Bored of Borders?
When the most threatened you’ve felt, in over five months travelling, is either when a little homeless New Yorker, wearing big seventies style headphones squeaks ‘Move yo’ asses outta my mothaf**kin’ way!’ at you as you’re crossing the road, or when a five year old Fijian boy leans out of the window of the school bus and screams ‘Giaaaaant!’ at you, it is very easy to settle yourself into a nice, warm, fuzzy false sense of security and ignore all the daily dangers that pass you by. Until we crossed the Malaysia/Thai border that was exactly how I felt.
In our hostel in Byron Bay, Australia, about a month before we were due to cross the Malaysia/Thai border, we shared a room with a guy called Rusyan. During the course of the standard backpacker’s getting to know you chat (‘ Where are you from?’ ‘How long are you staying here?’ ‘What route are you travelling?’) we found out he was the son of the Malaysian Ambassador in New Zealand. We told him in return that we were planning to fly from Darwin to Singapore and travel overland through Malaysia and over the Thai border
At this point he warned us of a large amount of civil unrest in the predominantly Muslim regions of Southern Thailand, and suggested that if possible we should seek alternative means of crossing it, even look into the cost of flying over the border to avoid it.
After saying our goodbyes we continued our journey south to Sydney before flying to Darwin. Being the complacent and lazy toerag that my dear Mother has rightly always told me I am, I put his warnings to the back of my mind and did no further research into it.
Over the following month or so, we happily worked our way up through Malaysia and eventually found ourselves having a meal in a restaurant on the North-Eastern Malaysian island of Perhentian Kecil, planning our journey North from there. The guy who owned the restaurant, who had noticed us perusing the Rough Guide, had obviously advised a lot of travellers in his line of work and joined in the conversation by asking us what we were planning. We told him we were going to go North to Kota Bahru, a large town 45km south of the border and staying the night there. The next morning we were planning to get a bus from KB to the border, cross into Thailand and get a bus or train out of Sungai Kolok (the Thai border town) with our final destination of the day being Krabi.
‘Oh.’ he said, with raised eyebrows. ‘Not many travellers go that journey. I think don’t hang around in Sungai Kolok’. At this point he burst out laughing.
Laughing along, I enquired as to why not.
‘Very dangerous’ he said, still smiling. ‘Over one thousand people killed in last year’
I stopped laughing. All of a sudden the warnings from Rusyan came flooding back. I hadn’t honestly thought it was as bad as we were now being told, but with the crossing so imminent, the danger suddenly hit home.
Upon leaving the island we got a share taxi to Kota Bahru. After checking in, dumping our bags, and getting a quick bite to eat, we headed straight for an internet cafe.
I knew of a useful website for independent and impartial recommendations on travelling safely, namely http;/www.fco.gov.uk. It gives you up-to-the-minute advice on each country, with information on the degrees of danger you will face travelling in all parts of the world, as well as particular crimes to be aware of in certain places, such as pickpocketing and con-artists. Here is what I discovered when searching for Thailand:”There is a high threat from terrorism throughout Thailand, particularly in the far southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla. We advise against all but essential travel to, or through, these four provinces where, since January 2004, there have been regular attacks including bombings and shootings. On 19 July, the Thai Government announced a serious state of emergency in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.’
Ah.Right.OK then. In light of this new and slightly disturbing information, our choices from here were as follows:
1): Get a bus right across Malaysia to Penang on the west coast and head up from there straight to Krabi, spending less time in the danger area.
2): Fly down to KL from Kota Bahru and then fly up to Krabi
3): Don’t tell the parents, take the risk, and follow our original plan.
Each option would have had it’s own drawbacks. If we had chosen option one, we would have had to get a 9 hour bus to Penang, probably through the night, and then still have had to travel overland through the dangerous southern regions of Thailand anyway. If we had chosen option two, it would have taken the better part of a day, and would have cost us the equivalent of about sixty pounds. Option three, obviously involved spending a fair bit of time in Southern Thailand, and ran the risk that we would have been blown up or shot, but it was far cheaper and quicker.
We weighed up the pros and cons of the three different routes and decided on option 3, crossing into Sungai Kolok. Our restauranteur friend from Perhentian Kecil had advised us that the safest way to travel was by train, so we decided to follow his advice and get a train from Sungai Kolok to Hat Yai, where we would change for a government-run bus to Krabi.
The next morning we woke up bright and early and got a taxi the half hour journey to the border. On the way there we were waved through 2 police roadblocks who hardly seemed to even look in the car, which made me think that the threat wasn’t too large. Also, it was the second day of the holy muslim festival of Ramadhan, so I thought that the violence might be at a low ebb while we were there. It turned out I was wrong on both counts.
The taxi pulled over at the Malaysian side of the border. We got out and walked across to the Malaysian border post. A couple of stamps later we strolled across to the Thai immigration and after a little bit of confusion over what to do next, we filled out an entry form each, got our stamps and got a rickshaw to the train station.
All good so far. There was a little police presence around the border, enough to make you feel safe, but not enough to scare you. To tell the truth, the most unsafe I’d felt was when the rickshaw guy was straining to pull us across in front of oncoming traffic to the other side of the road where the train station was.
At the station, the presence of police and soldiers jumped up a notch. We sat around for a couple of hours waiting for our train, as soldiers armed with semi-automatic weapons and Top Gun issue aviators strutted round and made their presence felt. When we got on the train, our tickets were checked by soldiers, who spent the journey to Hat Yai walking up and down and giving the beady eye to anyone who looked a bit dodgy. The train journey to Hat Yai passed uneventfully, and by then we were out of the danger zone and only had to deal with the relative safety of taxi touts shouting at us and trying to rip us off. After a couple of attempts by touts trying to take us to minibus tour operators, we finally made it to the government bus station, bought our tickets and had a nice relaxing viewing of Wesley Snipes in Blade dubbed over in Thai to pass the journey to Krabi.
It was only after checking my emails a day or two after the crossing, that I realised quite how close we’d come. My brother, who I’d told about our intended crossing, had sent me a link to a BBC news story entitled Thai PM tours violence-hit south’ According to the article, about twelve hours before we arrived in southern Thailand, five policeman had been ambushed, shot and killed there. Roughly 7 hours after we left, a bomb was set off in the town we were in, seriously injuring one person.
Maybe it’s about time i listened to my mother and stopped being quite as complacent and lazy a toerag as I currently am.