I walk up the jetty and into Thai customs, there are two lines and both are moving slowly, I’m pretty much at the back but I’m not in any rush. There isn’t a visa-on-arrival sign or line anywhere so I just mosey up to the counter, hand over my arrival card, stamp-stamp-stamp and I’m in after tossing my bags through an X-ray machine.
There are a couple of cabbies hanging around and they ask me where I’m going. I tell them the bus station and a little guy with a high-pitched voice and a scraggly beard asks me to follow him out to a beat-up old Mitsubishi L200 in the parking lot. As we start driving toward the bus station he asks me where I’m taking a bus to, I tell him Bangkok and he looks at me like I’m crazy. “Why not take the train? The bus is no good.” The rail line cuts through the center of the peninsula, not the west coast where I’m at but he says he’ll give me a lift over to the border railtown of Hatyai, a couple of hours away, for a sort-of-reasonable price so I say sure and we head out.
The old Mitsi is pretty beat, and no AC so we’re driving with the windows down but the breeze is nice. The driver speaks some English but he gets excited and starts talking really fast and in a high pitch and I can’t really understand a lot of what he’s saying so there’s a lot of nodding and smiling on my part. He’s really excited when I tell him I’m from Canada. He tugs on his little beard and says, “You are like me.” He’s got a huge warm smile on his face but I don’t really know what he means, like we’re beard brothers or something? “You are a Muslim too!” Oh, that’s what he means. “No, I’m not a Muslim, just a beard.” I don’t think he understands me and asks me a ton of questions about Muslims in Canada. Awkward.
Once we get past Satun the scenery is pretty nice. My driver tells me the economy here is all rubber. Some trucks go by with rubber trees that have been cut down; he says that once a tree is past a certain age it doesn’t produce as much rubber so they cut it. The landscape has a lot of these steep, isolated hills jutting out of it.
It’s raining and visibility is kind of shit so I tilt the seat back and fall asleep for a while. When I wake up my driver explains we’re in Songkhla province now, close to Hatyai. I could swear I’d heard that name Songkhla somewhere before but I can’t place it so I nod back to sleep until we’re in the outskirts of Hatyai where traffic has come to a halt. It looks like we’re at some kind of police checkpoint. As we get closer I can see it’s not police though, all the guards have assault rifles, decked out in full camo and are even wearing full face masks. It’s a military checkpoint. I thought about the name “Songkhla” for a second and I realized that I was now into one of the areas affected by the Southern Thailand Insurgency, where bombings and attacks on the government have been occurring fairly frequently for over a decade. I really didn’t think the rail line cut through here, lots of people use it and as far as I know it’s never been attacked but it looks like I’m right in the thick of it.
Hatyai seems like a normal enough town, definitely not pretty but lots of buildings with open fronts, no soldiers or roadblocks in the streets in the city center that I can see, a busy-looking rail yard, no blown-out or bullet-riddled buildings. At a glance I’d say I’ve been in far, far, worse places. My driver loops around to show me the train station then drops me a couple blocks away on a strip of budget hotels and wishes me luck. The hotel I stay in is about $20 a night but it’s a private room with AC and a four-channel TV and an elevator, not bad at all. I jump online and have a look at the Canadian government’s travel advisory website to see how serious they think this place is:
“Global Affairs Canada advises against all travel to and through the far southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla (including the city of Hat Yai) and Yala. These provinces have been experiencing criminally and politically motivated violent incidents.” – travel.gc.ca
“Well fuck” – Me
Advising against “all travel” is the most serious level of a travel advisory there is, on par with places like Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Still, I can’t quite believe it – what I saw on the streets in just doesn’t jive with that kind of severity. This notice on my door is interesting though:
I carefully hide my passport and decide to go for a walk. One thing I didn’t see on the drive in were any touristy-looking white folks and although there are dozens of people in the lobby of the hotel, none of them are white; most of the words I can pick out are in Mandarin, actually. On the streets I walk past taxi drivers and storefronts with zero hustle, that’s kind of nice. There are food carts here and there and adjacent to the train station I walk past several jewelry stores with a lot of expensive-looking merchandise in glass cases directly beside the sidewalk, certainly doesn’t seem typical of a place that’s prone to criminal incidents.
To get into the train station I have to pass through a metal detector but that’s not too unusual, there are police around but no visible military presence. When I try to buy a ticket the woman at the counter asks for my passport and I say I don’t have it. “I must have it” she says. “How about this?” I hand her my old South Australian driver’s license. She shrugs and copies my info in the computer and hands me a ticket for tomorrow afternoon.
I double-back toward the hotel and find a really nice, western-style supermarket where I grab some snacks for the train and beers to chill out with back in the room. Everything seems completely fine and normal. I stop into a KFC next door and grab a bite, once again everything is completely normal. My guard is still up but I just can’t buy it. Last stop is to pick up an adaptor so I can plug my laptop in and when I find a little office supply store and pull an adaptor off the rack a saleswoman comes up to me and offers me a 30% discount without explanation but with a huge smile. Okay then. Back in my room I double-checked a list of incidents that have occurred in Hatyai and as far as I can tell it seems to be isolated incidents every two years or so. I’m not going to worry too much about it but decide to stay inside anyhow on account of rain.