. We sat in front of Smile Mart, which Chil owns and/or perpetually staffs; they are supporters of Liverpool Football Club, which I know nothing about except that the FC’s lovely motto YOU WILL NEVER WALK ALONE was emblazoned in big red letters across Smile Mart’s broad front windows. They taught me to drink beer with giant ice cubes and to feel no shame about this. Chil was extremely endearing, partly because of her sense of humor and partly because of her obvious strength, working interminably at Smile Mart while raising her son, who alternately wandered around inside and wriggled in her arms. For a while I ventured off to visit the night market, long channels of sweets, clothes, and DVDs. I ate som tam, some tiny tacos made of sugar in different forms, and banana leaf pyramids full of glutinous rice and egg custard. I returned to Smile Mart for more beer, we all vowed to be Facebook friends, and then their buddy drove me the few blocks back to my guesthouse on his motorbike.

I had four days left in Thailand and could easily have spent it in Kanchanaburi, taking Apple and Noi’s cooking class and visiting the nearby historical sites. But all along I’d wanted to go to Sangkhlaburi, a 4-5 hour bus or 2-hour van ride further northwest into the green mountains, very near the Burmese border. I wanted to eat Burmese food and to spend all my money there to support some of the self-help weaving projects organized by refugees that I’d read about. I’d felt that my money could actually make a tiny bit of a difference in Sangkhlaburi. I walked Kanchanaburi’s Th. Maenam Kwae, which overflows with backpacker shit, and understood that I had to do the less comfortable thing and continue on to Sangkhla, even if it was just for two days.

The next morning, I boarded a pastel Pee-Wee’s Playhouse bus into the mountains. This first bus was a fantasyland of big photos of the King and flower offerings bedecking the area around the driver, and rows of turquoise bench seats with minimal leg room. We passed intriguing places: the turnoff to Daen Mahamongkhol Meditation Centre, where I had planned to stay but did not, and didn’t feel too bad, as I’d lingered extra days everywhere I’d visited previously so didn’t have any time left for Kanchanaburi Province; Erawan Falls; Hellfire Pass. I’d entered some sort of life coma in which every choice I made seemed to me like the finest thing, and at each turnoff I felt glad that I’d chosen Sangkhla. We passed through teak forests and moved toward distant mountains, pointy, karsty shapes.

Halfway through, we switched to a crummier bus that seemed like it had been designed by a teenager. Five stereo units had been inserted into the panel above the driver’s head, and enormous speakers occupied each side. A gigantic spray of marigolds bobbed above the dashboard. There were fewer than ten people on the bus as the mountains, full of trees, thickened and we labored up the inclines. I talked to one couple briefly, but mostly just looked out the window. Occasionally, vistas opened. The valleys were full of lakes, a mixture of natural water and the big dams, I think. The air was thick, wet, and green, the pall of low-hanging gray clouds, rust-colored roofs and willowy bridges far below. I felt light in this, excited to be in a completely unfamiliar part of Thailand and also to be so close to Burma, which I had been thinking about a lot.

In Sangkhlaburi in June, it rains approximately every two hours. Not even the sweat on my clothes would dry. The trees dripped with water. I’m told that the valley underneath the Mon bridge fills with water by August or September, and the houseboats are lifted up and up. The people I met were surprised that I was there not as a volunteer, but simply to see the place. Because the town is sort of off the farang tourist trail (it’s really popular with urban Thais who drive up from cities over the weekend, however), the weather is insane, and, most of all, there’s so much work to be done.

After settling into my sweet, rough room at Burmese Inn and having lunch and buying some weaving at Baan Unrak, I crossed the 400-meter wooden Mon bridge and couldn’t stop looking down and taking pictures. The patchwork of houseboats with broad metal roofs, the vivid green of the wetland grass, the way boat wakes divide the lake in two, like ribs. A woman all in dirty white who may have been schizophrenic passed me a couple times, and young couples sharing an umbrella. I walked through the Mon settlement. People went about their lives, walking around, talking, cooking, selling and buying stuff at market stalls. There are deep layers of history, politics, and identity among the Mon, Karen, and other refugees in this area that I only understand a fraction of, and only on the surface. I know that there are police checkpoints all along the roads here because many refugees aren’t allowed to legally leave this town. I know that some of the Karen children in the Baan Unrak school were found wandering alone in Burma’s mountainous woods when they were five or six years old, and that nearly all of them have histories of trauma.

It got dark, and I crossed the bridge again and returned to my guesthouse, where I ate tea leaf salad. A soft, brown dog bounded up to me on his short legs and plopped at my feet whenever I entered the dining room.

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  1. Oh, I love Kanchanaburi! My husband and I got kind of stuck in that town during our last trip to Thailand.. Stuck in a good way, that is :)

    • melaniejoya

       /  November 8, 2012

      I really loved the night market and the people I met there! I felt like I could have spent my whole trip just in that province.


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