Ever since I first came to Thailand in the early eighties Three Pagoda Pass has conjured up evocative images for me. I had always wanted to visit without really knowing why. Well just the name I suppose. It was only until lately when , with my family, I finally got round to doing so as a side excursion from Sangkhla Buri in the north of Kanchanaburi Province. The pass, on the Thai Burma border, is literally and metaphorically the end of the road.
The pass is of significant historical importance. It was once on the main land and trade route into western Siam but alas no longer. Burmese armies poured through the pass in the 16th Century on their way to attacking the then Siamese capital of Ayudhya. The infamous Burma “Death” Railway of WWII ran through the pass and more recently it has featured in the ongoing conflict between the Burmese Army and the Karen.
History notwithstanding it is perhaps is not really worth a dedicated trip in itself , if you were to drive non-stop from Bangkok I would estimate a journey of 5-6 hours, but rather as an added attraction to the many other sights in this part of Kanchanaburi.
The first thing that really surprised me was the diminutive size of the pagodas (aka chedis in Thailand) themselves. All about head height! I did have in mind something altogether more spectacular.
My sons certainly did find it all a bit dull save for the Burmese border guards with their formidable looking machine guns. However the real point of visiting a place such as this is using one’s imagination. It is an atmospheric location given the historical events surrounding it. The chedis themselves were probably built at the end of the Burmese-Siamese War of 1548 – 49, the first of many wars fought between the two Kingdoms.
The border point is not more than a stroll away from the chedis and there you are met by sullen Burmese border guards and a “Welcome to Burma – No Cameras” sign. We were certainly not welcome as the border was closed. The area is subject to continuing unrest and local residents live in fear of further conflict between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Bhuddhist Army.
Around the square where the chedis are located is to be found a market with stalls mainly manned by the Karen selling, inter alia, jade, cheroots and orchids from Burma. We bought some orchids for our garden but as they originated from cooler climes none of them have since flowered, though still living (see photo), in the heat and humidity of Bangkok. Any guilt we felt about buying wild orchids (the trade of which is illegal in Thailand) was assuaged by the fact that at least some currency was getting into the hands of the much beleaguered Karen.
The sign below by the border check point (a surreptitiously taken photo) indicates the distance to Thanbyuzayut. The intention of the Japanese in WWII was to connect this town in Burma with Ban Pong in Thailand through Three Pagoda Pass which is approximately half way. Construction began at the Thai end in June 1942 and in Burma at roughly the same date. In October 1943, the two sections of the line met about 11 miles south of the pass. It was an incredible engineering feat only surpassed by the sheer awfulness of the conditions the forced laborers and POWs had to endure.
It all seemed so tranquil and sleepy that late January afternoon in 2008 but there was a slight chill in the air.