Road trip to the Thai-Myanmar border in Kanchanaburi province
Sailing down the two-lane blacktop heading west, I peer sideways through the windows of the rental car I’m driving. Only two hours earlier, photographer Nate Clark and I had been inching along capital streets, waiting for the gridlock to loosen up.
Now, rolling green hills unfold endlessly before us, like a scene from a Terrence Malick film. With virtually no other vehicles to be seen along Highway 323, the contrast with Bangkok couldn’t be more striking. Cirrus clouds spar with the sun to provide nonstop sky visuals, appearing even more impressive when I peel back the moon roof.
We’re headed all the way to Sangkhlaburi, on a remote stretch of the Myanmar border, via Kanchanaburi. It’s been a few years since my last visit, and I look forward to finding out what’s changed, and what hasn’t.
Our first official stop on the road is the super iconic River Kwai Bridge in Kanchanaburi’s provincial capital. The imposing iron-and-wood span was engineered by Japanese troops who occupied Southeast Asia during World War II, and built using POW and conscript labour as part of a metre-gauge railway line from Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbyuzayat, Burma. Historians later called it the ‘Death Railway’ because so many workers—around 60,000 POWs and as many as 150,000 local conscripts—died during the rail line’s construction under horrific working conditions.
Although many bridges were built along the original line, the one over the Khwae River—a name somehow mangled in the famous novel (and later film) Bridge over the River Kwai—is by far the longest, at 346 metres. To the Japanese, it was simply ‘Bridge 277’, part of a long supply chain intended to support a Japanese attack of India which never occurred, as Allied bombers destroyed two sections of the bridge in 1945.
Today the Eastern end of the bridge—the end closest to town—is an unequivocal tourist trap, thronged with hundreds of day visitors brandishing selfie sticks and camera-phones. Noting that most tourists venture no further than halfway across the span before turning back, we drive downriver till we find a road bridge, then cross the river and approach the historic monument from the west.
This is more like it. With a bit of the bridge to ourselves, we can better sense the gravity of history, or so we imagine. Plus, our selfies are way better without strangers in the background.
Before hitting the road again, we stop off for lunch at X2 River Kwai, an ultra-contemporary boutique resort set on the banks of the river a few kilometres south of the famed bridge. A table beneath a huge old tamarind tree, with the river flowing nearby, makes a perfect feed-and-chill spot after the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bangkok. Pad Thai with fresh river prawns and chicken stir-fried with holy basil go down well, and soon we’re sitting back in the car heading northwest.
Once we’re clear of town and pointed towards Myanmar, I’m reminded that Western Kanchanaburi province is a driver’s paradise. From this point forward, traffic is sparse, while things to see and do are plentiful.
Highway 323, which ends in Sangkhlaburi, is unequivocally one of the most beautiful highways anywhere in Thailand. Craggy hills and raw limestone cliffs pop up on either side of the road, part of the Eastern escarpment of the Tanintharyi Mountain Range which forms an imposing geographic wall between Myanmar and Thailand.
Soon we’re skirting the edges of Sai Yok National Park, where the legendary ‘Russian roulette’ scenes from The Deer Hunter were filmed. About a half hour before arriving in Thong Pha Phum, a giant blue elephant-headed statue appears on a hillside to the right of the highway. I don’t remember it from previous trips, and so we decide to pull off the road and check it out.
The lofty figure is Ganesha, son of Shiva the Hindu destroyer god, and it turns out he’s one of several mythological characters fervently worshipped at Wat Khao Khe. The name translates as ‘Crocodile Mountain Monastery’, as it was founded near a cave which Chao Pho Khao Khe, a half-human, half-crocodile hermit, reportedly used as a meditation spot way back when such magical creatures were presumably common.
Towards the back of the monastery compound, we come upon a shrine occupied by a figure resembling a meditating Buddha image in all respects except that it bears the head of a crocodile. Locals believe that prayers and offerings made at the shrine will bring them wealth and prosperity.
Resident monks and local devotees later added the huge statue of Ganesha, thought to be a remover of life obstacles, for those seeking to pass exams or get promoted at work. As we wander by, a small group of Indian visitors is praying at the shrine. To make a perfect trifecta, Wat Khao Khe also harbours a sizeable statue of a standing Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion.
Suitably blessed by all three deities, we hit the road again and keep going until the sun is setting and Thong Pha Phum appears on the horizon, a clump of two- and three-story buildings sitting in a tight river valley. We check into Thongphaphum Place, the newest and best of what the small town has to offer room-wise. It’s clean and simple, and far enough off the town’s main street for a peaceful night’s sleep. We find a local outdoor eatery near the market and dine well on pla sawng jai (“two-hearted fish”—a whole freshwater fish flanked by a sweet-and-sour sauce on one side, and a chili sauce on the other), and phat phak koot (stir-fried fresh fern shoots).
Nate rises early the next morning to snap photos of local monks on their daily alms round. He follows them back to Wat Tha Khanun, their hillside temple at the edge of town, while I explore the colourful morning market. An hour’s tour of town, plus a quick curry-and-rice breakfast, and we’re ready to go.
I drive out of the valley back to what I think is Highway 323. Somehow we end up driving for a half hour along Highway 3272, a secondary road that leads from Thong Pha Phum to Pilok, a Thai-Burmese border town that once thrived on tin and tungsten mining.
I don’t realize we’re headed the wrong way until we stop at a vintage Mon Buddhist monastery by the side of the road, drawn by a Burmese-style stupa and an old, distinctive-looking teak building. Built with stacked rooflines in classic Mon style, the structure is painted bright blue and raised high on stilts.
Inside, the faded walls are covered with old photos and manual clocks, giving the impression we’ve traveled a half century back in time. During a chat with an old betel-chewing monk, who turns out to be the abbot, I learn how Mon immigrants from Dawei, a port town on the Mergui Peninsula on the other side of the Tanintharyi Mountain Range, had founded Wat Huay Pak Khok around 80 years earlier.
As we leave the monastery and are about to get back in the car, a grizzled man sitting by the side of the road asks where we’re headed. That’s when we find out we’re on the wrong road.
We backtrack a half hour or so till we’re back on Highway 323, as the mountain scenery opens up to vistas of Vajiralongkorn Reservoir, a 3,720 sq.km lake formed by a dam that filled the Sangkhalia River valley when it was completed in 1984. This rippling, sea-like expanse of water is what most road-trippers come to experience. The reservoir pops in and out of our view all the way to Sangkhlaburi, where we make a beeline for the second famous bridge in our journey.
Mon Bridge, a tall, rickety 850-metre span made from hand-hewn timbers, traverses the Sangkhalia River at the northernmost tip of the lake, joining Sangkhlaburi with the small, densely populated Mon village of Wangka.
After nailing a parking spot in Wangka, we walk down a village lane to find an unobstructed view of the bridge, which rises above the river in an impossibly intricate arrangement of rough logs and slats. It’s the longest such bridge in Thailand (and the second longest wooden bridge in the world after Myanmar’s 1.2 km long U Bein Bridge), and locals built the span in 1986 and 1987 under the sponsorship of Luang Phor Uttama, Mon abbot of Wat Wang Wiwekaram in Wangka.
After stocking up on photos, we retreat to a rustic local eatery for steaming plates of khanawm tait ga, which is the Mon name for khanom jeen, thin rice noodles topped with savoury fish and chicken curries. Unbeknownst to many Thais, khanom jeen in fact originated among the Mon.
Next on the agenda is a visit to Three Pagodas Pass, the ancient doorway through the Tanintharyi Mountains between Siam and Burma. At this remote spot stand three small whitewashed stupas, built as a peace gesture between the two warring kingdoms following the Burmese invasion of Thailand in the 18th century. I’m happy to see that the old stupas are still wrapped in holy cloth and worshipped daily.
A simple border crossing serves trade between Thais from Sangkhlaburi, and Burmese from Payathonzu, the small Kayin-Mon town on the other side of the border. Unfortunately, only citizens of Thailand and Burma are permitted to cross back and forth for the day. Adjacent to the border gate, a large market is stocked with carved wood, gems, textiles, and other Burmese handicrafts.
On our last day in Sangkhlaburi, we hop a local longboat for a tour of the lake, stopping off to view spooky, semi-submerged temple ruins left behind after Vajiralongkorn Dam was built and the valley was flooded. We’re lucky that rain during the monsoon season so far this year has been scant enough to leave the temples partially exposed; in another month or so they won’t be visible at all.
To spend the night, we choose Samprasob Resort, which commands the closest views of the Mon Bridge and Wangka across the river. For the best view of all, slip into the resort’s infinity-edge pool.
The following day we drive back to Bangkok in one shot, reliving Highway 323’s challenging curves and majestic vistas.
Where to stay
X2 RIVER KWAI: Ultra-contemporary design and a prime riverside location—all just a 15-minute drive from Kanchanaburi town. All rooms have panoramic river views, and resort facilities include a riverbank restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining, a library, and an infinity riverfront pool, plus bicycles and iPads for loan to guests.
138, Moo 4, Nong Ya, Kanchanaburi
Tel: 03 455 2124
THONGPHAPHUM PLACE: A new hotel—with ample parking—located in the centre of Thong Pha Phum town, offering clean, simple, air-con rooms. Look for the “Free WiFi” sign.
108/5 Tha Kanoon Rd, Thong Pha Phum
Tel: 03 459 9544
SAMPRASOB RESORT: Built on a steep hillside overlooking the Mon Bridge and Sangkhalia River, this long-running resort in Sangkhlaburi offers a variety of rooms and cabins, most with river and reservoir views. The Rim Nam Restaurant serves good Thai and international cuisine.
122, Moo 3, Nong Loo, Sangkhlaburi
Tel: 03 459 5050
Words by Joe Cummings/CPA Media
Photos by Nate Clark