The bus journey to Sangkhlaburi was nothing special but I wasn’t expecting a ride through the Himalayan mountains. I did not read much about this area as I only chose to come his far because I made an error when booking my room in Thong Pha Phum and I had 3 days to kill. In a way though the unexpected is the most enjoyable. It’s like going to a movie without reading the reviews and being pleasantly surprised. Thais visit Sangkhlaburi and the surrounding area for weekend trips and I met very few international visitors. The hotel I stayed at was remarkable, not just because of the price but the location. It is not often you stay in your own room for hostel prices right on the lakes edge. The bonus, you could watch the sun set behind the hillside with a large Wat standing proudly on top. It’s gold facade shinning brighter than street lights as the sun set behind. The other unexpected bonus was that a group of photography enthusiasts from Bangkok had booked the weekend away with a photography instructor learning how to take photos at night. I just happened to be setting up my gear when the instructor started chatting to me. After a while he invited me to join their group. At first I was a little hesitant because I am sure the group had paid handsomely for the weekend away, however they all seemed to want me to come along. They of course had the most amazing camera equipment compared to my kit, however its not the size that matters, it how you handle your equipment. At first I thought we were going to learn the basics about how to use aperture and shutter speeds at night, something I love to tinker with. However as I soon found out this course was not just some ordinary photography course, the main aim was we were learning to create light painting, (photo trails) painted by fire using steel wool, sparklers, torchlight and glow sticks. Sens-bloody-sational, I had always wanted to learn how to do this. I know I had tried this activity with students once in the dark room with glow sticks and with limited success. However this was on another level. I actually think (looking at my photos) I was pretty successful. I know a teacher who now has some of my technical notes, I just don’t recommend using steel wool in the dark room, but hey you can blame it on me!!
Since Sangkhlaburi is so close to the Myanmar border there were many different groups of people who inhabit this part of the world. There are many Burmese that live in the area, most escaping the regime, including Karen and Mon. These marginalised people lost their land when the government flooded the area over 30 years ago to build a dam. They lost their livelihood and their land; sound familiar. Many of the people today live in houses on the lake. One of the main attractions is the longest wooden bridge in Thailand that you have to cross to get to the other side. Of course there is a new bridge for transport which has now opened up the area for more mundane reasons, like logging and tourist shops selling traditional garments. I spent a day roaming the streets and taking a boat ride around the lake. There are Orphanages, mainly housing refugees (none were on their way to Australia) and I met a young girl who has returned for the 2nd time to work with the children. She helped me learn about some of the issues that the kids face within and outside of the orphanages. There were also various NGO agencies trying to educate the Thais about the work that they do. I believe that once they complete primary school many children have to leave and fend for themselves, without offical documents or an identity. Some make their way to Bangkok hoping to earn money however unfortunately most end up with scrupulous men or get caught by police and sent back to Myanmar. Sadly, the Karen’s and Mon’s have become beggars for tourists, children sit on their own or with other children and beg to paint your face or perform. There is a support network at least, with various community groups making a concerted effort to assist, although I think the government really just gives them lip service. The weekend I was there like many weekends in Thailand the market area became a place to showcase music and dance and a place to speak about the issues with the Karen, Mon and the Burmese. I started to feel a pang of guilt that maybe I should stay here and help out. However after doing months of research back in Australia about volunteering unless you have specific skills, short term volunteering is often a hinderance rather than a cure, so I donated some money and bought plenty of food the kids had made. I am sure when I feel I can really make a difference I will spend more than a couple of weeks to volunteer. Teaching english is really not what they need, more a sense of belonging and that someone cares and I needed to get to Thong Pha Phum, in a sense my journey had just begun.