A Strange Introduction – Yala Province, Thailand

The train started with a lurch, then slowly gained speed as the soldiers in my cabin gripped their M-16 assault rifles, stuck their head out the windows, and scanned the horizon for trouble.

I was in the southern Thai province of Yala, where a Muslim uprising has been simmering for decades.  Of all the places I intend to travel, this would be a contender for the sketchiest leg of my journey.

Though the insurgents originally limited their attacks to government positions, Bangkok’s method of suppressing the movement has only fueled the fire of resistance.  Since 2004, some 2000 people have died in these three restive southern provinces.   Attacks in the past have included arson, shootings, and beheadings of Buddhist monks…and a bombing of the train on which I was traveling.

My train was still considered a target, and the military junta in Bangkok was fully flexing its muscles in response.  The train was swarming with soldiers dressed in khaki uniforms, black berets and black boots, with black holsters holding black pistols and their fingers resting on the triggers of black machine guns. Barack Obama probably had less security on his inaugural train ride to DC.

The train slowed to a snail’s pace as we crossed each bridge, probably to avoid the train derailing in the event that the bridge was blown up – a safety measure intended to minimize casualties.  I did not find this particularly reassuring.

The train intersected many roads, where jeeps full of soldiers stood guard, eyeing all the cars and motorcycles approaching the railway.  Peering out the window, I momentarily saw the world through the eyes of a soldier patrolling a hostile territory where every person approaching you is a potential threat.

I anxiously counted the kilometers to Surat Thani, but as the train eased north the security measures dissipated and the mosques were slowly replaced by Buddhist wats.

I continued north from Malaysia to the Thai island of Ko Phangan, home of the infamous monthly Full Moon Party.  My anticipation for the upcoming festivities moved me forward although I found it ironic to see an army of supposedly peaceful Buddhists in a war with Muslims…so far this was a strange introduction to Thailand.

Next stop: Ko Phangan, Thailand.

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