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.
By David Luekens.