Far southern Thailand: Go or not?

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First published 1st June, 2005

Thailand's strife-torn far south is a region largely under siege, with 9pm curfews and a heavy military presence throughout. But when I backpacked through the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Songkhla in June, I also found time and time again genuine Thai hospitality that has become somewhat of a rarity in other parts of the more heavily-touristed south.

The far south is not safe. Almost 1,000 people have been blown-up, murdered and beheaded in the last 18 months, and while western tourists are not being targetted, that could change and I certainly wouldn't want to be down there if the focus did switch to foreigners. Nobody is sure who is behind the unrest: while Islamic separatists are often blamed by a press obsessed with terror, there are plenty who believe that organised gangsters and politicians are stoking violence in order to settle their own scores.

I travelled extensively to national parks, waterfalls, isolated beaches and rural villages and at no time did I feel in any way threatened or in danger. The problem lies however in the fact that a bomb hidden in a motorcycle -- one of the most prevalent weapons in use -- is one of the least discerning and most random available.

The most visible evidence of the troubles lies in the military presence and numerous checkpoints. Soldiers, particularly in Narathiwat, maintain a very high profile -- well-armed and travelling around in convoys of humvees and trucks, their visibility initially left me taken aback, but I rapidly learned to take them in my stride. The checkpoints are comprehensive -- whether I was in a car or a motorbike, my vehicle was always stopped. At least to me as a westerner, the soldiers were very polite and in some cases apologetic for the inconvenience, but when travelling by rot tuu -- the minibuses that are the most common form of transport -- with some young Muslim guys in the back seat, I saw firsthand the harassment the people living here face daily.

Fishing trawlers heading to sea on the Bang Nara River, Narathiwat

The other noticeable affect is that many of the night markets are cordoned off so that motorcycles cannot be taken right into the market. This seemed to be enforced somewhat haphazardly from town to town and market to market, but it does bring home the fear that everyone in the south harbours of being blown to pieces while eating a plate of noodles.

If you do decide to visit the far south, a few simple precautions will go a long way.

a kawlae boat south of PattaniStay informed
Most importantly, keep a close eye on newspapers and Thai TV news. Even for non-Thai speakers, Thai TV news is easy to follow, due to their penchant for broadcasting gore and an odd habit of showing highway signs -- put the two together and you can surmise there has been a bloodbath somewhere near XYZ town. Do not rely on western news stations, as significant time lags occur between an event and CNN picking up on it.

Ask for advice
Ask at your hotel or guesthouse and/or the tourist office about the safety of where you are headed -- be as specific as you can.

Watch the locals
If a taxi driver or motorcyclist refuses to take you somewhere regardless of the price, they probably have a good reason for it.

Watch your hours
Avoid putting yourself in a remote area at night. For example, if you walk to Narathiwat Beach in the late afternoon, leave for the walk back at dusk at the latest. Many, although not all the attacks, have taken place in the evening and very early morning. If your hotel has a curfew, obey it.

Yes sir!
The Thai army have setup checkpoints throughout the region. If they won't let you pass, there could be a number of reasons why, so don't press the point.

Sai Khao waterfall in Pattani provinceDon't get curious
Should a bomb go off near wherever you are, don't rush to the scene to get a better look. Tactics have involved setting off a device in order to draw out police, who are then targetted with a second device timed to go off afterwards.

Embassy warnings
Read them, but take them with a pinch of salt. These warnings tend to be overly cautious in nature.

The region is full of people simply trying to get on with their lives. Transportation and most hotels and guesthouses run as normal. If you are worried about the situation, but still need to get to Malaysia, consider flying from Hat Yai or Bangkok or crossing at a checkpoint in Satun province, which is considered safer.

For the visitor comfortable travelling in an environment of heightened security, the far south is certainly worth considering. I thoroughly enjoyed the stunning landscapes and met some wonderful people. But this is a region experiencing a substantial state of civil strife. Keep an eye on the news and make your own decision.

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

Read 13 comment(s)

  • I wandered thru the south in 2001, before the troubles really began to pick up steam. It was fun, interesting, and friendly, but not what I would call a "must see". Thailand with a Muslim flavor. OK, cool. Would I go there again? Don't think so. When I go on holiday, I want to lay on the beach, eat noodles, read trashy novels and drink beer. I don't want to worry about being killed or worse - arms and legs blown off.

    The author above advises people to keep an eye on the local news so as to avoid areas where bombs are going off. Are you kidding me? What kind of vacation is that?????

    Posted by Banana Montana on 14th February, 2010

  • @banana montana... I don't think you know much about the spirit of TRAVELLING... no one is going there for VACATION... there is a difference... and actually, I don't want to lie on the beach, drink beer...blablabla... boring! stay at your resort and let people talk about TRAVELLING who really want to TRAVEL... cheers

    Posted by holdencaulfield on 26th May, 2010

  • I have been several times to Narathiwat and surrounding area since the troubles began and agree with the author that as long as you are sensible then you should have a great time. One extra bit of advice I would offer is to avoid areas near schools in the country side when the teachers are arriving or leaving.

    before the troubles I did go out to the villages at night to chat and drink with the locals but this is something I now no longer do but I look forward to being able to do again.
    One great advantage at the momment is that there are very few tourists and the locals will welcome you with open arms.

    Posted by Alistair on 1st July, 2010

  • To all that have been to Southern Thailand , with specific reference to Saturn Province (Chalung Muang Saturn),I have been living in Thailand (Bangkok/Phuket) for over 1 year and have heard of incidents in other areas in the south and I am due to begin teaching in a large School there , those that I asked that are my Thai friends have advised me not to go as shootings etc are common ( although not always reported on the news!!), having said that none of them have actualy been there them selves!!. can anybody please advise on this area and with personal experience before I go. Many thanks.

    Posted by Teacher G on 7th October, 2010

  • Gee. I am pleased to say that it is not 2005, it is 2010 and yes there is unrest, but life goes on in Thai fashion. I am one expetratiate who feels very safe and secure. I have wonderful friends, both Thai and Foreign and be rest assured if there was a problem looming we would be notified in advance. I might add that my friends are also Muslim, so lets not assume anything regarding a specific race. This is politics and sometime extreme behavior results.

    Posted by Simon Coleman on 7th December, 2010

  • Thanks for this article. I plan to visit southern Tland in a few months, including the 3 'troubled' provinces. Your article gave me an idea of what to expect and to do.

    You are correct about embassy warnings! The Australian gov comes close to advising ozies not to visit southern Thailand, and avoid Indon and the Phils.

    Posted by ianintheworld on 13th February, 2011

  • Our state departmant website still regards the south as unsafe. What are opinions of a westerner staying in Hat Yai for several months, as I had a friend I would like to visit there. ( just outside the city, 5 km)

    Posted by Bill Weisse on 10th November, 2011

  • Probablly safer than Los Angeles or many of the other large cities in th USA

    Posted by alistair on 11th November, 2011

  • We have been caught out by bad advice from the Thai Consulate in the UK and need to do a border crossing to extend our 15 day permission to stay in Thailand. We are considering the crossing by longboat from Satun to Kuala Perlis. Has anyone done this and can anyone advise if we need to overnight in Malaysia or can it be done in one trip. I just wish we had been told it would have been so much easier for us to apply for a visa even though the UK has an exemption! Many thanks

    Posted by christine on 27th November, 2011

  • Christine

    My understanding is that this is an easy trip to do in a day. Frequent service from Thammalang pier but best to go early as I am not sure when the last boat back runs. Boat journey is about an hour. If you are going on the last return boat just tell the captain you are coming back.

    there is also a land crossing at Wang Prajan but the bus service to the border is infrequent and again I would ask the bus driver if he can wait and bring you back

    Posted by alistair on 28th November, 2011

  • I have just taken the train from Hat Yai to Sungai Golok, then across to Malaysia. I plan to return to this region, since despite the apparent risks the people here were some the warmest locals I have found in the SE asia region; no doubt partially due to the fact that a tourist is a bit out of the ordinary. The train is government property and therefore a target, but the train is full of Malay/Southern Thai locals. I felt safe and plan to return to Narathiwat.

    Posted by squarethecircle on 5th December, 2012

  • Hello,

    I was planning to travel to Malaysia making my way to Georgetown and the island of Penang through the southern provinces of Trang and Satun around early April. I will began to travel down south from Mae Sot, but I am extremely flexible. Does anyone know of any violence in these areas? Also any recommendations as far as sights, border crossings, and modes of transportation?


    Posted by Jonathan on 6th February, 2014

  • From Trang it is bus/mini van and sometimes boat

    Very little violence in Trang and Satun Provinces that I am aware of but keep your eyes open in case things change.

    Both are nice places and there are plenty of nice beaches near Trang. Quiet towns not very touristy and well worth spending time there.

    There is certainly a border crossing that can be accessed by songthaew from Satun but not sure about boat

    Posted by amnicoll on 6th February, 2014

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