Pattani — the ‘Deep’ (and somewhat dangerous) South of Thailand
First, some advisories:
A. ADVISORY: For the last few years and decades there has been an ongoing insurgency in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat (the ‘deep south’ of Thailand). An average of 600 people has been killed per year between 2004-16. The Australian government strongly urges its citizens not to visit these provinces: “do not travel”. Having said this there is no blood on the streets, and life goes on normally for the vast majority of people. In comparison, approximately 400 people die every year from traffic accidents in the same region. You have been advised.
The Deep South of Thailand is comprised of three provinces, Pattani is the largest, the other two are Yala, and Narathiwat. Each province is within an hours bus ride to the other. This is a small area of the Kingdom of Thailand on the east coast of the country, far down the Malay Peninsular.
There is a great deal of information and misinformation about this region of Thailand. It only enters the public consciousness when a terrorist attack occurs and someone dies. Between the ongoing attacks, it is largely forgotten. The history of the conflict stretches back quiet-a-ways with allegations and blame on both sides. The kingdom of Pattani was always a dependency of the Thai people but has also always been Malay and Islamic in culture and religion, differing from Buddhist Thailand. This dependency began with the Sukhothai Kingdom of Thailand, five centuries ago. For a few years here and there Pattani was independent, but it was always brought back into the Thai fold.
Is Pattani Dangerous?
The current troubles began or began again in 2004. There are many different terrorist groups, with different goals, and a lack of serious organisation, which results in sporadic violence, usually directed against low-level officials and public spaces. Generally, the political demands revolve around independence or greater autonomy within Thailand. The Thai government regularly claims that it has the situation under control or proposes a new solution, but so far little has changed.
Why visit this region?
If your goal is to see all of Thailand, or if you want to see for yourself just what goes on, or if you simply have a wanderlust, then yes, you should visit the province of Pattani and the deep south of Thailand.
When you arrive you will be struck by the lack of obvious signs of the conflict. You might not know what to expect, but the only immediate indication of trouble is the greater military and police presence on the streets. You will first encounter this a few minutes after your bus or train crosses the provincial border. A soldier will enter and check your passport and the ID cards of Thai citizens. Between the border and your destination, the bus will pass through several other checkpoints.
In the city of Pattani itself, there were few signs of police or soldiers. There are a few areas around town where police and soldiers are stationed on duty with military vehicles, but that is usually it. You might feel inclined to expect far more. You can see the same level of uniformed presence in other parts of Thailand, largely directed against drug traffic and serious crime.
The towns and people are clearly of a Muslim majority. There are lots of head scarves, people in Malay/Muslim dress and a noticeable amount of Arabic script visible in the town. Having said this, there are the usual Thai public images: The Thai king and monarchy are highly visible on signs and placards, the usual list of public iconography—King Chulalongkorn and a City Pillar Shrine—and the usual public buildings.
The Pattani River runs through the middle of Pattani city but, surprisingly there is little river traffic, however, there are a large number of colourful fishing boats docked ready to sail out every morning into the Gulf of Thailand. The inland areas of the province are given over to agriculture, largely rice and cattle. There are apparently not the same large number of rubber trees here as they are in the rest of southern Thailand.
For a tourist, there is not much in the Deep South. There is one good hotel in the three province region, the CS Pattani Hotel in Pattani town, which is rather low cost for what it is. Recommended if you find yourself here—bargain, big discounts are on offer. If the province did not have the reputation that it does more tourists would visit the beaches and the islands of the region, as they do for the provinces to the immediate north.
Curiously, Pattani was one of the first areas of Thailand to regularly trade with foreigners. In the old part of town, there are still Portuguese styled buildings.
One minor cultural practice, bird chirping contests!
Every weekend and every holiday, at a small stadium at the Pattani city centre is a bird chirping contest (and an excuse to discreetly gamble). The birds reside in cages, and an elderly gentleman earnestly listens to each bird. This game is pursued assiduously and in good humour, but only by men—this is a male sport. The winner is the owner of the bird that is the first to chirp a certain number of times. This is a popular past-time for the men in the city, a chance to relax, brag about your bird, and share a beer. If you wander by expect to be warmly welcomed and invited to sit.
If you do find yourself in Pattani, be assured that the town does have the basic amenities. There is a Big C (a supermarket chain) to the west of the town, 7-11s and so forth. There are a number of smaller and cheaper hotels in the city centre, but no outstanding coffee shops or restaurants.
How to get to Pattani
Getting to Pattani is simple enough, there is no train or air link, so “The Road”, bus or car. There are lots of buses from the nearby provinces and direct buses from Bangkok (up to 18 hours!).
Be advised: there seems to be a scam carried out by the local tour operators to persuade travellers to take mini-buses on journeys between the towns in southern Thailand. These mini-buses cost several times as much as a normal bus. For example, 1000 baht (~$35) between Trang and Pattani ~250kms, as compared to 200 baht for a VIP bus. A clear difference. Take the local bus!
Be advised: Thai sim cards, which work without restriction in other parts of Thailand, require re-activation before they can be used in Pattani. Cost half an hour and 50 baht.
Oh, yes, expect to see zero other tourists.