Waking up. Another country, another city, what country am I in? You might think jet-setting round the world the world is fun. You’ve never lost your teeth, your cigarettes, your lighter and your passport. It’s Sunday. I’m in Kuantan. Every sprawling Asian city has its satellites and this one is Kuala Lumpur’s seaside playground.
Somewhere I’ve lost a day. The computer says so. “Shouldn’t this be Saturday?” I ask. A small boy is staring into my hotel room and smiling. He shows me his piece of paper. He’s been playing with Grandfather’s photocopier in the office downstairs.
Now I know where yesterday went. I’ve been traumatized by the tedium of transport. “Let’s go to Kuantan,” I told Chief Editor. I was looking at a map. It looked like the shortest way to Malaysia’s east coast. No tsunamis and on the way to Patani. No more pidgin Bahasa. In Thailand I know what I’m talking about.
Chief Editor has stats for everything. “Thirty deaths for the month of March in Patani,” she says. She really wants to avoid those ping-pong bombs. “Nails go in all directions and rip flesh to shreds. Then they let off a second one to hit the people coming to help the ones who’ve been hurt.” I’m looking forward to a smog free beach resorts in an Industrial Zone. Hotels should be cheap.
We are heading to the East Coast. We caught the train to Kuala Lumpur’s Puduraya bus station. Touts are trying to get us on a bus to Penang. We don’t want to go there. A female tout with a headscarf tries to hit Chief Editor but Chief Editor can only speak an Australian Aboriginal language. “Nyuntu palya?” She says Pitjantjara is usually a safe language to use with touts. “I like asking them how they are.”
Puduraya’s had a facelift. In the old days it was pure mayhem. Now it’s very ordered. The Chief’s happy about that. Last time she was here someone pickpocketed her dirty underwear. She’s the first to find the right counter. We’ve got the map out for the ticket seller. Four hours until the bus leaves for Kuantan.
Traveling is a waiting game. What do you do when you are waiting to move on? We fendered the touts out of the way and headed across the street to an Indian place called the New York Tom Yum café. It’s got fresh air, good views and great mango lassi. The waiter makes a mean carrot juice. We’ll park here to wait it out.
The laptop’s out. Let the tedium begin. “What can you tell me about bags and travelling,” asks Chief Editor. All I know is they are bloody heavy. So far I’ve kept her away from the malls. Her bags are heavy enough. “They aren’t too bad. I came back from Laos with 20 kilograms of scarves.” We will keep her away from the scarf stalls in the neighboring street.
The Indian customers are taking their time grooming in the café’s toilet. It’s a battle to get in there. I tell the waiter I’ll piss on the empty block across the street. He wouldn’t care less if I shat in his sink. The traffic surges like the sea. A loud truck passes me. It’s chaining down into low gear. A guy has picked out a couple of bags of rubbish and is finding the choice junk.
In my head I’m running prices through Thai baht. Civil war tourism is not far away. We are heading in the general direction of Narathiwat province. It’s across the Thai border from Kota Baru in Malaysia’s state of Kelantan. I tell Chief Editor I’m hoping Patani has some good hotel rates. “They might be more expensive,” she says. “They might pay more for security and pass the cost on to guests.” She’s coming round. The Tom Yum soup’s started her nose running again. “Like that drain with the fern growing out of it.” She’s nearly asleep.
That guy is looking a bit worse for wear. He’s wrinkled and grey haired, skin and bone. He’s carrying three bags up the hill towards the Indian temple. He’s got a story I don’t want to hear. As he comes skipping down the hill like a praying mantis Chief Editor wakes up from her catnap. He’s lost his luggage. She thinks he must have found a cheap hotel. A homeless man walks past us. He has knotted dreadlocked hair and ashen clothes and complexion. He’s the flypaper for all the grime of the city. It’s sad to see such poverty exists in Malaysia too. Sometimes all the materialistic propaganda just doesn’t cut it.
The man like a praying mantis is walking back up the hill again. He’s carrying Hindu umbrellas under his arms. Yep, he was on his way to the Hindu temple. Umbrellas are cheaper than hotels. Another new age tourist left over from the 70’s is on his way up to the temple. He’s eating an apple and looking oh so healthy as he trudges up the hill in his steel capped boots and sunglasses. We were too spiritually inferior for him to see us.
Have you ever driven in Malaysia? Yes, says Chief Editor. “School holidays had just started and it was the night before the killing of the cows, the Kate ceremony. Everyone was returning home to their villages. On the freeway the right hand lane was death alley. Down the left lane the ambulances dodged the scooters. Every 15 minutes all the lanes pulled up to let the ambulances clean up.”
An Indian walks down the stairs and past the fern growing in the drain emptying on the café wall. “If he was from the APY Lands, you would think he was Anangu.” She’s spent too much time in Central Australia. The flagging Chief Editor she needs a hut by a beach with salt-water mosquitos like helicopters. I don’t get a bite. The coffee isn’t working. “I get to the stage where if I drink another coffee it will put me sleep,” she says.
After her fourth coffee Chief Editor starts to fire again. “Put it in the ash way,” she says. I’ve rested my cigarette on the table. It’s burnt the plastic. It’s 5.42. The bus leaves at 6.30. Let’s rock and roll. The café toilet is still occupied. What are the Indians really doing in there?
The bus leaves from number 10 platform. There is no number 10 platform. We find the driver. He’s having a cigarette before the bus dives into the waves of traffic. We’re running over a bridge in touching distance of a train line. On the other side of the train line a massive old government building is going to seed. Chief Editor says, “A British architect designed it.” The building is spangled with white onions on skinny pillars. “He was inspired by India’s Mughal architecture,” she says. It looks like the British architect was toddled on gin and Wordsworth to me.
The bus pulls into a small terminal where Malay girls are making fashion statements with red headscarves and hot pink tunic dresses. It’s p.m. before we are under way again and the sun is sinking. We’re on a freeway heading into mountains with stony faces, power lines and plantations. A white village at the foot of a mountain looks like it should be in China. In the last light the golden arches of a MacDonald’s glows from petrol selling food station.
This bus is better than the one I rode in Bima. It’s got shock absorbers. We’re trundling in darkness cut by three lines of headlights hitting us on the bends. I’m playing with taking night shots. Chief Editor is telling me more war stories from Central Australia. “He was tough. Everyone was at the church praying and waiting for news from the hospital. He took six days to die.” The rest stop has Chinese buns, yam chips and white butterflies.
After three hours of dim night traveling, the blazing lights at a new terminal look like an airport and dazzles us. The bus driver points us towards a share taxi. The taxi driver is another bus driver moonlighting on his day off. He drops us beside a strip of Chinese hotels. There’s a beach somewhere out there in the darkness. I can smell salt water on the wind. Another passenger tells me in Bahasa where Indonesian girls are working from a hotel further down the street.
I am in charge of scouting for a hotel and lugging ourselves to a room with a shower. At the hotel where medicos are helping an old man into an ambulance, there’s a problem. No aircon. An old man comes up to me wearing a hat and a sarong. He’s carrying a packet of pills and he tells me his Red Bull is finished. I give Weebus my Red Bull drink. He tells me where I can find a safe hotel. It isn’t salubrious but a nice family is running it and the rooms have bolts inside the doors. Twenty-four hour birds are squeaking and chattering.
Indians from Kerala made us welcome at the Restaurant Mukabar. I went down for a 3 am roti. The owner took my picture. I see him putting it on Facebook. I add him as a friend so I can see it too. His other friends all want to be added. I’m a Facebook friend of half of Kerala. The World Cup’s on TV and England’s fans are singing. I give them the middle finger. The owner looks at me and says, “I don’t like them either.” An older Muslim lady comes in to watch the world cup. She laughs at me eating roti. She starts cheering England on.
I wake with bag tossed bones in a world that’s looking grim. Worries come back to niggle. Where did I hide my money? Are any clothes still clean? These are just travelling concerns. The world is coming into focus. Sunlight is streaming in. Where’s the 7-11?
Kuantan wasn’t a place to stick around. Hot winds basted streets and a pale blue mosque in a small city baking between the mountains and the sea. Across the road a phosphorescent river radiated toxins. Every bad driver from Kuala Lumpur was revving a car around. As the day grew later their engines roared louder. At night parks and strings across streets shouted with loud red and green lights. The owner of one café told us he had many Malay friends who go fishing. Where? He pointed towards the radioactive looking river.
We decided to eat at a cafe opposite the mosque. The food wasn’t very good. Other patrons were wary. Weebus wandered up, still shirtless, and in the same sarong. He sat down at our table. We shared our food with him. The wary atmosphere dissolved like glass. Suddenly we were accepted as normal. Charity is a very big part of Islam.
We’re wandering through low mountains and palm plantations and road works. We can see large factories lay out on our right and new exit lanes and piles of culverts to our left. The bus came into a zone of trees poisoned from beneath. A few palm heads barely survive. A road sign points to a Malaya China Industrial Park ahead. Bare earth scorches under the sun.
We are not far from Cambodia now. This bus takes a coast road. Little grey brown cottages with gables are sitting on the ground instead of hoisted on stilts from out of a swamp. An islet peeps up from sea as blue as the advertising on a travel agent’s brochure. Cherating, the secret coast’s surf beach, does it best to pretend it is a newer, smaller and better Bali.
Hills came and small resorts went. The bus continued. Sometimes the road has two lanes. Planted palms and Bougainvillea bushes separate the traffic. A siren is squealing and lights are flashing by. Police on a squadron of motorbikes are waving at the driver. They’re telling him to keep his bus far to the left on the lanes. A police car races up behind them. The police are making space for a white car travelling at twice the speed of the traffic. Someone important is going somewhere. Half a mile ahead the scads of motorbikes whizz the white car through red lights.
The road is lush with trees and sprinkled with wooden villages with homestay signs. Life in a cottage beside a stream and sheltered by a shady forest must have had a lot going for it. Not many people planted shady trees in these settlements where goats grazed on the verges. Outside a small town a cement factory slowly nibbled into low hills. The kilometers are dropping on the signs to Dungun and sometimes brief views of the sea so blue it looks Photo-Shopped.
As the wood and concrete houses come and go. I’m reading Sir Hugh Clifford’s “In Court and Kampong” on my Kindle. I recognize the Kuantan bus driver moonlighting in a taxi. He is one of Sir Hugh’s prancing men of Pahang who, when they work, labor as no other men will do.
Mountains descend to the sea. Fourteen kilometers short of Puka there is space for a golf course and hotels beside the teal and turquoise sea. A sign shows the way to the Mesra Mall. The second driver has woken up. He’s been sleeping in a seat turned into a bed. A rail is his wardrobe. He’s sitting on the steps. The two drivers are deep are in discussion. Each waves his hands as he explains why the other is so wrong, wrong, and wrong.
The jungle stops at the edge of plain producing Lorong Motosikal and Cecair instead of trees and rice. The road is running through square miles of steel. The mountains have receded to a thin blue distant line on the horizon. Refinery flames jet high into the sky as the police motorcade roars away again. The white car is speeding out from an office building. The police are worried about the traffic ahead. They’re not covering its back as it heads into a city providing industry with its services.
I go back to reading Sir Hugh. We’ll need to watch our bags when we get to Kelantan. He says the exceedingly good natured and stolid grunters of Kelantan liked being ‘the thief of thieves’. They had “peeping knives” they hooked over their shoulders and into the back of the head of a man who’d just walked past. When two men both hooked each other from behind, the Sultan ordered that both men have their hands cut off.
We are in the State of Terengganu and the grounded Cambodian cottages have gone. Here the back roof of a climbs above the front roof like a saw tooth. According to Sir Hugh, bargainers and debaters inhabit the cottages. “The natives of Terengganu,” he says, “love religious and learned discussions of all kinds.” They are noisy, not violent he adds. I look up. The two bus drivers are still deep in their discussion. The one in the steering seat gesticulates with both his hands off the steering wheel. Lulled by their voices and Sir Hugh I see an island as I sink into sleep.
I wake up at a bus terminal in the center of Terengganu. A good hotel is like a piece of prime real estate on the road. Scouting for hotels is hard work. It’s an art, trust me, and some places are harder than others. Some people use bus stations find them. Some people use markets. I use the 7-11 stores. “You’re lucky,” says Chief Editor, “you know how to find hotels. It’s something everyone encounters and some people don’t know how to deal with it.” They only know how to pay tour agencies to do it for them.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When we came into Kuala Terengganu all the good rooms had gone. A man smoking outside a mini mart said he knew a cheap hotel. Where is it? “You get in my taxi and I will show you.” You mean three long trips round the block. The woman in the Malay restaurant made great orange juices and knew the city had “many hotels.” A tourist shows us a map and points at a hotel. Full. It’s the same story at every hotel.
We trudge. I’m carrying all the bags. I’m walking on Red Bull and sleep deprivation. Chief Editor stocked up on Red and Relief Pain Band Aids at the first 7-11 we saw. She attends to her blisters outside a toyshop. Inside the shop a woman wearing a headscarf is laughing with her. Chief Editor says she’s had sore feet too.
I have a hunch. Follow that demented smile of Uncle Ngo above a restaurant. We hit pay dirt. “Want beer, Carlsberg, Tiger, Heineken?” Lime juice please. Is that a hotel upstairs? “You want homestay?” Two Chinese Malay salesmen are eating at the next table. They are in Terengganu to sell fishing products. They say yes they know for clean rooms.
We’d found a new trade route on an old maritime line. We are sharing a floor of a renovated building with two Chinese businessmen. The business homestay has six rooms, three bathrooms and the World Cup on TV. “Our guests are people we know,” said Marvin the Chinese owner. “They are business people. They come from Kuala Lumpur. They take orders in Kota Baru, Kuala Terengganu and Kuantan. Then they go home.”
We had also stumbled upon one of the nicest cities in Malaysia. The small and friendly city center rolled across a finger of land around a large mosque. The finger jutted out into the junction of a river and the sea. Boats ferried passengers out to the islands in the river. People were gentle and the city’s elegant women had style. “Instead of making fashion statements with head scarves, here their head scarves are an integral part of beautifully cut outfits,” Chief Editor said. “Their color coordination is sensational. And their shoes don’t just look good. They’re comfortable as well.”
On the riverfront cranes worked to reclaim land from the river, as they pushed the waterfront into the river, the cranes moved a scenic street further from the waterfront. A narrow street of Chinese shop houses curled up a hill. The shop houses looked like only the stock in the shops had change in a hundred years. They stocked food, kites and bright summer clothes badged as beach souvenirs. “This is a very traditional area,” Harry, a Chinese Malay land developer, told us. “There is tension between development and Islamists who don’t want change. The politicians are not very strong.”
We found a second ferry jetty. People were boarding a boat. Where does it go? “Red island,” said a smiling woman. Is it good? “Very good.” I saw the noticeboard featured 55 ringgit day trips. Is it expensive? “Yes.” The ticket seller said the ferry ran three times a day. Each trip took two hours. A day trip meant sitting on the ferry for four hours.
Further down I saw some steps. Let’s go up and get some pictures. Chief Editor balked. “You go. It’s the old Sultan’s lookout for enemies coming up the river.” She disappeared in the direction of pink drinks tasting like bubble-gum.
I puff up, up, up, following two Russians. They didn’t altogether appreciate their picture being taken from below and behind. Photographing people is a funny thing. Usually Europeans get nervous and Asians smile. Kerala Indians can’t get enough pictures for Facebook. From the top the city is waving in hot air. Fishing boats are coming in with their catches.
We wandered into a food market smelling of fruit and fresh fish. A gold shop did a busy trade next to stands selling dried fruits and toys. When we came out we followed a small canal upstream. It took us to our favorite juice bar, the Cafe Mustafa.
The Cafe Mustafa is opposite the cemetery of Sultans. The hill of sepulchers is another link in the seaborne Sumatra-Malaya-Cambodia connection. Their tombstones were shipped from Aceh in Sumatra and carried up steps as steep as the steps leading up to a Cambodian temple. Frangipanis, the flower of death, scented the air.
No one I asked had heard of a harrowing tale I’d read. Sir Hugh Clifford wrote that at the turn of the 20th century a Terengganu prince went on a rampage and killed most of his detractors. It was a tale this town had preferred to forget. Was the prince buried here?
“I am 58 years old,” says a man talking to Marvin our Chinese landlord. “When I was at school we learnt the history of everything. Now they only learn the history of Islam. Nothing else.” He’d not heard the story either. Marvin is also old enough to remember Malaysian race riots and he was not as dispirited as his friend. “Terengganu people are conservative. They have always been good Muslims. There is no room for NGOs to make trouble for other people like they do in Kuala Lumpur.”
We ask Marvin about the border crossing to Thailand’s Sungai Kolok. “No one calls it that,” said Marvin. He pointed to it on the map with a little finger with a very long nail. “They just call it Kolok. You catch a Malay taxi to the border. Then you catch a Thai taxi to Patani.” He had worked in a bank branch in Patani for 5 years. Is it safe to go to Patani? Marvin tried to call a friend “who goes there often.” His friend didn’t answer. He thought for a moment. “Usually we tell visitors not to go there.” For us he had no advice.
The Singapore Slings had no doubt about where we should be going. “Perhentian. It is beautiful there, beaches, good food.” Born in Terengganu they’d brought their families back during the Singapore school holidays. “It takes ten hours to get here. The ticket is cheaper in Johor. You have to catch the bus, then cross the border, then catch the bus.” They’d allowed three hours for saving money on the bus tickets. They had a tribe of teenage children with them and two smaller ones. Their husbands looked harried. They spent long periods waiting on the footpath for their cavalcades to come down the steps, don their shoes and issue through the street door.
We knew how the Singapore Slings came to be staying at the homestay for Chinese businessmen. Chief Editor had been talking to their older sister the night before. Elder sister told Chief Editor three times “my eldest daughter is studying medicine in Russia” as she read a Chinese newspaper with her eyes above her glasses. She wasn’t having her sisters and their tribes in her house. “My house is small. My two sisters went to Singapore to find husbands.” She’d booked them into someone else’s homestay.
Elder sister had been very definite. “You must eat at the Thai restaurant. Is very near here. You cross the road and go left. It is in the small street next to the electrical shop. Not the first restaurant. The next restaurant is the Thai restaurant. I wanted to go there but my sisters did not want to go. They want to eat here.” Smart little sisters. They’d opted for street food and avoided being humbugged for expensive meals.
Where Elder Sister said turn left we turned right. We headed through empty streets to a park where silent people sat on motor scooters watching a World Cup soccer match on a big screen. We went to the stands of a small night market behind them. A young man spoke English and sold good family soup. He made his father proud. His father spoke no language but Malay and made a mean sate. He roasted chicken on skewers on a barbeque. It sent showers of sparks out into the night.
It was midnight. I’d moved rooms to make space for the Singapore Slings. Their teenagers were watching the World Cup. Their smaller children had turned the passage outside my room into an all-night playground. I asked the Singapore Slings how long they’d be staying. “We stay another night after tonight.” Not even the technician getting fast Internet going could make up for that. I winked at Chief Editor. We will miss all of you. We are going to Kota Baru.
The bus driver’s swagger belied his driving skills. He braked through the corners twisting through palm plantations and the only Malayan rice fields we’d seen. The Chief Editor didn’t like the noise in the back axle. Two Muslim schoolgirls got on the bus at a stop outside the city. They looked at me. They looked at my double seat. They both burst into tears. Maybe they knew we were going to the Industrial Zone. I made room for them. I sat on the floor of the bus with no shock absorbers.
We’re here. Sungai Kolok, Narathiwat province, gateway to Thailand’s industrial zone. Last month, a day after the military moved in Bangkok, the Deep South rumbled. In Sungai Kolok, a series of 11 bombs went off. “The hotel is safe. But I can’t guarantee outside.” The Chinese-Thai receptionist was too lazy to walk up the stairs. She showed me her camera phone. It’s a video of the room. She wants to charge another 50 baht for Wi-Fi.
“Stick to where the soldiers and police are,” said the Malaysian taxi driver who brought us through from Kota Baru. He once lived in Patani. He’s surprised I speak Thai. He’s happy to take us to the border but he says don’t even try and make it to Patani during the night. “It isn’t safe.”
It was dark by the time we’d reached the border, and only people in cars were crossing. In No Man’s Land a white moth gracefully flew around. It rested on the ground for me to take its picture. Two motorbike taxi boys dropped us at the camera phone hotel. One told me in Thai the hotel had a bar downstairs.
We could find a better deal. It was just a matter of walking around the industrial zone. Chief Editor has eyes in the back of her head. “Watch out for bins and bags and scooters.” She’s used to working with Australian heavy industry. “Bikies do the same things these bombers do. They’re just criminals trying to scare people.” She’s spotted CCTV cameras in a street, and some kind of security barracks.
Taksin Hotel had a soldier at the back of reception using the hotel’s fast Wifi to update his Facebook on his smartphone. He had his M16 on the table beside him. A Muslim woman fed her baby in the foyer, a Buddhist altar on second floor and a 7-11 down the street. This looked like the place for us. Another white moth is sitting on my door. It’s a good sign. This hotel is out of 7-11 bombing range.
We watched the Thai TV news. The Bangkok Generals have received the Kolok bomber’s message. The Thai Council for Peace and Order is responding. Enough is enough. They are going to solve the problems in the South. Is this good news for the people here, or worse?
We’re here in boot camp and Chief Editor has been having a lazy day. I’ve been doing errands and scouts and risking my life. She’s been sleeping. “I’ve had some lovely dreams.” She wants coffee. It’s another run t to 7-11. I go for a walk. A soldier with an M16 and a security guy, with a gun, are sitting on the corner. I’m not sure what figure I’m cutting, but I can feel their eyes boring into me.
The moneychanger is a mum and popshop. A few people are changing large amounts of baht to ringgit. The moneychanger is separated from us by set of bars. He doesn’t change Australian dollars. He’s locked in, and we are locked out. Come to think of it, many of the buildings have reinforced shutters and steel bars across their windows.
The heat is the only real presence today. I pass a few noodle shops, speak a sprinkle of Thai and Malay to anyone I see. The majority are Thai speakers. The som tum lady says this area is safe. So does a man with greasy hands. He’s a mechanic. “They never bomb here. They can get in but there’s no way for them to get out again.” Yep, the taxi driver was right. Stick close to the soldiers.
Signs that all is not good are very noticeable in this town. Army depot stores are selling army boots and clothes. One shop is called Commando. Outside mosques and 7-11’s are posters warning people to be suspicious of parked motorbikes. The school up the road is blocked with barricades. Police guard the entrance on both sides of its side street. I check out an upmarket hotel. Its pool is out the front, with only a low wall protecting it. Not high enough to repel any projectiles being lobbed over the wall. It looks a bit exposed.
Like in most small Thai towns, gangs of motorbike taxi boys are slouching around in their colored vests and wanting to take me to a massage joint. No thanks. I’m walking with no real purpose. I find the girly precinct by myself. It’s one street full of closed singsong joints, totally dead. Clothes on chairs are hanging out to dry on the street. The girls are just waking up.
At another shop a group of men in caps are gossiping. They are looking at me suspiciously. I shake their hands. It breaks the ice, and now they’re smiling. I order a vegetable dish at a Muslim street stand. An old lady from Indonesia throws in a few plastic spoons. This town is condensed and full of contrasts. A woman clothed from head to toe walks past a sexy lingerie shop. The call to prayer is resonating through the massage parlors and bars.
I walk into a shop where a woman in a Muslim headscarf just stares at me. She’s scared I’m some sort of Middle Easterner about to bomb her premises. I don’t think they get many tourists round here. I go to a 7-11 instead. Walking back past a mosque I hear a series of explosions, short bullet bursts. I look down to Girly Street. Chinese fire crackers.
Motorbikes parked outside the night market have their seats up. No bomb inside. It doesn’t impress Chief Editor. “You can put more than petrol in a tank.” We meet Jimmy, a Malay Chinese having dinner with his wife. He has an Australian boss on the other side of the border. He compliments me on my Thai. It’s hard to hear him over the chatter of birds that have commandeered a tree.
It isn’t just the border closing for the night that’s causing Jimmy and his wife to hurry through their food. Jimmy tells us there’s been a curfew since the generals took over in Bangkok. “Not before.” He says “Lots of Malays come over on weekends but since the bombings a year or so ago, not so many.” Where did the bombs go off?
“Here in the market,” says the man serving us plates of duck and rice. “It’s quieter now. Not so many car bombs.” I tell the duck man I am safe. I have a tattoo I got from a famous Thai monk. I make a bang-bang sound with my index finger pointing towards his chest. He jumps. I tell him bullets won’t go through my protective tattoo. He laughs. He shows me his Buddhist amulet. He has a new Hilux pickup and his tables are full of policemen from the station across the street.
Another Buddhist slain in Patani reports the Bangkok Post. I’d like to visit a wooden mosque there, built in a Sumatran style, around 100 years ago, and the Patani museum has taken our Chief Editor’s fancy. She isn’t too concerned about Insurgent activity. “I don’t think a mosque and a history museum will be very high on an insurgent’s hit list.” Besides, she has found us the perfect cover. “I’ve been researching. I found you a lovely swamp to go bird watching. The army and the insurgents won’t take any notice of us if they think we’re bird watchers. Everyone knows bird watchers are harmless.”
Tonight, it’s lockdown. Two bats are flying round the hall outside our doors. I can’t even get to Chief Editor’s room. The bats have done what the Australian government travel advice, the generals, the insurgents and the drug dealers couldn’t do. They’ve kept me in my room. We are in the Deep South, and it’s the most delightful border town.
Sirens go off. A 199 emergency rescue vehicle is heading to the scene of some road kill. Most likely it’s a traffic accident. It’s 4 am, and I’ve got that dengue feeling again. Miss Dengue’s a close friend of mine. Turn the aircon off and the fan. I’m still freezing. Hubris. Yesterday I was bragging we’re not sick.
I’m going out to get some take away from 7-11. The night receptionist has taken a liking to me. When I first checked this place out, he wouldn’t show me a room. I asked him for the key and checked it out myself. When he saw me come back with Chief Editor, he softened. He must have thought she was my mother and I’m a good son. The soldier guarding our hotel asks me who I’m backing for the World Cup. Australia has been booted out. His machine gun is on the table next to him. He says he’s backing Brazil. Okay, I’m backing Brazil.
I’m not only one who’s fond of 7-11 stores. Soldiers are doing their 7-11 snack runs in a Humvee. It’s been reinforced to withstand heavy-duty car bombs. I’m still shivering. The staff at 7-11 asks me if I’m OK. I say I have a fever. When I get back from the 7-11 I gently call out through the hotel’s closed gates. I’m back. The soldier has a big gun. I don’t want to trigger any alarm bells.
The soldiers seem to be rotating. The green soldiers have left the banks, hotels, and 7-11s. Soldiers in desert sand uniforms patrol them now. Muslim girls are smiling at me. They are 7-11 staff going out for a late lunch. Why didn’t you invite me? I asked the larger one. “You never asked,” she said. I ask her what day it is, thinking it might be Friday, and mosque day. It’s Tuesday.
The cleaner from Chiang Rai cleans Chief Editor’s room, and mops my floor. I had a Sprite spillage last night. I have a heart to heart with Chief Editor. How can I say this? I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to get blown up at a 7-11 in Patani after all. We are on the front line, totally on the front line, I repeat to Chief Editor. I really like this border town. It’s the calm in the eye of the storm. Chief Editor thinks we’re in the calm before a storm. She says she could just hop on a Patani bus. I’m too sick to realize she’s pulling my leg. “But we are still going to out to that swamp.”
I’m in Thailand not Bali and now Miss Dengue’s coming back. It’s over 30C, the humidity is high, and inside a fleecy jacket I’m shivering again. When she comes, she only comes once a day. She’s arrived early. She wants me to have a good night editing. I need chili. Get those chills out. We go to a cafe close by. I order the pork dish I had here before. The gay waiter does a little dance. “We’re Muslim! Its beef!” And it’s good.
Dengue thoughts. It’s time to hide in the room again. You pay for this I tell Chief Editor and I’ll do the 7-11 run. The 7-11 staff is giving the front a mop. The only danger so far is slipping and breaking my neck. I meet the lady I chatted with earlier today. This time the water cooler conversation is cut short. I’m hallucinating, really slipping into delirium. A soldier is chatting to the chicken seller outside. I squeeze past him. I could have pulled his trigger.
At the Taksin Hotel the soldier ignores me. He’s busy chatting up a hooker who is doing a little song and dance, trying rustle up business, like the older massage lady. I don’t think the soldier can afford either of their services, but he’s enjoying the attention. Up the staircase, two at a time, for three floors. I pass the blinking Buddhist shrine.
No bats. They must be sleeping off their fill of insects on the top floor. Our hotel’s top floor is Swift Central Head Quarters. Now I know why they have those CCTV cameras. It’s to prevent their nests from being stolen. This whole building is one big soup ingredient in a town of swifts and moths and bats and little gecko lizards.
The next morning the army is very energetic around the business district. Soldiers walked with intent. An army boss gave orders to two burly underlings armed and overdressed with their bullet flak jackets. A soldier rides past on a motorbike. He’s wearing a blue bandana around his neck and his weapon strapped on his back.
We think there must be Big Bosses in town. The head of the Bangkok junta said he’d be taking control of the Deep South and sending back a crackdown boss. The army’s also hauled in wood merchant Sia Joe saying he’s well connected and powerful in the underworld. In Yala they replied with a few hasty banners and burnt down a timber mill.
I work on the Indonesian principle, keep it light. Say hello, make a joke and walk away. It works like a charm around here. Thai Muslims here are more sanuk and less formal than the Muslim Malays across the border. When people think we are mother and son they open up and treat us as their own.
Chief Editor is on bird and banana watch. “From Australia” she tells the wary owner of a bird shop, pointing at some colorful budgies. The Chinese Thai man relaxes. He lets her take pictures of the other birds in his cages. The shop across the way is drying betel nuts on bags laid in the gutters of both sides of the street. It’s a Sungai Kolok no parking sign.
Noi works at a corner in the Muslim market. Her soup stand is attached to her motorbike. I bargain the price down from 60 to 30 baht. It’s the price she charged a Thai man. Noi says poor people have a heart of gold. She tells me she is 60 years old and tired. She drives an hour to set up her stand at midday. She leaves at 8 p.m. I order two bowls.
Noi’s friend, Dang, the banana lady, is chatting with her. Chief Editor is asking them about Noi’s cooking secrets. Dang gives Chief Editor some bananas. They seem to understand each other. Noi runs a three-ring soup pot. She makes a red paste that goes in the section with the pork and turnip and onions. In another section she’s cooked pork in herb water. Tamarind is in the herb water and so is coriander. The small section is for cooking fish balls and leafy green vegetables. Before we leave Chief Editor slips 20 baht to Dang’s pet cage bird.
Around the corner the daughter can’t cut up our watermelon. She can only wash the knife. Chief Editor sets to work. A motorbike taxi driver comes to help. I’m carrying three kilos of watermelon past a gold shop. “I think that’s the gold shop that was bombed” Chief Editor says. Around the corner I see the Asia Hotel. That’s a hotel that was bombed. A café beside the main road serves Moccona coffee. Across the road an old steam train is on display. The Kolok railway station is behind a high fence.
A lady boy minces past, holding an umbrella, protecting her very dark complexion. A woman is carrying Chlorophyll water along the street. She gives us a free bottle for letting her take a promo picture on her phone. Facebook? Yes for Facebook. Modeling, I like it. The side street ladies want some Facebook pictures too. We really are a novelty.
A guy high on Yaba, amphetamines, joins our table. At first we thought he’d got out of a pickup driven by a man wearing a white Haj hat. He’s garrulous and stoned and he sits himself down at our table He must have come up behind it. He says he can get me some cheap cigarettes. He wants cash. It was a mistake to tell him Chief Editor is my friend. At the first photo op opportunity, he sprawls all over her. Then he’s hitting her leg with a finger like a rock, trying to find out where we are staying. “He says he’s younger than you are,” says Chief Editor as he walks away.
She drags me to a second hand clothing store. I negotiate buying two caps for 30 baht. Chief Editor’s picked a pink cap, and now she really looks like a dumb blonde. I put my cap on. She thinks I’m stealing it. “You can’t just walk out wearing it!” No, it was all arranged. That pink cap and zero Thai language skills have clouded your judgment.
Maybe she’s just playing Chief Editor the Bird Watcher. She needs a swamp fix. She’s been hanging out for Sirindhorn Peat Swamp, Pa Phru To Daeng. The bird watching society in Phuket says don’t stray off the track at the Sirinthorn Peat Swamp. It has crocodiles. The roads surrounding the peat swamp “can pose a potential threat to one’s life if attacked by a rogue insurgent operating in the area.”
Chief Editor has her facts and cover story straight. “I think you should watch for the white chested babbler,” she suggests. I’m not taking her bait. She has brought the mosquito repellent with her. The peat swamp is where you can catch mosquito borne elephantiasis while searching for an avian crown jewel called a masked fin foot. She tells me there is more chance of me being run over than shot by an insurgent.
That’s not an alarm ringing. That’s the coconut ice-cream man and the sweet tooths are swarming round his mobile ice cream unit. We on walk down the road. Chief Editor spots a dress shop. I see sandbags. Nice picture. A young soldier holding an M16 calls me into a compound full of soldiers guarding a telecommunication tower. He’s caught a rogue tourist. “No take photo,” he says. “Delete.” I lock the photo and show him the picture. It’s a shot of some sandbags. I can’t delete it. I walk away.
The motorbike boys see it all. They are embarrassed, and they sympathize. “Don’t worry, I’ll ask them for permission so you can take a picture,” says Abdullah the head of this gang. Chief Editor tells him we want to go to the bird swamp. They quote us 400 baht, for the two of us, a round trip, with waiting time. I check with another driver in a side street. He wants 300 baht per person.
The only way to get the lay of the land was to get out of town and see what was really going on, but I don’t want to have to tell her family she’s finally gone too far. Dengue wouldn’t cut it. I asked our hotel manager. Please give me your honest, honest opinion. He said occasionally Thai students go out, but not many. He stressed if we found a motorbike driver who would take us, “he should wait around and take you home.”
Chief Editor’s hit the 7-11 for water. I ask the hotel’s motorbike taxi guy. He’s Buddhist and he says the swamp is isolated, dangerous, and too far. “No motorbike will take you there.” I tell Chief Editor. “It’s only twelve miles out,” she says “”and Abdullah was fine about taking us there. He didn’t think it was a problem. This is the biggest peat swamp in Thailand and everywhere else they’re disappearing under oil palms.” Meaning, get on that bike, and make that leap of faith.
The soldier at the sentry box sits there all day chain smoking. He’s a big teddy bear that you want to pack in your suitcase. He’s friendly, and he’s from this province. They really are under pressure. It’s the waiting game, not knowing what will pop up next, in the form of a motorbike or a plastic bag. He wears a bulletproof vest that weighs a ton, and heavy boots. It must be hot in all that gear. “The swamp is safe. You should go there,” he says.
Abdullah’s Muslim motorbike guys were waiting. They saw us before we saw them. We waited 5 minutes while Abdullah organized his friend with a Vesper and some English. Chief Editor rummaged through her bag for the small camera. I wanted it. I was in stealth mode. If I’m being dragged into a red zone then I want to document it.
I didn’t take photos of the soldiers in the camouflaged army checkpoints. Their guns were bigger than my lens. We passed through at least three checkpoints, and passed a barracks. A Humvee armored vehicle passed us. Cattle, goats, and dogs roamed the canal and kids played in the water. Chief Editor’s really enjoying this. She’s waving to all the soldiers and they’re smiling and waving back.
The last checkpoint had a very big gun buried in a nest, and aimed at our backs. I could feel it. It’s a strange sensation when you’re going to a national park. At the swamp its confession time for Chief Editor. “I’m a junkie for plants,” she says dowsing herself in mosquito repellent. Spray spray. I’ve seen too many giant limbs and it’s not a pretty sight.
A man in a royalist yellow shirt appears. He asks us where we want to go. I tell him we’d like to see birds. “It’s best to come in morning or the evening,” he says “but you are welcome to visit now.” It’s 2 in the afternoon. We venture out on to a rotting boardwalk. Insects like a letter H are skating on the red water beneath us.
The jungle is closing in. The light is fading. The water’s turned black. It’s getting dark in here. This boardwalk has transported me inside the movie Apocalypse Now. I’m watching out for the men in camouflage waving their machine guns as they wade towards me. This is the first swamp I’ve been ever through. It’s a pressure cooker ecosystem that taking millions of years to produce oil and gases. It’s so hot, humid, and fetid that even Miss Dengue takes a day off. She cannot compete with diseases this swamp ferments on a daily basis. It’s a hell of dengue cure.
Chief Editor is into plants. It takes me hours to get her to cross 900 meters of platforms. Mosquitoes are coming at me in clouds. Little display huts with foggy windows and mannequin farmers processing sago pop up at me like mannequins turning to life in a horror movie. I spot a monkey. I manage to get a photo of a centipede s the sunlight through the fronds frame the wooden path. I go ahead to snap red stems of picture perfect lipstick palms. One bird is serenading another – “what, what, what.” I start recording the “what what” bird.
After a half an hour I’m beginning to worry about what the crocodiles are eating. Many of the floorboards and bearers are on their way out. I hear a screech. Against my better judgment I go back. Chief Editor is fine. “Just look at that fungus!” She’s in plant heaven and playing David Attenborough with the camera. She mightn’t have a green thumb but she certainly knows how to take blurry photos of rotting plants.
A loud thunderous noise announces a storm is on its way. That’ll get her out of here. I chat with the motorcycle boys. They say when tourists pass through this border they get the next train or bus out of town. “There’s nothing promoting tourism in this town.” Patani and Yala are more dangerous. “There hasn’t been a bomb go off for three months, and the last one was out of town.” They obviously don’t read the Bangkok Post.
A pink cap appears and we drive back the way we came. The motorbike boys drop us at a Muslim restaurant where a picture of the Royal family hangs next to a verse from the Koran. The restaurant has the kow mock gai, chicken with saffron. I’ve been looking for. There’s the communications tower. Taksin Hotel is just down the road. We find a side street stall with durian and sweet sticky rice and strong coffee. We settle in, and so does the rain.
So what did you think about the swamp? “I loved it. It’s like diving without getting your feet wet. I loved it.” Chief Editor is repeating herself. She’s beaming. She really did love it. She’s right. We both loved it. It’s so simple when you’ve done it. All those fears and doubts out the way. Tourism in a war zone, its novel. It’s a wonder the Iraqis haven’t caught on.
Sunday night. We are talking about Robert Pelton Young’s book about really dangerous places. Smash. We can hear the glass from the top floor. A bright yellow light, an exploding noise outside the window, and the lights went out. Sirens start. “Get down,” says Chief Editor, “and turn the TV off.”
I’m at the window. In the street a torch is playing on a tangle of wires. It’s the transformer. The air conditioner starts to purr. The lights come back. I go down to investigate. The police have just arrested the guy who’d thrown a brick at the restaurant with the gay waiter. It sprayed glass from the front counter all through the food.
I have a hunch. Let’s walk. Now where are the girly bars? We walk, and we find a teacher. He’s set up some wooden chairs in an open fronted room and, a small white board. He’s sitting in the street next to his school sign. “It only cost me 300 baht to have it printed up, materials included. Herman is married to a Muslim woman, and he’s starving for English conversation. For the last four months he’s nothing but Thai. He’s thinking of shifting the school to the west coast. He teaches children for free. “Their parents pay me with oranges and haircuts.”
Marcus pulls up in his pickup truck. Herman recommends we all walk down to a Pakistani café nearby. Marcus sells Muslim clothing. He says his Pakistani parents migrated to Thailand 25 years ago. He is a Thai national. “When my parents came here, it was easy to get nationality. Now it is impossible.” We ask about his perfect English. “I love cricket. I taught myself English watching the cricket and movies with subtitles. I would go back to my room and look up the words. Being able to speak five languages helped.”
“Don’t go to Patani,” advises Herman. “It’s very dangerous.” He says only six bombs have gone off in Kolok in the last eighteen months. “That’s not much. Kolok is a really safe place.” Marcus doesn’t agree. He says Kolok is a yellow zone, not a green zone. “You are completely safe in a green zone. Here the towns are yellow zones. Safe, but not completely safe. Outside the town is red zone. Dangerous.” Like the peat swamp we’ve just visited.
“The drugs don’t come down from Burma. The forests are used for manufacturing methamphetamines,” Herman says. “The cooks don’t like people going near their kitchens. When I first came here, I couldn’t understand how people survive. After a long time I realized people living here make a living by smuggling. They take Volvos with long-range petrol tanks to Malaysia. They fill them up with cheap fuel. Malaysian fuel is subsidized.”
A man with a long beard, dyed red, sits down at our table. He’s the café owner. He smiles. He doesn’t say anything. We are drinking yogurt lassies, and eating his naan bread. “You speak English don’t you,” says Chief Editor. He smiles at her. “I lived in New Zealand for six years.” Why didn’t you get permanent residency, she asks. “It was at the time of the 9-11 bombing,” Imran said. “When I tried to travel to Australia to visit my relatives, I was denied. They looked at my beard and said I looked like a terrorist.”
Herman tells him he did look like Bin Laden before he dyed his beard red. “You are a terrorist!” I say to Imran, as I take his picture. He laughs. Then he takes a photo of me. He says it was much better here ten years ago, before the bombing started. We are thinking of going to a waterfall near the border, 25 kilometers out of town. “Don’t go there,” Imran says. Herman agrees. “There are pirates all over the place. There are drug manufacturers all along that section of the border.”
When we’ve finish drinking our tea Herman and Marcus take us on a walking tour of the bombsites. “Imran was checking us out,” says Chief Editor. Herman says Imran is very well connected. “If you have any visa problems, he’s got contacts here and in Kota Baru.” Herman’s neighbor comes up to him from her corner shop. “Can you read this for me?” He translates a form for her. It’s been written in English.
Herman says on that on May 11th a string of bombings happened in eight locations, causing one death and nine injured. “Two went off 50 meters on each side of me.” He shows us a boarded up section at a Honda shop. “There’s a bit of wall that was hit, and up there,” he points at the eaves, “you can see the burnt marks from the bomb in the motor bike.” Who did it? “I don’t know.”
Marcus says no one knows who the bombers are. “I’m Muslim, and I don’t know.” He says there are conspiracy theories floating around. “Some people say the army is behind the bombings, some say it’s the police, trying to create the idea that all Muslims are bad.” Herman’s theory is that many of the bombings are done to make insurance claims. “These bombings haven’t damaged the property market at all.”
Herman shows us another bombed building. It’s half complete “It was a four star hotel. It will be an apartment building when it’s finished.” Another complex was blown up by a car bomb in 2012. Marcus remembers it well. “It went up on the first day of Ramadan.” We see the Asia Hotel. Herman says it was bombed six months ago. Marcus says it wasn’t. “Over a year ago.” We walk along a footpath behind barriers separating the road from the Marina Hotel. Another target.
A woman is looking for wood in the rubble in front of a gutted out supermarket. “Twenty-five shops went up in the blaze here,” says Herman. “I was drinking tea in the cafe across the road when it happened. The shopkeepers were taking out fridges and other things. It was like they knew it was going to happen.” “They did know,” says Marcus. “All the lights in the town went out before the bombs went off.” “Everyone gets jittery when the power goes out,” Herman explains. “They blow up the power grid before an attack so the CCTV cameras can’t see them.”
I ask the lady rummaging around in the bombed building if she serves coffee. There are no tables or chairs. Herman suggests we can help set them up for her if she wants. We break into laughter. I ask her what is this mess of glass and burnt out rafters and holes in a wall. She doesn’t know how to take me. Herman suggests we use the wood she is collecting to boil the water for the coffee. She points to a coffee shop across the road. Herman and I are laughing harder. It’s contagious.
Marcus is getting jumpy. “Don’t,” says Chief Editor, “People got hurt here, and people watching you will think you’re mocking them.” We are. We walk away. We’re still giggling. We’re in an Industrial Zone where nothing is normal. “I feel really sorry for these poor people,” says Chief Editor. “Everything they own blown up by some jerk probably being paid to be a hero.” “That hotel had a disco in it” says Herman. The karaoke section is boarded up, just like the Honda outlet.
We’re coming into the girly bar precinct. “Most of the bars won’t allow parking of motor bikes or cars these days” Herman says. “It’s a lot safer.” A huge pack of teenagers on motorbikes has started roaming up and down the streets. “They make too much noise,” Marcus says. Herman says “they have guns, knives, drugs, everything. They’re dangerous.” Bored youth, no job opportunities. It’s a recipe for disaster.
At an intersection police start the lights and sirens of a police car. They’re swinging the motorbike cavalcade into a street where more police and soldiers are waiting. The soldiers point torches, looking for bombs, while the police do license checks. We run into a group who’ve pulled up short of the traffic stop. They are sitting around, just hanging out. One of the girls is hunting through her bag. I tell her, be careful! She looks me. No, I say, be careful of the bomb. She jumps up in genuine fright. They all crack up laughing. She’s just lost her motorbike key.
Early morning, bang bang on the door. Is this a summons from the junta? No just a bright eyed and bushy tailed chirpy Chief Editor. It’s the eve of Ramadan, and today is our last day. It’s not by choice. Our land border visas are about to expire. It’s time to leave our little oasis in the industrial zone. I do a Red Bull run. In the hotel foyer a man stares at me, stony faced. Blank. It was hate, hatred of something. Maybe I represented everything he hated.
We say our goodbyes. Our teddy bear soldier says it is 30 baht for a motorbike ride to the border. Bye bye 7-11. The staff tells me to leave my bag outside as they stock the shelves. You never know, I could be carrying some explosives. We’ll miss this madness. We’ll miss being on high alert all the time. We’ll miss the collective fear that makes you forget about small things, and the relationships we’ve forged in the shortest of time. There’s no time to waste just getting to know someone when one small bomb might end your very existence.
We have passed Imran’s examination. We are allowed to eat in the only green zone, Imran’s café, where old men hold long conversations, over long teas. Though Imran’s grandfather came from Pakistan, “I’m mostly Malay.” He tells us his son lives in Kuala Lumpur. “He speaks very good English.” Imran shows us his son’s photo on his Samsung Galaxy phone. Then he pulls up a picture of him and me. “I’ve uploaded it.” On Line, not Facebook. Line’s big in this corner of the smartphone world. Everyone is on it except us.
We don’t see Herman. He has come down with dengue fever, and so has half of his neighborhood. Marcus sits down with us after he’s paid his respects and shaken hands with his elders. He’s having a busy day selling Muslim scarves and caps. He’s a wholesaler and his customers rarely do pay him outright. “They’ll pay in installments, and then I’ll have to chase the rest two months later.” He studied literature and language for four years in Bangkok. His Australian brother in law wants him to study for his master’s degree in Sydney. Marcus doesn’t know whether he wants to go to Sydney.
He moves stock across the back seat of his pickup to make room for Chief Editor, and gives me the front seat. He’s still concerned about my comfort. Marcus asks again, “Are you Pakistani? I thought you must be Pakistani when I met you.” No, I tell him, I’m in Islam mode when I visit Muslim areas. The truth of the matter is that I can’t be bothered shaving. Marcus represents hope. He’s not jaded yet. He wants to take us somewhere.
The rain has started. It’s pelting down. He passes a large hotel with its own discotheque. “I was partying there the other night.” He points out a shop. I have trouble seeing it. “A Muslim lady was blown up here. A man parked a bike at the front. Another motorbike picked him up. Then his motorbike exploded. They caught it on CCTV but they still don’t know who it was. The quality wasn’t good.”
Marcus takes us to a large sports area with a soccer field, tennis courts and high gates. He points to the men playing soccer. “We used to play cricket here. Now it’s only soccer.” The rain is stopping. He drops us at the border with our bags.
Bombs Away – Hat Yai to Betong, Yala, South Thailand
Kolok is a place where time is suspended. We have been under her spell. Expiring visas are a good reason to snap out of it. We’re on a river bridge. A few hundred meters upstream there’s a swarm of little boats. Some are on the water, some are tied to each bank and some are half sunk. Cars are driving into Malaysia to fill up on cheap fuel. Timber truck after timber truck is rolling into Thailand.
Chief Editor knew I was on a mission. “The only reason you got out of bed early was to get some duty free Astro cigarettes.” You’re not wrong. But where is duty-free? We’ve reached Malaysia. I walk back around immigration, into Customs. Where is duty-free? I ask. “Down there” says a customs officer. I walk 200 meters before I see the hole someone has cut in the fence. I’m on the right track.
Inside the duty free shop the Astro cigarettes are only 23 Ringgit a carton. The man won’t serve me. “Closed.” But I’m on my way to Thailand and I need to go quickly. Okay, he says, go in the corner where the CCTV cameras can’t see us. I give him money for three cartons. He looks at the broken zip on my small bag. “They’ll see them. Better to put them in your big bag.” There are no duty free bags in no man’s land.
I sneak back down the road and into Malaysia again. I’m bragging about smuggling Astro cigarettes into Malaysia to the taxi driver. The driver knows the duty free shop but he buys his smokes at a local shop for even a cheaper price. He’s earned his bragging rights.
It’s the first day of Ramadan. We are back at the bus station on the edge of Kota Baru. Most of the food stalls are closed. The air has an almost metallic scent. “Can you smell the rain?” asks Chief Editor. The rain pelts down. We have an hour to kill. I tell the Chief Editor I’m glad I got her out in one piece. “You still haven’t seen the floating mosque,” she says. We catch a bus to Terengganu. The bus is on time and the traffic is bad. We’re running an hour late. We’re just about to clear Kota Baru.
Terengganu. We’re out of the civil war zone. We’re off red alert. We are still casing suspicious cars and motorbikes. It’s great not to be jumping when you hear bangs. See, backpackers, we are safe now I tell Chief Editor. She gestures at a man lying on a bus bench. “That backpacker has really dirty feet.” The man was a homeless Malay sleeping in a bus station. She says her glasses must have fogged over.
Her bag needs a hotel with a lift. It makes even the taxi drivers grunt. “It’s only 22 kilos.” You don’t carry it up three flights of stairs and over sky bridges. A cheap hotel near the night market has a ground floor room. The walls are spattered with blood and mosquito remains. Someone has stuffed newspapers in a hole in the ceiling. I go to another room. It’s above the mosquitoes. It’s up the stairs.
It is late evening. “Isn’t the floating mosque ethereal” says the Chief Editor. You’ve got it all wrong I tell her. The mosque isn’t floating. It’s reflecting off the water. She’s not listening. “Angkor must have once looked something like that.” I tell her Malaysia’s just trying to outdo Brunei. Brunei is always trying to showcase their mosques in glossy magazines. “Did you pinch that Air Asia magazine from the plane?” she asks. Of course I did.
We eat in the little food market that’s open until 1a.m. The breeze is warm and gentle. It’s coming into the river from the sea. “I didn’t ever feel frightened” Chief Editor says. “I’ve had to do too many things that are dangerous too often to let fear make it even more dangerous.”
She’s downloading. “I was worried when we were looking for a hotel. There are always warning signs but I didn’t know what any were. Turning off the town’s electricity and the CCTV, that was a warning sign, and seeing the bombsites helped too. The bombers go for soft targets, the bars, and little businesses, scaring people with tiny bombs. You’d be very unlucky to be the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Yes. Like that three year old blown up in 2011.
In my room I am dozing, and watching a movie, The Running Man. It has a scene with rats in it. I felt something running over me, gently, almost a caress. I turn the light on. There’s a stampede into the ceiling. A last big rat, the size of a cat, is still crawling back into the hole. The rest of the rats feasting on my biscuits have done a runner. They’ve left some fruitcake for me.
Those rats spooked me out. At least the bats at Thaksin hotel had the decency to stay out of my room. When I told the hotel receptionist all she could say was “Sorry.” I might have been ratted on but I knew how to outwit those rats. I’ve never been so active on a few hours’ sleep. I checked out. I asked the old Chinese man at the nearest hotel, do you have rats. He says, “No we don’t have rats.” I’ll have a room please.
I didn’t get much sleep. The Chief Editor has just heard there’s a job she will have to do in Japan. We book an early flight to Kuala Lumpur. Now I’m the Chief Editor’s alarm clock as well as her bag carrier, and she thinks the rats are funny. “They were only visiting their family,” she says. It’ll be a different story if they turn up uninvited in her room. I said she had her Muslim dates wrong. Hari Fitri is at the end of Ramadan.
We catch the new terminal’s express train into KL. Delusions are setting in. The Chief Editor has another side that comes out when she hasn’t had enough sleep. She’s telling gruesome stories again. “He told me he left the man’s intestines strung down his own passage because he’d invaded his personal space.” I ask Chief Editor if gruesome is her middle name. “You should have seen the pictures of the burglar who got stuck in the chimney,” she says. “He was smoked in the roof.”
We get as far as Brickfields and the first hotel that has a lift.
When the Chief Editor went to Japan I caught a flight to Hat Yai. In South Thailand I can speak the language. Outside the train station a driver advises me that I should “stay away from the soldiers and police. They are the targets.” There are not many tourists here. “The working girls have gone south.” They’re looking for customers on the Malay side. “Even the Malaysians are scared of the bombs,” says the soup seller listening to us.
Where I wanted to be was in Betong. I’d heard about it in the Chinese guesthouse in Kuala Terengganu. “Betong is in a bowl in the mountains near the border,” Marvin, the owner, told me. “It’s an interesting place. You’ve heard of the communist Emergency?” Yes. In the 1960s Australian forces were stationed in Butterworth. “When the fighting ended, the Malaysian government agreed to let the communists stay in Betong.”
Trawling the Internet, I’d learnt more. At the center of the peninsula the Thai border pushed in towards Malaysian Perak. Thai Betong lay and between the Malaysian States of Perlis and Kelantan, at the same latitude. When British and Siamese officials had settled where their border would be, they’d used information collected by James McCarthy, the King of Siam’s surveyor.
In 1902 an Englishman published a booklet in Singapore condemning subterfuge, and stealthy tactics, of on the part of Siamese officials. He said they had deposed the Rajahs of Patani, and deprived them of their rightful revenues. In the 1890s McCarthy travelled overland, from Patani to the headwaters of the Perak River. He’d established the extent of watersheds, and existing Siamese interests, including the reach of the Rajah of Patani.
High in the Malaysian mountains, McCarthy encountered Chinese miners, “from Amoy” some “with Australian experience.” They had no roads, received no services, and refused to pay Malaysian taxes. Malaysia’s home grown mountain guerrillas who had been resettled in Betong were Chinese men from very poor families.
To get to Betong I’d have to cross the Deep South. The silent insurgents, never seen, only heard of in the papers. With the end of Ramadan near, some people are saying keep away from rural areas, where insurgents are active. Other people tell me to avoid Yala, “They are shooters down there.” The military is another angle in this equation.
I buy a ticket to Sungai Kolok, and some noodles. A Chinese-Thai lady is talking on a phone as she’s serving me. She’s explaining she doesn’t want to cater for the train station any more. She has lost 10,000 baht in the past year. “They order the food and they never pay for it.” She gives me a generous portion. I tell her I’m going to Kolok. “Don’t go there,” she says. “They kill each other.”
I caught the train to Yala. Motorbikes were being secured with ropes on the last carriage. A guy sitting behind me is talking to himself. I was caught doing it the other day. The man in his late 50’s sitting opposite won’t tell me where he is 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. A man from Songkhla is laughing. His mother is sitting next to him. She’s wearing a Muslim headscarf, and she seems quite shocked by the talk of taking your clothes off. 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. The guy who was quite chatty about being naked shut up. The soldier places his weapon and his flak jacket on his seat, like other soldiers who got on earlier. The soldiers seem comfortable on the train. They are using the traveling as down time. The man opposite pulls out a love heart mirror to groom himself.
The train reaches Patani. A bomb went off here this morning. I stay on the train. There are CCTV cameras at every train station. I’m glad I spent time in Kolok. It was the bootleg camp for understanding what I’m seeing in the villages and towns, the green fields and jungles. Those ubiquitous sand bags. They are becoming commonplace.
Bamboo punji sticks facing outwards. They reinforce wire fences surrounding an army barracks. It looks like something from a period of strategic hamlets. The ones being isolated are the military, the continual targets. In Kolok I’d learnt many are conscripts, not volunteers. Young men are asked to pick a ball. These young soldiers had selected the black one.
Yala. 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. The military men get off too. They’ve gone from relax mode to high alert. I follow them.
Outside is a sea of Muslims in colorful garb. It’s like being back in Indonesia. I’ve found a comfort zone. A Muslim man tells me where I can find a hotel, and how to get to Betong tomorrow. He shook my hand and touched his chest, like all polite Muslims do. “There was a bomb in Patani today” said the hotel receptionist. He didn’t seem to think it was serious. “No one died.” The hotel has a karaoke bar and a massage parlor downstairs. “If you want a massage I can arrange it.” Across the street are other pubs.
The 7-11 stores are beehives of dedicated shoppers. Female staff wears white headscarves. People who are used to oppression and living under the yoke of daily violence continue shopping at 7-11. That it could be a target is one of the prevalent risks of living in the Deep South. Recently five 7- 11 stores were targeted in Patani and other places. Three people were killed, and more than 50 injured.
At bus station most of the minibuses are heading to Hat Yai. No one is lining up to go to Betong. Maybe it is a road where sometimes people are shot in minibuses. The ticket seller is wearing a shirt asking “Where Did Democracy Go?” It’s referring to the May crack down on the Red Shirts and the Army coup in Bangkok. He wants me to take his photo. Then he asks me to take a photo of his mini bus company. He needs his company promoted too.
The mini bus eventually leaves. 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 checkpoint a soldier lifts up a motorcycle seat. He’s looking for explosives. Then the motorcyclist is on his way. We pass him. The mini bus driver beeps his horn. It’s recognition of their solidarity. People might be burdened with these security measures but they bear them well.
I lost count of the army checkpoints. The checkpoint soldiers are looking bored and burrowing in tight behind barbed wire and camouflage. From Yala to Betong some kind of bizarre road sign warfare is going on. There are Thai government signs. There are signs of local Imams, and Ramadan reminders. There’s even a sign in English saying have a safe Ramadan and Hari Fitri.
The minibus drops a man off. He seems very jittery. When he got off the bus, he ran towards a Buddhist temple. The temple is protected by the military. The bus driver drops off a Thai woman and her daughter at a local school. The school has a soldier guarding it at the gate.
The bus stops for a ten-minute break. A Pakistani man is approaching passengers with a sign written 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 are covering the hospital wounds scarring his chest.
Fog shrouded the former Malaysian communist stronghold of Betong. Like Yala mountains riddled with caves surround the city. It’s the most southerly town in Thailand’s Deep South. It lies seven kilometers from the Malaysian border.
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 Malayan communists from another era showcased as a tourist attraction.
A policeman is drinking beers. He’s pissed, and he’s out of uniform. He pegs me as journalist. He shows me his I.D card. Yes he’s a copper. I tell him anything he wants to hear. He says he’ll help me write a story if I promote Thailand. If I don’t…I don’t want to hold his stare. 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. All I have to do is put 100 baht of petrol in his bike. He looks through my camera for any dodgy photos. Eventually I get away from him. He needs to get laid and I need to find a hotel.
The hotel has a sign saying customers who use condoms are only welcome. The room is cheap, and noisy. It captures every rumble, backfire and shrieking brake that passes my window. I thought at first this isn’t a room where I’d leave my things and expect to find them when I got back. But actually it was a very safe room.
Muslim shops sell chicken and rice outside my window. A woman at one of them introduces me to her daughter at another shop nearby. Her daughter says she has five sisters. “We are all married.”
Next morning I check out, and hire a car. I’ll do the caves and hot springs. We pass an army checkpoint on the edge of town. The soldiers are in black. They’re carrying their guns. They look bulky in their gear, and cumbersome. Can I take a picture, I ask the driver. “Why would you want to draw attention to yourself?” he asks me. “It will only raise suspicion.” He’s Muslim.
We head through the jungle, into the mountains. On the roadside villagers are selling durians and mangosteens. The air is cooling. This stretch of road seems to be a no go zone for soldiers and insurgents. It’s left alone for the hard-core Malay tourists who make the effort to visit the caves. At the entry to the caves I pay my 50 baht. Walking up a paved path, under a green over cover, I thought I was alone.
At the top I found Malay-Chinese tourists posing with cartoonish Communist statues straight from Mao’s little Red Book. They’re in front of a museum. Their tour guide is gunning his spiel in Chinese. I had heard that the caves were warrens where it’s easy to get lost. I tagged along with the tour group.
Lights every 5 meters showed the way. The caves were narrow runways with plastered walls. Signs in English and Chinese pointed to different quarters – munitions, operational, sleeping, a hospital. The guerrillas had everything. Half way through the tunnels I’m getting claustrophobic. Ok, I’ll head back the way I came.
A passage to the left, or a path to the right, they all look the same to me. Which way was it to the exit? I’m lost in a labyrinth from a nightmare. I run. I can hear the echo of the Chinese guide nattering away. I head up some stairs. I can’t see them. I can’t hear them. I’m still running. Now I hear the tour guide. A few tail-enders among the tour group made room for me. Not far now to fresh air and fire crackers going off at the Chinese temple.
My driver drops me at the hot springs. The entrance is guarded by nagas, water snakes carved in stone. I take a dip. The water is warm. If you are 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. “There are many Malaysian sex tourists are in Betong. They are addicted to Thai women.”
In town the driver found me a safe hotel. It’s well back from a main street. It has a secure car park around it and no girly bars. A man follows me to my room. “If you need a woman, just call me.” I think I’ll stick to sightseeing, thanks. “Do you know him?” asks one of the hotel staff. No.
Soldiers wave at me from the back of a pickup truck as I take a picture of Thailand’s largest post box. At a noodle stand the guy who makes the noodles is holding court. He makes the best noodles in the South. His wantons are delicious. I order a second bowl. He and the other staff are gossiping away. Three of them are ladies. This has to be the happiest noodle stands 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 Malayan communists from another era showcased as a tourist attraction.” I’m at my computer in my room that’s my safe haven. I’m wrapped in a towel. I’m writing about a wonderful day in the mountains.
An ear splitting loud explosion. The building vibrates. That sounds like hail on the roof. Gusts of wind kick open the curtains. Bum fluff and dust is floating around in the room. Do I get dressed and fuck off out of the hotel, or just run outside with a skimpy towel on? I ran to the window.
Malaysian tourists and their families poke their heads out through the windows too. The hotel felt as if it was under siege. We don’t know what’s happened. There’s talk a power line has exploded. That explosion was too loud. A motorbike bomb? I thought it was bigger. I thought it was a car bomb. I throw my clothes on, grab a little point and shoot camera, and run outside.
It’s around 4 pm. Plumes of smoke rise from a building in the main drag of tourist hotels and bars and karaoke joints. There’s been no warning, no electricity going down, just a loud, loud noise. Everyone is standing still, pointing at it. Everyone has been drilled. When one bomb goes off, another one will follow.
I head down a side alley to the road where there are buildings going up in flames. There’s fire, burning debris, blood and water. Residents are yelling and screaming as they stream from buildings into the street. Solders and emergency workers are running to save whoever they can. A running soldier piggybacks a crippled man out of the carnage forty meters away. Car tires are burning, and fire engines are dousing the buildings on fire. That was the 7-11, and the Holiday Hill Hotel. They are both on fire. That’s what the dust in my room was. Ash.
Soldiers are ordering the bystanders back, back “another bomb might explode!” Another yell, urgency in his plea, “Get back there could be a bomb in those bins!” A shop owner runs to check four large green bins. Emergency workers carry an old lady on a stretcher from an apartment to an ambulance. The street is choking with smoke. A teenager in hysterics is crying and repeating something over and over. She’d seen the car bomb explode opposite her apartment. She probably has perforated eardrums too.
I was running on pure adrenaline. I went back to my hotel. The karaoke bar next door is still open for business. Punters are still lining up for a drink and a song. The owner of my hotel wants to know what is happening further down. He wasn’t stupid enough to walk outside. I showed him a photo of the bonnet of a car lying in a side street. The tout is still trying to get me to ask him to bring a woman to my room. Go away.
Twenty minutes later I went back out. The main street is cordoned off. Military, border police and police are everywhere. It’s Friday. Weekends are busy with Malaysian tourists. All the 7-11’s are closed. Only a few brave food stalls are open. I follow a back street to within ten meters of where the bomb exploded. The skeleton of the car was all that remained, a front chassis, with only two wheels. There’s another big hotel, another target behind the Holiday Hill Hotel. They are in the karaoke precinct.
The 7-11 is gone. 7-11 staff are always on the front line of other people’s evil. It’s a tragedy, and only three days before the end of Ramadan. No one expected this bomb today. The last one went off in 2005. The headlines have just become real. To read about this in the papers is one thing, to experience it is another.
People on the street tell me the insurgents don’t like beer bars, or the Malaysian tourists who frequent them. They say a few Malaysians were drinking beer outside the hotel where the bomb went off. Other people are collecting pellets. The car bomb scattered metal pellets many blocks away. Then I saw tiny children’s’ slippers at the Happy Foot Massage. How can you bomb a Happy Foot massage? How can you spend hours putting a bomb together? Knowing it will turn children to minced meat? What drives people to do that?
A group of Malaysian tourists take a photo of a soldier. A man tells me one of the dead was most likely the som tum lady. “She had a stall outside the hotel that was bombed.” His hands are playing around with shrapnel he’s picked up. He’s in shock too.
I go back to my hotel. The long night begins. I’m wired. I can’t sleep. My heart is pounding. There’s been a dry taste in my mouth ever since the first ash blew in. I wonder if it’s fertilizer. The tally today is 2 dead and 40 injured. More statistics. Here in the Deep South, in the last decade more than 6000 people have died from their injuries. Their deaths seem so pointless, I’m telling friends on Twitter. They are telling me get out, now.
I look at Google maps. It is seven kilometer through jungles and villages to the border. I’ll wait till the morning. A close friend advises me to not to disclose my location, to stay where I am tonight. “Don’t communicate by telephone or anything but email. Everything is monitored,” he cautions. “You might have upset the military, and the insurgents might not be happy with you either.” He closed off with “Shut your curtains, leave the bathroom light on, and don’t sleep near the window.”
Safety precautions in an Industrial Zone. I close the curtains. Down in the street an umbrella has turned upside down. For the people living here the world has turned upside down. They can’t escape. For them, life goes on, and their spirits are hard to break. I remember the words of an Islamic street seller. “We must fight,” she said. She means continue with her life despite the constant dangers. She’s not going to let a bomb stop her from feeding her family.
Wake up. What happened? Oh, a car bomb went off. It’s seven kilometers through the jungle and the mountains to the border. It seems a sin to leave this unspoilt part of paradise. It seems even more of a sin to stick around. I had planned to stay in Betong for two weeks. The plan’s changed. “Stay another three nights,” suggests the owner of the hotel. I like Thailand, but not that much. He won’t call me a cab.
The moneychanger is open. I change my baht to ringgit. There’s a taxi. Yes, the driver will take me to the border. He says his name is Johnny. “I was in Yala when the bomb went off,” he tells me. “When I came back last night they were firing rockets at the police from a stolen minivan.” Lucky I didn’t scramble last night. The saga was still unfolding.
Those photos I posted on Twitter went viral on the newswires. If the army or the police think I’m an undercover journalist or a spy, the border is where they will pick me up. We pass villages. No military checkpoints. Everything is green, and peaceful. You wouldn’t have guessed that a bomb went off the night before. Johnny makes a call. His friend will get me to Butterworth. “I give you the honest price,” he says. He nods his head slightly, from left to right.
I’m past Thai immigration. Johnny hands over my passport. No scanning of fingers. I’m in Malaysia. Bye bye Thailand, I’m out of reach. Now there are only insurgents to think about and first the insurgents have to find me. Singh is waiting for us at the toll way. I slip Johnny a tip, and hug him. “Happy Idul Fitri!” He liked the money. He didn’t like me hugging him. .
The sun was shining. The sky was blue. Singh had a grey moustache and a car with no taxi plates. He tells me it will cost 25 ringgit to get me to the next town. “I used to be a policeman. I’m very honest.” I was still numb. I would have paid 1000 Ringgit to get as far from this border as I could. He passes me a Pall Mall. “Very good these, you can pop them and then smoke a menthol.”
He’s taking me to Butterworth. He’s suggesting Penang tours for me. I cut his spiel short. I’m heading to Butterworth to meet a friend I told him. I remembered some directions. She says the receptionist is nice. “She’s at the Veenai,” Singh says.
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 side of the 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 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 in the car.. “Don’t worry,” he said.
He knew I was nervous. I told him why. I had been to Betong and Kalok – 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 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 we head into Hat Yai, he 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 or 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.
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 3 years 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.
Was that a dildo I just saw? I’m just browsing the market and looking for a coffee. It’s too early for a dildo, I tell the young Thai boys who are selling all kinds of sex aides. The lady next door can get me Kamagra jelly. “We have orange flavour mister.” I need another coffee, I tell her.
An elderly Singaporean is sitting outside in the hotel’s cafe. He asks me what I do back home. I make up some kind of cock and bull story. It just seems an odd question in a location like Hat Yai. He says I can find myself a wife for the night. “They are young and sexy.” He hobbles back up to his room with the aid of a cane stick where I guess his rented wife is waiting.
It’s said that many of the bar girls have moved down to Danok on the border. But Hat Yai seems to have had a revival. The military and police were patrolling the night market next to the Mall. It must be one of the cushier postings in Southern Thailand. Only the really naughty officials get posted to Kalok in Narathiwat province, I’m guessing.
Then I see a young boy holding his father’s hand. The boy is wearing a military uniform. Entrenched as the deep south maybe with constant bombings and shootings, this fashion statement just pumped up the warp factor. Dildos and military uniforms. I’m just not going to bother making any connections here.
Sex aids scream at me, buy me. Dirty movie collections are on display with the latest block busters. Hat Yai is living up to her reputation. She’s not a shy girl. I walk down the street, feeling a bit self-conscious in my Malaysian track suit pants.
Two shops are gutted out, windows smashed. Inside one shop charred motorbikes, burnt magazines, and exposed wires look like some macabre museum piece. “It was a fire,” said the shopkeeper next door. He wanted to rent the place out to me. Nothing has been moved since the fire and even the broken glass from the window is in a tidy pile outside the shops. Another insurance claim I thought. You always think the worst in this part of the world.
“That little dog is this close to a slap across the face,” the fruit seller in her sixties says to another fruit seller. I was only asking if she had anything special in the fruit department. She’s well past her expiry date and she probably thought I was trying to pick her up.
Muslims hate dogs and I suspect she was a Buddhist. The other fruit seller is embarrassed at her colleague’s outburst but she isn’t defending me either.
Business is quiet down here. A lady only wants 100 baht for some chicken and rice. She’s not going to get it from me. I think I’ll stick to the Muslim corner where I get my soup. We communicate in Malay and Thai and they never double charge me.
Calling a potential customer a dog isn’t going to help the fruit sellers one bit I tell the couple down the road. Ali and his wife have had their noodle stand for twenty years. Mostly they serve Malaysians and they were embarrassed. “Probably they think you are Muslim,” said Ali. He wore a Muslim cap and a whispery beard.
The lady who serves me tee tarek has covered her face as well as her hair. I hear her Thai voice and I know she’s a real character. When I thank the woman behind the drink stand for making my drink I call her “ibu,” or auntie. She doesn’t understand. Not every Muslim here speaks Malay. The waitress with the hijab comes to the rescue. She translates my Malay to Thai. The recent insult is now just a thing of the past.
Last night at the noodle stand I met some Malaysians. “Did you hear about an Australian crew being held in custody in Sarawak for trying to interview Najib about the death of that Mongolian lady?” Yes I had. Her death is out in the open here.
Walking back a very large sign, “The Train”, has been placed on a new station building. They have done some renovations since I left here on my way to ‘bomb town,’ Betong in Yala province.
Back at the hotel a battalion of soldiers playing soccer while carrying their guns are Thai television news. “They must be vigilant against the insurgents at all times,” says the news report.
The soldiers are in one of Thailand’s southern provinces. And so am I.
I wasn’t feeling good. The gut feeling said leave. After reading news feeds on Southern Thailand, I was questioning what was I doing here. I only got a two week visa and at first, the immigration lady outrightly denied me an entry, until I told her that the last visa in my passport was from two years ago.
If she had of denied me entry, she would have been doing me a favour.
The night receptionist, camp as a row of tents, kept on wanting to get me a massage girl. I’ll think about it, I told him. He called one anyway, and after I said no, the hag of a whore demanded money for the tuk tuk ride to my hotel.
I got the panics, and slept it off. Thoughts were entering my head. Which way to go, north, no not south, back into the fry pan. But I’ve only got ten days left on my visa, and I couldn’t face Bangkok. More evil lurks up there. Who were those people outside my room? Did I speak too much to the handyman who fixed the toilet spray?
You can’t have a holiday when you are thinking that you are being watched. I was being watched. Everyone is being watched down here.
A hospital was taken hostage in one province. A rubber planter’s body was doused and burnt alive in another. Military was on high alert but I hardly saw any soldiers in Hat Yai. I did see the occasional token pick-up truck with sirens going through the market area, but I really felt the city wasn’t showing enough caution.
The next morning, I’m out of here, and that’s an order. Gotta run the gauntlet again, this time I’ll go down the highway to Danok. The hotel calls a taxi driver, and a price is agreed, but they want me to pay now. “Yes,” said the driver, “I have to give them their cut.” They could wait for their cut later, I said and told my driver he’d be paid handsomely if he got me out of Thailand safety. He has four kids he says, and I told him I’m going to off load all my Thai Baht and pay him danger money.
He was a Buddhist and he felt very strong about Southern Thailand, his birthplace. But it seemed too late, with all the violence going on around him. It was as though the curtains of Thailand were closing and another uncertain act was just about to begin.
It was a 60 kilometre ride to the border and anything could happen.
We didn’t pass one check point. That worried me. At the border, I eventually get stamped out after waiting in line for 40 minutes. It’s the school holidays in Malaysia and they were flooding back from Thailand. The Malaysians had to give five Ringgit each to get stamped out, and 10 Ringgit, if they didn’t want the officials to look at their stamps and get even quicker service. It’s a pretty lucrative job down here.
On the Malaysian side, I say goodbye to my driver. He wais me. I pay him his danger money. Here, feed your family, I said. I’ve never met such a sincere man who is trying his best against extraordinary odds. He was just like my Thai Muslim driver who drove me from the Malaysian border to Hat Yai a few days before. They both had families, and despite their religious differences, all they wanted in life was to be safe.
They were shell shocked. So was a Middle Eastern man who was denied entry into Malaysia. “You need to stay 3 nights in Thailand before you get an entry stamp. Please return back to Thailand and come back after three days.”
I say hello to a surly looking man just before I get checked into Malaysia. He looks me up and down in disgust. I guess he didn’t like my Malaysian track suit pants. His looks said, what the fuck is a white guy doing in a Muslim domain. Border towns attract the worst in humanity and I know he was having his dirty weekend at Danok. He had been sprung.
It’s now a quick jump into another taxi on the Malay side and I’m fucking over the moon. My driver, a former soldier, said that everyone knew that the Malaysians went to Danok to take drugs and fuck women. And my Thai driver told me that everyone knew that the terrorists always blended back into Malaysia on their Malay passports.
And my Malay driver said that Southern Thailand wasn’t a place he wanted to visit. “Bombs going off every day, it’s not worth it.” And this is coming from someone who has spent 23 years in the army, having served time in Bosnia in 1997 for the UN. “They aren’t Muslims who are doing the bombing,” he said. “They are just thugs who want to terrorise and kill people.”
I said I know what he means, and that I think I had met one of those thugs while being stamped into Malaysia.
Lastly, we pass a military check point and they want to see my passport. Don’t worry, guys, I tell them, I’m Australian, and not a Bangladeshi. Who says Malaysians don’t have a sense of humour. My driver now adores me.
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.
Four days in a troubled southern province does bring out the best and worst in you. It’s called survival. Industrial Zones have that hard jagged edge that any moment can go off. “We just don’t know when the next bomb will go off,” said my Thai driver.
I really know what he means.
I was a sitting duck in Danok being the only white guy. I was shitting bricks most of the time. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.
There’s always that thought, am I pushing my luck.
Mostly Chinese Malay, Malay and Indian Malay come to Danok for some good old fashioned fucking. Mixed with abundant access to ice, it’s really an orgy town. Every second building is a hotel. Markets sell I Love Danok shirts for the ladies, and I Fucked Myself Stupid for the men. And the clock tower shows Malay time with black hands, and Danok time with a red hand.
Red hand, red light. I get it.
I’m watching for random bikes, cars, and suspect objects placed in public places.
I do the mandatory walk around the town. I hit the Muslim area for some teh tarik, or milky tea. One of the Muslim guys didn’t like me chatting up the waitress. I could feel his hatred. Another young guy looked at me like a stunned mallet as I waffled on in my passable Thai. You win some and lose some, I guess.
Danok is broken up into three sections, each catering to the Malay, Chinese Malay and the Indian Malay. The bombed out building next to the Seven Eleven still remains a shell.
“Security has picked up since then,’ said Woo, a Chinese Malay I met at my hotel. ‘Before entering a club, ID’s are scanned. The traffic leading into the soi is inspected for bombs and Middle Eastern or Arabic or Malay looking people aren’t allowed into the Chinese area.’
The last two bombs that went off in two different red-light quarters was in 2014. ‘The Malay area was spared,’ said Woo.
He says Thailand wants to develop this area for the Malaysians. ‘Who wants to travel to Hat Yai when they can just go over the border?’ He says many Muslim Malays come to Danok to unwind. ‘Even they feel the pressure to be good Muslims is too strict for them. Malaysia has become more and more strict over the last 20 years.’
Woo says since the last bombing, Danok is much safer. ‘Police patrol the bars.’ I bet they do. It’s always that false sense of security, I said. Then another series of bombs go off to get that fear factor back up.
But seeing a Muslim lady selling crepes outside 7-11, smack bang between Fucky Fucky and Sucky Sucky, two two karaoke bars, was a good sign. ‘I knew I was safe then,’ I said to myself.
The crepe seller asked me what I’m doing here and why I speak Thai so well. I said I was getting dental treatment in Malaysia, and use to teach here a long time ago. ‘Be careful, many cheats in the bar area,’ she advised.
I said I’m not into that kind of thing. When I’m in Southern Thailand, I do what the Muslims do. She knew what I meant. Bombs only go off outside of bars and 7-11. We were both targets today.
The day before I was nearly stranded in no man’s land. After being stamped out of Thailand, Mr Malay Immigration sent me back to Thailand. He said to see him in 78 hours before he could stamp me back into Malaysia. I said lot can happen in three days on a border town on the Thai side. I was worried I wouldn’t be allowed back into Thailand, and being stranded in no man’s land where the duty free shops were for the next tree days didn’t seem fun either.
‘Shouldn’t be a problem,’ he said as he shooed me away like a pestering dog, ‘but if you were Indian, no chance.’
On the Thai side they said I needed to cancel my exit stamp. Technically walking to the checkout building, I was walking on Thai soil without a valid visa. With my exit visa stamp cancelled my arrival visa was activated and I was free to do what I wanted, on the Thai side – not that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do anyway. ‘No take picture,’ said the lady guarding the toilets Too late. Apparently Aliens do exist. This isn’t Roswell either.
Most hotels have their reception area in back of building and some have reinforced concrete facades to absorb any blast.
‘Just down the road is where the other 7-11 was bombed,’ says Woo who is waiting for his Laos family to come down from Vientiane. Meanwhile, two backpackers are keen to hitchhike out of Danok. They are holding a sign, ‘Free Ride to Hat Yai.’
‘Not sure if they know where they are,’ said Woo, ‘but between Danok and Hat Yai, there are lots of lonely and isolated rubber plantations.’
Woo doesn’t drink at the bars any more. Even though he feels it’s safe here, ‘you never know when your number is going to come up.’
I told him that I’ve been to every bombed out town in Southern Thailand, passing through or staying a day or so. And I’ve covered all the Thai Malay borders, bar one.
As far as border towns go, Danok is mild, I said. And so was Betong until that massive mother fucker car bomb hit it two years ago. And Kalok, it sends shivers up Woo’s spine. ‘Even I won’t get there,’ he says. He doesn’t know what he’s missing.
The massage lady is offering me her nipples, with promises of a happy ending. I get a grip and pay for her to leave after a brief suckle. Then the hallucinations come on strong. I’m watching The Hunger Games and layers of other realities and destinations enter my vision. Where am? Bali, Johor, Taiping, or Danok? I have no idea. Oh yes you do. You have been drugged. Ride that little line out that you snorted off her nipple.
Get a grip, I say. She wasn’t a ladyboy so I’m surprised with her ruse. I try and sleep it off. But I’m not thinking straight so I go downstairs and the massage girls all want group photos with me, including the one who massaged me. She’s dressed up in a different outfit, ready for a birthday. I hardly recognised her. I’m surely tripping? No you are not. I could plainly recall seeing images of myself with them on their phones. I must have been a white guy novelty.
Was it the MSG they put in my food at the restaurant next door? I’m baffled with the hallucinations. Then I get the sniffles. Oh, a cold. Don’t post my picture online, I tell the massage girls. That’s the most rational thing I can say.
Next door I can hear screaming. She’s a live wire. I’m not sure if she was one of the massage ladies. My blurry train of thought is broken by a knock on my door. It’s two hookers looking for their friend. Then a Chinese face looms larger than life in the door’s fisheye. I open it slowly. He’s very sorry to have disturbed me. ‘Next room up,’ I said, while pointing to the room where I heard the loud moans.
The next morning I gather what senses I have left. A mate wants me to visit him in Planet Bangkok. That’s a good enough excuse to leave Danok.
My Thai taxi driver says Danok is party central and a smuggling route for ice. He even knows the rate of it, right down to the gram. In Hat Yai, he drops me off at one of his ‘friendly’ hotels.
I find the next taxi driver and tell him to get me out of here. I’m in a cramped cabin of a tuk tuk with a covered back that can seat up to ten dwarfs. I bump my head on the roof every time we hit a pothole. But I’m in bliss.
It’s really nice to be able to walk around without looking for suspiciously parked cars or motorbikes. Industrial Zones require extra diligence which can be very emotionally taxing.
I have the sniffles. The chemist tells me that any sign of trouble, the police will jump onto it quickly. She also says to take some antibiotics and I’ll be on top of the world soon.
A bomb free town without trouble. I pinch myself. No I’m not dreaming.
A price is agreed with the driver.It’s a three hour journey from Songkla. Wang Prachan, the border crossing, is my goal. A little figure of a monk is perched on some auto-deodorant attached to the dashboard. Buddha is going to take care of us.
I’ve got the shits, again. It’s the healthy kind. After round two, I know it’s my nerves speaking to me.
I’ve got the itch too. I scratch my balls. They ask me if I can feel it.
‘Yes,’ I reply, ‘and I’ll get the fuck out of here now’. There will be another crap before the days out.
Songkhla is a no go zone for the Insurgents but only 50 kilometres from Hat Yai, and 100 kilometres from Pattani, both bomb zones. Songkhla is not a Muslim free zone but there’s a common understanding, don’t fuck with us on Buddhist territory or we’ll strafe you.
My driver is a veteran of Southern Thailand. When’s he’s not running people to Phuket, he’s doing runs to Kalok in Narathiwat .‘Only drive during day,’ he says. ‘Then sleep over a night and drive back in the day. At night there’s only the car headlights and then total darkness.’
We turn towards Pattani. ‘Please don’t take me there, please don’t.’ He knows I’m joking.
He tells me about the latest bombings. ‘One at airport, a few dead.’ That was seven years ago in Hat Yai. What about the recent one outside the police station that killed a 7 year old boy. Now he remembers. ‘That was last month,’ he says, as we drive through that village.
My rough idea is to hit Satun on the East coast and then go due south to a little quiet border crossing. I won’t try my luck at Danok; those massage girls have most likely sent my pictures to either intelligence or the insurgents.
A guy in camouflages passes us on his motorbike. We are in Muslim territory. ‘Are we ok?’ I ask the quiet driver. ‘Yes, and this is a good stretch of road, isn’t it.’ ‘It is,’ I say as we lose the guy again, until he rears up behind us and passes again before doing a sharp right off the highway.
We are passing mostly rubber plantations. And the road to the border is a left, and 22 kilometres away. First it’s another petrol stop and another dump. The adrenaline is still plucking away on my nerves. I tell myself there’s nothing to worry about. What else can you do in a situation like this?
The last stretch is in mountainous area. Nothing but to enjoy the views now.
At the border, no hotels, no town, only stalls selling junk.
Next leg is Malaysia. I’m stamped out on Thai side and stamped into Malaysia. ‘Very quiet,’ says the Malay officer, ‘since the ‘border day pass’ agreement between the two countries was cancelled a year ago.’
Too many dodgy people flowing through the border is a good reason to cancel the agreement, I wanted to tell him. But why state the obvious.
One car is stopped and checked. A Middle Eastern man who looks like a Middle Eastern man gives his best, ‘I’m not to be fucked with look.’ The car is waved on after a quick check.
On the Malay side, no taxis, no busses, no transport. I’m waiting for cars to go through customs. A Thai denies me a ride. A few Malays deny me a ride. I’m not a fucking terrorist, get a grip guys.
The border staff ask a Malay driver if he can take me to the next town. I’m prepared to pay. Oh yes I am. He tells me he just got out of jail. ‘I did ten years and eight months for selling drugs in Danok, Thailand.’ He said he was stitched up by a whore. A common story I said.
He was dropping his girlfriend off at the border. ‘Those Thais are so fucking gorgeous.’
‘They’ll be the end of you,’ I said.
He’s now selling duty free cigarettes that he smuggles from Langkawi. We are in a new car.
“Only took me one year to buy that.’
We past customs.
“He’s from New Zealand,’ he tells them, as they wave us along.
I’m wondering what else was he picking up or dropping off at the border. I really didn’t want to know.
I hit The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and do what normal people do, I order spaghetti, a salad, a coffee and an apple pie. And I eat it, like normal people. And it really feels great to be normal.
The itches and urge for a shit have gone.
I must be in a safe zone now.