South Thailand by Rail: #Pattalung, #Songkhla, and #Sungai Kolok

Waiting for a train in South Thailand

Waiting for a train in South Thailand

June 2014

Phattalung has the fewest tourists of all southern Thailand—just me.  I asked one guy for directions and he was so surprised to see a ‘Farang’ speaking Thai, that he just stood there, staring.  I walked away, finally, afraid he’d have a heart attack.  Phattalung doesn’t have much to commend it, just one big-ass temple tree and a new market in progress, obligatory night market almost de rigueur by now, hardly a new idea, never was, simply a matter of getting the nighttime food stalls rounded up into one area, giving it a name maybe a special day and a marketing pitch, then calling in the tourists…

Other than that Phattalung is best known historically as the home of Thailand’s version of wayang kulit, the shadow-play of leather-cut characters on back-lit screen best-known in Indonesia, though you’d be hard-pressed to find it here go look in Songkhla down the road with a weekend night market somewhat better established what with all the resident Farangs and all, and better cultural connections, though few tourists per se…

Phattalung's Famous Tree

Phattalung’s Famous Tree

Alas and alack been here done that already, Songkhla that is, Muslims fully clothed on the beach and all those semi-naked Buddhist girls in the bars, time to move on, what’s-her-name long gone into the annals of memory and things that shoulda said shoulda’ been, now relegated to the dark side, bars that emulate your wildest dreams and worst nightmares, drinks now three bucks a pop, no freebies no sponsors, all gone back to from where they came, I left to my own devices and advised to fend for myself fenders battered and bumped, bumpers fenced and fulminated…

From there it gets worse, depending on your viewpoint, down by train through the deep deep south, jungly and and sweltering, creeping and crawling, past Pattani and Yala, bypassing only Narathiwat, the three dangerous provinces, where few respectable Thais dare to go, what with khon jai dam, black-hearted people, the Thai Buddhists say, Muslim and misled by the one true God; why settle for one when you can choose from so many?  Two young Muslims in full garb get on the train, one gets bad-ass looks for full effect, the other changes clothes almost immediately, don’t need daddy’s religion elsewhere…

Old Train Station in Songkhla, thailand

Old Train Station in Songkhla, Thailand

And it’s true, the struggles of war have taken their toll on the psyches and trikies of the region, no tuk-tuks only motorcycle taxis, but that’s not what bothers me no what bothers me is the total lack of law and order related to cigarettes and their proliferation, still a reality here, though in headlong retreat elsewhere worldwide including Russia the worst offender, but here the a**holes reign supreme, no one but me and my imaginary light-saber to fight the good fight against the dark side, people blowing smoke in your face in train and hotel corridors as if nothing could be more sane more normal…

What century is that?  What country is this, that allows such behavior?  Thailand, with its decades-long crusade against the evils of smoke seems powerless here in the deep south where traditions run deep and a**holes run rampant, blowing up bridges blowing up train tracks and blowing smoke up your asses, maybe a clue to the roots of international jihad, simply a reluctance to face the future in which women have rights and ride bikes, while men hang out with their cigarettes and their guns…

Checkpoint Somchai in Sungai Kolok, Thailand

Checkpoint Somchai in Sungai Kolok, Thailand

But Sungai Kolok is the weirdest of the lot, down on the Malaysia border, predictably weird as all border towns should be, railway just reopened after terrorist bombings of a few weeks ago, tracks still so crooked and bumpy that I fear we’ll derail at any time, and the town itself like Belfast or Belgrade, shot full of holes and bars full of hoes, welcome to Thailand’s deep deep south…

Sungai Kolok is not as bad as Baghdad or even Beirut, but maybe Belfast, still the tension is there with  roadblocks and checkpoints, Charlie, better carry that passport at all times, just in case, but don’t worry the bars and whorehouses seem well-protected, nestled under the wings of the local Chinese association, no wars of religion here, just fun and f*cks, with someone else’s daughter, Muslims likely let it pass in that case, I always said that if you mix Chinese in Malays in just the right proportions you’ll get Thais, curries meet stir-fries, then fall in love, live happily ever after…

But me, I’m thoroughly disgusted, cigarette burns in the rug notwithstanding, there’s another country across the border, brother to most of these people Malaysian, still a notch up the ladder of modernity, and just when I was trying to reconcile my Thai self, that’s where I’ll go, for a quick visa end-run and holiday to boot, the railroad adventure will continue on the other side of the peninsula, Thailand ‘s better half, I’m guessing, don’t know why these war zones excite me, but that doesn’t include wars of the butts—cigarettes, that is…

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