Driving from Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok is quite a thrill when swerving through the chicanes at the army checkpoints. The road near Pattani has checkpoints every 2 kilometres or less and armed soldiers are on the move in all sorts of vehicles. There are watch towers, barracks festooned with razor wire, APCs and armored hummers. Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province is a town on the Thai border with Malaysia but is the subject of frequent bomb attacks by local insurgent groups. Driving through the villages it is clear that the southerners like their caged birds.
Around the big hotels in Sungai Kolok are perimeters of checkpoints at each junction for several blocks. This is the ‘green zone’, the area protected against bombings by the local insurgency. Mapping apps are less than reliable as they haven’t kept track of the shifting locations of blocked off roads. The grid system is a maze of one-way flows with checkpoint chokes throttling the traffic at each junction. Tourism is thriving as Malaysian and Singaporean visitors from over the border visit the karaoke bars under the watchful eye of soldiers. In addition to the main border the unofficial crossing points from and to Malaysia are helpfully marked on maps online for visitors choosing to keep their trip below the radar.
In the Marina Hotel discotheque the flashing lights are startling and of course the blaring music makes all conversation impossible. The iridescent wonderland is alive with dancers of all sorts, athletic and awkward. Everyone is there in the groups with which they had arrived and it isn’t a meat market at all. Under the kaleidoscopic blur of lasers it’s difficult to determine where any of the visitors hail from. What am I doing in that world that I have travelled so far to see? I am as far away from me as I can probably be. No-one I know is aware that I have gone to this wild border disco outpost. It is a place of epiphany and isolation. I don’t fit in, but neither does anyone else. There is no fitting in at all. But if all those strangers dance for long enough perhaps we’ll begin to belong to whatever this place is.
The Siridhorn Conservation Centre at the Tropical Peat Swamp (also known as Pa Phru To Daeng) is the jewel in the conservation crown of the Sungai Kolok area. It is Thailand’s largest remaining such area.
There are wooden walkways that form a loop through the forest for visitors to observe the rich ecosystem. Swarms of ants are on the move underfoot as they tend to their fungus crops growing on the decaying wood.
Aerial roots (phneumatophores) emerge above the surface of the water as the trees have adapted to the waterlogged conditions of the acidic peat beneath.