I have decided to let you all in on a big secret this week. I would like to share with you my favourite destination in Thailand. I have visited most of Thailand’s hot spots and many other less-known destinations. If given a chance right now to get in my car and take off, I would drive to Sangkhlaburi. I like to call it “Thailand’s worst best destination.”
The drive to Sangkhlaburi is breathtaking. Scenic, filled with fresh air, lush tropical greenery, and strange looking mountains, it is one gigantic photo opportunity. There are many stops to be made along the way: ancient Cambodian Khmer ruins at Prasat Meuang Singh Historical Park, the Sai Yok and Noi Yok waterfalls (scenes for the movie “The Deer Hunter” were filmed in this area), and my favourite resting spot, the Hin Daat Hot Springs, are all easily reached and thoroughly enjoyable.
Sangkhlaburi is about six hours west of Bangkok and sits on the Burmese border in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing to do there, or at least that’s what it looks like when you first roll into town. In actuality, Sangkhlaburi is chock-full of excitement.
Downtown Sangkhlaburi is tiny. About three major blocks make up the ‘main drag.’ Don’t let the size or bleakness fool you. Within this small area there is a public park, a post office, a small grocery store, two karaoke bars, a handful of restaurants, a shopping area, an auto parts store, an outdoor food market, hotels, a clothing market, a gas station, a photo shop, a barber, a bus station, a video games parlour, a bank, a pharmacy, a hospital, and a noodle stall that sells the best noodle soup known to mankind. We haven’t even left downtown yet, and what more could you want?
Another great thing about Sangkhlaburi is that it sits next to the beautiful man-made Khao Laem Lake. This provides a scenic and spectacular view of not only water and floating houses, but of a gigantic wooden bridge that connects the town to one of the local temple grounds and villages. Believe it or not, when I sit on my hotel balcony at night and the lights on the bridge are turned on and the water level of the reservoir is just right, the reflections make the bridge look like a gigantic harmonica. I have tried repeatedly to capture this phenomenon on film, but you will just have to trust me on this one.
Looking at the very clever brochure of my favourite hotel, the Sangkhalia River Hut and Resort, I am always in awe of the slightly false but clever advertising. Everything looks neat, bustling, and in good repair. There is no such thing as bustling in Sangkhlaburi, except perhaps on long weekends when some Bangkokians have the time to make the trip.
It’s O.K. that my air-conditioner usually goes ‘clunk clunk’ or ‘whirl boom’ and that the bed is hard and the coffee undrinkable. I sit out on the balcony every morning and force myself through a cup of the unthinkable with joy, feeling refreshed and looking forward to a new day of adventure.
Cows, elephants, ducks, geese, children, and dogs cross the streets, making the general speed of traffic about 20 kilometers per hour. Sangkhlaburi lets you exhale, shift into first gear, and float slowly through your days of visual and auditory surprise.
Sangkhlaburi is a cultural gold mine. Many different ethnic groups cohabitate without problems. Buddhist and Muslim, Thai, Thai-Chinese, Burmese, and Burmese minority groups make up the population.
On the outskirts of town you can find even more entertainment. A beautiful Buddhist temple ground called Wat Wang Wiwekaram features a beautiful and ornate golden chedi. The grounds are complete with handicraft market. Wooden tissue dispensers in the shape of cars, elephants, houses, fish, pigs, and tuk-tuks are a steal at about three US dollars each. Blankets, wooden carvings, cloth, jewelry, coaster sets, and thousands of objects that you never thought existed or that you should posses abound.
The Thai-Burmese border town, The Three Pagoda Pass, is also not too far away. A famous area for border skirmishes, trade, and military activity, the three pagodas themselves always look gigantic in postcards, but it is amazing how tiny they are in real life.
While in Sangkhlaburi, you can enjoy a canoe or boat trip on the lake, go on an elephant and raft riding excursion, partake in some bird or people watching, or visit villages of Burmese-minority-group refugee camps. You can explore the Buddhist temple caves or monasteries stuck deep in the forest, visit the Thung Yai Naresuan National Park with a guide, or intentionally turn on to back roads and discover what awaits you.
If I really want to spoil myself, I head down to Thong Pha Phum, considered to be the ‘big city’, and try the whole baked chicken marinated in Coca-Cola and stuffed with hay at the Baytong Restaurant. It is delicious.
Sangkhlaburi gives me that good old ‘home away from home’ feeling everytime and reminds me that, yes, there is more to a book than just its cover.