Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Puppets and Terrorists, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Songkhla and Hat Yai - 31 May - 6 June 2011

Krabi Town's traffic lights are a highlight...
Following a one night stop in Krabi Town, I grabbed a bus to Trang not knowing what was there.  I arrived an hour or two later but had the urge to move on further as the town really didn’t get me excited and I think I was becoming impatient and wanted to keep moving.  I asked around at the station where a couple of friendly happy ladies approached me to ask what I needed.  I told them that I wanted to get to Nakhon Si Thammarat and pointed to the map.  They told me that I wasn’t able to get there from this bus station and told me where I needed to go.  It was quite far across the other side of town, which meant I had to get a tuk-tuk.  I ran across the road where I saw one parked up and asked the driver who, unsurprisingly, requested an obscene price for the journey.  I saw the ladies still standing on the other side pointing and laughing.  I managed to get the price down and was happily on my way with the ladies and me exchanging energetic waves.  I got to the bus station where I had to wait for all of twenty minutes until my minibus left, time enough to grab a bite to eat.  The driver’s assistant approached me, invited me onboard and within no time at all the minibus was travelling east towards Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Nakhon's walls... interesting....
My first observation of Nakhon Si Thammarat was the distinct absence of PUTs and I was really looking forward to spending some time in real Thailand once again.  I spotted the sign to the hotel which I was staying at from the minibus and managed to get the driver to pull over so I could jump out.  When I entered the main entrance to the hotel I thought I had made a mistake as the place was rather up market to what I was used to.  I asked at the desk what their cheapest room was and it was not too bad so I accepted.  I was then taken to my room and it all made sense.  My room was in another adjoining block, where you had to circumnavigate several passage ways, through the service area and then up the lifts.  Again, the room was actually really pleasant with a double bed, tv, fan and an ensuite shower/toilet. 

Suchart Subsin, Puppet Master
The city plays host to the grand master shadow puppet maker and performer, Suchart Subsin, which was my main reason of visiting the place.  So early on my second day I made took a short bus journey and the map in my hand, walked around a kilometre to the Shadow Puppets house / workshop / theatre.  Unfortunately, I was the only person there at the time and despite my pleading the lady told me he wouldn’t perform to any less than three people.  I cannot tell you how disappointed I was.  I absolutely enjoyed the visit to his workshop and saw how he made the puppets and came away with my third souvenir of my trip.  The first being a bottle of Russian Vodka and second being the flute I bought on Christmas day in Beijing, although this souvenir concerned me as I wasn’t sure whether it would actually fit in my bag.  Shadow puppetry was an enormously popular art form throughout South East Asia but is now mainly confined to art festivals and national celebrations.  The coloured puppets, made from leather, have been made with moving limbs and jaws and are in my opinion extraordinary pieces of art themselves.  

Wat Phra Mathathat
On my walk back to the main centre, I stopped by the Wat Phra Mathathat which is the largest wat in Southern Thailand and is an beautiful temple accompanied by a museum full of ancient artefacts and religious memorabilia.  There’s not much more I could tell you about the wat as at this moment in time I was pretty much ‘templed out’.  The rest of the walk back into town was done at a relaxed pace, stopping in every 7eleven on the way as it guaranteed ice cool air conditioning to cool my body down a little.  On my walk I was confronted by a mass of school children leaving their respective schools.  The shouts of ‘hello’ was frequent and I had missed such treatment and it proved that I was finally back in a place where little tourists come.

Songkhla from above
The next day I decided to move on yet again.  This time to Songkhla.  The motorcycle taxi took me and my bags along the a few kilometres to the bus station avoiding oncoming vehicles to within an inch.  Once I arrived in Songkhla I was shocked by the difficulty to get a lift into the centre of town.  I asked one man on his scooter to take me, he had no idea where I was asking for.  I pointed on the map.  He took the book and walked over to some other men and discussed amongst themselves whilst looking upon the map as though it was a small baby alien.  I finally managed to get one man to take me to the guest house, however when we got into the centre of town he pulled up at another guest house, not on the street that I wanted.  There was no room anyway, so I persuaded the man to drop me off at the address that I had asked for.  Finally, I arrived at the address just as the heavens opened and the streets of Songkhla became inner city streams.  I looked up at the name of the guest house, it was different but was still a guesthouse.  A lady came out and told me that she was full.  Crap, I thought as I looked back outside with the prospect of walking in the monsoon rains.  A British guy sitting at the table invited me over to join him whilst I wait for a dry spell. 
“Why are you here?” the man asked.
“What do you mean, why am I here?  I’m travelling.”  I responded.
“Nobody comes here anymore.  Not since the terrorist attacks.”  The man retorted. 

It seems as though the city had been subjected to multiple bombings which killed a few people and having retrospectively looked on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, I discovered that they advise against all but essential travel to that region.  Oops, I thought to myself as I walked on to find another guesthouse which the Englishman recommended.  It is true, I looked around and there were no foreigners to be seen.  Fantastic!  That’s exactly what I’ve been wanting!  My guesthouse, was a comfortable, single bed and fan with shared bathroom and was inhabited by several bats which squeaked at night time.  

There was a cultural museum a few kilometres out of Songkhla that I was very keen to go and see.  I got on a Sangthaew and asked to be dropped off at the museum.  It was actually some distance from the town and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.  The museum had quite blatantly seen better days and the drop off of tourism to the area has obviously affected this site.  I was, in fact, the only tourist there which is a shame because the museum offered a wealth of diverse information from prehistoric to the current culture of Thai people.  It was actually one of the best museums I’ve been to. 

Back in town, I headed further up the road to the temple that sits upon a hill which overlooks the city and surrounding beaches.  There was the same threat from monkeys which I had become accustomed to, although they still scare the crap out of me.  Instead of walking up the hill, there is a lift which takes you effortlessly up to the top.  Such a wonderful little temple with moral sayings which offer encouragement and a better society.  That evening I was lucky enough to be able to have a wonder around the Friday night market which takes over most of the town.  Local traders hit the streets selling their wares, cooking up delicious food and school bands entertain shoppers whilst they browse.  It was an unforgettable evening wondering around, watching the locals get excited over their purchases and enjoying their freshly made Pad Thai.  I, myself, found myself a wallet.  My short time in Songkhla was wonderful, the people I met were friendly and extremely welcoming, it’s a shame that they are being financially affected by the recent terrorism and the subsequent decline in tourism.  

My wonderful dinner
I now had a decision to make.  Do I go against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice and continue travel south along the east coast, or do I go the safe/boring route via Hat Yai?  Although Hat Yai is still amongst the towns listed not to travel to.  I decided to go the boring way via Hat Yai, where I would stay a night and get a connecting bus and ferry to take me across the border onto the Malaysian Island of Langkawi.  The short bus journey to Hat Yai was uneventful like the majority of my journeys through Thailand.  Hat Yai is a large trading city on the southern frontier with Malaysia.  I found an odd little guesthouse to stay in with massive corridors and padlocked doors which secured extremely sparse rooms with a bed, a hose for a shower and a squat toilet.

Beautifully made puppets
I was lucky enough to hit the jackpot once again and enjoy the Saturday market of Hat Yai.  Markets are one of the awesome opportunities that you get to see the locals at the best.  That is, as long as it’s not a tourist market selling only souvenirs and complete crap that, for one reason or another, the moronic side of us thinks they’re so good that we’d like to buy them and will be on our mantle pieces for ever after.  I was actively looking for some new T-shirts as mine had seen better days but the problem with being a ‘large’ in Asia is that the size is extremely hard to find as everyone is so petite.

The next day was my last in Thailand.  I had got to the bus station slightly late as the bus to the small coastal town of Satun where I would catch the ferry into Malaysia had already departed.  There was no real need to panic as the lady in the ticket office telephoned the driver and persuaded him to turn back to pick me up.  Absolutely fantastic lady, giving a service that you would definitely not see in the UK as they’d say ‘You’re late, too bad… next bus tomorrow.  Unlucky’.  Within five minutes, I was aboard the minibus and on my way towards the port.

Thailand had had it’s ups and downs.  Arriving after a couple of months in Laos and Cambodia provided me with instant relief with them firstly driving on the correct side of the road, something I hadn’t experienced since Hong Kong.  Secondly, you had your own seat on the buses which seemed to run on time and there estimated travel duration was largely correct.  Travel was so much easier and relaxing.  The only thing that ruined it for me was the PUTs and the awfully disgusting sex trade.  My faith in Thai culture was fully restored with my trip through Nakkon Si Thammarat, Songkhla and Hat Yai.  Absolutely fantastic places.

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