Sungai Kolok Border Stability and Train Terrorism
Terror is in the mind of the beholder.
There was such an intense thunderstorm yesterday morning, I thought for sure the mainland-bound boats would cancel their morning run. But the lightning had subsided by 8:00, and the transport, filled with bronzed backpackers, departed as scheduled.
Wearing only a swimsuit, rain jacket (no shirt), and a backpack covered in a rain-fly, I looked like I was ready to throw myself into the middle of a monsoon—I wish I had photo.
By 9:00 I was on the mainland, waiting to catch the 9:30 bus to Kota Bharu. Arriving at 11:30, I needed only wait a half-hour for a bus to Rantau Panjang, Malaysia's principle northeastern border-town with Thailand. By 13:00 I was ready to traverse one of the most feared border crossings in this region. I was there to confirm or debunk those fears.
Thai Train Travel
It's strange, and rather entertaining, to wake up in a hut on an island and be in another country by lunch.
Exiting Malaysia was painless, as was the reentry into Thailand. I'm always nervous about the immigration checkpoints of countries that require proof of onward travel, when I haven't taken the time to create a fake ticket.
I met Roni on the walk to the train station, a solid kilometer or more from the frontier. I highlighted my travel history as we chatted, and he asked what I thought of Venezuela. I told him what I thought of the capital, and he replied that he was born there. I said that I was sorry he lived for nine years in such a God awful place… and so was he (not that he thought the next nine, living in Miami, were much better).
Roni gave me the insider scoop on working as a Dive Master in the Perhentians, where he too was traveling from that day. It takes a lot of days to even make a dent in the US$2,000+ investment for the qualifications.
This area is supposedly very unstable, with over 2,000 dead in the past three years. Muslims are killing Buddhists, and Buddhists are killing Muslims. Muslim-planted bombs, especially on the trains, are going off frequently. A few days ago a cafe was sprayed with automatic gunfire, resulting in several deaths.
Is this the way Muslims create an independent state? With terrorism? With bombs and drive-by killings?
Walking around town, I saw patrols with automatic weapons on motorbike, but that was about the extent of the superficial problem indicators. Actually, for a border town, Sungai Kolok is rather nice. If no one told me there were problems, I probably would have suspected nothing.
I decided to not bus to Bangkok, instead opting to roll the dice of chance with the train. I'd never taken an overnight train ride before—I've always enjoyed the freedom buses provide for departures, and the generally lower price. But this was not the case for the big haul to Bangkok, though, and saw no value in sitting on a bus when I could try a different mode of transportation.
There were lots of heavily-armed military patrols on board and outside the train between Sungai Kolok and Hat Yai. An armored Humvee drove past at one stop, looking like something you'd find in an active war zone. This scene tapered off the further we progressed along the rail line, and by the time we reached Hat Yai the military presence was but a fraction of what was seen earlier in the day.
There are many different types of classes on Thai trains, depending on the type of train and cars being pulled. I bought a ticket for a 2nd class car with reclining seats, but upgraded and sat with Roni when I walked into the car and it was a blast furnace. That particular car/class combo had no A/C, and sported only small ceiling fans. Having no idea how much wind would actually be let in through the gap at the top of the windows—and not enjoying the thought of sweating for 20 hours in a train car—I threw down the cash for 2nd class sleeper (costing an additional B$300, for a total of B$907).
For 20 hours, US$1.40/hour traveled is OK with me, and about the same price as a bus! I could have cut the price in half by traveling 3rd class, but I'm cautious about the bomb thing—for some reason I keep thinking the terrorists are able to slip explosives into the lower class cars.
I was absolutely amazed at the 2nd class sleeper on the train—why would you ever take the bus if this option is available for the same price (and time isn't an issue)? The car is a like a Transformer. When the attendant comes through the compartment is morphed it into a pair of sleeping spaces. Lower seats unlock and slide together, while a solid bunk unfolds from above—curtains, pillows, blankets, padded cushions—wow. Wildly luxurious.
Having the freedom to stand and walk around during transit, or simply sprawl out in empty spaces, is fantastic. The environment is definitely more stimulating, as your ability to socialize, should you choose to do so, is greatly increased.
The total trip from the islands to Bangkok was a whopping 26 hours, but I can say without hesitation that I got the most sleep on this journey than I ever have on transport before.
I declare the border simple and speedy to navigate and be processed, when it's open (Monday–Friday, 10–16:00). Travelers shouldn't be afraid to use the border or the trains. Don't live in fear—that's why it's called terrorism. No terror, no success.