When the Chief Editor went to Japan, I caught a flight to Hat Yai, in South Thailand. It was the closest place where I could speak the language. Hat Yai has that double charge feel about it. No matter how much you bargain, they give you the Malaysian price. The problem is that there are fewer tourists, and the Malaysians aren’t coming to Thailand. “Even they are scared of the bombs,” says the soup seller.
After a week in Hat Yai, I was going stir crazy. “It used to be a swinging city, but many of the working girls have gone south, on the Malay side, looking for customers,” said a driver outside the train station. “Stay away from the soldiers and police,” he advised, “they are the targets.”
Where I wanted to be was in Betong. I’d been told about it by the Chinese owner of a guesthouse in Kuala Terengganu. “Betong is in a bowl in the mountains near the border,” he said. “It’s an interesting place. When fighting ended the Malay government agreed to let the communists stay in Betong.” He was talking about The Emergency, the communist insurgency in Malaya in the 1960s, when Australian forces were stationed in Butterworth.
To get to Betong I’d have to cross the Deep South. With the end of Ramadan near, some people are saying keep away from rural areas where insurgents are active. Others are saying avoid Yala, “they are shooters down there.” The military beef up is another angle of the equation. And the silent insurgents, never seen, only heard of in the papers.
A Chinese Thai lady serves me some noodles. She’s on the phone, explaining she doesn’t want to cater for the train station. She has lost 10 000 baht already, in the past year. “They order the food, but never pay for it.” She gives me a generous portion. I tell her I’m going to Kolok. I had already bought the ticket. “Don’t go there, she says, “They kill each other….”
Betong it would be. I caught the train from Hat Yai to Yala. Motor bikes were being secured with ropes on the last carriage. I asked if the seats were being checked for bombs. The train staff didn’t hear me. A guy sitting behind me on the train is talking to himself. I was caught doing it the other day.
Another man, in his late 50’s, won’t tell me where he’s going. He starts up a one way conversation. He says it isn’t good to sunbathe naked on the beach. The guy behind me says foreigners like to get a tan without their clothes on. Another guy from Songkhla is laughing. His mother is sitting next to him, and she seems quite shocked by the talk of taking your clothes off. She’s wearing a Muslim head scarf. I lip sync to the guy from Songkhla that the man opposite me is crazy. He laughs again. It seems a nervous laugh. Maybe he read the Bangkok Post today.
A soldier gets on, and places his weapon and flak jacket on his seat, like the other soldiers who got on a few train stations earlier. They seem pretty comfortable on the train, and use the traveling as down time. The guy who was quite chatty about being naked has shut up since the military got on. He occasionally pulls out a love heart mirror to groom himself.
The train reaches Patani. This morning a bomb went off here. I stay on the train. There are CCTV cameras at every train station. The Deep South is high-tech. I’m glad I spent time in Kolok. It was the bootleg camp for understanding what I’m seeing in the green fields and jungles and the villages and towns.
Those ubiquitous sand bags are becoming common place. Bamboo punji sticks, facing outwards, reinforce an army barracks with wire fences. It looks like something from a period of strategic hamlets. The ones being isolated are the military, who are continual targets. I’d learnt in Kolok that many are conscripts, not volunteers. Young men are asked to pick a ball. They’d selected the black one.
When the military men got off at Yala, they went from relax mode to high alert. I followed them. There was a drive by shooting here last week. A woman was slain on the street. I really had reservations about Yala, but not enough to stop me getting off. Outside, a sea of Muslims, in colourful garb. It was like being back in Indonesia. I had found a comfort zone.
I asked one of the soldiers where I could get a good hotel. He was a new recruit, still green, and he had other things to worry about. A Muslim man told me where a hotel was, and how to get to Betong, where I’d be heading tomorrow. He shook my hand and touched his chest, like all polite Muslims do.
“There was a bomb in Patani today,” said one of the hotel staff. He said no one died. It didn’t seem serious in his eyes. Downstairs in the hotel is a karaoke bar and a massage parlour. “If you want a massage, I can arrange it.”
Across the street are pubs. The local 7-11 is a beehive of dedicated shoppers, including myself. The female staff wear white head scarfs. Recently five 7- 11s were targeted in Patani, and other locations, with 3 people killed and more than 50 injured. People who are used to oppression and living under the yoke of daily violence continue shopping at 7-11. The idea that it could be a target is one of the prevalent risks of living in the Deep South.
At bus station, the ticket seller is wearing a shirt, asking “Where Did Democracy Go?” referring to the May crack down on the Red Shirts in Bangkok, and the Army coup. He wants me to take his photo. Then he asks me to take a photo of his mini bus company, he needs it promoted too.
Most of the mini buses are heading to Hat Yai. No one is lining up to go to Betong. Maybe this is a road where sometimes people are shot in the minibuses. The mini bus eventually leaves. Not far out-of-town, the driver puts on some music. It’s a sad song about the bombs going off in the night. Another song espouses the virtues of sobriety. “Drink tea better.”
At a check point, soldiers have pulled over a motor cyclist. A soldier lifts up the seat looking for explosives. Then the motorcyclist is on his way. We pass him, and the mini bus driver beeps his horn. It’s recognition of their solidarity. They might be burdened with these security measures but they bear them well.
All the way from Yala to Betong it seemed like there was some bizarre sign warfare going on. There were signs of local Imams and reminders of Ramadan. Even one sign in English said to have a safe Ramadan and the upcoming Hari Fitri. I lost count of the check points, soldiers looking bored, and burrowing in tight behind barbed wire and camouflages.
The bus drops off one Buddhist man who is going to a temple. He seems very jittery. When he got off the bus, he ran. The temple is protected by the military. The bus driver drops off another Thai woman and her daughter at a local school. The school has a soldier guarding it at the gate.
The bus stopped for a ten minute break. A Pakistani man is approaching passengers with a sign in Thai. It says he’s had a bad accident. I felt sorry for him and gave him a few notes. He opens his shirt. He shows me bandages in the shape of a cross. They’re covering hospital wounds that are scarring his chest.
Fog shrouded the city of Betong, a former Malaysian communist strong hold, in the deep south of Thailand, bordering Malaysia. Like Yala, it’s surrounded by mountains riddled with limestone caves. Betong is the most southerly town in Thailand, seven kilometres to the Malay boarder.
A policeman is drinking beers and out of uniform. He pegged me as journalist. He shows me his I.D card, yes he’s a copper. He says he’ll help me write a story if I promote Thailand. If I don’t…I didn’t want to hold his stare.
Then he’s on the phone to his boss. He wants to take me to see the hot springs and the caves where the communist insurgents hid from the Malaysian government. All I have to do is put 100 baht of petrol in his bike. It’s a good price. He’s pissed, and looks through my camera for any dodgy photos. I tell him anything he wants to hear. Eventually I get away from him. He needs to get laid and I’m out of here to find a hotel.
Betong is a quiet place. You can walk the streets and rarely see any armed soldiers. It’s in Yala province, but closer to the border where the province takes a calmer turn. The only sign of insurgents are the Malay communists, who are from another era, and are showcased as a tourist attraction.
The hotel I’m staying at has a sign that says customers who use condoms are only welcome. The room I was in was cheap. It wasn’t a room here I’d leave my things and expect to find them there when I got back. It captured every rumble, backfire and shrieking brake that passed my window.
Muslim shops sold chicken and rice outside my window. I spoke to one woman. She introduced me to her daughter at another shop nearby. Her daughter said she had five sisters. “We are all married.”
Next morning I check out and hire a car. I’ll do the caves and hot springs in one go. We pass a checkpoint on the edge of town. We pass a check point. The soldiers in black are looking bulky in their gear, and cumbersome. They’re carrying their guns. Can I take a picture, I ask my diver. “Why would you want to draw attention to yourself?” he asks. “It will only raise suspicion.”
We head through the jungle into the mountains. The air is cooling. Villagers on the roadside are selling durians and mangosteens. This stretch of road seemed to be a no go zone for soldiers and insurgents. It was left alone for the hard core Malay tourists who made the effort to visit the caves.
Cave prices were in ringgit. I paid my 50 baht. Walking up a paved path, under a green over cover, I thought I was alone. At the top, in front of a museum, I found Malay-Chinese tourists posing with cartoonish Communist statues straight from Mao’s little Red Book. Their tour guide is gunning his spiel in Chinese. This place is made for the Chinese. I had heard that the caves were warrens, and easy to get lost in, so I tagged along.
The caves were narrow runways, covered with plaster. Lights every 5 metres showed the way. Signs in English and Chinese pointed to different exit signs to different quarters – munitions, operational, sleeping, a hospital. It had everything. Half way through the tunnels I was getting claustrophobic. Ok, I’ll head back the way I came. I head back.
An exit to the left, a path to the right. Which turn was it to the exit exit? I’m lost in a labyrinth from a nightmare. I run back. I can hear the echo of the Chinese guide nattering away. I head up some stairs. I still can’t see them. I can’t hear them. I could be lost. I’m still running, and now I hear the tour guide. A few tail-enders among the tour group make room for me.
Not far now, to fresh air, and fire crackers going off at a Chinese temple. My driver, a Muslim, says that there are many tourists here. Malaysian sex tourists. “They are addicted to Thai women.” He drops me off at the hot springs. Nagas, water snakes carved in stone, guard the entrance. I take a dip. The water is warm. If you get constipated in a war zone, this is the way to bring a movement on. The driver says he’ll take me to a safe hotel.
Back in town, some soldiers on the back of a pickup truck wave at me as I take a picture of the largest postal box in Thailand. The driver takes me to a hotel back from a main street. It had a secure car park around it, and no girly bars. He’d found me a safe hotel. A man follows me to my room. The man says if I need any women, just call him. I think I’ll stick to sightseeing thanks. “Do you know him?” asks one of the hotel staff. No.
At a noodle shop, I order a second bowl. The wantons are delicious. The staff are gossiping away. Three of them are ladies. The guy who makes the noodles is holding court while making the best noodles in the Deep South. This would have to be the happiest noodle stand in the Kingdom.
Betong is a quiet place. You can walk the streets and rarely see any armed soldiers. It’s in Yala province, but closer to the border. Here the province takes a calmer turn. The only sign of insurgents, are the Malay communists, from another era, and showcased as a tourist attraction. I’m at my computer in my room that’s my safe haven, wrapped in a towel. I’m writing about a wonderful day I’ve had in the mountains.