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!




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