The little province of Satun is situated way, way down at the bottom of the Thai map. It is as far south as you can go; the next stop is Malaysia, and indeed it was in that country that Satun first came to my attention more than 20 years ago.
I was on my way to Thailand and Satun looked interesting, chiefly because of a set of islands there collectively called Tarutao.
Picturesque Tarutao used to be home to 3,000 political prisoners some 70 years ago.
How fascinating is that? Thailand used to have thousands of political prisoners back in the World War II era! This country has a history of forward-thinking people who refuse to toe the line, which explains why locals still haven't got the hang of queues even in 2013.
Apparently some 10,000 prisoners passed through the ''secret prison'' of Tarutao. One of them was a fellow named Sor Sethaputra, whose great-granddaughter I met at the National Book Fair only a few years back.
Sor Sethaputra, a political activist, didn't spent his time idly in this paradise. He wrote the definitive English-Thai dictionary, which is still in popular use to this day. I get a buzz looking up a word in his dictionary knowing he was translating it on a remote island off the coast of Thailand.
Even more interesting: Owing to World War II food shortages, a group of Tarutao prisoners took over a supplies boat and thus became feared pirates in the region.
In March, 1946, British troops then governing Malaysia quelled the pirates but for a while they were even more fearsome than any current-day Thai immigration officer on the Malaysian border.
The jail closed in 1949. Tarutao became Thailand's first marine national park in the same year that Captain and Tennille had a hit with Love Will Keep Us Together; the ability to make a connection between those two facts means you need to go on the wagon for a day or two.
From the moment I set foot in Thailand in 1989 it was my plan to visit Satun and Tarutao. Back in those days the islands were closed for six months of the year owing to the monsoon season.
It was a two or three-day trip from Bangkok, too _ an eternity even for the backpacking set, of which I was firmly a member.
For those first few years Satun was in the back of my mind, a place I would visit on my annual holidays ''next year'', until finally the memory began to fade away for reasons related to my never having climbed onto that aforementioned wagon.
We must now leave that fascinating moment in time and jump ahead a decade and a half or so.
It is now the mid-noughties, and on a trip to the far-flung province of Mukdahan in the Northeast, I realise there aren't many provinces I have yet to visit in this wonderful country.
Fifteen years on the lecture circuit meant I have criss-crossed Thailand an inordinate number of times.
I have kept a daily diary for the last 25 years of my life, and one of the benefits of such obsessive-compulsive behaviour is that I can go back and do quick fact checks on my own life whenever I want, facilitated by end-of-year lists I made.
(Those are the benefits. One of the drawbacks is that while checking such facts, one comes across all those phases of one's life normal people manage to forget or gloss over, like my Asti Spumante drinking phase back in 1991. What was I thinking?)
One such list was ''PROVINCES I HAVE VISITED'', which I kept up for the first 10 years of my stay here before it mysteriously dropped off the lists page in 1999. Perhaps the heralding of a new millennium meant I had to grow up.
Nevertheless in 2005 I did a quick count. Of Thailand's 76 provinces, I had been to 66 of them.
Over the next few years I made a point of visiting those remaining provinces. These were the provinces generally off the TAT tourist maps, places you only went for weddings or reluctant visits to betel-nut chewing mothers of your newest ''friend''.
Nong Bua Lam Phu, for example, was visited thanks to a funeral of somebody I never knew in life. I went to Amnat Charoen for a wedding.
Trat was for a drunken monk ordination; my strongest recollection of that province was my head in Shell, Bangjak and PTT petrol station toilet bowls the next morning in that order on the trip home.
By the year 2008 there was a tingle in my loins as I realised I had one single province left to make all 76.
And how ironic _ that province was Satun.
For five long years I traversed this country, wondering how and when I would make it to Satun.
I got close once. Satun's northern neighbour is the Thai province of Trang, and in 2009 I was invited to give a speech there.
Upon arriving at the hall I was greeted by Trang's movers and shakers, accompanied by wives whose hairdos could have prevented them from cranial fracture in the event of an unfortunate accident whilst on the back of a motorcycle.
''Welcome to Trang,'' they said, offering me a garland and standing beneath a banner with my face on it. ''Is there anything special you would like to see while you are here?''
''Yes,'' I answered. ''Satun.''
What was I thinking? Saying such a thing was tantamount to arriving in Australia and asking to see all the New Zealanders.
It was meant as a joke, but the ensuing explanation of my wanting to visit all 76 provinces found me digging an even deeper hole for myself.
Earlier this month, my provincial mania all came to an end.
I picked up a hire car from Hat Yai in the southern province of Songkhla, and set off on a 95km road journey. And where was I heading?
At 3.30pm on Friday, Feb 22, 2013, I crossed over. From Songkhla province to ... Satun.
And what a province it is, too. I definitely saved the best for last.
This is your province if you want to visit picture-perfect Muslim fishing villages, vast tracts of mangroves, or idyllic beaches not violated by banana boats and weather-beaten masseurs in sarongs that haven't seen a washing machine since last Songkran.
Not only that, the food is sensational and the people are genuinely friendly. As for the islands of Tarutao, well, it was a work trip but now I know how to get there at least.
This is how my little story about my province-counting quest should end _ happily, with Andrew having finally made it to that place he dreamed of visiting 24 years ago, and all 76 provinces having been visited.
Except for one thing.
In March, 2011, the Thai government in its infinite wisdom felt the country didn't have enough administrative regions, nor enough politicians and civil servants. So it created a new province.
Thus the 77th province of Bung Kan (rhymes with Chaka Khan) came into the world, the right-hand fragment of the Province Formerly Known as Nong Khai.
Do you have any idea how that cuts into the heart of an obsessive compulsive like myself?
Trust me. I will get there. I have overcome greater obstacles in my life.
I'll be standing on the plains of Bung Kan soon, wondering what I should start collecting next now that I have all the provinces under my belt. Asti Spumante bottles, perhaps? Get outta here.
About the author
- Writer: Andrew Biggs