When travellers dream of Thailand, they may picture jungles, sparkling temples and the exotic charm of rural villages -- Sangkhlaburi is home to all this. Located 225 kilometres northwest of Kanchanaburi and a mere 24 kilometres from the Burmese border, Sangkhlaburi's seclusion only adds to its mystique.
Sanghkhlaburi is set towards the end of one of Thailand's most spectacular roads, nestled on the low hills edging Vajiralongkorn Lake (previously known as Khao Laem Lake). Sheltered to the north and east by higher forest-covered limestone ranges, the lake is a reservoir that was created when a dam was built to the south, submerging most of the original Sangkhlaburi village back in 1982. Unless you put on scuba gear, all that can be seen of the old village today is the top of a temple wiharn and the temple tower nearby. A boat trip on the lake is a must while in Sangkhlaburi -- sunrise over the misty, mirror-like water is magical.
The outlying area is among the most picturesque in all of Thailand. Tiny Karen and Mon villages, caves, waterfalls, the vast Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife reserve and Khao Laem National Park ensure that there's an adventure to suit all tastes. It's also possible to drive straight to the Burmese border at Three Pagodas Pass, though it's far less dramatic than it sounds.
While Sangkhlaburi was traditionally a Karen town, a recent influx of Thais along with numerous Mon and Burmese settlers fleeing problems over the border, have created a culturally diverse atmosphere. Residents live in hill stations, floating rafthouses and stilted bamboo houses where laughing children frolic with clucking chickens. Though many of the area's residents do not hold Thai citizenship and still have difficulty receiving health care and other services, the different groups live together in relative harmonony. When the town's signature wooden footbridge collapsed in 2013, residents of every ethnicity joined forces to piece together an awe-inspiring floating bamboo bridge in an incredibly short amount of time. Whether the original will be rebuilt remains to be seen.
Apart from the ethnic groups who live in town, many Karen and other minorities who have fled persecution at the hands of the Burmese government also dwell in some massive refugee camps in the outlying regions. It's almost impossible to be awarded a pass to visit these unless you work or volunteer long-term for an NGO like The Border Consortium (TBC). Expats working with the NGOs aren't tough to find in Sangkhlaburi's few restaurants and bars after dark -- have a yarn with some of them if you're interested in getting involved. Alternately, Baan Unrak is a more easily accessible charity that operates in Sangkhlaburi and is well worth supporting.
While having a very remote feel to it, Sangkhlaburi can in fact be reached by bus from Bangkok in around seven hours. Higher altitude and the presence of the lake can make it very damp during the rainy season and considerably cooler at night than say Kanchanaburi. With the cooler weather, stunning natural beauty, hospitable locals and a range of things to do, Sangkhlaburi remains one of our favourite destinations in Thailand.
With a population of some 15,000, many of whom live way out in the boonies, Sangkhlaburi is a tiny town. It's divided into two distinct sections -- the "market section" or "town centre" just north of an inlet in the lake, and the "Mon village" or Wang Kha, just south of said inlet. These two areas are connected by two bridges. The "wooden bridge" is the longest hand-made bridge in the world and one of Sangkhlaburi's signature sites. It's only a foot-bridge though; all motorised traffic must use the concrete bridge via Route 323 a half-kilometre to the west.
A few places to stay are located right in the town centre, but most of the accommodation is along the lake, a 10- to 20-minute walk south or southeast towards the end of Si Suwan Khiri Road and another road that runs adjacent to it. A few accommodation options are also found on Sam Prasob Road, which cuts due south from the town centre and ends at the wooden bridge, and on Route 323 as it approaches the concrete bridge.
Cross the bridge and you'll enter the Mon village, a charming area with some good local food shops serving authentic Mon fare and several souvenir shops. Continue south from here and you'll reach Wat Wang Wiwekaram (aka Wat Mon) after a decent walk.
Route AH123 / 323 (aka Sangkhla Road) is the main road in and out of town. It comes all the way from Kanchanaburi and continues up to Three Pagodas Pass and the Burmese border. Sangklhaburi is a five-minute drive west of AH123 and is accessed via a local sub-section of Route 323 which runs directly northwest of the town centre before cutting south over the lake, then briefly up over a mountain and down again into the Mon village.
The town centre consists of only a few small blocks that are home to hole-in-the-wall stores, food shops and a great market between Thetsaban 2 and Thetsaban 1 that's open day and night. Just across from the market is the town's only bank and ATM at Siam Commercial Bank. Also in this vicinity are a couple of convenience stores, coffee shops and JA Computer internet cafe.
The post office is on the west side of the town centre on Si Sawan Khiri Road. Sangkhlaburi Road runs along the east of town and is where you'll find the hospital, police station and district offices.
When you've travelled this far to get to a place you need to give it at least a couple of nights. Do not try to visit Sangkhlaburi on a daytrip from Kanchanaburi -- you'll just spend a dull day on a bus.
By David Luekens.