It takes a bit of effort to get to Sangkhlaburi, at the end of good old Route 323 from Kanchanaburi and sitting just 12km shy of the Burmese border. Which is all the more reason to spend at least a few days there and to make the most of the time you’ve got. Luckily, the town packs its punches with plenty to see and do – your only trouble will be wanting to stay on longer than planned!
Drink hot coffee and hide from the rain at Graph Café
Sangkhlaburi both enjoys and suffers at the hands of the extremes of Thailand’s weather. Come in April and you’re likely to swelter in heats of 45°C and up, or head here in December and you might just need your hat and scarf. But come over the long rainy season, anywhere between May and October, and you’re sure to experience at least a couple of the town’s notorious storms, with heavy rain and storms and frequent power outages. It’s all part of the attraction of being so cut off from the rest of the world – but fortunately Graph Café offers some respite when rainy days seem to carry on so long that they blur into one another. Opposite the long-time favourite P Guest House, this Bangkokian-run coffee shop – a renovated old house with smooth concrete floors and walls and a manicured lawn at the front – serves up top-notch coffee and a few select bites to eat. You can have your drink over ice if you please, but when it’s raining hard and there’s a distinct chill in the air there’s nothing quite like curling up in a comfy chair with your book and a hot flat white. Sat just under the cover of the front of the shop, but close enough to feel the breeze, you might just find it hard to leave. And if that’s the case, then fret not – the adjoined Haiku Guesthouse has appealing Japanese-style rooms.
Indulge in arguably Thailand’s best massage at Tara Spa
Calling something Thailand’s best massage is a big deal, and probably not something to be expected of a shop in an end-of-the-earth place like Sangkhlaburi. But once you’ve stepped inside Tara Spa and felt the unnerving calm and relaxing vibe of the place, you’ll find it hard to disagree. The windows are just thin enough to hear the faint clatter of the market outside, but as you doze to the scent of essential oils you would be forgiven for thinking you are a million miles away. The spa is simply yet beautifully decorated, and the plump foot massage chairs near the entrance are to die for (if my bag was big enough, I’d stick one inside before leaving) – the brief foot scrub at the start of each massage is almost the best part of the experience, consumed by the vast padded seat and with your feet in a warm tub filled with generous slices of fragrant kaffir limes. You’ll emerge from Tara Spa rejuvenated and feeling chilled from within – and even if it’s worn off by the next day, that’s all the more reason to come back for more. Tara Spa is located on the corner of Thetsaban 2, the second of the four roads that make up Sangkhlaburi’s market-focussed town centre.
Chow down on amazing Thai and Isaan food at Toy Restaurant
Here’s one you won’t find in any guide book. Um, the Nong Khai-born lady who runs this little restaurant off the main stretch of Sangkhlaburi town frequented by most travellers, is a close friend of mine. From this simple but comfortable set-up of tables and chairs at the front of her family home, she has been cooking up honest local food for over seven years. Prices are low and for me this is some of the best food in Thailand. Her English-language menu is scant on the selection of Isaan dishes that are her natural speciality but, in true aharn tum sang style, if you know what you want she’ll cook you just about anything (though seafood is scarce around here). Fill up on excellent nosh, help yourself to a beer or soft drink from the fridge and lay back for a snooze in one of the hammocks. Bliss. To find Toy Restaurant, follow the main road from the highway straight down the hill and past the hospital until you see the restaurant on your left-hand side. And say hi from me!
Shop for handmade jewellery and artsy postcards (and eat great pizza) at Chuen Jai House
Few spots in Sangkhlaburi are as irresistible as Chuen Jai House. This guesthouse-restaurant-shop has cute thatched huts in the never-ending garden out back that winds downhill into countryside, plus 100% chilled, axe-pillow-on-the-floor style open-air seating to take in the views over an iced drink and home-cooked Thai or western meals. The owners occasionally bake homemade pizzas that have a reputation for miles around, and those staying here will enjoy kicking back with a film in the window-rich wooden long house at the top of the site. The whole place is decked out in relaxed and colourful tones with an eclectic vintage style that is telling of the personalities of owner Ton and her family who make things tick around here. Don’t miss the beautiful jewellery and postcards that line the walls and shelves in the main café area, and which Ton largely shoots and crafts herself – along with a great collection of other handicrafts from the local area and beyond. Chuen Jai is a little bit out of the way, and there’s a chance motorbike taxi drivers won’t know it by name, but to find it head past P Guest House and follow the road round to the left. Turn right at the first junction, walk on a little and you’ll see Chuen Jai on the left-hand side.
Dangle your feet over the freezing Songkalia river and eat somtum from a floating hut
The main attraction in visiting somewhere like Sangkhlaburi has to be switching off and truly relaxing – and there are few better places to do that than in a thatched bamboo hut perched on the edge of the Songkalia river. A number of restaurants just on land keep locals fed with plates of somtum papaya salad and other Isaan fare, and this place packs out at weekends when it’s the perfect spot to really take a breather. Dip your feet in the icy cold water of this fast-running river or, if you’re feeling really brave, hire a rubber tube for 20 baht and cruise along in style. From Sangkhlaburi town, take the first main turn-off on the left-hand side heading towards Kanchanaburi (it has a petrol station and 7/11 just a little way in from the top of the road) then follow the road for 5km. Look out for a road bridge over the river, turn down the dirty track to the right hand side and you’ll find the huts and somtum stands. Just plonk yourself down on a mat inside a vacant hut and someone will appear with a menu. This special spot is best reached with your own transport (hire a motorbike in town, or a bicycle if you’re feeling sporty), but with a little Thai you could persuade a motorbike taxi driver to take you there and then pick you up at a pre-agreed time.
Cross the bamboo bridge
It didn’t take long after storms and strong currents tore through Sangkhlaburi’s famous wooden bridge in July 2013 for the ingenuity, resourcefulness and all-round team spirit of the locals to shine through once again. The temporary structure put in place to connect the main town with the Mon village on the opposite side of the lake, and just as much of an attraction as its predecessor, is a bamboo bridge crafted at water level. It features a single raised area in the centre for boats to pass under, and over which pedestrians climb a small flight of steps. In parts as rickety-looking as the old wooden bridge and in many ways just as much of a feat of engineering, the current bridge also allows for easier access to many of the floating raft houses, some of which have rooms for rent by tourists – there are now direct walkways from the bridge to these houses and simple shops. Don’t expect those to last, though – Sangkhlaburi’s district chief wants the rules on these floating houses to be tightened up, as they are said to have been partly to blame for the bridge’s original collapse. And in the spirit of disaster tourism, the old bridge itself still makes for an eye-catching sight, jutting off suddenly on one side and on the other leaning tragically down into the water, a little like a hunched-over dragon.
Kayak around the old town’s sunken temple
When the old town of Sangkhlaburi was submerged thirty years ago to make way for the Vajiralongkorn hydroelectric dam, all but the Buddhist temple disappeared entirely from view. Today the structure of Wat Samprasob, meaning ‘three confluences’ and so named because the nearby joining of three rivers from Burma and elsewhere in Thailand, can still be seen to a varying extent depending on the level of water in the lake. An early-morning trip out amidst the eery mist rising from the water is both relaxing and enchanting, and at different times you can either swim or kayak among or walk around and inside the rooms of the temple complex. When the water is at its very highest only a small white stupa is visible, put in when the temple was relocated and installed high enough to resist the tides. Better still, you are likely to have the temple grounds almost entirely to yourself – save for a few children from nearby ethnic Mon villages who sell offerings to be made inside the old temple building. Book a boat trip directly with locals along the bamboo bridge; for 250-300 baht they will ride you out and give an in-depth and often intensely personal account of life at Wat Samprasob, including in the WW2 Death Railway era. My teenage guide was keen to stress the strength of the temple structures – the main hall is almost entirely intact despite over three decades of erosion – and the devotion to the local people of the temple’s former master monk, Luangpor Uttama.
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Visit the morning Mon market
After you’ve caught sunrise by wandering across the bamboo bridge at dawn, drop by the morning market to see a slice of typical daily life on the Mon side of town. Locals rise early and shop for fresh food and everyday staples; it’s much like the fresh markets you find elsewhere in Thailand, except for the unmissable injections of Mon culture in the dress and in the specialities that are there to be chowed down on. To get here, follow the signs once leaving the bridge on the Mon side – and on the way, look out for truckloads of children on their way to school, who are bound to shoot you a smile.
Wander the glittering Wat Wang Wiwekaram temple
This unmistakeable temple can be seen right from the other side of the lake, looking out from spots such as P Guest House. The geometric shapes on the rectangular shaped chedi are distinctive and each house a miniature Buddha image, and the grounds make for a meditative place to take a wander. The remains of the temple’s head monk remain on display inside the main building, where you can be blessed with water by a monk and receive a wooden beaded necklace to bring you good fortune. It’s possible to reach Wat Wang Wiwekaram by following the signs from the exit from the bamboo bridge, but it’s a long trek – alternatively, a motorbike taxi will take you there either from the bridge or from town, for no more than around 30 baht.
Experience Sangkhlaburi’s new walking street
I admit that I was sceptical when I first heard about the plans of a friend, prominent in Sangkhlaburi, to introduce a walking street. Did he want to turn the town into Pattaya!? The peace, quiet and lack of mainstream tourist attractions are precisely what bring most people here in the first place. But my mind was put at ease when I first visited this monthly event, which has a local feel in every sense. There is food – and plenty of it – plus performances by local musicians and dancers and a great selection of handicrafts made by people from Sangkhlaburi and the surrounding villages. It’s a real community occasion when everyone pours out of their houses and joins in the fun; I’ve never seen the streets around the town’s market area so busy. Ask your guest house when the walking street is next happening – things kick off in the late afternoon and run for several hours.
How to get there
Unless you have your own transport, Sangkhlaburi can only be reached by bus or minivan. From Bangkok a daily seven-hour direct bus runs the whole journey, but you’ll make it in quicker time and have a chance to stretch your legs if you break things up in Kanchanaburi. Get there by bus from the Mochit northern or Sai Tai Mai southern bus terminals, or by van from either of those terminals or Victory Monument – expect to pay around 120 baht for the roughly two-and-a-half-hour ride. Once at Kanchanaburi bus station (also a good spot to take an overnight rest stop, depending on your travelling stamina) ask to be pointed to the ticket office for minivans to Sangkhlaburi, which is directly opposite the bus station on the rear side and has a large pink banner draped outside advertising itself in English and Thai. The fare is 175 baht and the journey takes between three and a half and four hours; cheaper local buses also run to Sangkhlaburi from inside the bus terminal itself, but it’s a hairy-scary journey twisting through the mountains on an old rusty bus. On arrival in Sangkhlaburi, minivans and buses all stop on the first street of the market from where you can walk to most guest houses or pick up a motorbike taxi (if none are visible, walk to the end of the street away from the direction the bus or van entered, turn left and you should spot some in a shelter on the other side of the road). Reliable accommodation options include Chuen Jai Guest House (see above), P Guest House and Haiku Guesthouse (also see above).
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