A plea for peace
The travel advisory has been issued for years to warn visitors to avoid travelling to the Deep South where periodic violence occurs in Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and sometimes Hat Yai in Songkhla province.
But for travellers like me and my friends who had a chance to visit the southernmost provinces, we want to find a chance to come back as we are impressed with the people's hospitality, culture and unspoiled nature.
During the past several years, there have been many attempts from both private and government sectors to promote tourism in the provinces, especially through cultural events like the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra concert in Yala, the opening of the Art Space gallery in Pattani and the launch of the Korean Museum in Narathiwat
Recently, I had a chance to join the annual celebration of Chao Mae Lim Ko Nieo in the city of Pattani. The festival lasted a week and was lively and full of joy until I almost forgot that I was in the province where the majority of people are Muslims. The celebration attracted people from all walks of life including youths wearing hijabs and groups of tourists from Malaysia.
But developing tourism in the Deep South is still a big challenge. Although the record of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre shows that the overall security situation has improved, with the number of violent incidents in the region decreasing by 70% from 619 in 2011 to 140 last year, the conflict has not yet been resolved.
When things turn out well, some tourists will be at ease travelling to the Deep South, said a representative of the Tourism Authority of Thailand who is based in Narathiwat. But sooner or later the momentum will be gone when a shooting or bombing occurs.
"The incident scares visitors away. It is like we go nowhere because when we can walk one step further, we are forced to walk three steps backward all the time," she said.
Farida Abdulloh, a deputy village head of the Barahom community in Pattani, feels the same. She was happy while welcoming tourists like us to tour her village, but her face expressed sadness when she talked about the potential to develop tourism in her village. "We have tried hard to let visitors know about us, to visit us or spend their time experiencing our simple way of life as fishermen, but most visitors fear to come to Pattani," she said.
Barahom is a small fishing community in Pattani's Muang district. They have fresh seafood, unique craft woodworks and an old cemetery of kings and queens of Pattani state, dating to the Ayutthaya period, as selling points for their villages.
Sadly, some locals realise that the chance of success in pushing their community as a tourist destination is very slim, but they like to try because if tourists come, it means increased chances to sell their goods, and more people will be employed to offer services. It can help many villagers earn extra income so that they won't have to cross the border to find jobs in Malaysia.
The Tourism Department is also putting in its own effort. Two years ago, it allocated 10 million baht to build a skywalk over a mangrove forest in the area of Somdet Phra Srinagarindra Pattani Park. Today the skywalk (12m high and 400m long) is one of the popular attractions, along with must-visit stops like the four-century-old Krue Se Mosque, the graveyard of Chao Mae Lim Ko Nieo and the Central Mosque of Pattani.
In Yala, the TAT has tried for a couple of years to promote the sea of fog on the top of Microwave Mountain in tambon Aiyoeweng, about 40km from downtown Betong district, as a destination. The campaign has been somewhat fruitful, as tourists like the breathtaking scene of sunrise over the thick mist on the mountaintop, 620m above the sea level.
Some visitors may not know the mountain name of Khao Microwave, but they know the sea of fog of Aiyoeweng. It is also listed in the second place of the top things to do in Yala by TripAdvisor after the Piyamit Tunnel, the crown jewel of tourism in the province. The tunnel is a historical place and attracts tourists from Malaysia who want to see how the now-defunct Communist Party of Malaya lived in the tunnel about 40 years ago.
The airport in Betong is expected to open by the middle of next year. The airport will surely help boost tourism and logistics in the Deep South.
Although the future of tourism in the southernmost provinces looks promising, it is still full of uncertainty. Whatever happens, it is always better to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for Life section.