Travel to the Deep South of Thailand in 2021

View from a mountain

View from Nam Tok Sai Khao National Park, Pattani province

Travel to the Deep South of Thailand in 2021

In 2004 the long-running conflict between the Thai government and the Muslim population flared up with the incidents at the Krue Se Mosque (Pattani province) and Tak Bai (Narathiwat Province). Since then many Western governments warn their citizens not to travel to the four southern provinces Songkhla, Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat. Almost on a daily basis, the English-language Bangkok press reports on violence in this part of Thailand.

In 2018 I decided to have a look myself to see how bad the situation is. I previously had visited Narathiwat, Pattani, and Songkhla in 1991 on a visa trip to Kota Bharu in Malaysia. In May 2018 I rented a car in Hat Yai and visited Songkhla, Pattani, Yala, Betong, Tak Bai, and Narathiwat and had a great time. Looking back, I can honestly say it was one of my best trips. After the trip, I wrote a story with the title Exploring the Deep South of Thailand.

decorated fishing boats

“Kolae” boats at Panare Beach, Pattani province

More travel in 2018 and in 2019

My second trip to the Deep South took place in October 2018. I visited a fantastic community-based project in Pattani province and spent time in Songkhla, which has become my favorite city in the region. In May 2019 my friend Koen Olie joined me on a longer trip through the Deep South. I drove and he made photographs. We visited Songkhla, Pattani, Narathiwat, Sungai Golok, Tak Bai and Yala. A month later I went on another solo trip and visited Songkhla and Satun provinces.

Colonial style building

The National Museum of Satun

My most recent trip

In early 2021 a British man contacted me, having read the story about my trip in 2018. His grandfather passed away in a relatively unknown incident in the early days of World War Two. This incident is known as the Pinyok Mine Massacre, which took place in the Pinyok and Kampong Toh tin mines in Yala province. I decided to go back and see if I could locate these mines.

I flew to Hat Yai, picked up my rental car, and drove to Yala, where I spent the first night. The day after I drove to Betong and tried to find the location of these mines, which have been closed for decades. I had some maps and documentation, such as the pre-war tour reports of British consuls, based in Singora (Songkhla). I think I came very close to the location of the Pinyok mine but failed to find any trace of the Kampong Toh mine, where the massacre took place.

I stayed two nights in Betong. From  Betong, I continued to Narathiwat where I also stayed two nights. From there I drove to Songkhla, bypassing Pattani. After three nights in Songkhla, I handed back my vehicle in Hat Yai and flew back to  Chiang Mai.

Deserted beach Deep South of Thailand

Panare Beach, Pattani province

The Muslim Insurgency

All my trips have been uneventful. I didn’t witness any violence nor did I see burnt-out vehicles, bomb damage, or anything else out of the ordinary. I visited districts such as Bacho and Raman (Narathiwat) as well as Rueso (Raman) where violence takes place regularly. There are many military checkpoints though but most were unmanned.

When there were soldiers at a checkpoint that gave me a quick look and waved me on. Along the way, I met many local people, who were in general very welcoming, friendly, and also surprised: they see very few foreigners in the Deep South. From my departure from Hat Yai until my arrival in Songkhla I didn’t meet a single western person.

Group of muslim schoolchildren

School kids at the Pajo Falls

Deep South Watch

Nevertheless, there is violence taking place. The best source is the Deep South Watch, an institute based at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. It monitors all the incidents in the four southern provinces. It is not always clear who is responsible for acts of violent acts such as bombings and shootings. Journalist Paul Chambers is a good source of information on the complex situation in the Deep South. He wrote many articles about the situation in the four southern provinces.

white Chinese building Deep South of Thailand

The National Museum in Songkhla

A suggested itinerary to the Deep South

Based on my experience, I can suggest an itinerary if you want to travel to the Deep South of Thailand. This area never attracted many tourists and probably never will but for travelers with an interest in history, culture, and love of beautiful scenery there is a lot to enjoy though. The region offers a fascinating mix of Thai, Muslim and Chinese influences. There are a number of superb national parks and fine beaches as well. You can minimize the risk of getting involved in the conflict by sticking to the main roads, avoiding certain areas, and using your common sense. This is how your itinerary could look like:

Plate with food

Local food in Narathiwat

Day 1: Hat Yai

There are a large number of car rental companies at Hat Yai airport. I used a couple of different ones such as Avis, Budget, and Sixt. I have had no problems. The Toyota Vios was my vehicle during most of my trips. I recommend spending the first night at Hat Yai. On earlier trips, I stayed at the Aloha Hotel, near the railway station. This hotel is closed now but there are plenty of other hotels in that area.

There are a number of interesting sights in this large city such as the Phra Maha Chedi Tripob Trimongkol Temple. It is on a small mountain and its chedi is constructed of stainless steel. I have not tried out the recently opened cable car which looks like an interesting option. Within walking distance of the railway station, there are many restaurants, markets, and department stores.

Colorful houses in Hat Yai

Old houses in Hat Yai

Day 2: Hat Yai – Yala – Betong (263km)

This is a long day so I would leave early. I would bypass Yala, the capital of the province with the same name. On my last trip, I spent the night there but it was not really worth it. I didn’t find anything worth visiting. So I recommend skipping Yala and heading straight for Betong. You can break the drive at the Bang Lang National Park and visit the Than To Waterfall. In the village Than To there are a couple of small restaurants that offer good local food. Don’t worry: there are plenty of 7-11’s along the way. A popular stop on the way to Betong is a bridge that crosses the Bang Lang Lake, which was created by the construction of the Bang Lang Dam.

Lake with forests

Bang Lang Lake on the way to Betong

The Betong Skywalk

Approximately 40kms before Betong you can observe the recently constructed Betong Skywalk in the far distance. Local authorities constructed this enormous view tower mainly for local tourists who want to observe the “Sea of Clouds”. This is a popular activity for Thai tourists. You should be there around sunrise to fully enjoy the experience, so they say.

I prefer natural viewpoints and hikes in the forest instead of a contrived attraction like this skywalk so I didn’t bother to go there. There are two smaller roads leading from the main road to the Skywalk, one 7km, and one 10km. During my visit, I stayed in the Betong Merlin Hotel, nothing special but within walking distance of the market, museum, and restaurants.

Muslim lady in a restaurant

Restaurant in Than To

Day 3: Betong

Betong’s claim to fame is the tallest postbox in the world. I took my breakfast, consisting of coffee and patongko (fried breadstick) at the morning market. After breakfast, I visited the Betong Museum, which is on a hill overlooking the town. It has some interesting exhibits but there is not much explanation in English. From the top floor of the museum, you have a very nice view of Betong, which is not a particularly pretty town. The mountainous surroundings are nice. Betong has a mild and pleasant climate which attracts many local tourists from Hat Yai. I visited the temple with the largest bronze Buddha statue in the country and the Chinese pagoda.

Piyamit Tunnel

In the afternoon I did the loop to the Piyamit Tunnel, the flower garden, and Hot Springs. The Piyamit Tunnel was the jungle hideout of the Communist Party of Malaya from which they fought the Japanese during World War Two, then the British, and then their own government and that of Thailand. It is a very worthwhile visit. The Winter Flower Garden and the Hot Springs I found less interesting but they are on the same loop so you might as well drop by.

Illuminated tunnel

The Piyamit Tunnel near Betong

Day 4: Betong – Narathiwat (196km)

The drive from Betong to Narathiwat took about four hours. I took an early lunch in Than To and continued to Narathiwat. Before I reached Narathiwat I decided to visit Tak Bai. On my other trips, I had missed the Wat Chon Tara Singh, wherein in 1909 the Anglo-Siam treaty was signed. This treaty demarcated the current border between Thailand and Malaysia (then British Malaya). Tak Bai is about 40km from Narathiwat so that added 80km to the total distance of this day.

Wat Chon Tara Singh

Wat Chon Tara Singh is a large complex with lots of structures. The temple grounds are not very well maintained although there were monks present and other people. The temple is located on the water but not right on the sea. Most interesting for me was the small museum which is dedicated to the Anglo-Siam treaty but there were other beautiful buildings of interest. From the temple, it is only about 7km to the Thai-Malaysian border, here formed by the Golok River. There is a lively market on the riverside and you can have a look at Malaysia. In Narathiwat, I spent the night at the Tanyong Hotel.

Two men sign documents

Devawongse Varopakarn and Sir Ralph Paget signed the Anglo-Siamese Treaty in 1929, Wat Chon Thara Singh at Tak Bai

Day 5: Narathiwat

Narathiwat is worth staying two nights. It is a very pleasant small town with interesting markets and several national parks nearby. In the morning I visited the Budo Su Ngai Padi National Park in Bacho district which is about 30km from Narathiwat. I took road no 4136 that follows the coastline and turned right after Narathiwat airport on road no 4155. The main attraction of this national park is the Pajo Waterfall. Kings Rama VII (Prajadhipok) and Rama IX (Bhumibol) visited this park and left their Royal Cyphers on a boulder at the base of the falls.

Rock with emblem with waterfall

The Royal Cypher of Rama IX at the Pajo Waterfall, Narathiwat

Much more than visiting the falls you can’t do. I followed a nature trail for a while but was afraid to lose the way. It was enough to get an impression of the dense jungle, which is closer to the rainforest than any other forest I have visited in Thailand. After a short walk, I sweated profusely as it was steaming and humid. Not far from the park is the 300-year old Wadil Husen Mosque, which is worth a brief stop. Before I drove back to Narathiwat I took lunch at a small restaurant at a gas station.

Coastal protected area

In the afternoon I drove to Ao Manao-Khao Tanyong National Park which is a coastal protected area. There were lots of park rangers involved in first aid training and several school groups. Teachers take their pupils on outdoor classes to this park. The beach is decent and you can walk to a viewpoint on a small hill. I wanted to come back the next morning for sunrise but the weather didn’t allow that. I could have spent more time visiting this park.

Beach with rocks deep south of Thailand

Ao Manao-Khao Tanyong National Park

Day 6: Narathiwat – Songkhla (198km)

I took some backroads on this day but I don’t recommend doing that. I lost the way a bit, even with Google maps. Better stick to the main road no 42. You can do two things on this day: drive straight to Songkhla with a stop at the Krue Se Mosque or drive to Pattani with a stop at the Krue Se Mosque and visit some sights in that city, such as the Pattani Central Mosque and the Chinese Chao Mae Lim Ko Niao Shrine and then continue to Songkhla. To arrive earlier in Songkhla is not a problem at all. There is so much to do and see in what is my favorite city in the Deep South of Thailand.

The Krue Se Mosque

The Krue Se Mosque is right on the main road no 41. You can’t miss it. It is a remarkable structure. It is unclear when the construction took place and there might have been several structures at this location. The mosque made the headlines in 2004 when a battle took place here between Muslim insurgents and the Thai army. The mosque has become a kind of symbol of the fight for independence or more self-rule of the Islamic minority in the Deep South of Thailand.

Brick building in the rain

Krue Se Mosque in 2021

Day 7: Songkhla

Songkhla is my favorite city in the Deep South of Thailand. It has a long and interesting history. Before the advent of Hat Yai, the city of Songkhla was the most important and prosperous city of this region. There used to be a commercial airport at Songkhla and a railway line that connected it to Bangkok. There are many interesting sights and activities in Songkhla and its environs. You can easily spend two full days exploring these. If you have only one day I suggest visiting the old town and the Khao Tang Kuan or Tang Kuan Hill.

White temple tower with tree

Royal Pagoda on Tang Kuan Hill

Lots of activities in Songkhla

The National Museum, housed in a beautiful Chinese-style building, gives great information about the history of Songkhla or Singora, as it was called in the past. It is possible to take a boat trip on the large Songkhla Lake. The best time would be early in the morning or late in the afternoon. These activities would fill most of your day. If you have more time the fortresses of Singora are worth a visit as well as the island of Koh Yor. I will write blogs about some of the activities and attractions of Songkhla at a later date.

I stayed in Songkhla six times since May 2018. The Singora, which is close to Tang Kuang Hill and Samila Beach, is my preferred hotel. For my breakfast, I always go to Mr.Lee Coffee, which is located on the port of Songkhla.

View of city and sea from a mountain the deep south of Thailand

View of Songkhla and Samila Beach from Tang Kuan Hill

Day 8: Songkhla – Hat Yai (31km)

On this day I drove back to Hat Yai to hand in my rental car. How much time you have this morning depends of course on the time of your flight.

A few last words

I thoroughly enjoyed all my trips to the Deep South of Thailand. It is a lovely, beautiful and very interesting part of the country. Unfortunately, the public image of the region is not good. Many people I know are terrified to come here. Stories about shootings, bombings, murders, and ambushes dominate the news headlines. Articles from experts and scholars focus only on the Muslim insurgency as if this is the only thing happening in these four provinces. I was surprised to find so little evidence of all the mayhem that is reported in newspapers. This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe bad things are happening but they are not visible to the casual visiting tourist in a rental car.

Smiling lady in a shop The Deep South of Thailand

Owner of the Kob Kub Shop in Songkhla

A couple of tips

I have researched the above itinerary which I think is as safe as it can be in this region. I have a couple of tips for those who want to travel to this area:

  • Stick to the main roads and follow the beaten path
  • Pass through checkpoints as quickly as possible and don’t take photographs of them
  • Rise and sleep early

I am a very early riser so I don’t know much about the nightlife in the Deep South of Thailand. I get up every day not later than 0500 so I usually don’t leave the hotel after 2100. This is my personal preference but I can recommend it. I am already looking forward to my next visit to the Deep South of Thailand!

Illuminated clocktower Deep South of Thailand

The clocktower of Betong after sunset

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