I'm reclining in the front passenger seat of a 40-year-old Mercedes 200 series as we pull up to the 10th military checkpoint in 20 kilometres en route to Hala Bala National Park in Thailand's strife-torn Narathiwat province. One of the soldiers, surprised to see a farang smiling at him, waves us through without a thought. My Yawi-speaking driver guns the car and goes back to yabbering about the price of cigarettes, still in shock at my revelation that a pack of Marlboro cost over 400B in Australia. Checkpoints aside, the violence of the far south couldn't be further out of mind.
As we wind our way up to the park I ask what the driver thinks about the ongoing troubles. He replies with what will become a regular mantra throughout my trip: he knows nothing about the unrest, but he's glad I'm there. He's glad to see not everyone has abandoned this part of the country.
Narathiwat derives its name from nara and athiwas which means a residence of good people. When I first visited Narathiwat over a decade ago, many friendly people were indeed in residence. This warm spirit, combined with the province's stunning geography, deserted expanses of beaches and its distinctly Muslim character, created an understated charm that compares favourably to the crass commercialism of the more Chinese-Thai city of Hat Yai to the north. Back then sporadic violence broke out, but the dominant threat was an amalgam of PULO and petty banditry which is hardly comparable to the death toll that has increased well into the thousands in the intervening decade.
Hala Bala national park sits on the Thai-Malay border and is famed among bird-watchers for its hornbill population. Before leaving Bangkok, I talked to Pha at Wild Bird Eco who runs tours here and has an infectious passion for the place. Unfortunately for me, visiting without a guide the only bird I saw was a dead one hanging off the wall of the rustic park office. But at the Sirinhorn waterfall, staring up into the mist-covered mountains that plummet down on each side of the river, I'm sure there were a few sitting aloft watching me.
From the park it was back to Sungai Kolok, then onward to the Pa Phru To Daeng peat swamp under 10 kilometres outside town. The site of a massive fire a few years ago, Pa Phru To Daeng has recovered well and an elevated wooden walkway leads through a small portion of the park. My guide Aey led me across the two-kilometre walkway, her enthusiasm for the park matched by her fine English, but both were surpassed by her surprise at my being there. "Aren't you afraid?" she asked on more than one occasion. The two hours spent there seeing ample bird and critter life, made it more than worthwhile.
The provincial capital Narathiwat is immediately recognisable as a Muslim town by its capped men and scarfed women, mosques and the neverending series of bird cages hanging from the eaves. I'd popped into the inconveniently located TAT office to get the low-down and the staff found me a rare curiousity, although the material they handed me -written in the standard, dreadful TAT Tinglish (will they ever hire a native English-speaking editor?) -- was overflowing in attractions. While five-star sites might be lacking, plenty nevertheless beckons.
I started with a walk out to Narathiwat Beach, past a large mosque, then over a bridge and by a small fishing village where I saw some famous kawlae boats and a large fish farm. Reaching the casuarina-lined beach -- actually a series of small bays rather than one long stretch of sand -- lovers lolled in the shade enjoying the cool sea breeze. A food vendor called me over to foist some dried squid on me. I politely chewed away while he waffled on about Narathiwat and why he thought tourists should come here.
The next morning I got a songtheaw down to Tak Bai, the site of the October 2004 massacre, but also home to little-known Wat Choltharasinghe, which has played an important role in the demarcation of Thailand's southern border. While the wat is a confused fusion of architectural styles, the main attraction is a small museum with the history behind the somewhat arbitrary nature of the border's position.
I ambled into town, past the still-cordoned-off police station and over the 500 metre-long wooden bridge that leads across the lagoon to Ko Yao, a long sandy island protecting Tak Bai from the ocean. With a scattering of coconut palms and shacks, it had a somewhat abandoned feel to it, yet the water was crystal clear and warm.
A bunch of kids ran up, first asking me to take their photo, then leading me back to their relative's fishing lean-to, where a half dozen fishermen sought shelter from the heat. They seemed astounded that I was there, but before long, they brought out some fresh crab and cooked it up for me to share with them on the spot.
I left and wandered back into Tak Bai for the return songtheaw trip to Narathiwat. The driver waved me off when I tried to pay. "Welcome to Thailand!" he said. Narathiwat: residence of good people indeed.
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