Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Of 3 Pagodas and a bunch of Wangkas in Kanchanaburi Thailand

For about six years I've dreamed of hammering up Route 323 on my motor bike. Today I did it.

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 ...
Route 323 runs riot for approximately 300 km, starting near Nakhon Pathom (just west of Bangkok) and out through Ban Pong (where the PoWs arrived in cattle carts from Singapore to build the death railway), through Kanchanaburi, out past Sangkhlaburi and ends at Three Pagodas pass on the Burma Thai border.

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').

Sai Yok Yai falls is quite splendid when in full cry, and riverside restaurants and boat hire outfits here do a roaring trade. Literally. Have you ever heard a V8 longtail boat in full cry? It makes my BMW bike sound positively whiny in comparison.

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 ...
On my map (the trusty Roadway Thailand Atlas) the road to Thong! Pha! Phum! is a sharp left, and the road to the 3 Pagodas Pass is straight ahead. However, what we were presented with in reality was a 90-degree turn off at the lights to 3 Pagodas, while the road to Thong! Pha! Phum! carried on straight.

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 
The road now took a windier demeanour, curving hither and thither through forested hills. Rounding one bend, the road was suddenly blocked by a meandering crowd and a fleet of pick-up trucks. A Karen hilltribe festival. Perhaps an ordination. Splendid day-glo costumes adorned the kids, cleverly tied cloths festooned the adults' heads. Some guy was pounding out tunes on a weathered set of skins. Thong! Pha! Phum! An elderly couple danced like they meant it. They were either drunk on rice whiskey, high on opium poppies, or crazy. I bet a dollar on the latter.

Then the road descended wildly, with huge concrete lane dividers which made it feel like a luge run. This was Cool Runnings Thai-style.

Out into the open again, the countryside opened up magnificently, a huge flood plain where the Kwai Noi has been dammed and the Khao Laem reservoir has buried villages and temples but given life to a lively amount of traditional fishing villages and water sports. Er, and whisk broom empires. Forget what your broker's telling you about Google; get into whisk brooms, these people must know something on the inside I'm telling you.

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.

Further on a huge bridge across the Ranti River afforded money-shot valley views. Then climb climb climb to 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?
On the other side is a Mon tribal village (they exiled from Burma in 1949) called ... wait for it ... Wangka, jing jing.

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.

They symbolize the area at which Buddhism entered the country from India in the 3rd century, and also mark the area through which several Burmese invasions against Thailand were launched (and vice versa), and of course was the point at which the Thai Burma Railway exited the country. A small section of track commemorates that (although this section of the railway was ripped up immediately post-war to ensure Karen separatists did not make use of it).

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
We posed for photos. Asked Thai soldiers to shoot us (er, with the camera I mean) but were politely declined as they preferred to sit in the shade of the customs office veranda. The Burmese soldiers however were much more co-operative. At the first sight of the camera they sprung to their feet, cradled their AK-47s, and couldn't wait to shoot us. On sight. Fingering their triggers, and pacing up and down, they motioned my friend to point his camera away. He didn't. I urged him to, otherwise I myself would shoot him. Wangka!

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
One stall had a large pot sitting on the counter. Out the top seemed to be some kind of horn. On further inspection, it was a goat's horn. Still attached to a whole goat's head. In the soup. Shit! It was goat's head soup. (Is this where the Rolling Stones got their inspiration for their seminal album?)

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 ...

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