Exploring the Deep South of Thailand
Having lived in Chiang Mai already for more than 20 years, I do not often travel to South Thailand. If I do, I usually don’t go further south than Nakhon Si Thammarat. I had visited the four Southern provinces Yala, Songkhla, Narathiwat and Pattani provinces for the last time in 1991. Since the flare-up of the Southern Insurgency in 2004, these provinces are off-limits to tourists.
According to government data, from 2004 until the end of 2012 this conflict had resulted in at least 3,380 deaths, including 2,316 civilians, 372 troops, 278 police, 250 suspected insurgents, 157 education officials, and seven Buddhist monks. For many years governments have travel warnings for the “Deep South” of Thailand. Most of these warnings are still in place.
First trip to Songkhla
I traveled to Songkhla in April this year and had a good time there. After that trip, I did some research online to find out more about the current situation in the South of Thailand. The Thai newspaper The Nation reported on December 28, 2017, that the death toll in Thailand’s Southern conflict hit a record low since the conflict began 13 years ago.
A file picture of a burnt-out bus didn’t instil much confidence though. A Wikipedia article about the South Thailand insurgency gives the number of fatalities per year starting in 2004 with 625 going down to 44 and 3 in 2017 and 2018 respectively. I also found articles that were less optimistic about the situation, such as an article in The Diplomat, which spoke of the “slow-burning insurgency” in Thailand’s Deep South.
Travel advisories of Western countries
I looked at the websites of the governments of the UK, the US, Australia and of my own country, the Netherlands. There are dire warnings on the Dutch and Australian websites mentioning ever-increasing violence and deaths and injuries occurring almost daily*. Other websites are milder such as the UK government’s site. Its website warns against all but essential travel in the provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat, and the southern part of Songkhla province.
The Dutch and Australian government include the entire province of Songkhla and warn against all travel. The US does not single out the Deep South but instead shows the same level of security across the whole country: “Exercise Normal Precautions – Contains Areas with Higher Security Risk”. It tells its citizens to “reconsider” travel to Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat, and Songkhla provinces due to civil unrest. There is no mention of increasing violence and daily deaths and injuries on the UK and US websites. Below are the maps of Thailand that appear on these websites:
As I wrote earlier, I visited Songkhla on a short holiday in April. This city was a delightful surprise. I had been there in 1991 but couldn’t remember very much. There were plenty of local tourists around. Songkhla certainly has developed into a trendy destination for domestic tourists. The old town has been “gentrified”. Many old shophouses have been restored, and quite a few walls are adorned with wall paintings, depicting scenes from the past, to form a background for selfies. On Friday and Saturday, there is a fantastic ‘Walking Street’ next to the old city wall similar to the ones in Chiang Mai and Lampang.
The decision to travel again
The city is thriving, and there is a very positive atmosphere. During my stay in Songkhla and nearby Hat Yai, I didn’t see any checkpoints or military presence. Back in Chiang Mai, I decided to go on a tour of the “troubled” Deep South to check out the security situation in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces firsthand. I couldn’t control my curiosity, booked a direct flight from Chiang Mai to Hat Yai, and reserved a rental car for a 10-day trip.
*On May 3 the Dutch government changed its travel advisory on South Thailand slightly after I had notified them that the information on their website regarding the increasing violence and almost daily occurrence of injuries and fatalities were not correct. I gave them links to the same articles on the sites of the Nation and of Wikipedia I cited above. They took out the sentences mentioning the increasing violence and the almost daily deaths and injuries in South Thailand. The map is still the same. They now indicate that the warning against all travel applies specifically to the districts Chana, Nathawi, Thepha, and Sabayoi.
Day 1, Friday, May 4, 2018
After I arrived at Hat Yai airport, I picked up my car at the Avis office and headed for Songkhla, where I checked into the Singora Hotel, where I had stayed in April. This very affordable and pleasant hotel is within walking distance of the beach of Songkhla. It is also close to the Old Town and the Walking Street. By the time I arrived, it already was getting dark. Before having dinner, I checked out the Walking Street, which was a real pleasure. This evening market takes place every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from about 1700 until 2200, next to the old City Wall. There is lots of food, snacks, clothes and other stuff for sale. Not to be missed.
Close to the Singora Hotel, several bars and cafés cater to the small “farang” community. Songkhla has some offshore fossil fuel industry in which foreigners work. Most of the foreigners who are living in Songkhla work or once worked in this offshore industry. I saw very few Western tourists in Songkhla.
Day 2, Saturday, May 5, 2018
The name Songkhla seems to be the Thai corruption of Singora which means “the city of lions” in Malay. It refers to a lion-shaped mountain near the city of Songkhla. The history of the city goes back to the 10th century. Singora was a sultanate that was founded in the early 17th century. This Sultanate paid tribute to the ruler of the Siamese kingdom Ayutthaya. Relations between Singora and Ayutthaya became strained though. Singora declared its independence which resulted in conflict and eventually in the destruction of the city by the Siamese in 1680.
Glory days of Singora
During its glory days, Singora was an important trading port. Japanese, Dutch and Portuguese vessels frequently visited the port. Singora was located opposite the current city, on the southern tip of the Sathing Phra peninsula, on and around the foothills of Khao Daeng Mountain. There are remains of city walls and fortresses on and around Khao Daeng Mountain that are worth visiting. There is a stairway leading to a viewpoint with two old chedis (temple towers). Along the way, you pass the ruins of several fortresses. It’s a great hike.
Although the original settlement Singora was destroyed the current city Songkhla was also known as Singora or Sengora at least until the Second World War. The Singora airport was a vital hub on the route from Bangkok to Batavia. Until World War Two there was a British consulate in Singora. That the name Songkhla or Songkhlar was already in use in 1926 is clear from this article in the Bangkok Daily Mail of September 26, 1926.
On the morning of my first day, I walked up Tangkuan Hill, which is in the center of the city. On top of the hill, I found myself in the company of a large colony of macaque monkeys. There were no other people. Getting up early certainly has its rewards. The monkeys are only out in full force around sunrise and sunset when there are few people around. I enjoyed the view of the city awakening. Sunrise is the most beautiful time of the day.
I spent the day visiting places I had missed out on during my first visit in April. The Songkhla Museum is a beautifully restored Chinese-style building and is worth visiting.
The building, housing the museum, was built in 1878. It was the residence of the ruler of Songkhla. It was registered as a national monument in 1973 and opened as a national museum nine years later. The Insight Guide of 1980 mentions “the spic and span recently renovated Old Governor’s Palace…”
Ivo Hoornstra made these pictures in 1998. Thanks, Ivo! The building doesn’t look exactly spic and span. Now it does. The museum now has exhibitions about the history of Singora and Songkhla.
Wat Matchimawat is the most famous temple in the old town of Songkhla. It’s also known as Wat Klang. It has a small but interesting museum with some old pictures.
In the afternoon, I passed by Songkhla airport and the abandoned railway station. The airport still seems to be in use although there are no regular flights anymore to Songkhla. The railway station was closed in 1978. Over time the now much larger city of Hat Yai has replaced Songkhla as the transportation hub of the South. The port of Songkhla still seems to be in use as a fishing harbour.
Day 3, Sunday, May 6, 2018
Songkhla – Narathiwat
There is nothing better to start the day than a walk on the beach. Quite a few people were out exercising at this early hour. I went to Samila Beach and made a picture of one of Songkhla’s landmarks, the Golden Mermaid statue.
My destination today was Pattani, the capital of the province of the same name. Pattani is only about 100 km from Songkhla. After breakfast, I took off in good spirits and with high expectations. I certainly was going to come back to Songkhla, which by now had become one of my favorite cities in Thailand. There were still many places I had not visited yet in and around the city. In the morning I followed an excellent road that took me past some fantastic beaches such as this one:
I thoroughly enjoyed the drive with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers taking care of the soundtrack. I had brought a lot of music with me: life was good. Entering Pattani, I had to pass several checkpoints with heavily armed soldiers and, occasionally, armored cars. It was the first reminder that I was in an area that is considered unstable.
Having arrived in Pattani, I first visited the Central Mosque, one of the largest and most beautiful mosques in Thailand. The construction of the mosque started in 1954 and ended in 1963. This mosque is the most important in South Thailand. The design was inspired by the design of the Taj Mahal in India. It has a central dome surrounded by four smaller ones and four minarets. Initially, there were only two minarets as can be seen on this old picture from the website www.deepsouthwatch.org.
After the Central Mosque, I drove to the Chao Mae Lim Ko Niao Shrine. This Chinese-style shrine is dedicated to a local Chinese heroine, Chao Mae Lim Ko Niao. The shrine houses a wooden statue of the goddess and sculptures of other Chinese religious figures.
In and around Pattani, I passed quite a few military checkpoints. Some of these were just unmanned roadblocks. At others, I had to stop and show my face. Police never asked for any identification. I decided to continue today to Narathiwat as it was still early. This town is another 100 km south of Pattani. I went to look for the ruins of the ancient city of Yarang, which is about 15-20 km from Pattani. I had found some information about this place which was the capital of an ancient kingdom called Langkasuka. After some driving around I found a couple of ruins. There are quite a few ruins spread out over a large area, but they are quite hard to find.
I drove back to the main road and had lunch at the Krue Se Mosque, which was the scene of a battle between insurgents and security forces on April 28, 2004. Thai army forces surrounded the mosque where 32 Malay Muslim separatists were hiding who had been involved in attacks on police stations and checkpoints earlier that day. The soldiers stormed the mosque and killed all of them. Three soldiers died in the fighting. The mosque still very much is a symbol of the resistance against Thai governance. There was a significant military presence near the old mosque.
Drive to Narathiwat
Over lunch, I looked at my map and opted for a beautiful and scenic road that would take me along the coast to Narathiwat. It was a tranquil road that took me to the beach. I noticed a bit of a hedge that looked purposely left on the road. Because of this I slowed down and found out to my surprise that the road had been washed away. It was a bit of a scary moment worth taking some pictures of. I turned around and decided to stick to the main road to Narathiwat, where I arrived just before dark. There I checked into the Tanyong Hotel, which was nothing special but good enough for me.
Day 4, Monday, May 7, 2018
Narathiwat – Pattani
A morning walk took me to the market where two soldiers guarded the entrance. I found the Narathiwat Hotel, where I had stayed in 1991. Narathiwat is still a tranquil and pleasant town.
I checked out the beach of Narathiwat and drove to Tak Bai, which was the scene of the infamous Tak Bai incident in which 78 men died in 2004. Tak Bai didn’t have much to offer of interest to me, so I decided to return to Pattani and spend the night there. I slowly made my way back to Pattani, stopping at Bacho, where a 300-year old mosque is the main attraction. This mosque is known as the Al-Hussein or Talo Mano Mosque. It was built in 1634, which makes it the oldest wooden mosque in Thailand. Wedges were used to hold the wood into place because nails were not invented at that time. It is a beautiful building.
At this mosque, I met a group of Indonesian exchange students from Riau, Sumatra. They were visiting the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. I took a picture with Alifa from Riau.
Another attraction of Bacho is a waterfall in the Budo Sungai Padi National Park. This park is part of the Sankala Khiri Mountain Range that serves as a natural border between Thailand and Malaysia.
Very few Western tourists visit this area. The staff of the park insisted on having a picture taken with me while they handed a brochure of the park over to me. It was touching. What a great day!
I continued my drive to Pattani. After arrival, I found a charming hotel on the Pattani River, called the River Living Place hotel. I checked in and started exploring the city.
The provinces Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat once formed an independent entity called the Kingdom of Patani (with one T). Patani is the Malay name. Over the centuries, the relation of this Kingdom with successive Siamese Kingdoms was in flux. For periods Pattani was a tributary state, and at times it was an integral part of Siam. Finally, the kingdom became a part of Siam at the beginning of the 20th century.
It was always an important port of the region. Chinese dominated the trade, and the port was regarded as the stepping stone to China. The Dutch and English East India companies established trading houses in Pattani, but there were also merchants from Portugal, Malaysia and other countries frequently visiting the port. It still is a busy port, albeit mainly a fishing port.
Day 5 Tuesday, May 8, 2018
Pattani – Betong
I love sunrises, and this one was spectacular!
After the sunrise, I explored the Tetwiwat morning market, which was delightful. I spotted two samlors parked at the market that look quite different from the ones in Chiang Mai. The samlor (literally “three wheels” in Thai) is the traditional bicycle taxi. I didn’t see many other samlors in Pattani.
I bought my first lychees of the season. There was no sight of any tourists, something I got used to by now.
Near the market, there are some pretty old houses. Pattani is a place I will go back to. There is so much to explore, and it has such a fascinating history.
My next destination was Betong, a place I had never been. It is the southernmost town in Thailand. I expected to find a remote border town with a typical frontier atmosphere. Betong and environs had been for decades the base of the Communist Party of Malaya from which it fought its government. I drove to Yala, where I had stayed overnight in 1991. The only thing I could remember about Yala was that the Lonely Planet Guidebook mentioned it as one of the cleanest cities in Thailand. I decided to bypass Yala and drive straight to Betong.
I had to pass through several military checkpoints and noticed heavily armed soldiers in black uniforms patrolling on both sides of the road on the way from Pattani to Yala. These are special forces of the Thai army. From Yala to Betong, it’s about 130 km, and I expected a quiet and mountainous road. For me, it was uncharted territory. I had a lovely meal in Yala before I took off.
The drive was very comfortable and beautiful. There was good coffee along the way, and the road was very, very good. I stopped at the Thanto Waterfall located in Bang Lang National Park. Also, here the staff insisted on taking a picture with me. Also today I didn’t see one Western face.
The Bang Lang National Park looks incredibly attractive. The forests in the South are much wetter, more lush and humid than the forests in North Thailand. I only walked up the first step of the Thanto Waterfall, and I was already sweating profusely. I was not prepared for a jungle hike and still had some distance to go to Betong. Therefore I decided to continue my drive and reserve my jungle exploration for a future trip. I certainly will come back and hike up to the top of the waterfall. At around 1600, I arrived in Betong.
I decided to drive to the Malaysian border first, which is only about 6 km from Betong. Most border crossings in Southeast Asia are bustling affairs with people of all walks of life coming and going and interesting markets. Not this one. It was tranquil. In Betong I checked into the Merlin Hotel, which is located in the middle of Karaoke and girlie bars, catering to tourists from Malaysia. I checked out the market and familiarized myself with the layout of the town. Then I enjoyed a simple Southern Thai meal and devoted myself to my daily Facebook post and organizing the photos I took today.
Day 6 Wednesday, May 9, 2018
I had decided to stay in Betong for two nights to explore the surroundings of the town. From my hotel window, I had a good view of Betong in the dense morning fog. The town is only 269 meters above sea level, but the climate is quite different from the lowlands. The area around Betong is heavily forested and stunning.
After the usual early rise, I headed for the local market. My breakfast consisted of local coffee and “patongko” which I found is translated as “fried breadstick” or “Chinese doughnut”…During my stay in Betong, I didn’t see any Western tourists at all. I was the only farang. I noticed several Malaysian visitors though and also some Thai tourists later in the day.
After breakfast, I took off for my exploration of the Betong surroundings. My first stop was at the Betong Hot Springs. I had a coffee there and took a couple of pictures. Hot Springs is a swimming pool with warm water. It’s nice for a short stopover and a drink.
The next stop was the Piyamit Tunnels which is probably the most popular tourist attraction of Betong. This tunnel complex is in the middle of the jungle. Soldiers of the army of the Communist Party of Malaya constructed it. They fought a guerilla war against the government of Malaysia. Due to lack of food, they saw themselves forced to cross the border to Thailand. In those days Bangkok’s authority was weak in remote areas of the kingdom. Supposedly this complex was constructed in the 1970s as a shelter against air raids and to store supplies. The Communist Party of Malaya signed a peace agreement with the Thai and Malaysian governments in 1989. The complex has been preserved and restored as a tourist attraction. There is a restaurant, and there are souvenir shops.
I made a short video of the tunnel:
There is a fascinating museum with lots of pictures, weaponry, and other exhibits about the history of the Piyamit Tunnels. After the tunnels, I visited the Betong Winter Flower Garden, which was not that interesting.
After the Winter Flower Garden, I went to the construction site of the Betong Airport. Staff at the Merlin Hotel told me that the airport would not open before 2020. I still have some time to revisit this area in all tranquillity. I will be back because Betong is a fascinating place. Before we leave Betong, I have to share a picture of the town’s claim to fame, which is the tallest postbox in the world.
Heavy rain in the afternoon prevented me from further exploration. I was planning to visit at least one of the villages that were established to house the veteran fighters of the Malayan Communist Party. That will have to wait until my next trip. I can’t wait.
Day 7, Thursday, May 10, 2018
Betong – Hat Yai
I had been planning to go back to Pattani to do some further exploration, but I found out that there is another tunnel system close to the Thai – Malaysian Border. This complex is called Khao Nam Khang Tunnel, in the Khao Nam Khang National Park. I prepared myself for a long drive. It was a beautiful day and there was little traffic on the road. I followed the road back to Yala but took the turnoff to Yaha district and onwards to Khao Nam Khang National Park. Along the way I passed a beautiful cave with Buddha statues.
From this temple, I continued on quiet, secondary roads with occasionally stunning views. I passed villages where I stopped to say hello to the local people and met this group of schoolchildren.
Khao Nam Khang Tunnels
At around 1400, I arrived at the Khao Nam Khang National Park. It was easy to find the tunnels. I paid my entrance fee and entered the complex. There were only a few other local tourists, and it was a delight to be there. It is not unlike Piyamit Tunnels but a bit less polished, I would say. I made a short video that is also a bit similar to the Piyamit one.
The surroundings of this complex is a real jungle, and everything is just less developed than Piyamit, which has a restaurant and souvenir shops. Khao Nam Khang gets fewer visitors than Piyamit because it is a bit out of the way. Still, it is only about 70 km from Hat Yai. I enjoyed my visit to Khao Nam Khang Tunnel, and it has sparked my interest in the history of these complexes and of the struggle of the Communist Party of Malaya.
I labeled these tunnel complexes the “Cu Chi Tunnels” of Thailand. They are certainly as exciting and very much worth visiting. After having spent a couple of hours at the tunnels, it was time to continue to Hat Yai. It is the largest city in Songkhla province. I checked into the Aloha Hotel, which was the right choice. Hat Yai is the business center of South Thailand while Songkhla is the cultural center.
Friday, Day 8, May 11, 2018
Hat Yai – Songkhla
I decided one night was enough in Hat Yai. I like Songkhla so much more, and I had some unfinished business there: I had yet not been able to find the cemetery of the Dutch merchants, dating back to the 17th century. On my customary early morning walks, I shot some pictures of the area around the railway station. I love morning markets!
Near the Railway station, there are several old houses with nicely painted facades.
The no.1 attraction of Hat Yai is Phra Maha Chedi Tripob Trimongkol, a chedi constructed of iron. It is a bit out of town located on a small hill behind the university. It is worth visiting.
Back to Songkhla
I drove to Songkhla, where I checked into the Singora Hotel again. I enjoyed my lunch and went out to find the cemetery of the Dutch merchants, dating back from the 17th century. It is on the compound of the PTT, a Thai state-owned oil and gas company. I had to ask a couple of people before I found it. They gave me a visitor badge. An employee escorted me to the cemetery where there is not much to see. The coffins are underground and are only visible by using the ground-penetrating radar technique.
After this, I decided the climb up Khao Daeng again, the mountain where the remains of the old fortresses of Singora are. I had been up there before. It was still hot, and the steps leading up to the two chedis on the top of the hill are somewhat uneven, which makes going up quite tricky. On top of Khao Daeng, I shot this picture of one of them.
Saturday, Day 9, May 12, 2018
On the last day in Songkhla, I went up to Khao Daeng again for sunrise. The sunrise was a bit disappointing. It was my third time on this mountain. Every time three dogs accompanied me to the top.
In the afternoon, I visited the Folklore Museum, which is worth visiting. The museum is on Koh Yor, the island that is connected with the mainland by the Tinsulanonda Bridge. This is the longest concrete bridge in Thailand, named after Prem Tinsulanonda, former Prime Minister of Thailand. Prem was born in Songkhla. It was my last day in the Deep South. I will certainly be back.
I had a fantastic trip in South Thailand and enjoyed every minute of it. It was extraordinary to be the only Western visitor at most places I went. The travel warnings are very effective and scare most tourists away. Apart from in Songkhla and Hat Yai I hardly met any tourists apart from local ones. The people of the South made me feel very welcome. It was heartwarming.
The roads were, in general, in good condition apart from the road that was no more. I saw beautiful places, drove through magnificent landscapes, ate delicious food, and met lovely people. I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe. During my trip, I passed through many military checkpoints without any problem. The checkpoints look a bit grimmer than they do in the North of Thailand. In South Thailand, the soldiers are heavily armed, and often there are armored cars parked close to the checkpoint.
Make up your own mind
My report is not a travel advisory. I tried to be as objective as possible but am not unbiased. I dearly love Thailand and the Thai people. It is my second homeland. If you are the adventurous and curious kind, give the Deep South a try. Many people would be uncomfortable with passing through checkpoints and seeing the military out in force on their holiday though. Is there any real danger? Hard to tell. The Deep South has had severe issues regarding security, and the current period of relative peacefulness might end. The underlying problems have not been solved.
Planning the next trip
The attacks and the violence in South Thailand were always aimed at government officials and offices, never at tourists. Lots of civilians became unintended victims, though. For tourists, that risk is also still there, but the violence is different than the terrorist attacks that occurred in major European cities over the past few years. Some of the travel advisories I read before I went on my trip make no sense, having been written by people who have never been in the area. I can’t believe that there are travel warnings against all travel to the cities of Songkhla and Hat Yai, for instance. Anyway, I am already planning my next trip to South Thailand which will take place in November.
Frans Betgem, Chiang Mai, 2018