The frontier between Thailand and Malaysia carves across the peninsula six degrees north of the equator, but the cultures of the two countries shade into each other much further north. According to official divisions, the southern Thais – the Thai Pak Tai – begin around Chumphon, and as you move further down the peninsula into Thailand’s deep south you’ll see ever more sarongs, yashmaks and towering mosques, and hear with increasing frequency a staccato dialect that baffles many Thais. Here too, you’ll come across caged singing doves outside many houses, as well as strange-looking areas spiked with tall metal poles, on which the cages are hung during regular cooing competitions; and you’ll spot huge, hump-backed Brahma bulls on the back of pick-up trucks, on their way to bullfights (in the Thai version, beast is pitted against beast, and the first to back off is the loser).
In Trang and Phatthalung provinces, the Muslim population is generally accepted as being Thai, but the inhabitants of the southernmost provinces – Satun, Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and most of Songkhla – are ethnically more akin to the Malays: most of the 1.5 million followers of Islam here speak a dialect of Malay and write Yawi, an old modification of Arabic script to reflect Malay pronunciation. To add to the ethnic confusion, the region has a large urban population of Chinese, whose comparative wealth makes them stand out sharply from the Muslim farmers and fishermen.
The touristic interest in the deep south is currently all over on the beautiful west coast, where sheer limestone outcrops, pristine sands and fish-laden coral stretch down to the Malaysian border. Along Trang’s mainland coast, there’s a 30km stretch of attractive beaches, dotted with mangroves and impressive caves that can be explored by sea canoe, but the real draw down here is the offshore islands, which offer gorgeous panoramas and beaches, great snorkelling and at least a modicum of comfort in their small clusters of resorts. An added attraction is the recently introduced, scheduled boat services which have set up the intriguing possibility of island-hopping: it would now be possible to work your way down from Phuket as far as Penang without setting foot on the peninsula. The spread of tourism outwards from Phuket has been inching its way south down this coast for some time, but for now, apart from the tiny, remote but overcrowded honeypot of Ko Lipe, the islands remain largely undeveloped.
The central area of the Malay peninsula first entered Thai history when it came under the sway of Sukhothai, probably around the beginning of the fourteenth century. Islam was introduced to the area by the end of that century, by which time Ayutthaya was taking a firmer grip on the peninsula. Songkhla and Pattani then rose to be the major cities, prospering on the goods passed through the two ports across the peninsula to avoid the pirates in the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and Sumatra. More closely tied to the Muslim Malay states to the south, the Sultanate of Pattani began to rebel against the power of Ayutthaya in the sixteenth century, but the fight for self-determination only weakened Pattani’s strength. The town’s last rebellious fling was in 1902, after which it was definitively and brutally absorbed into the Thai kingdom, while its allies, Kedah, Kelantan and Trengganu, were transferred into the suzerainty of the British in Malaysia.
During World War II the Communist Party of Malaya made its home in the jungle around the Thai border to fight the occupying Japanese. After the war they turned their guns against the British colonialists, but having been excluded from power after independence, descended into general banditry and racketeering around Betong. The Thai authorities eventually succeeded in breaking up the bandit gangs in 1989 through a combination of pardons and bribes, but the stability of the region soon faced disruption from another source, a rise in Islamic militancy.
Armed resistance to the Thai state by Muslim separatists had fluctuated at a relatively low level since the 1960s, but in early 2004 the violence escalated dramatically. Since then, there have been thousands of deaths on both sides in the troubles, and barely a day goes by without a fatal incident of one kind or another. The insurgents have viciously targeted Buddhist monks, police, soldiers, teachers and other civil servants, as well as attacking a train on the Hat Yai–Sungai Kolok line and setting off bombs in marketplaces, near tourist hotels and bars and at Hat Yai airport. Increasingly, they have attacked other Muslims who are seen to be too sympathetic to the Thai state.
Often writing the militants off as bandits, the authorities have stirred up hatred – and undermined moderate Muslim voices – by reacting violently, notably in crushing protests at Tak Bai and the much-revered Krue Se Mosque in Pattani in 2004, in which a total of over two hundred alleged insurgents died. Meanwhile, the army has “subcontracted” much of its work to rangers, untrained village militias, thus inflaming the situation further and deepening the ethnic divide. In 2005, the government announced a serious state of emergency in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces, and imposed martial law here and in southern parts of Songkhla province. This, however, has exacerbated economic and unemployment problems in what is Thailand’s poorest region.
A large part of the problem is that a wide variety of shadowy groups – with names like the Pattani Islamic Mujahideen, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate and Runda Kumpulan Kecil – are operating against the government, generally working in small cells at village level without central control. Rather than religious issues, the most likely causes of their militancy are ethnic grievances: prejudice, lack of opportunity and disempowerment, accompanied by resentment towards not only Thais but also the remote and corrupt Muslim elite. However, it’s unclear exactly who they are or what they want and, faced with such shifting sands, all attempts to broker a ceasefire have failed.
Because of the ongoing violence in the deep south, all major Western governments are currently advising people not to travel to or through Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces unless essential, and nearly all are advising against travel to Songkhla province too; following on from this, insurance companies are refusing to cover travel in the affected areas. The four provinces encompass the city and transport hub of Hat Yai and several of the main border crossings to Malaysia: by rail from Hat Yai (and Bangkok) to Butterworth via Padang Besar and to Sungai Kolok; and by road from Hat Yai via Sadao, from Yala via Betong, and down the east coast to Kota Bharu.
The routes to Sungai Kolok, Betong and Kota Bharu pass through particularly volatile territory, with martial law declared in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces; however, martial law is only in effect in certain districts of Songkhla province, and not in Hat Yai itself.
The provinces of Trang and Satun are not affected, and it’s still perfectly possible to continue overland to Malaysia via Satun: by a/c minibus from nearby Ban Khuan to Kangar, or by ferry from Thammalang to Kuala Perlis or the Malaysian island of Langkawi; or by boat from Ko Lipe to Langkawi. For up-to-the-minute advice, consult your government travel advisory.
TRANG (also known as Taptieng) is gradually developing as a popular jumping-off point for travellers drawn south from the crowded sands of Krabi to the pristine beaches and islands of the nearby coast. The town, which prospers on rubber, oil palms, fisheries and – increasingly – tourism, is a sociable place whose wide, clean streets are dotted with crumbling, wooden-shuttered houses. In the evening, the streets are festooned with colourful lights, and during the day, many of the town’s Chinese inhabitants hang out in the cafés, drinking the local filtered coffee. Trang’s Chinese population makes the Vegetarian Festival in October or November almost as frenetic as Phuket’s – and for veggie travellers it’s an opportunity to feast at the stalls set up around the temples.
From Pak Meng, 40km due west of Trang town, down to the mouth of the Trang River runs a 30km-long stretch of lovely beaches, broken only by dramatic limestone outcrops. A paved road roughly parallels this stretch of coast, but otherwise there’s surprisingly little development, as the shoreline is technically part of Hat Chao Mai National Park.
At the south end of Hat Yao is BAN CHAO MAI (also called Ban Hat Yao), a straggle of houses on stilts, which exists on fishing, especially for crabs. From the harbour, boats run regularly across to Ko Libong, and this is the mainland ferry stop on Tigerline’s Lanta–Lipe route. The owners of Had Yao Nature Resort by the harbour organize guided and fully insured trips by longtail and canoe through the mangroves to the nearby cave of Tham Chao Mai (B800/person in a group of four or more, including lunch; ten percent discount for guests at the resort); inside are impressively huge rock pillars and a natural theatre, its stage framed by rock curtains. The resort also rents out two-person kayaks (B200 for the first hour, B100/hr thereafter) if you want to do the trip by yourself, with a map and head-torch (B100 rental), as well as offering tours to the local islands, including highly recommended dugong-watching trips to Ko Libong.
Generally blessed with blinding white beaches, great coral and amazing marine life, the islands off the coast of Trang and Satun provinces have managed, mostly with just a handful of resorts on each, to cling onto some of that illusory desert-island atmosphere which better-known places like Phuket and Samui lost long ago. Indeed, islands such as Ko Hai and Ko Kradan support no permanent settlements other than the bungalow concerns, while on Ko Tarutao and Ko Adang in the far south, the peace and quiet is maintained by the national parks department; at the other end of the scale, however, nearby Ko Lipe is developing at its own merry pace and now boasts over forty resorts, as well as a substantial chao ley village.
KO HAI (also known as KO NGAI), 16km southwest of Pak Meng, is the most developed of the Trang islands, though it’s still decidedly low-key. The island’s action, such as it is, centres on the east coast, where half a dozen resorts enjoy a dreamy panorama of jagged limestone outcrops, whose crags glow pink and blue against the setting sun, stretching across the sea to the mainland behind. The gently sloping beach of fine, white sand here runs unbroken for over 2km (though at low tide, swimming is not so good at the northern end, which is scattered with dead coral), and there’s some good snorkelling in the shallow, clear water off the island’s southeastern tip.
You can rent snorkelling equipment (B100/day at Coco Cottage, for example) and kayaks (B50/hr at Koh Ngai Villa, for example) at most of the resorts. All the resorts offer boat trips (B1500/boat, or B300/person in a group of six, at Ko Hai Seafood, for example) that take in the Emerald Cave on Ko Mook and some snorkelling off Ko Hai. (Ko Cheuak, just to the southeast of Ko Hai, is currently off-limits to visitors to protect the coral, which was badly bleached during a sudden rise in sea temperatures in 2010 – avoid any place that offers trips there.) Ko Hai Seafood can also put together overnight snorkelling and camping trips to Ko Rok for B2300 per person.
Towards the southern end of the beach, Fantasy Resort has a well-organized dive shop, the German-run Rainbow Divers.
KO MOOK, about 8km southeast of Ko Hai, supports a comparatively busy fishing village on its eastern side, around which – apart from the sandbar that runs out to the very pricey Sivalai Resort – most of the beaches are disappointing, reduced to dirty mud flats when the tide goes out. However, across on the island’s west coast lies beautiful Hat Farang, with gently shelving white sand, crystal-clear water that’s good for swimming and snorkelling, and gorgeous sunsets.
The island’s main source of renown is Tham Morakhot, the stunning “Emerald Cave” north of Hat Farang on the west coast, which can only be visited by boat, but shouldn’t be missed. An 80m swim through the cave – 10m or so of which is in pitch darkness – brings you to a hong with an inland beach of powdery sand open to the sky, at the base of a spectacular natural chimney whose walls are coated with dripping vegetation. Chartering your own longtail or taking a trip with Ko Mook Nature Beach Resort (B200/person, in a group of four or more) is preferable to taking one of the big day-trip boats that originate on Lanta or Pak Meng: if you time it right, you’ll get the inland beach all to yourself, an experience not to be forgotten. It’s also easy enough to kayak there from Hat Farang (from B100/hr from Sawaddee), and at low tide you can paddle right through to the inland beach: buoys mark the cave entrance, from where a tunnel heads straight back into the rock; about halfway along, there’s a small, right-hand kink in the tunnel which will plunge you briefly into darkness, but you should soon be able to see light ahead from the hong. Mid-afternoon is often a good time to paddle off on this trip, after the tour boats have left and providing the tide is right.
In addition to the services mentioned below, there are plenty of island-hopping options.
Most of Hat Farang is unfortunately occupied by the disappointing Charlie’s Resort, leaving room only for one other resort, Sawaddee. However, Rubber Tree and Had Farang make the best of the attractive, shady slopes behind the beach, while Ko Mook Nature Beach Resort is away on the east side of the island near the village.
About 6km to the southwest of Ko Mook, KO KRADAN is the remotest of the inhabited islands off Trang, and one of the most beautiful, with crystal-clear waters. On this slender triangle of thick jungle, the main beach is a long strand of steeply sloping, powdery sand on the east coast, with fine views of Ko Mook, Ko Libong and the karst-strewn mainland, and an offshore reef to the north with a great variety of hard coral; such beauty, however, has not escaped the attention of the day-trip boats from Ko Lanta, who turn the beach into a lunchtime picnic ground most days in summer. From a short way north of the Anantara beach club, which is located towards the south end of this beach, a path across the island will bring you after about fifteen minutes to Sunset Beach, another lovely stretch of fine, white sand in a cove; a branch off this path at Paradise Lost leads to a beach on the short south coast, which enjoys good reef snorkelling (also about 15min from the Anantara beach club).
The largest of the Trang islands with a population of six thousand, KO LIBONG lies 10km southeast of Ko Mook, opposite Ban Chao Mai on the mainland. Less visited than its northern neighbours, it’s known mostly for its wildlife, although it has its fair share of golden beaches too. Libong is one of the most significant remaining refuges in Thailand of the dugong, a large marine mammal similar to the manatee, which feeds on sea grasses growing on the sea floor – the sea-grass meadow around Libong is reckoned to be the largest in Southeast Asia. Sadly, dugongs are now an endangered species, traditionally hunted for their blubber (used as fuel) and meat, and increasingly affected by fishing practices such as scooping, and by coastal pollution, which destroys their source of food. The dugong has now been adopted as one of fifteen “reserved animals” of Thailand and is the official mascot of Trang province.
Libong is also well known for its migratory birds, which stop off here on their way south from Siberia, drawn by the island’s food-rich mud flats (now protected by the Libong Archipelago Sanctuary, which covers the eastern third of the island). For those seriously interested in ornithology, the best time to come is during March and April, when you can expect to see brown-winged kingfishers, masked finfoots and even the rare black-necked stork, not seen elsewhere on the Thai–Malay peninsula.
The island’s handful of resorts occupy a long, thin strip of golden sand at the fishing village of Ban Lan Khao on the southwestern coast. At low tide here, the sea retreats for hundreds of metres, exposing rock pools that are great for splashing about in but not so good for a dip.
Libong Nature Beach Resort runs award-winning, day-long boat trips around Libong (B1200/person, including lunch, in a group of four or more; ten percent discount for guests), which are safe, insured and licensed with TAT, and staffed by local chao ley (sea gypsies) who know the dugong well. As well as visiting a chao ley village, these give you the chance to kayak into the sanctuary to observe the rare birds and to snorkel at the sea-grass beds – with, they reckon, an eighty percent chance of seeing a dugong. They also run day-trips to the Emerald Cave on Ko Mook and Ko Kradan (B1200/person, including lunch, in a group of four or more; ten percent discount for guests). If you’d rather explore below water than above, there’s a PADI dive shop, Jolly Roger, at Libong Beach Resort on the north side of Ban Lan Khao.
A good way south of the other Trang islands, low-lying KO SUKORN lacks the white-sand beaches and beautiful coral of its neighbours, but makes up for it with its friendly inhabitants, a laidback ambience and one excellent resort; for a glimpse of how islanders live and work, this is the place to come.
The lush interior is mainly given over to rubber plantations, interspersed with rice paddies, banana and coconut palms; the island also produces famously delicious watermelons, which are plentiful in March and April. Hat Talo Yai, the main beach – 500m of gently shelving brown sand, backed by coconut palms – runs along the southwestern shore.
Boat excursions from Sukorn Beach Bungalows include trips out to the islands of Ko Lao Liang and Ko Takieng, which are part of the Mu Ko Phetra National Marine Park, for some excellent snorkelling. These run nearly every day from November to May; at other times of year, the sea is sometimes calm enough but you’re usually restricted to fishing trips – and to looking round the island itself, which, at thirty square kilometres, is a good size for exploring. The resort offers guided tours, and has motorbikes (B250/half-day) and mountain bikes (B150/ half-day) for rent, as well as a handy map that marks all the sights, including the three villages and seafood market.
The unspoilt KO TARUTAO NATIONAL MARINE PARK is probably the most beautiful of all Thailand’s accessible beach destinations. Occupying 1400 square kilometres of the Andaman Sea in Satun province, the park covers 51 mostly uninhabited islands. Site of the park headquarters, the main island, Ko Tarutao, offers a variety of government-issue accommodation and things to do, while Ko Adang to the west is much more low-key and a springboard to some excellent snorkelling. The port of Pak Bara is the main jumping-off point for the park, and houses a national park visitor centre, set back on the left just before the pier, where you can gather information and book a room on Tarutao or Adang before boarding your boat.
The park’s forests and seas support an incredible variety of fauna: langurs, crab-eating macaques and wild pigs are common on the islands, which also shelter several unique subspecies of squirrel, tree shrew and lesser mouse deer; among the hundred-plus bird species found here, reef egrets and hornbills are regularly seen, while white-bellied sea eagles, frigate birds and pied imperial pigeons are more rarely encountered; and the park is the habitat of about 25 percent of the world’s tropical fish species, as well as dugongs, sperm whales, dolphins and a dwindling population of turtles.
The park amenities on Adang, though not on Tarutao, are officially closed to tourists in the monsoon season from mid-May to mid-November (the exact dates vary from year to year). Accommodation is especially likely to get full around the three New Years (Thai, Chinese and Western), when it’s best to book national park rooms in advance.
Access to the Trang and Satun islands from their nearest mainland ports is described in the individual island accounts, but what sets this area apart are the enticing opportunities for island-hopping, thanks to regular boat services in the tourist season out of Ko Lanta, further up the coast, which can be booked through any travel agent in the area. If you just fancy a day exploring some of the islands, any travel agent in Trang can book you on a boat trip (mid-Oct to mid-May only) to Ko Kradan, the Emerald Cave on Ko Mook, and other small nearby islands for snorkelling, for around B700/person including packed lunch and soft drinks.
Nestling in the last wedge of Thailand’s west coast, the remote town of SATUN is served by just one road, Highway 406, which approaches through forbidding karst outcrops. Set in a green valley bordered by limestone hills, the town is leafy and relaxing but not especially interesting, except during its small version of the Vegetarian Festival and its International Kite Festival at the end of February; the boat services to and from Kuala Perlis and Langkawi in Malaysia and Ko Lipe are the main reason for foreigners to come here.
From Thammalang pier, 10km south of Satun at the mouth of the river, boats leave when full on 45-minute trips (B150/person) to Kuala Perlis on the northwest tip of Malaysia, from where there are plentiful transport connections down the west coast; 9am is usually a good time to turn up at Thammalang for these boats, but they need a minimum of ten passengers (or B1500), which means that on some days they don’t run. Three ferry boats a day cross from Thammalang to the Malaysian island of Langkawi (1hr 15min; B300). The journey from Satun town to Thammalang is covered by orange songthaews (roughly every 30min; B40) from near the 7-Eleven supermarket on Thanon Sulakanukul, as well as chartered tuk-tuks (B150) and motorcycle taxis (B60–70).
It’s also possible to cross by road to Malaysia’s Kangar (which has bus connections to Penang and Kuala Lumpur) and Alor Setar through Thale Ban National Park, though a little tricky as the a/c minibuses (B300; about 2hr) depart from Ban Khuan, 20km or so up Highway 406 from Satun – contact local fixer On Kongnual, who owns the restaurant On's: The Kitchen, near the Sinkiat Thani Hotel, to arrange this.
Home to a population of around a thousand chao ley, tiny KO LIPE, 2km south of Ko Adang, is something of a frontier maverick, attracting ever more travellers with one dazzling beach, fifty or so private bungalow resorts and a rough-and-ready atmosphere. It’s technically a part of Ko Tarutao National Marine Park, but the authorities seem to have given up on the island and don’t collect an admission fee from visitors. A small, flat triangle, Lipe is covered in coconut plantations and supports a school and a health centre in the village on the eastern side. By rights, such a settlement should never have been allowed to develop within the national park boundaries, but the chao ley on Lipe are well entrenched: Satun’s governor forced the community to move here from Phuket and Ko Lanta between the world wars, to reinforce the island’s Thai character and prevent the British rulers of Malaya from laying claim to it.
The prime diving and snorkelling sites around Ko Lipe are around Ko Adang, Ko Rawi and Ko Dong, just to the north and west in Ko Tarutao National Marine Park, where encounters with reef and even whale sharks, dolphins and stingrays are not uncommon. Further afield to the south, advanced divers head for Eight Mile Rock, a pinnacle that rises to about 14m from the surface, with soft corals, mantas, leopard and whale sharks. A handful of dive shops operate on Lipe, and there are dozens of places offering snorkelling day-trips on chao ley longtail boats; snorkellers are liable to pay the park admission fee of B200, though some longtail captains will try to dodge the park rangers.