Kicking off from the lovely grounds of the Pung Waan Resort at Nam Tok (near Sai Yok Noi waterfall, where an old Japanese loco sits eerily on a section of track which is now the railhead), we were immediately enjoying the wide, flat and smooth surface of the 323.
|Not just for Mazdas ...|
Originally it was a muddy track, the one used by the Japanese to march the PoWs up to various notorious Death Railway work camps in the Second World War. It was also their main supply route north, but virtually impassable in the heavy monsoons of 1943.
The vistas to the west are ruggedly awesome - beautiful mist clad mountains, purplish green.
We soon came to the Hellfire Pass turnoff, with nurseries opposite in full tropical bloom. All of this beauty disguises the fact that the dreaded Cholera Hill (as it was nicknamed) sits just behind.
Several signs spruiked resorts and floating jungle rafts, cool hotels anchored in the Kwai Noi river. It is brilliant fun to put on a life-jacket and just float for kilometres downstream with cave-riven steep cliffs soaring abruptly 200 or 300 metres above you (warning: do not try this in wet season; a boat once had to come racing after me when I missed my 'stop').
Still, I enjoyed making that comparison along the many straight stretches of the highway, seeing if there was anything after the red zone on the rpm metre ... well, you know, perhaps, it just goes around the clock and starts again or something. I wasn't going to die wondering.
I always enjoy the coffee shops along the way in Amazing Thailand. Cute little places in the middle of nowhere that can whip up a latte as fine as any you'll find in downtown London, Sydney or New York.
We stopped for a coffee just before the turnoff to Thong Pha Phum (I like that place name ... it sounds like sound-checking a drum kit, jing jing.) Thong! Pha!! Phum!!!
And this is where confusion set in ...
|Note digital lights even out here ...|
I put my helmet down on the road shoulder to go and speak to some soldiers/ customs/ police/ miscellaneous uniformed personnel at the nearby checkpoint. Yes, Three Pagodas is here, a right turn. Oh, so the road signs were correct then (never, ever, NEVER assume anything in Thailand!)
I put my helmet back on and ... hey ... what the? ... aaaargh!!! An ant. Biting my neck. Bastard! Then another on my ear. Aaaargh! Then all over my head. I ripped off my helmet, to see it infested with a whole colony of tiny black ants, drawn in no doubt by the heady (pardon the pun) pheromone of sweat built up over tens of thousands of kilometres done on Thailand's roads.
It took a full five minutes of swatting, slapping, scraping and smearing the little blighters to render my helmet secure again (OK, that doesn't make me a great Buddhist).
|The case against opium|
Then the road descended wildly, with huge concrete lane dividers which made it feel like a luge run. This was Cool Runnings Thai-style.
Richer folks in the area have jagged top spots for their houses with commanding lakeside views of where the two ends of the Death Railway finally joined in October 1943.
Sangkhla Buri, a refreshingly prosperous town, with fancy median strips, a massive gold reclining Buddha, and ... tah daaaaaa ... the 3 Pagodas.
Hold on a minute. I thought the pagodas were supposed to be white? And we're still a few kilometres short of the border. These were pirated pagodas!
Sangkhla Buri is clearly a popular town for locals to visit (about 6-7 hours by road from Bangkok). A swathe of small guest houses and restaurants lined many many back roads that I took, looking for Thailand's longest wooden bridge, the Mon Bridge. Easy to miss really, it's only 400 metres long!
|Can you spot the Wangkas?|
Today there are about 25,000 Wangkas living on that side of the river. So approximately half the town are Wangkas.
And so, with childish smirks on our faces, we left the Wangkas and headed up toward the border. Lord knows how the Japanese thought you could get a train line up through the Tenasserim Hills here, but they did, exacting a dreadful toll on the allied men of A Force.
The 3 Pagodas are actually a tad underwhelming. Not huge. Not impressive. But distinctive all the same.
A huge Thai flag fluttered limply to one side. A starry/ stripy Myanmar flag on the other. A queue of cars, trucks and three-wheelers, all groaning under the weight of baggage, lined up to exit Amazing Thailand.
|Some Wangka on a BMW|
Like any border town, markets have sprung up here. Selling Thai and Burmese handicrafts, clothes, whiskey, and Chinese crap. Kids played with remote controlled cars at the base of the Thai flag.
|Kid ordering 2 goat soups|
The shop owner indicated in the universal fashion that this could put lead in your pencil.
As my friend coerced the head from the pot trying to get the thing to smile for a photo, I noticed a bunch of kids materialising from a gaping hole in the side wall of the shop.
"Is that Burma?" I asked. Yes, he replied, grinning. There was nothing to stop people or goods simply climbing through from one country to another via his shop wall. I took a step forward -- he raised a hand indicating I shouldn't try it ...