6 September 2007 – 8 October 2007
‘If you don’t go when you wanna go, when you do go you’ll find you’re gone.’
—Bert, The Worlds Fastest Indian
On the sketchy road to Bangkok
I arrived in Singapore a little worse for wear, though after the chaos of Indonesia it was just the place I wanted to be. As strange as it now seems to me I was less than enthusiastic about my impending travels through the remainder of Southeast Asia. I wanted to skip it. Get up to China, away from the heat and mosquitoes, but fortunately shortcuts are not part of the deal.
From Johor Bahru — the grungy southern border town of Malaysia — the road wound through rubber tree and palm oil plantations and at times dense jungle alive with the calls of wild animals, where monkeys appeared from time to time along the roadside or dangling from power cables.
I asked for directions in a typical, low-key Malaysian town, which shall remain nameless, and was led off to meet Gwen, an Australian expat teaching at a local primary school.
‘You’re putting yourself in danger coming here, you know?’ She said.
‘The Australian government has put out travel warnings for Australians traveling in Malaysia and Thailand. Haven’t you seen the news?’
‘Not for a few months.’
‘Terrorists in Malaysia have threatened to kidnap westerners.’
This lead to a volley of questions trying to establish exactly where this disturbing threat was coming from, but for now I was no more enlightened except to know that a threat existed. My plan to continue onto the next town was aborted. Gwen organized a hotel and later, with her family, took me out for dinner to the ‘best Malay restaurant’ in town — a basic, white walled eatery with circular tables.
‘So, you think it’s dangerous for me to travel up the east coast? Are there Islamic fundamentalist lurking around?’ I asked, leaning across the table and digging into a pork and bean curd specialty.
‘There are two types of Muslims here.’ Gwen explained that apart from the regular Malay Muslim that comprises the majority of the population, there exists a faction of extremists that come from ‘all over,’ including the Middle East. ‘It’s the ones with the turbans you have to watch out for,’ she continued. ‘There are terrorists here. They’re completely supported (by higher powers). They don’t work. They have shops but they don’t do anything but sit there. No one goes there. It’s all a front.’
‘What, like a sleeper cell? Are you saying there could be suicide bombers here?’
‘I’m not saying there could be, I’m saying I know there are suicide bombers here,’ she said, with absolute conviction. ‘One of the guys they caught in Australia was from here…(Referring to the failed attack on Glasgow airport.) The two groups fight one another. The extremists are trying to clear out the others. Guns are outlawed in Malaysia…’
‘Yes, but it means big swords are used instead.’
We left the restaurant and did the tour of the so-called extremist zone. True enough, from a purely superficial level — observing their orthodox behavior and clothing — they did appeared to be cut from different cloth to the colorful, Malay Muslim I’d become familiar with.
How much of this I believed was irrelevant because the Australian government had indeed put out a travel warning to ‘reconsider your need to travel…because of the high threat of kidnapping by terrorists,’ however, thankfully it was for Sabah, not mainland Malaysia. I wasn’t concerned, although from then on I did get into the habit of buttoning up my shirt before entering stores and urban centers.
The Thai issue is a little more concerning because of a separatist war and ongoing violence in the predominantly Muslim southeastern provinces of Thailand—about 300kms of my route.
I would deal with that later. For now I was enjoying the pleasant run up the east coast and had plenty else to occupy my mind. I mainly stuck to the small roads but at one stage I was on a stretch of two-lane highway when three large wild water buffalo appeared along the bottom of the embankment, off to the side of the road. On the far side of the animals was a dirt road. I slowed trying to avoid scaring them onto the highway, but it was too late; a truck came around a bend on the dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust and sending the buffalo into a frenzy up the embankment and onto the bitumen. Two of them made it to the other side but a black sedan burning along at 100 km/h claimed the biggest. In a clash of car vs. buffalo there are no winners. The front end of the sedan caved in within an explosion of glass, and the poor beast, which was big, was heaved into the air and slammed down on its side like a rack of beef, still kicking, its neck twisted around 180º and blood streaming from its nose. I came to a halt, shocked by what I’d just witnessed no more than 30 meters ahead.
Every day in the late afternoon, like clockwork, the sky contorts and swells into angry Cumulonimbuses before bursting and delivering their payloads. Villagers take cover from the monsoon deluge under roadside shelters but I eagerly anticipate the cool change and ride on through it. The day I arrived at Penarik — a costal village — shortly before dusk, the thunderbolts were particularly lively and the gale was driving the deluge horizontally. The darkness soon set in and I decided to hunker down for the night under the seaside shelter where I had found myself. But I soon got unnerved by a young guy on a motorbike who’d come by me and stuck his headlight in my face for no apparent reason. Was I an opportunity or simply a curiosity? I wasn’t going to hang around to find out, and disappeared into the darkness for a cold, uncomfortable night out in the open.
I slept poorly, counting the hours through the night, and still damp from the sweat and storm of the day before. I got away an hour before dawn and followed the costal route, which was quiet most of the way. The villages I passed through, typical of those of east Malaysia, were pleasant, fenceless, but generally a collection of rundown, weatherboard dwellings, usually raised on stilts within coconut groves and forests. Rickety, open platform structures dot the roadside and are used by locals selling whatever: home-grown produce, cooked foods, fish, even the roadside butcher can be found — accompanied by swarms of flies — chopping up a side of pork.
Fear is endemic in southern Thailand, where Muslim separatists clash with government forces in a struggle to form a free Muslim state. Lonely Planet describes the region — the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla — as ‘a simmering cauldron of tension’. The Australian government says ‘Do not travel’, as do most Malaysians south of the border. And I was having serious doubts. More than once I inspected my map looking for that magic path northwest and well up into Thailand via the safety of the west coast, but all that exists are sketchy, mountainous scribbles leading southwest; it was going to be a long, difficult detour and I was feeling lazy. When I investigated the problem further, however, I became more comfortable with the idea of cycling through the red zone. As far as I could tell, despite the government warnings, there didn’t seem to be any direct threat to foreigners. A good reason for this, I would discover, was because there aren’t any foreigners there. I would be it! With all this positive publicity I’d grown curious about the forgotten corner of Thailand and, after all, curiosity is like an aphrodisiac for travel.
Shortly before arriving at the remote costal border crossing, I came to an immaculate Buddhist temple built out of a six story golden, ceramic Buddha. The friendly caretaker, an old Chinese-Malay woman, showed me around the temple and told me the story of Buddha referring to the relief murals adorning the interior walls — a vastly different experience to my failed attempt to visit a Mosque. Back outside she asked about my movements and I told her I was heading north through southeast Thailand. A grave look washed over her face.
‘Do not go, do not go. Very dangerous,’ she said, with frightening sincerity. I didn’t want to hear this. Not now.
‘But…I think it’s…’
‘Do not go, do not go. Very dangerous… Save yourself, save yourself,’ she repeated, shaking her head.
Her warning disturbed me but there was nothing she could do. I was determined to check it out for myself. It was part of my education. While I rolled away from the nurturing bosom of Buddha into the great Islamic unknown, her words played over in my head. ‘Save yourself, save yourself.’ What did that mean?
A 60-ringgit (20c) ferry ride across the border to the small village of Tak Bai. A stamp in the passport and through I went into the bustling market place, steaming and sizzling with woks and hot plates, and bursting with the colors of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Welcome to Thailand. I love it already!
Obviously, in these parts a white guy on a bicycle is a novelty to the local crowd and a few young blokes were heckling me in a friendly way, but I remained alert, quite unsure of what I was heading into. The 40 km of flat pleasant road to Narathiwat gave me no reason for concern, albeit it was teeming with armed military personnel trucking about and stationed periodically by the roadside. The little green men were also quite surprised to see me pedal past and yelled out friendly hellos.
In response to the separatist movement the government of Thailand sent in the army and as a result the people of the region live under Martial law. Bombings, arson attacks and assaults are an ongoing threat. The government’s heavy-handed military and police response has resulted in several massacres in recent times. Including the suffocation of 78 people during brutal arrests in Narathiwat and the massacre of 108 machete-armed youths in a Pattani Mosque.
Narathiwat isn’t remarkable, except, of course, that there are soldiers on most street corners and strategic locations, but there was something I liked about the city. It was entertaining enough just drifting around and watching the people go about their business, or slipping into a noodle house and ordering the same as the last thing that came out of the wok, whatever that was, because you can’t read the menu — no tourists, no easy English translation. Perhaps it was the glaring reality I was the only foreigner in the whole city. Whatever the case, I liked Narathiwat enough to spend an unplanned rest day there, if for nothing else to simply bum around.
From Narathiwat my map showed a minor costal road, a shortcut for the first 40 km. Problem was there wasn’t any reference point marked on the map. I was heading out on the main route Hwy 42. Police in light beige uniforms were everywhere. I pulled into a motor mechanic garage where a small group were having their morning coffee and were delighted to have the bike guy roll up and join them for a brew. Communication was the usual joke as I tried to elicit directions for the minor road. Attentions were diverted briefly as a woman from the workshop next-door came to check out the action.
‘She like you. You like? You like?’ One guy joked.
After we had established that I did indeed like her because she was a beautiful Thai woman, we got back to the business at hand.
‘This road no good,’ my friend said.
‘Why?’ I asked, ignorantly thinking road works or something.
He looked around searching for the words and muttering something Thai, but some words are 100% universal. ‘Taliban,’ he said, cocking his thumb like the hammer on a gun and pulling the imaginary trigger. ‘Ok, that’s easy. Looks like it’s Hwy 42 then.’
Further down Hwy 42 I came to a military roadblock. Once again, like some kind of enigma, I was greeted enthusiastically. Perhaps the military guys were just pleased that anyone would voluntarily approach them for a chat. I asked about the risk the best I could, pulling the imaginary trigger and mentioning the ‘Taliban’. The guys found it hilarious.
‘Ah… this road dangerous?’
‘Yes, yes, dangerous, dangerous,’ one of the soldiers said, dragging his index finger across his throat and bursting into laughter.
‘No, no dangerous!’ another said shaking his head.
‘Is dangerous or is ok?’ I repeated for assurance.
‘Is dangerous,’ came the reply.
Even I couldn’t help but see the humour in it. It just seems so ridiculous asking anyone in a land awash with military due to a separatist war, if the place is dangerous, after all, the military is there for a reason and it’s not to dish out Tom Yum soup.
It was all talk anyway. None of it mattered. I was content, and it was a good day. I stopped for a pee and rode away with a bag full of Longkongs (local fruit) given to me by some local blokes harvesting them for the markets. Every town has its market and it seems almost everyone makes their living from it in some form or another. It’s one of my big joys in the day, pulling over to try the local delights. More than once I’ve cycled off with a street cooked delicacy — particularly the Muslim foods — only to wish, once I’d tried it down the road, that I’d grabbed a dozen.
Pattani is a traditional river city with a great night market. I stayed in The Palace Hotel, a crusty joint stinking of tobacco with blood sheared walls. It had obviously seen its day but at $6 I wasn’t complaining. Down the road I kept bumping into the same guy and we chatted simple English for a while. He asked if I knew about the problems and if I was scared. I told him I didn’t feel I was in any real danger, although he seemed to disagree. He said I had to be careful up to a determinate point and to stick to the highways and major towns — not to get off the beaten track.
Cycling out of Pattani, I was invited to breakfast by a woman who came zooming up to me on a scooter and we had an almost identical conversation. Some hours on I found a scattering of bullet shells along the bitumen. I pulled over to investigate further and found in the grass off to the side of the road a spent magazine of an M-16. Someone had unloaded at least a quarter of a clip on that spot. I thought about the story I’d heard about rebels taking pot shots out of the blue recently. I bagged the souvenirs of the troubled region and pushed on.
Although still part of the disputed zone, once in Songkhla — the most northerly city — you’re more or less out of the woods. It’s the only city in the South where there is western activity due to oil rigs stationed off the coast. Needless to say, the only westerners I saw were a bunch of expats from the oil rigs hanging out in the brothels.
A short barge ride across the inlet north of the city, and like the flick of a switch, the head scarves and skull caps disappear. Nor can be seen the trademark teardrop crown of a mosque from any horizon. Colorful, glittering and rundown Buddhist temples dot the landscape in stead. Now that I’m out of it, I realize that during my time in Malaysia and southeast Thailand I had become quite fond of the Muslim world, maybe because I fancy the headscarf and tight blue denim look. The food is pretty good too.
I was content to be picking my way through minor costal roads and tiny villages, and observing people go about their various duties: growing, harvesting and selling produce; manning roadside food stalls; repairing motorbikes; weaving bamboo baskets; preparing coconut in 50 different ways; repairing fishing nets; preparing boats; hanging unconscious-like in hammocks and so on.
Finding your way on the costal roads is the key to cycling the east coast of peninsula Thailand, but it’s easier said than done because the jumble of roads — to minor to be marked on my 1:2,000,000 map (largest scale I could find) — often lead to dead ends. Best advice I can give is to hang on to your compass and make sure that on average you’re heading in a northerly direction. That northerly direction eventually bought me to Bangkok.
I send a big thanks to my now good friends Kat and Jules in Singapore, who invited me into their home and made me feel as though it was mine, and likewise to Peter and Desley in Bangkok for their kind hospitality, and also for feeding me up for the continuing expedition.
To read about the current situation in S.E.Thailand visit: http://www.smarttraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/Thailand