Heading south and east from Surat Thani brought us into a very different part of Thailand to that which we were used to, and a steady increase in sightings of mosques, hijabs, goats and the occasional use of Arabic script heralded our entry into Pattani, one of the three southernmost and predominantly Muslim provinces which form an area known by some as the ‘Red Zone’.
As we crossed the province border the Thailand we had become accustomed to ended and it felt like we were in a completely different country. Obviously with our somewhat unusual mode of transport even in places that are used to lots of tourists we still cause a bit of a stir, but in Pattani, and the following day in Narathiwat province, there was an intensity behind the ready smiles that made us feel like it wasn’t just the bike that was an oddity. Given that the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) advises against all but essential travel in this region we guess they probably don’t see too many westerners. Our arrival in a cafe one lunchtime was greeted by a chorus of giggles from a group of teenage girls (and many of the waitresses), and frequently men on motorbikes would ride alongside quizzing us at far greater length than anywhere else in Thailand (where there are usually so many farangs that the locals are long past caring where you are from and where you are going). We also found that our mobile phones no longer worked and Tesco Lotus had disappeared from the landscape (although the ubiquitous Seven Elevens were still a reassuring presence).
Historically, the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were part of the Sultanate of Pattani (along with much of the northern part of what is now Malaysia). In 1785 the Sultanate fell under the control of Siam (now Thailand) and later on, in 1909, the British (who were the colonial power in the Malay peninsula from 1874 – 1946) decided they wanted to extend their hold north and take the southern Thailand provinces for their own. An agreement was signed with the King of Thailand giving Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat to the Thais who in return gave Kelantan (northern peninsular Malaysia) to the British. Needless to say no-one asked the residents of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat what they thought. Separatist unrest has rumbled away for decades but the level of violence has escalated significantly since 2004 with bombings, shootings and grenade attacks a depressingly regular occurrence.
Given the FCO’s advice you may ask why on earth we went there. Fair point. As we travelled through Thailand we quizzed any Thais, expats and other cyclists who we thought might have up-to-date knowledge of the situation, and the feeling we got was that as tourists passing through we would be unlikely targets for anyone wishing to further their cause. In addition we’re not using public transport nor staying in up-market hotels, which are sometimes bomb targets. The general opinion was that if we stuck to the coastal route we’d be fine; an opinion which has been backed up by our experience and corroborated by a conversation with a local man who chatted to us in Narathiwat province and told us it wasn’t dangerous so long as we avoided the mountain villages where shootings are more frequent. Keith said it reminded him of growing up in Northern Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s. Life goes on as normal for the most part and the razor wire, police or army checkpoints and the occasional armoured personnel carrier just become part of the scenery.
We have no regrets about going to the Red Zone but other travellers should do their own research and make their own decisions about whether they feel comfortable going there. For us, we think it’s good to get away from the tourist areas and see a bit of the real world from time to time.
It only took three days to pass through Pattani and Narathiwat and we crossed into Malaysia at the Tak Bai border point – a crossing that’s not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet but which definitely exists. We were stamped out of Thailand, took a six or seven minute river crossing by ferry and were stamped into Malaysia with minimum fuss. We’re currently in Kota Bharu, a conservative Islamic city on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. Most banks, shops and government offices close on Friday and Saturday, but an unexpected bonus is that everywhere is open on a Sunday so we were able to get started with our application for another Thai visa a day earlier than we expected. So far Malaysia feels a bit like Pattani and Narathiwat but with a Latin alphabet and British 3-pin plug sockets, and without the armed guards at every corner.
So, for now, it’s goodbye Thailand. We’ll finish this post a few random pics from the last few weeks: