The provincial capital of Satun nuzzles up close to Malaysia in Thailand's far southwestern corner. Embraced by dense jungle to the west and spectacular Andaman Sea islands in the east, the small city is not a big-time travel destination. Nevertheless, if you don't mind stepping off the beaten road, a distinctive cultural blend makes Satun worthy of a side trip after that beach holiday.
Part of the Malay state of Kedah until 1813, Satun wasn't secured by Siam (the precursor to modern Thailand) until a treaty was signed with the British Empire nearly 100 years later. Alongside King Rama V, former Governor Phraya Phuminart Phakdi is credited with negotiating the deal that ensured the province -- and its now-lucrative islands -- didn't end up as part of Malaysia.
With many signs posted in Malay as well as Thai, Satun's ethnically and religiously mixed population does not generally support the separatist movement that's battled Thai government forces in nearby Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces since the early 2000s. The violence has never reached this far west, and Satun is no less safe than Trang or Krabi.
The tall golden domes of Mambang Mosque, one of the largest in Thailand, rise dramatically from Satun's centre and highlight the prominence of Islam here. A handful of Buddhist temples also mingle with the many Sino-European shophouses. Set in a stately Colonial-era house downtown, the provincial museum does a fine job of explaining Satun's harmonious diversity.
Also known by the Malay name of Satul (after the santol fruit), the area has long been a meeting point for several cultures. Roughly two-thirds of the population is Muslim and most of the rest Buddhist, but the lines are often blurred. Malay Muslims and Thai (or Chinese-Thai) Buddhists have intermarried for centuries, resulting in a distinct group known as Samsam. From the islands, Urak Lawoi sea gypsies add another layer to Satun's cultural kaleidoscope.
This vibrant mix of cultural roots is expressed in a great food scene that can be explored in countless hole-in-the-wall shops and bustling evening markets. Roti, satay, biryani rice, a wide array of curries and khao man gai (Thai-style Hainanese chicken rice) are all fantastic and easy to find. Also, you haven't had a chaa yen (Thai iced tea) until you've had one in Satun.
To the west sprawls the Thammalung pier and boatyard, one of the region's largest. Travellers heading onwards to Malaysia can catch boats to Langkawi here. Near Thale Ban National Park in the province's jungle-clad eastern reaches, the village of Wang Prajan also hosts a little-known land crossing (see the transport section for border crossing info).
The provincial capital has been largely left out of the tourism fun, with the marvellous islands of Ko Tarutao, Ko Bulon Lae and Ko Lipe, among 77 others, usually accessed from Pakbara some 50 km north. The tax revenue does seem to be having an impact, however, evidenced by a large walkway being built alongside the Mambang River during our most recent visit. Palm, rubber, fruit and fishing also provide a share of Satun's wealth.
Foreign travellers are somewhat of a rarity in Satun town, with most passing to/from Malaysia by way of Langkawi/Lipe by sea, or the Padang Besar and Sadao crossings in Songkhla over land. Apart from school kids shouting "Hello!" as you pass, English is not widely spoken. Still, one excellent guesthouse among adequate accommodation options ensures that you'll have a comfy stay.
By David Luekens.