For those heading to or from the ritzy and heady resorts of Southern Thailand, this is an authentic view of modern Thailand’s everyday life.
An epic line through the many hearts of Thailand – economical, environmental and historical. And an audacious nation-building attempt by one of Thailand’s greatest kings.
The Death Railway, or the Thai-Burma Railway, is a train made infamous by a horrific wartime atrocity upon prisoners of war, and then famous by a brilliant (albeit semi-fictional) book and movie – The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The train still operates as a regular Thailand regional train, and also for tourists and survivors to get to the museums and memorials in Kanchanaburi and Hellfire Pass, the River Kwai Bridge, and the nearby Erawan National Park.
But there’s a lot more to this story than what is told in the Bridge on the River Kwai. And, with the train from Bangkok cutting past ancient towns, quirky places, and transitions in Thailand’s geology and modern society, there are surprises along the way that are not tragic at all.
“City of 100 islands, delicious rambutan, big shells and red eggs, centre of Buddhism” – Surat Thani.
The “100 islands” refer especially to the islands of Koh Samui, Phangan, and Tao, the three jewels of the province’s tourism economy. If you’re headed to the Island, this is a good place to do it from. Getting to Lombrayah Tapee Pier to take the ferry should be a 30 minute drive, but (as is also the case in Chumphon), the local van racket may cause annoyances and delays. Private transport would be preferable if you have the means.
Also, if you’re headed to Phuket, this is a good a place as any to arrange that. I took that bus once, and it was surprisingly picturesque as it went through the Phuket Range (the mountains that also have Khao Sok National Park) and then along the coast north of Phuket. I can’t guarantee you’ll take the same route, but doing it during daylight hours might have its rewards.
If you haven’t come across them, the “delicious Rambutan” they refer to is an like a punk version of a lychee. They’re red and spikey looking. “Rambut” means ‘hair’ in Malay. In Vietnamese they’re called “Chom Chom”, meaning “messy hair”. They were brought here by Chinese traders centuries ago. I never liked them, but most people think I’m mad. If you’re here in August, you might catch the Rambutan Fair in which decorated floats cruise the Tapi River.
The “Centre of Buddhism” refers to some of the historically important pagodas built in the province (rather than the city itself). The Chak Phra Festival of Surat Thani is a big one: held in October. It symbolises the return of the Lord Buddha to earth at the end of Buddhist Lent. Decorated floral floats shaped into creaturs of Buddhist folklore parade around streets and down the Tapi river. A “Grand Final” parade is also accompanied by boat races. It seems to be held on 6 October, but you might want to check in case there are changes due to the Buddhist lunar calendar.
The “Big Shells” refer to the historically abundant shellfish.
Ban Thung Pho Junction is the point the southern line has a small branch down to Khiri Rat Nikhom.
Originally, the branch down to Khiri Rat Nikhom was meant to go all the way to Phuket. But construction stopped in 1956, and it seems to no longer be a priority. Not many tourists head that way. While taking the train will get you half way to Khao Sok National Park, which is gorgeous, you’re still going to have to go the rest of the way by road.
If you’re seeing neat rows of trees on the Thai Southern Line, and its not oil palm, its probably rubber trees. They’re amazing.
The tree is not particularly remarkable to look at. It can grow to a hight of around 43 metres, but the plantations don’t usually let them get that big because the younger trees produce more latex. The latin name, Hevea Brasiliensis, gives away that it is not local to this part of the world, but mesoamerica, where people had been producing rubber as early as 1600BC.
To make rubber, the trunk of the rubber tree is cut at around 30-degrees in a spiral working up from the bottom, where a cup is placed to collect the milky latex sap as it oozes out of the trunk. This is then mixed with formic acid to coagulate and harden into a semi-solid state, and then pressed through a ringer in a similar way you might make sheets of pasta. This creates a bathmat-sized flap of what looks disturbingly like skin. You might see these hanging out to dry on racks as you steam past rubber estates.
These collected latex skins can then be “vulcanised” – or heated with sulphur to create a polymer that can be strong and durable enough to make a good, say, ice hockey puck, bowling ball, tractor tyre, or stilleto heel. But it can also be chemically manipulated to be plyable enough to be a swimming cap, bungee cord, or balloon.
Blink and you’ll miss Chaiya. But there seems to be a lot of history buried beneath.
Chaiya is a northern city of the Srivijaya Kingdom – the first unified Kingdom to dominate the Malay archipelago from the 600s to the 1300s. At its greatest extent, it stretched from near south down to Java.
In a time before borders, kingdoms’ extents were defined more by patronage of individual city states, or “mandalas”. During the time when the Dvaravati Kingdom was ruling in the North from the mandala of Lavo near modern Bangkok, the city of Chaiya was a northern centre of Srivijaya power and trade, and is argued by some (mainly Thai) historians, that it was at some point even the capital of the Srivijaya kingdom.
The Srivijaya kingdom was also a major condiut for the expansion of Buddhism into the region. Srivijaya attracted pilgrims and scholars from other parts of Asia, including China and India, and supposedly had thousands of resident Buddhist scholars.
Its definitely hard to see any of this from the train, but if you got out here and really looked around, you would find evidence of all this. There are a few ruins of temples, and a “folk museum” which houses some of the treasures that have been dug up.
As we head South on the Thai Southern Line, we head more and more into the Islamic World. Thailand’s relationship with Islam is an interesting one.
About 5% of Thais are muslims, mostly Sunnis. They are mostly either in Bangkok, or in the southernmost provinces torwards Malaysia.
Ethnically, there are indigenous Thai muslims, as well as muslims from Malay, Chinese, Javanese, Acehnese and South Asian ethnic origins. In more recent decades, ethnic Rohingya and other South Asian decendent muslims have come from Myanmar – mainly as refugees – and scattered throughout Thailand’s refugee camps and areas closer to the Myanmar border.
The popular assumption seems to be that Islam is the dominant faith in the southernmost provinces of Satun, Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat, and are an exception to an otherwise religiously and ethnically homogenous country. My sources tell me that somewhere between 60 to 70% of Thais in these provinces most southern provinces are still Buddhists, and are from different ethnicities.
I figure that this popular misconception is likely fueled by the politicising of violence that has occurred in the southern regions for decades, which has been deemed as “separatist” by the government or by popular media.
Having spent quite a few years in countries with conflicts and even violence, I know that all conflicts stem from mixed causes of identity, politics, and economics, and that media can often prey on our human failings to blow things out of proportion and sway popular opinion. So if I tried to summarise the nature or causes of the conflict in this humble format, at best I’d present half-truths based on disputed sources that are likely to just offend people. Best not.
At present, martial law seems to be in place in the 4 southernmost provinces (those that border the Malaysian border) since 2006. So do check the appropriate sources before you plan a vacation there.
“Lang Suan, city of fruits, paddle boat race, source of durian, royal garden”
The slogan of Lang Suan city is quite specific. 4 things. So you pretty much know everything about it already.
What isn’t included is the Suan Nai Dum park, which is a kind of highway stop not far form here that has attracted national attention because he succeeded in building the country’s best toilet. Mr. Dum (real name) has built an idyllic and hygienic toilet is surrounded by nature, with flowers, trees and miniature waterfalls. He has since built it out into a large garden crisscrossed with walkways between themed toilet scenes.
The 77km Panama Canal was completed in 1920, the 164km Suez Canal was completed in 1872. The Chinese started building their 1,776km Grand Canal in the 5th Century BC. So why can’t the Thai, in this day and age, build canal 44km, which is the narrowest width of the Isthmus of Kra, which would cut through here? It would link the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, cutting out a huge
By my calculations, this would cut out around 850km from East Asia to Europe. Currently, 25% of the world’s sea cargo goes around Singapore and through the Straits of Malacca – a congested, somewhat shallow, sometimes hazy, and sometimes piratey stip of sea between Malaysia and Sumatra.
This certainly isn’t an original idea. King Narai thought of it back in the 1600s, and it has been revisited and decided against by every king and prime minister ever since.
The growth of East Asia and China’s reliance on middle-eastern oil has meant that the idea continues to come up of late. It is estimated that Thai Canal, or cross-Isthmus pipeline, would reduce the price of oil in East Asia by 50c per barrel. China’s has recently built an oil pipeline thousands of kilometres long across the whole of Myanmar to cut out the strategic risk of the Malacca Straits, so its no surprise that China has offered to build and pay for the whole thing.
Yet there are a few reasons why the idea has always been a non-starter. The first and most obvious reasons is a basic cost-benefit: it is thought to be hugely costly, especially when considering the environmental costs of digging up sensitive ecosystems and dumping all the dirt somewhere else, and there are concerns that it wouldn’t actually be used all that much because Singapore is just a great hub for shipping services.
The more interesting reasons why the Thai Canal is a non-starter are political. For one, the Singaporeans certainly wouldn’t want their regional trade monopoly to be broken. Singapore was built on shipping, and it still forms a hugely important part of its economy. The estimates in the potential loss of their shipping stand at 30%.
Finally, having a galge carved out of Thailand around here would form a separating barrier between Thailand’s dominant North and its seccessionist South. Whether logistically, militarily, physchologically, or just symbolically, building Canals is thought to be as bad as building walls, and Thailand’s leaders don’t want it.
So, it remains just an interesting idea.