It was a five hour trip from Ipoh in Malaysia to the Thai border by taxi. You gotta splurge sometimes when Thailand is calling. Before we reached the border, my Hindu driver first had to pass an armageddon scene of burning rice stubble. Was that a bomb? “Never,” said my driver, “That would mean the Malays would have to work, and it’s against their better nature.”
I decided on giving Danok on the Thai Malay border a miss, figuring if something was going to happen, a swinging border town would be the target.
Target you say? Did I forget to tell you that Southern Thailand is plagued with an insurgent movement that has left over 6000 dead in the last ten years. It’s a dirty little war and I don’t want to scare you with statistics. But I know a thing or two about the violence down here on a first name basis. Car bombs are loud and deadly and they kill.
Ok, I’m coming into this border crossing cold and it’s nearly 10 pm Malaysia time. First we pass a military checkpoint, who prevent illegal immigrants from entering Malaysia to work in the rubber plantations in Perlis State. Many of the Rohingyas refugees who work on these plantations illegally, trek across jungle paths from Thai side to get to Malaysia. Some don’t make the journey and die along the way or are killed from foul play from human smugglers.
I give the soldiers a little wave, and they don’t have a sense of humor.
At the border, a Thai Muslim taxi driver is hustling to take me to Hat Yai, fifty kilometers away. Plenty of sexy women, he said. My driver said don’t take the taxi to Hat Yai at night time, and just go to Padang Besar that’s only six kilometers from the border. Then I spoke some Thai to the Thai Muslim who had a souped up a sports car with a CD player that couldn’t be accessed because he didn’t have the correct password. A stolen car, I thought. My Hindu driver was confident I was in safe hands now but I was still worried about running the gauntlet to Hat Yai.
The rest was speculation. Anything could happen.
I get stamped out of Malaysia and two lazy Malay officials give me that dopey look that says I’m heading to Hat Yai for a dirty weekend. “He’s Muslim,” said my driver to them. Am I? I wasn’t going to say otherwise. It pays to blend in.
On the Thai side, I asked for a month and got two weeks. The busy but conscientious immigration lady kept on telling me to stop jumping the queue. There was only me and three Malays.
Yes I was jittery. But I didn’t want to use a pink pen to fill out my form, I told her. I’d only be sent to the back of the queue like the two Malays who blighted their form with the pink pen. “I’ve already given away two blue pens already,”she said, when my Thai Muslim driver loaned me his pen. I filled out the paperwork and handed it in. “There is no Hat Yai Hotel,” said the immigration lady. “Yes there was, “ I swore. Then my driver gave me a real name of a hotel which I wrote over the fictitious name. “You can’t get stamped in if you don’t have a real address,” said the immigration lady, stamping her authority before stamping me in.
It’s a good six kilometres to Padang Besar where the mass grave of Rohingyas refugees was recently discovered. I was shitting bricks. But my driver took me under his wings.He assured me he was a family man with three children, “two boys, and one girl, but my oldest is 22 years old.” He changed some of my Ringgit for Baht, and stopped at a shop so I could buy another beer. I spilt most of it on the floor in his car. “Don’t worry,” he said.
He knew I was nervous. I told him why. I had been to Betong and Kalock – the other two Thai border towns prone to bomb attacks – and I wasn’t sure if passing through a third border town was really just tempting fate.
He’s a legitimate driver, and points under his dash where he keeps his passport and I.D and driver’s license. Does he think I suspect him being an insurgent. He’s really going the long yards to make me feel comfortable. He says most foreigners use the public transport. “I don’t know why they don’t want to rent my car.” He says there are only two taxis doing the border runs, “But I’m the only one with a passport.” And on the Thai side, he said there were no taxis tonight.
Actually on the Thai side, there was nothing. It was a deserted border checkpoint like the one I had just left on the Malaysian side.
He stops at another shop and I buy a beer and he gives me a cigarette, his favorite. “It’s Dunhill Red,” he said. A few casual checkpoints later — no barb wire or soldiers carrying big guns – I was safely in Hat Yai. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t counting every mile and and eventually every yard before I arrived safely in another bomb prone town.
I asked him about Prayuth, the current Prime Minister. He’s loved by 90 percent of people in the three troubled provinces, he said. “When he promises to give to the poor, he does. He’s made our lives much better than any past prime minister.”
And trust me, this was news to me.
As he head into Hat Yai, Mun tells me he really likes that immigration lady. “She speaks very good English, and she always lets me into Malaysia without stamping me out.” I’d assume he has a similar arrangement with the Malaysian immigration officials. I never saw him stamped in our out, on both sides.
I grabbed my driver’s number in case I wanted to do some sightseeing. But he didn’t want me to stay in his hometown in Padang Besar. “It’s a quiet place and the aircon in the hotels don’t work.” I took his word for it. But I suspect he didn’t want me to attract any heat, since the town has been the center of illegal human smuggling and deaths of Rohingya refugees.
I never did take up his offer to get me a whore. He was charging outrageous prices but it certainly did give him an incentive to get me to Hat Yai alive and safely. I tipped him ten Ringgit and paid him a handsome fare while at the same time declining his offer.
The hardest part of this trip was finding a hotel. My driver was feeling apologetic, and said that not every Muslim in this part of the world were terrorists. He said he better call his wife before she started worrying about him.”My car could break down,” he said, ” or I could run out of petrol, or get held up at a checkpoint. I just don’t want my wife to worry.”
In Hat Yai I bought a bowl of noodle soup at a Malay noodle stall. The Muslim couple couldn’t be accommodating enough.
Southern Thailand might be a dangerous place, but it’s made up for with the Muslim hospitality. I didn’t end up in a ditch, or forced to an ATM at gunpoint, or kidnapped and beheaded.
The only time I worried was when I left immigration and the Thai official said good luck. Now why would I need good luck? Was there some danger lurking?
The last bomb to go off in Danok was six months ago. And Hat Yai is busy and bustling – no bombs lately. But Pattani is still going off – a car bomb only last month and a recent hospital siege. Maybe Prayuth hasn’t restored much confidence in Southern Thailand just yet.
Two taxi rides in two countries, it was definitely something different.