The Thai Phusam festival is celebrated much more vigorously in Malaysia than it is in India. Our hotel was fully booked and we had to leave the final day of January. The tourist trail would be the ferry from Penang to Langkawi, and from Langkawi to southern Thailand. The business route would be the highway to Hat Yai, the central city of the peninsula, in the area advised against by the Foreign Office. But we preferred to stay as close as possible to the west coast of the peninsula anyway. That’s how we ended up in Alor Setar, way off the beaten track.
Alor Star is a city in limbo. In some ways it is a large village, with stray dogs instead of cats, plots of green waste land, detached wooden houses on the approach roads. At the same time huge buildings are constructed, like the second highest telecom tower of the country (actually very stylish) and the ugliest concrete shopping malls and parking garages. It was poignant to see how the immigrant labourers lived, in shanty camps of corrugated sheets.
When we approached Alor Setar in the bus, we saw a blue dome over the skyline, with typical Iranian tiles that are uncommon here. No Iranian mosque was mentioned in the travel guide, and we couldn’t find it, until I looked for “blue tiled dome” and found the website of the company that designed it for a rich local business man. The design was inspired on Iranian mosques and the ultimate version thereof: Samarkand. They had flown in Iranian materials and Iranian craftsmen to build it.
We had to take a taxi to get there. The place was surprisingly big for what a private person built. Two wings from the main building created a fore square with fountains. The white mosque with the blue tiled domes was impressive indeed. It was in the details, like the carpet, chandeliers, woodwork and floor tiling that you saw it had not had unlimited funds like say the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
It was most interesting to walk around this deserted place – it was a Sunday morning, and here the weekend was Friday – Saturday.
All started well. We hauled a taxi to the bus terminal and got on a bus to Kangar. It was a medium sized bus taking the country road. Long straight roads along canals with rice fields in the background. We made good progress, not stopping for boarding or disembarking passengers.
At Kangar bus terminal we inquired for a connection to Kuala Perlis, where boats to Thailand should leave. No busses, they told us. It turned out: no busses here, but they departed from a parking garage underneath a shopping mall in another part of town. That sounded too unsure, so we took another taxi. That dropped us in front of the customs building in Kuala Perlis. Classic: you had to go through immigration in the building to get to a fenced off part of the quay.
The officer would not stamp our passports: he said we’d have to find a boat first. Outside were four wooden cargo ships (about 2x12 meters in size). One of them was being loaded with large bags of rice or wheat. We gestured to the loader. Yes, he’d go to Thailand. No, he wouldn’t take us, he was cargo.
The other boats were idling. After a while a guy showed up who spoke some English. He yelled to a man aboard one of the idling boats. Yeah, he’d go to Thailand if the boat would fill up with passengers. Or if we’d charter it. The price for that was a bit steep though.
Slowly it dawned on us there was no (longer a) regular service from here to Thailand. Neither was there a stream or even a trickle of tourists or locals using this route. We started to wonder whether this would work out…
Obviously, nothing was happening any time soon at our quay, so we walked balk into town and found a place where we could get some lunch. And consider our options. It didn’t look like the boat would fill up with passengers. Back to Kangar would be a gamble too. The only overland road this part of the peninsula went through a salt water swamp and national park, and it wasn’t clear whether there would be traffic, let alone a bus or a minivan.
Best choice would be to charter the boat. But we didn’t have enough money for that, and we had already discovered not all, not at all, ATM’s are linked to the same network as the Dutch banks. And this small town seemed to have two ATM’s only. But we were lucky: one of them did the trick and we had money in our pockets.
Back to the quay. Now it was totally deserted. All boats were gone. Nothing happened…
A little further downstream I could see another quay with boats similar to the ones that had been at ours earlier. But that was there and we were here. I decided to have a look. I could leave our custom’s area through a back gate. Through some cargo shed I got to the other quay. There was not a lot happening either, but there were boats and one of them was being loaded with insulated fish storage boxes. A guy who spoke some English came to my help. He shouted to the guys on the boat. After a while the conclusion was they were willing to take us.
We went and got our exit stamp. Then via the quay and the back gate back into the country, through the cargo shed and via another wooden boat onto ours. We climbed into the wheelhouse, well, it was more a wooden dashboard built around a car steering wheel that was connected by a long axis with the diesel engine in the hold. The captain sort of knelt around it and off we went. First slowly out of the river, then faster into the open water. The Andaman Sea. We had a strong headwind and white foam capped the waves. As long as we had a steady speed, the boat was stable. Whenever the captain turned the gas down, we wobbled and swayed. No fun. In the distance we saw Langkawi’s silhouette and closer by some smaller islets of lime stone rock covered with jungle.
After an hour in the deafening noise and exhaust fumes we reached land. In a river mouth a concrete jetty held two large ferries. We were dropped off at the foot of some steps leading up. Some forms, photos, passports, stamps – and we had entered Thailand. The terminal was a more serious business here, because it had ferries to Langkawi, ticket counters, shops, dual time clocks and an exchange bureau. We changed our ringgit for baht, so we had some pocket money.
Taxi and motor-taxi drivers told us there was no transport into town. Soon enough they were proven wrong, when a songtauw pulled up. That is a pick up truck with two benches in the back, usually riding fixed routes. This one had a lot of cargo in the back that it had to drop first at another, smaller jetty 1km upstream. Here were some cargo vessels similar to the one we had arrived on. After the drop he took us into Satun town. We had a spectacular view over fields, a river, a huge rock forming a mountain, the same way these lime rocks form islands in the sea.
At had been 8 hours, very exciting at times, and we had to recover from it all.
The Deep South
We had dinner next door. No vegetarian dish on the menu, the waitress spoke no English, miscommunication between staff and management – welcome to Thailand. Still we managed to get a decent green curry.
We sat outdoors and watched Satun go by. It really had an end-of-the-road or frontier-town feel to it. There was no through traffic as there was just one road connecting Satun to the rest of Thailand. The deep south has a Muslim majority, and we saw more headscarves here than in Alor Setar. The Malasian people had been very friendly and helpful enough. Over here t was more laid back and everybody radiated that legendary Thai smile.
The Gleam Resort has ten bungalows in a neatly kept garden with a swimming pool at the end. The rooms are well designed and maintained. It is immaculately clean, the room is pleasant and the bed is big and soft. The veranda has a couch made of an opened up oil drum. Decoration is inspired on America in the ‘50’s and yaughting.
The place was very quiet. In the middle of the night there was absolutely no sound at all – no dogs, no church bells, no traffic, no generator, no a/c, no nothing. Call to prayer was the first sound in the morning, followed by early birds and crickets.
This was one of the most beautiful places I ever stayed. Sure, some hotels have better equipped rooms, but they are less tasteful. Some resorts are surrounded by spectacular nature, but they are too isolated. Some places may have both, but they would be so expensive we wouldn’t feel at home.
It was so comfortable, so green, so quiet – and yet so close to town you didn’t feel locked in. You could just walk into town for lunch or a shop. And that town was pure Thai, with just the occasional foreigner.
It was doubtful we’d find a place as good as this further north, especially since it would only get more touristy, and that is usually not to our liking. So we decided to stay longer. Much longer.
Some mornings we’d take a walk into town or into the surrounding countryside. The most spectacular walk took us into mangrove forest, just a km from home, and beyond some fish ponds to a small hamlet.
Lunch we had daily in a small veg restaurant. Every Thai town has one, but it can be hard to find. First, to get across the question, given we don’t speak Thai. Second, not many people know it. Third, to understand the answer, given they don’t speak English. Fourth, to actually see it even when you stand in front of it. This was a tiny place in the corner of a shed. What gave it away was the red letters on yellow background. They always have those. The food was delicious, varied, healthy and dead cheap.
For coffee we had our regular spot too. A small bamboo take-away stall with a young woman hidden behind the counter. It was a delight to see with how much care and attention she prepared every order. A spoonful of this, a dash of that, stirring, mixing, pouring it into a huge cup or bag filled with ice, packaging it in a paper bag. She wasn’t very talkative. Below her gleaming scarf she had thick painted eyebrows and eyelashes black as night.
Afternoons we’d sit by the pool and read. By now the skies were blue and it was about 33 degrees. Celcius.
For dinner we alternated between home and town. The food wasn’t as superb as in Malaysia, and ordering could be difficult, but all in all we were quite happy with it.
Some night we went to an open air pub that had a stage and a house band. They were pretty good. The singer liked to do covers of Western songs, from The Carpenters to Adele – not easy. She was accompanied by a guitar player and a percussionist. And then there were five staff, whose main task was to fill up our glasses with coke and ice cubes from the side table. So there were us two, the three musicians and the five staff…