Since the 12th Century the Three Pagodas Pass has played an important role in the history of the two rival kingdoms of Siam and Burma, including their preceding city or nation states of Toungou and Hanthawaddy in Burma, or Phisanulok or Sukhothai in Siam. It has not always been know as Three Pagodas Pass, but it has always been know as an easy access point for trade and invading armies of both sides. So lets explore what we see today.
Yesterday a main highway, today an unofficial border crossing
Today the Three Pagodas Pass is an unofficial border crossing between Thailand and Myanmar – non Thais can get a one day pass to visit the market on the other side of the border in Myanmar, but can go no further. Thais can use this as an entry point to Myanmar. The border has always been in dispute until the British took over Southern Burma in 1824 when over 4 years the entire border was demarked . Up until 1948 and Burma’s independence the Three Pagodas themselves were in Burma – now they are in a type of no mans land. There are markets on both sides of the border.
Prince Damrong, the Father of Thai History
Prince Damrong, writing in 1917 in his “Our Wars with the Burmese” refers to the Three Pagodas Pass when talking about a war in 1584 in the English translation. However even at the time of writing the pass was known as the “three cairns” or Three Chedi Pass. For centuries it had become the habit of traders, pilgrims, soldiers and others to mark the passing of this spot by leaving a rock or pebble on various piles, which gradually were reduced to three.
The Chedis are completed
In 1929 Phra Sri Suan Kiri, the Governor of Sangklaburi, brought people up to Phra Chedi Saam Ong and tidied the stones into respectable cemented Thai designed chedis (or stupas) which the English language came to know as pagodas. In the Thai belief a chedi contains a holy relic, whereas a stupa is a marker. There is no reference to these three stupas being chedis, but the are referred to as such in Thai.
WW2 comes to the Pass
Time passed, and with the coming of the second world war the Pass saw the notorious Death Railway running through here. Some of the worst conditions know to the prisoner working on the railway were experience near here at the notorious Songkurai camp.
But the chedis remained plain whitewashed cement, with yellow sheeting draped on them, signifying their holy status.
Mon and Karen
This area had always been a home for the Karen and the Mon people both of whom continued long wars against the central powers of Burma after independence in 1948. However, the Mons were divided amongst themselves, as were the Karens, and they fought not only the Burmese but against each other.
The Burmese army attack
This area was the scene of constant fighting, and in 1990 the Burmese planned to attack the main Mon camp, and negotiated with the Thai government to secretly cross the border at Three Pagodas and outflank the Mon defenders, coming up on their rear and causing much damage and death on Saturday 10th February. Over 1000 Burmese crossed. The Burmese army were not quick to leave.
Painted by the Burmese army
The claimed the pass and the Chedis were Myanmar territory – a claim rebuffed by the Thais, so before the Burmese returned to their side of the border they gave the Chedis a coat of white paint , not whitewash – which they sport to this day.
A map showing the Pass in relation to the invasion route to Ayutthaya
The location of the pass and the old capital of Ayutthaya ( the usual objective of the Burmese) in blue, and known battle sites ( but not always the name of the battles) in red. The reason for the inconclusive locations of battles is that they often referred to Thai victories. When Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese in 1767 many of the records were burned or carried back to Burma. Naturally the Burmese did not keep details of their defeats – so now the Thais are still guessing!