June 22, 2007

Sungai Kolok Border Stability and Train Terrorism
Bangkok, Thailand

Terror is in the mind of the beholder.

Perhentian Departure

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.

Sitting configuration in 2nd class sleeper

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.

Roni in the 2nd class sleeper class

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.

Trying to stay warm in the 16° train car

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.

Comments:

Erik

July 6th, 2007

Hah! Was wondering whether you'd experienced the pleasure of couchette-style train travel. What you describe is actually a level above some European couchettes. It's possible to find a 4 bunk compartment but more often than not 2nd class sleeper/couchettes are 6 bed, with 3 to a side. A little cramped.

The non-locals pay the supplement for the single, double or triple 1st class sleepers, but the quality isn't THAT much better. Though I can only speak from experience for Krakow-Prague and Budapest-Bucharest lines where we went 1st class sleeper.

Anonymous

July 14th, 2007

"Is this the way Muslims create an independent state?"

Sadly that is the way most independency-movements act… no matter what religion the people belong to..
read the history-books chances are your country had to fight for independence also once…
(No i'm not a muslim)

China

Craig | travelvice.com

July 15th, 2007

Are we really comparing the Boston Tea Party with detonating explosives on civilian trains?

More on the war of the American Revolution.

Craig Strong

July 16th, 2007

Craig,

Nice use of indirect flash on the portrait of you.

-Craig

Aaron

July 18th, 2007

Do most nations gain their independence through violent means? An interesting question and something I might take up later as a graduate student. In the meantime we can safely say that violence is one method to independence but at the same time there are many others. We can also say that violence does not always work, as the tired conflict in Israel-Palestine demonstrates. Contrary to popular opinion, it is also worth pointing out that people do not always prefer national independence over being a vassal state or territory, especially when it might compromise democracy and/or political and economic stability.

Many nations have won or kept their independence through violence means against foreign occupiers or overloads: the U.S. (against Britain), Viet Nam (against China, France, and the U.S.), and Indonesia (from the Netherlands) are just a few examples. But independence doesn't always mean casting off the shackles of an invader or an occupier. Winning independence for oneself in the form of ridding one's country of a dictatorship or monarchy ( i.e. political revolution or civil war) are just as important and are just as historically valid methods of gaining independence. Examples are Communist China (from the dictatorial KMT - sadly to be replaced by a Communist dictatorship), Turkey (from the autocratic Ottoman Empire as well as a foreign occupation), France (from an oppressive monarchy and then a dictatorship), and Zimbabwe (against its own internal and oppressive white population).

On the other hand, some nations (or at least significant parts of them) seemed to have been OK with living under foreigner overlords. Take for example the Levant under the Ottomans, the Ukrainians (many of whom want to unite with Russia), and the Hongkongese under the British (consider their alternative).

Other nations gained or maintain their independence through historical accident, chance, or alliances. Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian Federation for being "too Chinese" - an event which I doubt few Singaporeans lament. Taiwan remains independent because another country (the U.S.) will fight for it to keep it as such.

In the West, post WWII collective guilt about the (often) brutality of colonialism combined with the Europeans weakened military and economic prowess have probably done more to liberate people from colonialism than violent independence movements. Simply put, many colonialists grew tired and incapable of subjugating other nations. (Obviously countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and the then Belgian Congo don't fit into this paradigm but many others including Malaysia, Burma, and India do.) Of these, the case in India shows that peaceful protest and shame can be just as effective (if not more so) than trying to gain independence though violent means. This is a fact that many in the worlds trouble spots should not forget.

In the case of Muslims (particularly in the Middle East), I think there is something in Islamic culture - call it jihad, a word whose root form comes has the basic meaning of (religious) effort - that in the minds of the believers obligates them to fight for what the perceive as a just cause. "Fight" here being the operative word. (The battles the "Prophet" Mohammad fought against hostile tribes at Islam's infancy provide the ultimate precedent.) Many Muslims today (and throughout the religion's history) have a tendency to look back to early Islamic history to try to find answers for modern problems. To put things simply, I think the tendency of many Muslims to prefer violent means over diplomatic and peaceful ones is a symptom of that and their failure of political mastery.

China

Craig | travelvice.com

July 18th, 2007

That was just about the best comment I've ever read.

Note: Comments are open to everyone. To reduce spam and reward regular contributors, only submissions from first-time commenters and/or those containing hyperlinks are moderated, and will appear after approval. Hateful or off-topic remarks are subject to pruning. Your e-mail address will never be publicly disclosed or abused.