For years I’ve been exploring Southeast Asia on motorbikes. There is nothing I love more: the foolish freedom of flying along deserted rural roads through landscapes dominated by rice paddies and water buffalo. The raw acceleration of the dirt bikes that are popular throughout the region thrills me. They are probably an efficient means to committing suicide, but for me, the speed and solitude they offer outweigh the potential for self-destruction. And more important, they are the best way to dig deeper into a region that can, at times, seem infested with tourists.
Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos all have their charms. But when you’ve explored as much of Southeast Asia as I have, you crave more than Buddha statues and misty mountain vistas. I feel a pull toward places I’ve been told to stay away from, because often, these places offer the sense of discovery every traveler craves. The Muslim Deep South of Thailand, some 600 miles south of Bangkok on the northern border of Malaysia, is such a place. For nearly 10 years, a low-level civil war between Islamic radicals and the Thai government has tormented the three predominantly Malay-speaking provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala.
The violence deters many travelers, yet the region’s roads, perhaps perversely, seem inviting to me. They are in some sense wild, thronged by Thai army units, Muslim students in buses, and migrant workers—but no white farangs. These roads offer a glimpse into a Thailand that has largely disappeared. It is the only part of the country that still feels enigmatic, subtly inaccessible, and not comfortably westernized.
This past spring, I rented a motorbike in Hat Yai, the largest city in the Thai South, and set off for the city of Pattani with a plan to drive south through the town of Narathiwat en route to the Malay border town of Sungai Kolok.
Route 42 passes through quiet, flat landscapes of paddies, orchards, and lagoons. Schoolkids waiting for buses at the roadsides gave me a thumbs-up as I passed. When I arrived in Pattani, it was already dark. The streets were filled with thousands of parked motorbikes, but there was no trace of their owners. The 10 p.m. curfew had shut down the city. It was hard to think that only 200 miles from here the girly bars of Phuket were in full swing. In Muslim Pattani that night, I couldn’t get a beer. I couldn’t even get a wai, the ubiquitous Thai greeting.
The allure of Pattani is not the town itself but its proximity to beaches where no westerners ever set foot. The very word patani means “this beach” in the local Malay dialect. The next day I rode out to the coast. Boys in white skullcaps flew kites, and under the shade of palm trees, picnickers crouched with their cooking pots and coconut-splitting machetes. Not a bar or a scantily clad Buddhist girl in sight.
Back roads that swung along the sides of canals and estuaries led me back to the busier roads of Pattani. I stopped in the center of town at the Kiah Pattani Mosque, and I sat by the pool under its red and green domes. There was an ease to being an anomaly here, because I was such an unexpected apparition. A group of girls in navy uniforms came by, and 20 pairs of somber eyes seemed to ask why on earth I was there.
After another night in Pattani, I continued south. Route 43 becomes Route 42 and dives south to the curious little town of Narathiwat, where the mosques broadcast loud sermons continuously and the town’s cafés show Premier League soccer games on plasma screens to crowds of fierce Manchester United and Chelsea supporters. My attempts to quench my thirst in the dry town failed:
“Do you have beer,” I would ask, in Thai.
“Yes. But you cannot have any.”
The next morning I drove 40 miles south to Sungai Kolok. They had beer there. Sungai Kolok sits on a fetid river of houseboats and is best known for its Genting Hotel, where girls, music, and booze are all offered in a single building. I spent two evenings in the nightclub, where crooners played electric organs and sang ballads to a roomful of off-duty bar girls. The Malay men who had crossed the border to visit seemed shy and slightly ashamed. Outside, huge streetside mango trees were filled with raucous grackles, and a warm rain fell on me as I rode back to my hotel.
The following morning I heard a distant boom that could have been a bomb. Oddly, I was unconcerned. One adapts even to civil wars, provided they don’t prevent one from traveling enjoyable roads, discovering a deserted beach, or savoring a cold beer. The Thai South may never be an easy ride, and it will always be a bittersweet one—the bitterness of war preserving the sweetness of a place waiting to be discovered.
Illustration by Julien Pacaud. This appeared in the July/August 2012 issue.