Alternative Visa Runs from Phuket
Betong & Malaysia
Trip Done: Nov 2001
Betong is about as far south as you can go in Thailand. This was the first 'alternative visa run' I ever did. It was back in 2001 before the unrest in the southern Muslim provinces re-emerged. Now, I guess most foreigners would rule out a visit this far south. I certainly do not plan on going back down there until the security situation improves.
Apart from getting a new passport stamp, there was an ulterior motive for my visit to Betong. My girlfriend at the time (future wife) had lived in Betong for several years and had many friends there. She hadn't seen them for a couple of years so she wanted to visit.
We took an overnight bus to Hat Yai arriving at 5am. From there we needed a bus to Yala. The first Yala bus was already full. However, the first class buses are usually happy to squeeze in extra passengers, so they gave us a blanket, pillow and a place to lie down behind the back seat. Fantastic, I have never slept so well on a bus. We were in Yala by 8am.
From Yala, we got a bus to Betong. This is quite a ride. For four hours, the old bus rattled along the winding road through the jungle. There is very little development on this road. Just a few villages spread thinly along the route between lots and lots of jungle. It is a spectacular ride.
We arrived in Betong and booked into a hotel. A quick shower and freshen up and we went to meet my girlfriend's old friends. She used to run a beauty salon in town so that is where we went. It was a surprise visit, she had not told them we were coming. When we arrived, there were screams of delight and hugs all round.
I felt a little sidelined but I was soon introduced and given a seat. A few minutes later, some food was put in my lap and not long after, a beer arrived. There were several women working in the salon and they all took turns to introduce themselves. Back then, I had been in Thailand not much more than a year. My Thai language skills were still rudimentary. Just the same, I got the message. They were all very happy to see us.
The mobile phones were going into overdrive and soon more old friends started to arrive and a party was taking place. An old guy arrived and sat down next to me. I realised he had been called to keep me company. A typically Thai gesture, they could not leave a guest isolated.
He introduced himself and with my limited Thai skills, we chatted over a couple of beers. His name was Nok and he was the 'poo yai' (headman) of a village just outside town where he had a small rubber plantation. He invited me to come with him and take a look. I was not sure but my girlfriend thought it was a good idea so off we went on the back of his motorbike.
He gave me a tour of the rubber plantation. I had never seen one close up before so it was interesting. Then he took me to his house. A big, rickety, wooden building on top of a hill. He had a huge barrel of catfish. He threw in a handful of food and they tore into it like piranhas. Inside was a wall of old family photos although there was no family at home. His wife was dead and the children were grown and living in Bangkok.
Next, he showed me a big motorbike which I think he had made himself from spare parts. He invited me to sit on the back and took me for a tour of the local area. We were soon riding parallel to the border wall that separates Thailand from Malaysia. It is about 8 foot high with barbed wire along the top. Every few hundred yards there were steps to the top so I asked if I could climb up and take a look. Nok said I could but I must not go to the other side because there were mines. Not sure if that is true but I wasn't planning on any border incursions. I climbed the steps and looked across - nothing but jungle as far as the eye could see.
Nok took me back to his village and introduced me to a few of the guys who worked on his plantation. He asked me if I wanted to have a beer with them. I said yes so we went to the local store to buy some. Nok asked me how many bottles so I realised I was buying. It seemed like a fair exchange for the tour so I bought six large bottles of Leo, one for each guy.
We sat around a table at the back of the store and they started asking me questions in that Thai way that some find intrusive but is really just their way of getting to know you. I was pleasantly surprised with my Thai language skills. I could understand a lot of what they were saying and could even make myself understood much better than I expected. They were all clearly delighted to have a farang guest and laughed a lot.
The beer went down quickly and some more bottles appeared. Apparently, it was no longer my round. We drank until dusk before Nok returned me to the party at the salon.
The reason Nok comes so strongly to mind is that we recently received the news he had died. He had a heart attack while riding his big bike. He was sixty years old. I cannot help but imagine him spending his evenings alone in that rickety old house on the hill, looking at the photos of his family and himself when he was young. I only met him for those few days in Betong and would have loved to see him again. He was a great old guy.
By the time I got back to the salon, I was more than a little drunk. From feeling sidelined at the start of the party, I suddenly felt like I was the life of the party. I played with the children and mingled with the women. A couple of the guys from the plantation showed up to join the fun. I knew I was hammered but the beer kept flowing.
I woke up in our hotel room with a stunning headache and no memory of how I got there. My girlfriend was not happy with me. Apparently, at the end of the night I had suggested everyone go to a karaoke bar for more drinks. When she had said I was too drunk I had replied she was crazy in front of her friends. Damn that demon drink - I had wanted to make a good impression.
It was visa stamp day. I was still feeling rather hung-over and humbled when one of my girlfriend's friends picked us up and took us to the border checkpoint. I did the usual stamping routine. All the Thais here just drive across the border without worrying about passports or border passes. We did a little shopping in Malaysia and then returned.
We returned to the salon where light was made of my previous night's indiscretions. My embarrassment eased and I began to feel a little better.
We stayed five days in Betong. Most days I had a beer or two with Nok and the gang. My girlfriend introduced me to lots of lovely people and they all made me feel so welcome. It is a shame to think of all the troubles in the south now.
I often hear people complaining about the Thais. How they always try to rip off foreigners or treat westerners like walking ATMs. I have to say that when I travel around Thailand I just don't see it. I have never had anything but good experiences with them. I'm sure these things do happen but I also tend to think that the victims have often helped bring their misfortune upon themselves.
Betong has a few attractions. Just out of town are some hot water springs where visitors can boil eggs. There are also some nice waterfalls in the surrounding forests. There is the Piyamit Tunnel built by communist insurgents as a hideout and air raid shelter.
Betong also has the world's biggest postbox - a British style red pillar-box.