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Land Of Mangoes And Songbirds
“A quiet seaside collection of old wooden houses, lovely and unfrequented beaches, Muslim fishing villages and Chinese shops. This peaceful place marks a fitting and tranquil end to a journey around the south.” - Alistair Shearer, The Lotus Kingdom
Depending on where you start from, Narathiwat is either the first or the last point in Thailand. Certainly it's a long way from Bangkok - at 1,149 kilometres, almost twice as distant as Chiang Mai or Ubon Ratchathani. It feels strangely different, too. Narathiwat is one of the few points where the Thai and Malay Worlds meet and mingle with that of the Overseas Chinese. This has resulted in an intriguingly complex social system, where Thai-speaking Buddhists control the bureaucracy, ethnic Chinese manage the urban economy, and Malay-speaking Muslims farm the countryside and fish the seas.
Not too many tourists visit Narathiwat. Rather, they tend to travel through the province, generally en route to or from nearby Malaysia. There is a ferry at Ban Ta Ba, five kilometres south of the bustling town of Tak Bai, which charges just five Baht (20 US cents) to carry passengers across the muddy Golok River to Kelantan. Passengers travelling to or from Malaysia by train miss Narathiwat town altogether - the line runs inland from Yala through Raman, Ruso and Rangae to Sungei Golok, a border town of seedy brothels and dubious repute.
Narathiwat is very different. It's a quiet, secluded little town of around 40,000 people - one of the smallest provincial capitals in Thailand - with a character all of its own. Many of the buildings are wooden structures, clustered along two parallel streets by the bank of the Bang Nara River. Puphapakdi Road, hard by the riverfront, is the quieter of the two (not that anywhere in Narathiwat suffers from heavy traffic). Here old Muslim men in sarongs and skull caps sit quietly playing chess, drinking endless cups of tea, or watching their grandchildren demurely doing their homework on weekdays, or dipping in the river at weekends. Further inland Pichit Bamrung Road is somewhat busier. It's more commercial and less residential, therefore more Chinese and less Malay. Even so, Islam is never far away. At the north end of Pichit Bamrung stands the impressive new provincial mosque, whilst half way down, on the west side, is an old Muslim cemetery framed by fragrant frangipani trees.
The most distinctively Thai part of town starts by the clock tower, where Wichit Chaibun Road crosses Pichit Bamrung. Here are the Provincial Offices, the GPO and the police station. Even so, Narathiwat remains distinctly part of the Thai "deep south". Dominating the clock tower circle is Narathiwat Friday Mosque, its green dome and crescent-moon topped minarets a reminder that this is a cultural frontier. Goats are everywhere, nibbling at old coconut husks and masticating bits of palm leaf, whilst pigs are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps most telling of all, mellifluous, multi-tonal Thai is replaced by the rolling vowels of Bahasa Melayu as the lingua franca of the local people - though Thai remains definitely the language of official business and commerce.
There is little enough to do in Narathiwat town itself, and of course this is one of the main pleasures of a short stay there. View the mosques and Chinese shrine on the road to the airport, book into a hotel [details below], and try some of the local food - for example, delicious chicken or beef satay on bamboo skewers, accompanied by rich peanut sauce. Follow this up with a selection of fresh fruit - Narathiwat is famous for its ngo, or rambutan, mangosteen and especially (when in season) mangoes, the latter best eaten with coconut milk and sticky rice - then set out to explore the town's much more interesting surroundings.
Probably the best and most informative such trip begins with a walk north along Puphapakdi Road. All along the banks of the river are wooden houses with dozens of hanging bird cages. Especially popular with the local people are singing doves, and almost every house keeps a pair or two. Dove-singing contests are held all the year round, but especially between January and August. The competition grounds, some way out of town, are marked by hundreds of dove cages hanging on metal or bamboo poles about six metres high. Judgement is based on the pitch, melody and volume of the "coo". Narathiwat people are acknowledged experts, even in the dove-fancying south, and they treat their birds like members of the family - which, in a way, they are.
Further out, where Puphapakdi Road swings west to join Pichit Bamrung, a maze of tiny alleys and lanes leads into Narathiwat fishing village. Don't be shy, but don't be too forward, either. Ask if you want to take a photograph, and you will almost certainly be greeted with a dazzling smile of agreement. The village is really fascinating - a genuine slice of traditional Narathiwat, where so many fishermen make their living from the rich waters of the Gulf of Thailand. All along the waterfront are large, brilliantly-painted fishing boats known locally as reua kaw-lae, which are peculiar to Narathiwat and the neighbouring province of Pattani. Silver acres of fish dry in the sun, and old men sit mending nets.
Continue through the village and cross the bridge over a branch of the Bang Nara River. The road leads to Hat Narathat, a sandy beach five kilometres long with restaurant facilities, tables and umbrellas drawn up under long lines of casuarina trees. The constant breeze here makes Hat Narathat excellent for wind surfing, and this has become a favourite sport amongst local people, as well as for visitors.
It's possible to walk to Hat Narathat - the total distance from Narathiwat town centre is about two kilometres - though songthaew taxis are available. To visit Taksin Ratchanivej Palace, however, a vehicle is definitely required. Located on Tanyongmat Hill, their Majesties the King and Queen of Thailand generally take up residence here for about two months between August and October every year. When they are not in residence, the palace is open to the public from 8.30 to noon, and from 1 to 4.30 in the afternoon. The gardens are particularly lovely - watch out for the rare bangsuriya trees, fan-like palms resembling the sun-shades used by royalty and the Buddhist sangha as a sign of rank. There is a small zoo, and a ceramic shop selling locally-manufactured souvenirs. The palace overlooks Ao Manao - "Lemon Bay" - an attractively curved shoreline of white sands and screw pines.
En route to the palace, about five kilometres south of Narathiwat, the visitor will find it hard to miss the giant seated Buddha at Wat Khao Khong. Called Phra Phuttha Taksin Mingmongkon, the bronze image is 25 metres high, and chiefly remarkable for its size. Since Narathiwat is overwhelmingly Muslim, this might at first sight seem like an intrusive statement of Thailand's Buddhist polity - but not so. Communal relations are good all along this coast, and as if to repay the compliment, the Tak Bai Thais of Kelantan, neighbouring Malaysia's proud Islamic heartland, have constructed an even larger seated Buddha - this time the largest in Southeast Asia - at Kampung Jubakar, on the main road between Ban Taba and the Malay town of Kota Bahru.
Another fascinating and probably unique manifestation of the shared Buddhist-Muslim-Chinese cultural background of the region may be found at the village of Lubosawo in Ba-jaw District, about fifteen kilometres north-west of Narathiwat along Highway 42. Here stands the Masjid Wadin Husen, built in 1769, which successfully blends Thai, Chinese and Malay influences in its architecture. As a statement of Narathiwat's harmoniously mixed ethnic blend, it would be hard to surpass.
The Buddhist equivalent of Wadin Husen Mosque - if such a hybrid creation really exists - is to be found at Wat Chonthara Sing-He in Tak Bai District, close by the Malaysian frontier. In colonial times the British entertained designs on Narathiwat, and perhaps on neighbouring Pattani as well. The Thai authorities, seeking to establish their claims to the region with "Facts on the ground", erected Wat Chonthara as a sign that Narathiwat was indeed a part of Siam. It's worth a visit, because the temple is constructed in a very southern Thai style, unusual in Thai Buddhist architecture. The wooden viharn very much resembles an Indonesian-style mosque, whilst another viharn close-by, dating from 1873, is decorated with Sung Dynasty Chinese ceramics. It's a Thai Buddhist wat, no doubt - but the interplay of Malay and Chinese influences is both pleasing and in harmony with the region.
For those intending to continue from Narathiwat to Malaysia, the unremarkable town of Sungei Golok lies 32 kilometres inland from Ban Taba. Given over very much to local cross-border traffic, there are numerous hotels but most travellers will prefer to cross directly via the bridge to Kelantan. The border opens daily from 8.30 am to 5.00 pm.
Accommodation: There are no major five-star hotels, but both the Tan Yong Hotel [Tel 511148] and the Pacific Hotel [Tel 511076] offer clean, comfortable air-conditioned accommodation at reasonable rates. For eating, try the night market off Chamroonra Road. The Rim Nam Restaurant on Jaturing Ratsami Road about one-and-a-half kilometres south of Narathiwat Town serves excellent seafood dishes, fresh from the sea.
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media