A visit to Narathiwat is like taking a step back in time
“We should have gained more land beyond this temple when Siam and the British were discussing divisions,” says our driver firmly as we enter the grounds of Wat Chothara Singhe, a Buddhist temple in Tak Bai – one of the southernmost districts of Narathiwat province in Thailand’s Deep South.
“Back then, when the British called the Siamese for a meeting in Kelantan forest, our representatives couldn’t make it. They were so drunk that they’d passed out at this temple.”
The rest isn’t hard to guess.
The British, who had little patience with such disreputable behaviour, were terribly disappointed by the Siamese for keeping them waited in the malaria-infested jungle in Kelantan and showed their displeasure by announcing the land where the Siamese had snored off their excesses belonged to Siam, and that everything beyond that was under protection of the United Kingdom.
It’s an amusing tale and I laugh. And Wat Chothara Singhe is indeed the demarcation between Thailand and Malaysia. The truth, however, is very much the other way round.
The old Buddhist temple was established in 1873. During the negotiations between the UK and the Kingdom of Siam prior to the signing of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 dividing the land into what was to become Northern Malaysia and Southern Thailand, the Siamese insisted that the area around Chothara Singhe belonged to Siam. Both sides agreed on this point and the evidence is kept in the small temple museum, which also boasts life-sized models of the Siamese and British representatives, Prince Devawong Varoprakar and Ralph Paget, signing the treaty in Bangkok on March 10, 1909.
Tucked away in Thailand’s far south with the Gulf of Thailand lapping its beaches, Narathiwat is the easternmost of the four southern provinces that border Malaysia. Once a small coastal town village on the estuary of the Bang Nara River, it was known as Bang Nara until the visit of King Rama VI – who renamed it Narathiwat – literally “the land of good people”.
The southern coastal province has a centre for trade between Thailand’s South and Malaysia’s North ever since and over the years has drawn many Chinese to its shores. The town itself is a melting pot of ethnic diversity with Chinese shrines standing shoulder to shoulder with Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples.
While Narathiwat folk pursue different faiths, daily life binds them together. At the food market in
downtown Narathiwat, where vendors jostle to offer us fresh meat and vegetables, I observe elderly Chinese women and Muslim girls in their hijabs exchanging jokes while negotiating with the fisherman over the catch of the day. When they catch sight of our group, they giggle and poke fun at these camera-toting strangers.
“Local people are always enthralled by visitors,” says Joy, who is serving as our guide to Narathiwat. “They’re happy to have people from Bangkok or other parts of the country coming to visit. It makes them feel less alone.”
A few decades ago, Narathiwat was a popular destination with the 300-year-old Masjid Wadi Al-Husein, the Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary and its great hornbills as well as the traditional kolae boats in vivid colour drawing visitors. Today few visitors come, scared off by the ongoing insurgency in Thailand’s deep south.
We travel around Narathiwat with a fully armed security escort and are regularly required to stop at the checkpoints where young policemen make sure we’re “good people”. It reminds me of my trip to Lahore in Pakistan five years ago when I travelled to the museum and purchased pomegranate juice escorted by stern-looking security men carrying AK-47 rifles.
We visit Samanmit School in Yi-ngor district where the local Muslim teacher shares with us the revelations of God. On the table are several old copies of the Koran along with equally ancient tomes of folktales written in Arabic on parchment scrolls.
“Some of the Koran are 260 years old,” Mahamalutfee Hayesamae tells us, adding that he collects these old religious books. “We plan to build a Koran Museum here for people who are interested in the religious texts of Islam.”
Our driver also takes us along the beach, which is rustic, original and empty apart from a few children and some goats. For them, the biggest excitement of the day is the arrival of a fishing boat.
And what a fishing boat it is too! The traditional and colourful kolae are as unique as they are beautiful. In Tak Bai, we talk to local boat-builders – two Muslim brothers. They, like almost all the people I meet in Narathiwat, are quiet but warm-hearted and politely curious about the visitors in their midst. The elder brother builds the boat, while the younger one paints it.
“The kolae design combines Malay, Javanese and Thai culture” says one of the boat makers. “You can find plenty of boats like this along the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia, but unless they are painted like ours, they’re deadly dull.”
And so the local boat-builder creates artistic statements with such Thai patterns as running scrolls, the lotus, serpents, magic monkeys, and heads of birds found in the forest.
In Narathiwat, it’s said that a person without a kolae is like a man without clothes.
IF YOU GO
< Thai AirAsia operates daily flights between Bangkok and Narathiwat.