Stars still twinkling in an early morning sky, we walked to the wooden bridge that spans the northern tip of Vijaralongkorn Lake in Sangkhlaburi. Similar to Chiew Lan Lake down in Khao Sok National Park, Vijaralongkorn was created when a 1980s-built dam flooded a huge swathe of the northern Kwai River valley to form a reservoir. It may not be a natural lake, but the scenery here is some of the most spectacular in Thailand.
Our boatman was waiting beside his modest wooden longtail, docked along floating strips of bamboo in the shadow of the wooden bridge. At 442 metres long, the bridge resembles a wooden roller coaster track and is the longest handmade bridge in the world. It was constructed in 1986 to connect the Mon village, or Wang Kha, to the rest of modern Sangkhlaburi, which itself sprung up only 30 years ago when Vijaralongkorn Dam became operational some 70 kilometres to the south and submerged the original town.
The sun finally peeked over the tree tops as we skimmed over glass-like water. White cranes swooped over the lake, silhouetted by a red sky. Smoke rose from the morning kitchens of shoreline houses. Motorboats cruised beneath jungle-rimmed hills on the horizon. Beauty with a twinge of adventure — what travel is all about.
As morning sunlight blanketed the Mon village, we caught glimpses of villagers in houses that float on bamboo rafts over the lake. Though the Mon have long been present in this area, many settled in Sangkhlaburi after fleeing oppression and uncertainty on the Burmese side of the border over the past several decades. Many still wear brightly coloured traditional clothing, live in rustic yet elegant woven bamboo homes, and speak their own language.
Further on, we spotted the gold corncob Buddhakaya Chedi looming high above the lake. Built by the Mon in the early 1980s, it’s a golden-hued replica of the Mahabodhi Stupa in India, which marks the spot where the Buddha is believed to have become enlightened. The chedi’s golden reflection shimmered on the surface of the lake, adding spiritual mystique to the natural beauty.
We then cruised further south, away from the shore, and before long the bell tower of Wat Samprasob came into view. This was the central village temple before the old Sangkhlaburi was submerged, so it’s fitting that it remains the only evidence of what lies beneath. With a backdrop of sun and mountains shrouded in mist, the tower looked angelic as it hovered over the water. We pictured the houses, schools, trees and roads that sat flooded, metres below our boat.
Along with the bell tower, the nearby ordination hall of Wat Samprasob is the other major piece of the sunken town’s architecture to remain visible year-round. Two metres of its bricks and mortar exterior sat above the water, resembling a ghostly floating fortress in the middle of the lake.
The hall was built on what was the town’s highest hill, and it’s possible to walk around and inside it when lake water depletes towards the end of the dry season and forms a tiny island. We settled for a peek inside through a hole in the bricks.
With the sun getting higher and the air warmer, our boatman turned back and the hour-long cruise came to an end. Seeing as the boat docks immediately below the wooden bridge, we thought this was a good time to cross it and explore the Mon village on foot. We were rewarded with breakfast — delicate Mon-style curry with roasted chicken and garlic over rice with greens from a nearby garden — and the chance to purchase an offering for the temple.
A handful of Sangkhlaburi boat drivers offer trips of varying lengths on Vijaralongkorn Lake. Ours was arranged through our accommodation and we paid 300 baht for the private cruise — great value compared to similar trips in Khao Sok and Phang Nga Bay, for example. It’s also possible to arrange a boat in person at the docks by the wooden bridge. If you’ve got some stamina, the sunken town can also be reached by canoe in a couple of hours (canoes can be rented at P Guesthouse). Late afternoon just before sunset is a good time to go, but if you can get up for it, nothing beats sunrise.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 17th September, 2014.