Eye of the needle at Three Pagoda Pass

Source : Bernd Kubish, Sangbhla Buri, DPA

June 29, 2000


-Visitors to the occasionally troubled border will find a friendly reception from local Mon and Karen people-

Even in first gear, the ancient mini-bus could hardly chug its way up the last few kilometers of the steep and winding mountain road to Sangkhla Buri, near the border with Burma.

Sangkhla Buri is four hours by bus from Kanchanaburi, the River Kwai Bridge and mass tourism. But the remote town is just 23 kilometres from the Three Pagoda Pass, which has gone down in history as trading route and smuggling route, as a scene of war and liberation struggles. The three or four few hostels and restaurants on a hill in Sangkhla Buri offer views down to the Khao Laem Lake and the longest wooden bridge in Thailand, 400 metres long, which leads to a Mon village.

The Mon and Karen people have for decades fought in vain against the regime in Burma for their independence. Today they live in dire poverty, on both sides of the Thai and Burmese border. The colourful Wat Wang Wiwekaren and the small market in this village are well worth a visit. The best times to walk over the bridge are at sunrise or at dusk, when the light makes it particularly attractive and you can avoid the harshest heat of the day.

At the Burmese Inn in Sangkhla Buri, landlady Meo Hermann serves a three course meal of sweet and sour fish, Burmese curry with potatoes. and a nut salad with beans and mint, for just 150 baht. You can hire a small, simple bungalow for the night here for 200 baht. "We would like to attract more tourists. We have plenty to offer. But we are rather at the end of the world here," said Ms Hermann, a 36-year-old Thai married to an Austrian.

The trip to the Three Pagoda Pass by moped taxi or minibus, takes you through a few more Mon and Karen villages. You often hear rumours of shotgun fire being heard in this region. But Walter Skrobanek of the human rights organisation Terre des Hommes ;in Bangkok, who knows the region well, said: "The area is very safe at the moment. The Mon are pleased about visitors and international contacts." The Karen are also a friendly people, despite their years of oppression and harassment.

The pass is just 300 metres above sea level and can even be conquered on an old moped. You pass by a few small pagodas, or temples, along this road, and directly on the border to Burma are the three pagodas after which the pass was named.

There are many stories and legends about their origin. One of these, dating from the 18th century, says that, following a war with Burma, the king of Siam had three large stones erected here to mark out the border. The outer stones symbolised the two countries, the middle stone stood for peace. Villagers later built the three pagodas over the stones.

Pedestrians, moped drivers and trucks cross the small border control here, but tourists are seldom. If you want to pass through, you must first inform the police in Sangkhla Buri of your intentions. Then at the checkpoint you have to pay $18 to the Burmese border guards. The Mon and Karen have sought in vain over the years to win control of the pass and collect these fees. The permit to visit the border village of Payathonzu is valid for one day until 6 pm. This leaves enough time to make the trip by foot, but a moped taxi will also take you to the two attractive Buddhist temples over the dusty roads outside the village in just 10 minutes. The best way to communicate with the monks is with gestures and smiles.

Burma's holy shrines, art treasures and its history, make it one of the most interesting countries in Asia. Experts believe tourism would boom if the dictatorship were to be replaced by a democratic system.