George Fenwick makes it to the serenity of Thailand's Sangkhlaburi.
It's no secret that travelling by road in Thailand requires a certain degree of steeliness. Their road rules are markedly different — and I'm sure, from the way everyone seems to just miss each other, that there definitely are rules. To not remain on the verge of panic the whole time is a process of relinquishing your sense of security and accepting your fate is in the hands of another.
It can be hard to come to grips with that when your destination is a six-hour drive from Bangkok — particularly when extracting yourself from Thailand's capital seems a near-impossible feat. Picture Auckland's Spaghetti Junction, but forever. Eventually, however, the urban sprawl dissolves into greenery, and the flat terrain of Thailand's coastal areas is overtaken by majestic, mountainous landscapes.
The road to Sangkhlaburi may be long, but it is stunning and the journey itself seems to crystallise the sense of tranquility to be found there. North-west of Bangkok, close to the border with Myanmar, Sangkhlaburi is largely untouched by tourism. The area is a quiet corner of the Kanchanaburi Province, with a population of just 40,000; tourists are more famously drawn to the Kanchanaburi capital, where the 300m Death Railway Bridge spanning the River Kwai is located — a site with a dark history of prisoner of war labour camps in World War II.
Sangkhlaburi lies in the Khao Laem National Park, a nature reserve centred on an enormous man-made reservoir, which wraps around the main town and continues as far as the eye can see. The lake is enclosed by layers of dense, green mountains, which fade into the distance as the tropical heat manifests as a permanently opaque haze.
These vistas, coupled with the mistiness of the lake itself, make the drive into Sangkhlaburi one of the most stunning I've ever done (and the views offer a distraction from each panic-inducing overtake our driver attempts).
We found ourselves in Sangkhlaburi in January, when a strange concentration of Kiwis arrived in the sleepy town. One night, television producers, publicists, interpreters and media met for dinner and beers at a local hotel. Matt Chisholm walked in and greeted the party like old friends — because for many of these people, they'd been here before. But "here", in that case, was Nicaragua. This year, it was Thailand — and for roughly six weeks, the crew of Survivor New Zealand made Sangkhlaburi their home.
Its proximity to Myanmar makes Sangkhlaburi vastly different from other parts of Thailand. The area is home to one of the main populations of the Mon people, an ethnic group from Myanmar. Many of the Mon people reside in houseboats on the lake itself, and travel in long, precariously thin fishing boats known as long-tails.
The Khao Laem Reservoir is full of secrets. The gigantic lake was formed in the 1980s by the Vajiralongkorn Dam, and two villages in the valley were relocated before their homes went underwater. The only remaining hints of the flooded world are the ruins of sunken temples, the largest being Wat Saam Prasob; these eerie relics can be visited via long-tail for a small price, which can be arranged with the boatmen at the pier.
Behind this pier is the unmissable Saphan Mon, Sangkhlaburi's 440m-long wooden bridge, which is the largest in Thailand. It's a beautiful, rickety structure that connects Sangkhlaburi's main town with the Mon settlement on the other side (the bridge was built to connect the two villages displaced by the reservoir). Along the bridge, young kids will offer to paint your face with thanaka, a yellow paste made from tree bark used for sunblock and face-paint.
The Mon side offers busy market stalls and trinkets, as well as two breathtaking temples a short walk further. One of these, Chedi Phuttakhaya, is a must-see. Constructed in the style of the Mahabodhi chedi in Bodhgaya, India, the spell-binding structure is marked by an elegant golden stupa rising 59m, two striking lion statues flanking the opening, and mighty views
of the lake from inside. Out of respect, make sure to dress appropriately; my friend and I purchased sarongs from a market stall outside, and the young seller patiently showed us how to tie them correctly.
Back in the centre of Sangkhlaburi, a gentle pace of life offers a tranquil reprieve from the busier, more popular areas in Thailand. The locals are warm and receptive to visitors, and the countless local food haunts offer deliciously authentic Thai cuisine.
Swimming in the lake is also great way to beat the heat, and although the water quality isn't stellar, our party was safe after multiple swims. The P. Guest House and Country Resort has a pontoon that's perfect for jumping off, and you don't need to be a guest to use it — although stopping for a drink on their stunning patio is the perfect afternoon cleanser.
Survivor New Zealand
season 1 Sole Survivor, Avi Duckor-Jones, gives his top travel essentials.
1 Hiking sandals: You know you've hit 30 when you don't care that you are wearing hiking sandals with socks! I love hiking sandals, because when I travel, I'm usually covering a lot of different terrains. My feet can breathe, get wet, and I can cross lava fields and rivers with ease.
2 Journal: I didn't carry a camera or phone with me for many years while I travelled, so most of my travel memories are written down. It's a great way to reflect, and to capture not just an image, but everything you are experiencing at the time.
3 Headlight: I love headlamps. For reading, night-time rock scrambling, setting up camp when you arrive too late, caving . . . headlamps are invaluable travel companions.
4 Surfboard: Although it's getting more and more expensive to travel with a board, I often head to places where there are waves. Although it makes for an arduous journey, it is definitely worth it. I feel a little bad sometimes, for all the places I've travelled to, and have really only seen the crust.
5 Books: I'm not a Kindle guy, so I usually haul around a library of books. They become your friends on long journeys.
● Filmed in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand, Survivor New Zealand season 2 launches tonight, at 7pm, on TVNZ 2.