First Descent, the Sangre Ponge
First Descent, The Sangre Ponge Sangklaburi, Thailand
The rain was falling lightly on the road, washing into streams, eddying down the steep hill; finally washing into the huge lake below us. The kid in the sunglasses was shaking his head. "Four hundred" he kept saying. "But can you get there?" "Four hundred" he replied. I had no problem with paying the four hundred baht but I had no confidence that he would be able to drive the little motorcycle with me and my kayak up the mud slick mountain trails to the Karen village where I could get into the river.
This is in Sangklaburi, Thailand. A boarder town where Burmese and Mon language is heard more often then Thai and the restaurants are as likely to serve sambosa as green curry. Women walk the span of the Mon Bridge; the longest free standing wooden bridge in Thailand, wearing bright print sarongs, their long black hair braided neatly, their faces decorated with designs in turmeric paste, heavy baskets of goods balanced on their heads. It's a place you have to want to go because it's the end of the road. To go any where else from here you must back track two hundred and twenty kilometers to Kanchanaburi, Myanmar is off limits. I did want to be there, I was there to kayak the Sangre Ponge
The Songre Pong is a smallish river that sources high in the hills between Thailand and Burma. It runs a steep course through dense jungle for thirty kilometers until it combines with the Sangklia which then flows into the huge Kao Laem reservoir which empties into the famous river Kwai Noi; sight of the fictional bridge over the river Kwai and home of the real hell fire pass where tens of thousands of allied POW's and indentured Asian laborers died during the futile Japanese attempt to build a rail connection to Burma during the latter part of World War Two.
These are seasonal rivers; during the dry season from late November to early April they are slow, shallow and tepid with hardly enough current to move a twig downstream. When the rain season starts daily deluges flood though the valleys and the rivers swell and roar. The little Songre Pong grows from a timid stream to a raucous river filled with white water, cataracts, and treacherous bowls formed over log tangles. The river engorges, rising five feet a day as the width expands from ten or fifteen feet to more then sixty by late September.
The problem is getting to the Songre Pong. There is only one way to access it, following what starts as a road off the main highway but after a couple of kilometers narrows to a double track motorcycle path that climbs over steep foot hills for ten kilometers before ending at a wooden suspension bridge leading to a small Karen village near the river.
I find a driver who seems confident on making it there; he is Karen and lives in the village, so we set off. He driving, I'm riding pillion, and my six foot six inch advanced elements dragon fly 2 inflatable in its carry bag is resting on my lap between us. He's driving a ten ear old 125cc Honda dream step through motor bike; the work horse of Asia.
As soon as we leave the stone and oil road and hit the dirt path it seems impassible. The path is rutted deeply from both motorcycles and the off season four wheel drive trucks that menace this part of the country. The only way to negotiate the road is by driving on the ribs that criss cross the trail. The driver must watch carefully ahead figuring on how to hop from rib to rib, like selecting a run through a tangled rapid. The rear end of the bike fish tails uncontrollably in the fresh mud that lies above the foot of set up mud beneath. We teeter on the edge of crashing constantly as we descend the steep hillsides locked in first gear the feathering the brakes.
The road climbs, poor houses of bamboo and corrugated fiberglass appear on the fringe of jungle that runs deep on either side of us. In the distance blue mountains fade in and out of the early morning mist and smoke from burning fields. Local Karen people are walking on the sides of the road in slow, single file smoking long, green home made cigars, carrying semi-crescent shaped knifes for cutting and stripping bamboo. Several hail the driver in dialect and he nods or shouts back laughing as the bike slides beneath us.
When I reach the river after abandoning the driver and bike two kilometers back I plunge in to wash the concrete like mud of my legs and arms. Carrying the heavy bag over the last two hills I fell and tumbled through deep sluggish, silky, mud.
Just sitting on the edge of the river I could feel the powerful suck of the current. It was a calm and tranquil looking stretch of water the surface was flat as it glided beneath the suspension bridge to the village. The sun was breaking through the grey shroud of clouds. The jungle was deep and vibrant green. The air was hot and alive. I was sure I was about to be the first person to get a kayak into this water.
I unpacked the boat from its bag and attached the foot pump to begin breathing life into the thing. Some children stood silently on the swaying bridge in the drizzle watching as the flat wrinkled material magically became a boat. I could hear them murmuring as I snapped the four piece paddle together. Once I had all of the gear secured to the splash deck and my camera and flashlight stuffed into the dry bag fixed on the side I pushed into the current. The boat was quickly swept up and I sped under the bridge. I caught the excited look on the two boys' faces as I plunged into the jungle.
According to my calculations I should have about seventeen kilometers on the Sangre Pong until it meets with the Sangklia river and then four more until Sangkria village where I could get out of the river, have some lunch at one of the riverside Salas where locals lounge on the weekends; eating, drinking, floating on inter-tubes around the wide slow pool that forms above the highway bridge and then hail a passing local taxi back to town. Twenty one kilometers of unknown jungle river between now and then.
The river twisted and the boat was caught up in the thread of the current, hugging it like it was on rails. The water snapped with life, the boat caught in its grip all I could do was hang on for the ride. Inflatable kayaks are less agile then hard shells. There is no rolling, no quick deft tucks and turns. Much like rafting you pick your run and guide the boat as best you can to avoid being stuck on a rock or pulled into a snag.
I was constantly distracted by the scene I was traveling through. Virgin jungle, thickets of bamboo towered arcing over the river. Animals fled as I paddled by, crashing through the canopy, hooting and calling insults at me. Along the bank walking paths momentarily emerged from the thick green vegetation. Delicate foot bridges spanned the river made of bamboo poles tied together with grass and vines leading from tree branch to tree branch ten feet over the water.
Ten minutes into the run I heard the first rumbling of serious water. The river was pushing through a narrow cut of rock that also acted as a tangle which was spiked with viscous looking cut bamboo poles. I couldn't see the other side but I could see where I wanted to be as I approached the mess. The run started at the left bank and then cut diagonally into the current so that the front of the boat would be pushed clear of the out facing bamboo. When I hit the white water I pushed in on the diagonal and paddled into the current until I was sure I was clear then let the front end swing around. By the time I was facing foreword I knew I was getting wet. There was a small cataract no more then three feet, a hard shell boat would have taken it with ease, but the inflatable folded under my weight and filled with water from the rear, expelling me as it bucked in the down pour and we both tumbled into the pool of green water at the bottom.
The crush of water pouring through the split rock powered this huge, deep, jade colored, pool. The water turned slowly clockwise, it was a huge natural whirlpool. The yearly spinning of the water had cut deep into the stone banks on all sides creating a smooth continuous shelf of rock over hanging with plant tendrils. I wrangled the boat which floated around upside down, drained the water, set my gear right, and hoisted myself in. Glad when I saw that my shoes had been sucked out of the secure net that I had taken the time to tie them in.
I leaned back in the boat dripping wet while the water spun me around on the sun lit pool thinking about the next twenty or so kilometers.
After an hour of sporadic still water paddling and sudden rapids punctuated with huge snags of drift wood looking like massive muskrat constructions interwoven with bright plastic threads of chips bags I was in a transformed mood. The quick action and strain of negotiating fast water, drops, and jagged rocks interspersed with quite, tranquil paddling on the mineral rich, gray-blue water through vibrant green valleys made me feel at once alone in the world and attached to my surroundings.
It was around this time, roughly half way into the run when I had come out of a series of rapids, pushing the half flooded boat around in the back flow of a wide left turn and thinking of myself as a true adventurer and surely the first to kayak this part of the Songre Ponge that I noticed a man sitting on a log in a pair of BVD's and a snorkeling mask. He was lean and dark, smiling at me holding a bottle of Chang beer aloft, at his feet was a home made spear gun, little more then a sling shot and sharpened steal rod. "Hello" he yelled, shattering my illusion of intrepidness. I raised my paddle and addressed him in Thai; he smiled and shook his head. He was Karen and either didn't speak Thai or didn't understand my accent. He lifted his bottle of beer again and I nodded. What the hell, I was a day tripper and this was his fishing hole. I paddled on.
I was coming to the end, the Sangre Ponge had joined the Sangklia, and it became a wider, smoother river. In ugly contrast with the pristine jungle the banks were littered with the debris of the modern world; Styrofoam containers, plastic bags, cans and bottles. I didn't want to stop. It had been too good, there must be more ahead. I had been going for maybe three hours. My Thighs, lower back and butt had been bashed by rocks and I was cold from sitting in a half a foot of river water but I wanted more.
The river swirled around me with increased speed from the melding of the two bodies of water. It opened up in front of me. Here was the bridge; the food stalls the Salas hugging the shallows. I paddled a few strokes towards the middle to avoid a saddle of large rocks, watching the people who were standing up to look at me.
I don't know how I didn't hear, didn't see it until I was slipping in sideways, but I suddenly realized why I was so interesting. The bowl I was sliding into was four or five deep with a standing wave at its lip. The boat toppled directly and I was in the water before I fully understood what was happening. Under the surface the standing wave sucked me straight to the bottom of the tangle. The current bashed me twice against a tree branch; I caught it and worked my way back to the surface. The wave was spinning my boat like it was on a spit, sucking it under, it popped up, then sucked under again. I caught my paddle which had escaped some how and was floating peacefully in a back flow and pulled the kayak out of the current by the leash and swam into the current with my arms around it.
I floated into the still water amongst the afternoon loungers clapping and shouting. Men held glasses of whiskey aloft and women laughed into their hands. I could pretend it was applause for a trip well made.
Published on 5/1/08