Beset by violence for more than a decade, Thailand’s three southernmost provinces are hoping to encourage more visitors
I have to admit I was a little tense before leaving home for Pattani, one of the three troubled provinces in Thailand’s far south. A few days earlier, a bomb had gone off in front of a local school in neighbouring Narathiwat’s Tak Bai district, claiming the lives of a father and his child. But tension is everywhere – at home, the office, in the car and on the street.
So the desire for adventure in Thailand’s far South quickly overcame the threat of violence. When you have been to many conventional places, notorious spots can turn your head.
Our plane lands on time at 8am in Hat Yai, Songkhla Province. I see a few westerners on this commercial flight, but they appear to be on business trips to Hat Yai rather than on holiday. Our group, made up of 20 travel journalists and bloggers, is quickly ushered outside and into three vans, which waste no time in heading south down Highway 43 towards Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
Unlike our first trip in Narathiwat three years ago, we’re now travelling unguarded. There is no gung-ho officer, with a Glock 19, nor a small troop of soldiers with their rifles and that comes as a relief – hanging around with commandos tends to make you a moving target.
“We’re supposed to go sideways and take a detour through Malaysia – instead of travelling on this route,” says Jack, my travel mate, who was on the Narathiwat trip three years ago. “Many people play it safe by crossing the border at Sadao checkpoint and taking a roundabout route in Malaysia to avoid the risks. They then return to Thailand through the Betong checkpoint,” he explains.
“But that would mean missing Pattani and the rest of Yala,” I reply. “Call your girlfriend and cross your fingers.”
Covering the 130 kilometres on Highway 43 from Hat Yai to Pattani goes without incident. The well-paved road goes through rice paddies, orchards and rubber plantations in Chana and Na Thawi districts. The further south we go, the more mosques we see. The last temple we visit is Wat Chang Hai in Pattani’s Khok Pho district, which is famous for the respected Buddha image of Luang Phor Tuad.
We’re stopped by heavily armed soldiers at the checkpoint just before entering the city of Pattani but quickly waved on.
Named after the princess of the ancient Langkasuka Kingdom, Patani means “virgin nymph” in Sanskrit. The old town of Pattani is home to Chinese descendants and aboriginal Muslim Malay. There is even a story reaffirming the romance (and tragedy) between the Chinese and Malay in Pattani.
According to the legend, Lim Ko Niao crossed the South China Sea from China to visit her brother in Pattani and convince him to go home, as their mother was dying. Lim To Kiam told his sister he had converted to Islam and married a local girl and didn’t want to leave his family and home in Pattani. Disheartened Lim Ko Niao hung herself from a cashew nut tree. Her body was buried next to Krue Se Mosque and the locals set up the Lim Ko Niao shrine to honour her bravery.
The unfinished Krue Se Mosque and the Central Mosque of Pattani once drew visitors to Pattani. That all ended in 2004 when soldiers stormed Krue Se mosque killing 32 suspected gunmen. Six months later, 85 civilians died in Tak Bai at the hands of army personnel and the fate of tourism in the deep south was sealed. Even today travellers stay away, eager to avoid danger.
From Pattani, we quickly pass through the small provincial town of Yala. Betong is three hours away on a winding road that stretches beyond the Sankalakhiri Range. My favourite part is the section from Bannang Sata to Than To district. High mountains, deep valleys, scattered patches of rice paddy, modest hamlets surrounded by orchards – the scenery rolls past the van’s windows like a slide show. Every once in a while I see Muslim women, with swaying hijabs, transporting their kids home after school. The serenity is almost surreal and you forget the blood that has been spilled here in the south.
We spend two days in and around Betong feasting on the chicken for which the district is known.
“Betong is famous for food,” says Lek, the Hakka-speaking proprietor of Ta Ren restaurant. “We are serious about our food. We have 100 traditions for cooking fish, pork and chicken. Some dishes take three days to prepare.”
When we are not eating, we visit the parks, temples and tunnels and drive to the ZON duty free shop in Malaysia to stock up on cheap booze.
About 20 kilometres north of Betong town is the Piyamit tunnel. Excavated by Malaya Communists in 1976, the underground tunnel network is well worth a drive. Boasting multiple entrances and exits, the tunnel was once a hideout and storage area. Today it is home to a museum.
We leave Betong the next morning at 4 and travel in convoy, remaining about 50 metres apart at all times. Perhaps it’s a driving technique to avoid a roadside bomb. If one van is hit, the other two have a better chance to escape. The night is dark and still.
We make it from Betong to Narathiwat safe and sound. Indeed, the most dangerous part of our trip was the overindulgence in Betong’s tender chicken and pork belly.
There’s more tension is Narathiwat than in Yala and Pattani and we can feel it in the air as we drive through roadblocks and security checkpoints. In Ra-ngae district, on the way back from visiting the 300-year-old Talo Mano Mosque (Matsayit Wadi An Husen), we see a group of soldiers escorting kids from school.
Tourists are rare although we do spot a few Malaysian cyclists. The long and very last beach of Thailand is empty yet idyllic. It’s evening and we can see some Muslim women relaxing on the pristine sand watching with interest as their men put their racing boats out to sea.
The locals are pleased to meet visitors.
“They’re alone and lonely down here,” says Manthana Phoothararak, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Narathiwat Office.
“The insurgency keeps them apart from the rest of the country.”
A successful tourism campaign will not, of course, resolve the conflict in this part of the world – it runs much too deep for that. But visitors are badly needed, if for no other reason but to generate some much-needed cash and give the people here the confidence to carry on.