Kanchanaburi: Part 4, Khao Laem National Park

Cultural tourism is, and has long been, the vogue among the backpacking set. The idea is to go to an exotic foreign locale to meet colorful natives and to immerse oneself in their quaint folkways. Unless you are in the military and are thus required to kill your new friends it is always good to pet the grubby children and mangy dogs, this despite the fact that in Thailand it is a grave offense to touch anyone’s head. Western tourists are forgiven for such behavior; after all, they are just barbarians, big, hairy, smelly, and stupid, but with good hearts.

So it was that during a two month journey to Thailand and Myanmar in 2016 the Weazel, Dr. Ann, and David D visited Sangkhlaburi and Three Pagodas Pass to witness a co-mingling of the Thai and Mon cultures. It was delightful, and the scenery beautiful, but people are people. The Weazel is fond of certain individual persons, but not of the human race; so, after our sojourn in civilization we set out to explore the wilder parts of Kanchanaburi province.

It is my habit to  plan trips by means of Google Earth and other such mapping tools. While cruising in my imaginary airplane to peruse the world’s topography I take note of any place that is dark green, swampy, mountainous, or which exhibits anomalous geographic features. To put it another way, I look for places with interesting terrain, lots of vegetation, and few if any people.

Close scrutiny of Kanchanaburi province revealed numerous karst features such as deeply dissected plateaus, abrupt cliffs, sinkholes, and disappearing streams.

Many of those interesting features were located in protected areas such as Khao Laem National Park which we had previously passed on our way to Sangkhlaburi and Three Pagodas Pass.

Here is a vertically exaggerated Google Earth view of the Park looking southwest from a prominent peak toward the reservoir which impounds the Kwai Noi river. The frontier with Myanmar can be seen on the horizon.

When viewed from this angle it is easy to see the gigantic upper entrance to Tham Nam Mut (Mut River cave) in the lower middle of the image. Despite its proximity to civilization the cave is effective unknown.

The downstream resurgence is just on the other side of the ridge and is the source of a series of travertine waterfalls known as Nam Tok Kroeng Krawia that are a major tourist attraction situated next to a highway. (Note: “Nam tok” means waterfall, and Kroeng Krawia is actually pronounced something like Kleung Klavia.)

It appeared to be an easy place to visit, just jump on a bus in Sangkhlaburi then get off at the Kroeng Krawia waterfall. From there it is less than two miles to the huge entrance seen above, so I was puzzled that no information could be found on the web. That is because in Thailand everything is easy except for that which is impossible. That plus the fact that the mountains are so steep and jagged that not even a Goral (Thai mountain goat) could easily traverse them.

When we got off the  bus at the waterfall I was dismayed to see numerous tour buses, countless people picnicking, piles of trash, and vendors selling food and knickknacks. With all this development surely there must be a place to camp? Wrong!

I inquired at what I presumed to be the Park headquarters. (Kroeng Krawia is part of Khao Laem National Park), but was told that the official Pom Pee campsite was far away along the lake shore. Our only other alternative was to camp at the actual Park headquarters several miles to the south. There weren’t even any hotels other than a so called “resort” more than a mile away.

The options were few so I set out on foot for the resort. It proved to be ugly and expensive so I walked back. Every day of our trip I had walked many miles on my injured feet, often with a pack, so by this time my aching arthritic feet were so covered with blisters that I could barely walk, a major impediment to exploration and a good reason to camp nearby if I had any hope of visiting the cave.

The Park headquarters down the road seemed the best bet, but back at the waterfall there were no taxi drivers because everyone had come by tour bus. Thai bus drivers may be friendly but they are not stupid. They saw our heavy packs and recognized our predicament, chumps ripe for the picking! So it was that we paid a small fortune for a three mile ride.

The site proved to be idyllic, a meadow next to a blue travertine stream, but the Park staff were flabbergasted, what were Farang (White Honkeys) doing here?

No one spoke a word of English but they understood that we wanted to camp despite the fact that they had rooms available, so they escorted us to a spot right next to the road. That was when we got a taste of cross cultural confusion.

Thai people never go camping alone, only in groups. Think overnight picnic. They prefer to camp cheek by jowl as close to the road as possible. Like moths, they also prefer to congregate around lights so most parks have overhead lights turned on 24/7. In a worst case scenario there is music. All of which is exactly what I most hate.

We refused their kind offer and instead insisted on crossing a quaint bridge to set up our camp on a grassy island occupied by an enormous water buffalo which had to be driven off.

The buffalo was not amused, and neither were the Park staff who were perplexed as to why we would want to camp next to a stinking garbage dump. Perhaps the crazy Farang like the smell of rotting garbage?

Then there was the problem with the lights. I could find no way to turn them off so I mimicked shooting them. What?

A comedy of errors followed. I had already managed to turn off several of the lights but could not find the main breaker. The staff thought I was trying to fix the lights so they scurried around turning them back on, after which I would turn them back off again.

Thais are obsessional about keeping floors clean; unfortunately, that included the lawn which, in their view, was marred by the presence of a few leaves from the towering jungle trees. It was a disgrace! What will the Farang think of us? So the Superintendent ordered an army of women with brooms to sweep the lawn until every single leaf had been removed.

Thai women, presumably Muslims, sweep the lawn

Sweeping the lawn served a dual purpose. It also enabled the women to spy on us and to examine our weird possessions. There was no mal intent, just curiosity as to why the hairy barbarians would chose to hide in a garbage dump and place their tents in the dark as far apart from each other as possible. Do they hate each other? Or us? Perhaps they can’t smell the dump because they stink so much themselves? Do they want to be in the dark so they can do terrible things unseen? Who knows?

Once the lawn was meticulously swept the Superintendent wrinkled his nose. The lawn wasn’t perfect, some of the grass along the road was turning brown from the ever increasing drought, so he hooked up a gasoline pump with which to flood the area. The sound was deafening but the buffalo approved, more green grass was sure to come!

Despite all that I loved the site, especially the travertine stream behind my tent.

The leaves aren’t really blue, but with a blue sky and blue water my camera got confused.

Notice the dingy blue color of the water and how level the travertine dams are. For those who don’t know, travertine forms in circumstances where water becomes super saturated with calcium derived from the surrounding limestone, or sometimes from hot mineral springs. As the water passes over obstructions aeration increases the out gassing of carbon dioxide which precipitates calcium carbonate which is what travertine is made of. The same process creates cave formations such as stalactites and stalagmites.

The faster the water flows the quicker the process; thus, the dams continually repair and level themselves. Normal waterfalls erode downward and migrate upstream over time. Travertine waterfalls do just the opposite, instead of eroding they grow upward and forward.

The blue color of the water is caused by the scattering of light due to the presence of calcium ions.

The vegetation was quite interesting, a mini rainforest! The whole place looked very snaky, but I could find nothing but small frogs and fish.

The trees were adorned with orchids

I’m not much of a fan of the various weedy bamboo species that dominate so much of southeast Asia, but on the hill behind the outhouse was some of the largest bamboo I  have ever seen. The old rotten culms provided refuge for numerous geckos that screamed obscenities all night long.

Dendocalamus giganteus

We Farang tend to think of palms as being utterly harmless icons of the tropics that sway in the breeze along the shore, but palms that live in the jungle are often heavily armed to discourage predation by big herbivores such as elephants. Such is the case with genus Salacca and their close relatives the bizarre climbing rattans (genus Calamus). Think about it the next time you relax on the patio in your comfortable rattan lounge, someone had to remove the spines or your butt would resemble a pincushion!

Salacca sp.

It was along the limpid stream that I became reacquainted with my old nemesis the Crying elephant plant, an evil Aroid that looks completely harmless but causes elephants to cry. It certainly caused me to cry when I first encountered it on a previous trip to Thailand. The slightest touch of the stem or underside of the leaf drives invisible spines filled with oxalic acid into the skin. The pain is unbelievably intense and lasts for weeks.

Lasia spinosa? or perhaps Pycnospatha?

When morning came I was too lazy to build a fire to make coffee so I set off on foot to find a coffee shop said to be less than a mile away. As soon as I started walking a wild looking fellow on a motor scooter stopped to offer me a lift. In Thailand you don’t even have to hitchhike to get a ride!

The coffee shop was closed, but when my benefactor learned that I was looking for coffee he suggested going to a nearby police station. Huh?

The police station was closed too, but that didn’t deter my new friend, he broke into the cop shop with his pocket knife, rooted around, and found all the fixings for coffee and even a nice breakfast. I could hardly believe this was happening. Who breaks into a police station? He told me not to worry, if the cops come we will just offer them a few Baht for breakfast and all will be forgiven. Try that in Detroit.

The fellow said that he was unemployed and looking for work, but I could not help but suspect that he was an undercover cop of some sort, either that or a complete idiot. Regardless, he was my new friend and even took me back to camp!

The day was young, so Ann, Dave, and I decided to return to the Kroeng Krawia waterfall several miles away. We hitchhiked separately and got there in short order. The falls were already crowded with tourists doing what tourists usually do, littering, smooching, eroding the banks, pooping in the woods, and taking selfies.

People are people

The Kroeng Krawia falls are similar to the ones at camp, but much larger and more beautiful. There are many levels that cascade for hundreds of feet down the mountain. None of my photos do the place justice, so I suggest that you click this link to see what they look like. Please understand that I have few photos of this extraordinary place because my injured feet hurt so badly that I could barely see straight much less focus.

The Kroeng Krawia waterfalls were obviously a resurgence of the stream that carved Nam Mut cave, so I set out to find the source.

A set of stairs adjacent to the falls led to a large temple, monastery, and meditation complex. The architecture was oddly modernistic yet traditional in that there were the usual golden Buddhas.

Golden Buddhas are a dime a dozen in Thailand, but jade green is special!

Don’t let the tin roof fool you, it was a work in progress, first you build the Buddha, then you build the temple around it. The whole place had an odd air of abandonment, as though a grand enterprise had failed to materialize; nevertheless, there were still plenty of Monks. I snuck past the temple to find them at their leisure.

So Prongdoodle, are you any closer to enlightenment yet?

That was when I discovered a most intriguing path leading into the forest. Ann and Dave had disappeared so I continued on alone.

This way to Oz

Everywhere I looked there were tiny little Hobbit houses lost in the jungle. Why didn’t someone suggest that we stay here? I later learned that it was a failed meditation retreat center.

Nobody home, not even the Hobbits

All across Thailand there are abandoned temples and monasteries that failed because a charismatic guru either died or was disgraced because of screwing his acolytes.

I had the highest hopes of finding a cobra. The habitat was perfect, abandoned buildings deep in the jungle, but not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

I continued on for some distance until I arrived at a small settlement at the head of the valley. There I met a Nun tending her garden who sternly but kindly asked me not to invade their privacy. She was an intelligent person with whom I could communicate despite the language barrier. I explained as best I could that I wanted to visit Tham Nam Mut. She found this very alarming and basically said, “No way! There is no path, it is far away and you have to cross two mountains; besides, you are old and alone!” The part about the path wasn’t really true, I had methodically checked out every possible path and had noticed a very faint path that had been blocked off which had to be the way. She was just trying to keep me from getting lost or hurt.

When the Nun saw that I was about to disappear into the jungle she offered a consolation prize, to show me her own personal meditation cave and an alternative jungle path back to the park. So it was that I acquired a Buddhist Nun as a cave guide!

From the cave a tiny footpath led along the base of a cliff. It was very rugged and rocky. At the worst place, which actually required climbing skills, we discovered a feral dog denned up with a litter of pups. I expected the bitch to attack us, but the Nun spoke kindly to the dog and fearlessly picked up a pup to cuddle.

It’s a dog’s life in Thailand where even a mangy cur gets food and affection

By sunset I was back in camp nursing my aching feet. It was deeply frustrating to find myself crippled and unable to explore such an interesting place. There was so much more to see and do! Not far away was a hidden lake and swamp surrounded by deep jungle, and worst of all I had completely failed to locate a huge cave a short distance from the road. Beyond the cave was a pristine valley that I longed to visit. When will that opportunity come? In my next lifetime? I’m not a Buddhist so I’m not counting on it.

The good news was that police station where I had eaten my purloined breakfast was located at the turnoff to our next destination, Lam Klong Ngu National Park. Some of the largest caves in Thailand are located inside the park; furthermore, “Khlong ngu” means Snake creek so I had to go! My hoodlum/undercover cop buddy had already explained that trucks would pass the intersection the following day around 10am so we had a plan!



Kanchanaburi: Part 3, Three Pagodas Pass

In January of 2016 the Weazel returned to Kanchanaburi province in central western Thailand with Dr. Ann and friend David D.

We had just come from the magnificent wilderness of Kaeng Krachan and were in need of a soft bed and a bath before continuing our adventures.

We arrived in Kanchanaburi town in the southeastern corner of the province to discover that little had changed over the years other than the advancing age of the previously mentioned perverts (See: Kanchanaburi part 1, Land of Dirty Old Men) and ever increasing sprawl; so, after a few days we hit the road for the hinterlands.

Kanchanaburi province and surrounding areas

Sangkhlaburi and Three Pagodas Pass

In the far northwestern corner of Kanchanaburi province lies the remote outpost of Sangkhlaburi, and beyond that the legendary Three Pagodas Pass.

Three Pagodas Pass is the lowest pass anywhere along the Tenasserim mountain range that defines the frontier between Thailand and Myanmar. There are very few passes and even fewer border crossings.

In the beginning Three Pagodas Pass was just an elephant trail. It is said that the Buddha himself passed this way some 2500 years ago. Ever since various people have battled for possession and the fighting isn’t over yet.

Any two nations separated by a jungle covered mountain range tend to be perpetually at war; so, for many centuries the Pass was a flashpoint between Burmese and Thai forces. During WWII it was the route of the railroad of death, but the train doesn’t stop here anymore. More recently the Mon and Karen rebels have battled over the right to “tax” the smuggling route to finance their never ending fight against the Myanmar government. Truckloads of smuggled teak, jade, drugs, and people pour constantly across the border so security is high.

Nearby Sangkhlaburi is mostly inhabited by refugees from Burma. Mon people are in the majority. They warily coexist with their rivals the Karen along with a few Bamar (the so called “true” Burmese), a few misplaced Lao, some angry looking Muslims, and lots of spiffy Thai tourists from Bangkok.

Thai tourists on the Mon bridge release a hot air balloon for good luck!

Sangkhlaburi isn’t particularly impressive, but as is often the case in small Thai towns beauty is bursting at the seams. Where else would a shack be embowered with flowers and a street light be carried by a golden Griffin?

Dr. Ann and Dave go for a stroll in the streets of Sangkhlaburi

We found a room near the famous Mon bridge, said to be one of the longest and tallest wooden bridges in the world.

This long bridge connects Sangkhlaburi with the 95.5% Mon refugee village on the other side of the reservoir/river.

I had expected a floating bamboo bridge, and the remnants of the original, seen here, still serve as a pier.

At sunset the scene is picturesque to an extreme degree. My photos do no justice to the serenity. Fisherman’s shacks and floating raft houses dot the lake while craggy mountains rise in the distance. I have rarely seen a more beautiful and culturally interesting place.

Just across the bridge in the Mon village elegant women in sarongs carry baskets of flowers on their heads.

The proud Mon people don’t slouch!

Mon refugees conduct themselves with dignity and restraint and have thus earned the respect of the Thai people.

Despite being a refugee camp the Mon village is extremely prosperous. I was surprised to discover that many of the residents are multilingual and speak excellent English. The old and new coexist easily. Were it not for the omnipresent cell phones one might imagine it to be a scene from the distant past.

A typical Mon shop

The following day we hopped into a Muslim owned sawngtaeo (a pickup truck with bench seats in the back) and headed for the pass. There were several army and police checkpoints along the way. The authorities gave our driver the evil eye, but the last thing they cared about was a grizzled gringo and his girlfriend.

It was interesting to observe the grumpiness of the Muslims relative to the ever smiling Thais and the dignified tribal refugees. Is it cause or effect? Regardless, anti Muslim sentiment is building throughout the region so they keep their heads low.

There was certainly no shortage of Buddhists.

Mendicant Monks and stray dogs are ubiquitous throughout southeast Asia

Notice that the Monk is carrying a bowl. The faithful are expected to put rice in the bowl and a morsel in the dog’s mouth. Foreigners are exempt, because everyone knows they come from corrupt cultures where greed is God. A good Buddhist can only pity those who know nothing of kindness and generosity.

Three Pagodas Pass isn’t really a town, just a market and checkpoint. Foreign tourists aren’t welcome to cross here, just to peer across into Myanmar.

Welcome! Now go back to wherever you came from.

For a place so steeped in history Three Pagodas Pass seemed curiously small and calm, almost forgotten. The few soldiers we encountered were smiling and friendly, they did no more than to shoo us away from the actual border.

It seemed that no one was paying any attention until I looked up to discover enormous telecommunications towers rising above an ancient Wat. When World War III erupts news of the event will fly around the world over Three Pagodas Pass, but the people below will know nothing about it.

On the Thai/Myanmar frontier the old and new coexist uneasily

Why would such a magnificent temple be abandoned?

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

Shabby looking Monks scurried around the adjacent buildings but none came near the temple. Perhaps they fear some horrific curse?

It is hard to imagine how we missed anything in such a tiny place; nevertheless, we searched in vain for the eponymous pagodas. Here they are courtesy of Wiki.

Image swiped from the web

There wasn’t much else to do so we wandered out of town. After a lengthy trek through the countryside we noticed an isolated karst mountain and there discovered the Tham Kaeo Sawan Badan meditation center.

Tham Kaeo Sawan Badan

Which came complete with the usual golden Buddhas.

No one noticed our arrival so we simply wandered around until we found a wooden staircase that led steeply up the mountain, then down into the cave.

Ann in Tham Kaeo Sawan Badan

We were puttering around in the dim light when suddenly an enthusiastic young man raced up to give us the grand tour. We tried to run the boy off but he would not be deterred so we graciously accepted his services.

And to my left you see the void of nothingness

Should nothingness not come easily you are invited to meditate. There is even a mosquito net should you wish to spend a few weeks in the dark while awaiting enlightenment.

Feel free to sit until your butt hurts and your head clears

The kid loved his job. As soon as he got his hands on my headlamp he rushed ahead to make new discoveries, thus leaving me in the dark. His enthusiasm was infectious. Even though I couldn’t see a thing he would say (In Thai), “Hurry Mister, Hurry! There’s lots more to see!”, so I would hurry on as best I could while trying not to fall into a pit.

He was the coolest kaver kid I have ever met. I would gladly have given him my headlamp but I needed it. If I was rich I would have given him a scholarship. He never asked for money, so when he disappeared I searched for him to give him a tip. I learned that he had run off to guide a group of Thai tourists to a separate cave on the other side of the mountain. That was how I discovered that the entire mountain was hollow!

The back entrance to Tham Kaeo Sawan Badan

I walked around the mountain and climbed up to a different entrance. There was no one to be found, but once inside the cave I was astonished to see that a travertine waterfall had been illuminated by candles to mark the way. (Note: The formations are actually snow white, it is the light source that makes them look orange.)

A travertine waterfall illuminated with candles

I finally caught up to the kid and offered him a big tip even though what he really wanted was my headlamp so he could become a real explorer. I hope he kept the money instead of giving it to the monks!

We hitchhiked back to Sangklaburi. I needed to check my emails so I found an internet cafe. I was dismayed to discover that it was full of tech savvy Mon kids, all of whom were playing violent video games while imagining that they were blasting either ISIS or Burmese government troops.

Unlike Super Cave Boy who lives in a golden temple, those townie twerps will undoubtedly grow up to be violent, indolent, and rude to their parents. They will learn everything bad that we, the Western world, can teach them.

During my travels I have again and again observed the pernicious effects of the media upon innocent children. Even the slightest contact with television, recorded music, or video games is pure poison that stunts both moral and intellectual development.

In the West we grow up with cynical attitudes toward everything. That gives us some protection, but children who grow up with one foot in a refugee camp and one in the twenty first century are certain to be conflicted. They will always choose distraction and instant gratification over the wisdom offered by their parents and the Buddha. Why are we, the supposed adults, so foolish as to allow it to happen? Mostly because we are lazy and weak minded.

All is well that ends with a good meal. We found a table at the market, bought some beer then decided to stay for dinner. Talk about taste treats! Thai spice, Burmese and Muslim curries, salads, and best of all barbecued chicken hearts and livers. I gorged myself!

It was the weekend and Thai tourists were pouring in by the busload to walk the Mon bridge at sunset. Who could blame them? We learned that every hotel room in town had been booked in advance so we had no choice but to pack up and leave in the morning. Enough of hotel living, it was time to head back into the boonies!