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AB's SE Asia Sojourn: Thailand To Penang

Alexandra Bremner's Overseas Sojourn: Thailand To Penang

By Alexandra Bremner


Alexandra Bremner A train journey is a story. My train journey tells a tale of Southern Thailand. It is a story of the growing conflict between the Buddhist and Malay Muslim communities which habituate Yala, Pattani, Songkhla and Narathiwat which make up the southern region of Thailand.

I was warned not to take the train from Surat Thani to Butterworth in Malaysia. My landlord says "No ,too dangerous. Take the bus or mini-van it safer."

Before leaving, the Bangkok Post tells a story of three rubber tappers killed on their way to work and of a railway worker shot.

Too late, I have my ticket the company of good friends and a visa to get.

Getting on the train at 3am my journey into the current state of Southern Thailand begins.

In the morning the view which passes my window is edgy, chaotic and noticeably poorer than what I am used to in Thailand.

Stopping at each station my English companion says they saw that name before - in a warning from the British government.

Daily people are dying, mostly monks and teachers from what I can tell from scanning the Bangkok Post and the Internet. Some people says it is a struggle for a separate Muslim state in the area.

Locals on Koh Phangan, an island in the Gulf of Thailand which has been my home for the last three months, say the conflict is being talked up by the powers-that-be so the military presence can be increased in the region.

There has been a state of emergency declared by the post coup government for around three months.

I was a little scared on the Butterworth special express.

The outer layer of glass of my window was shattered. We speculated as to how - gunshots perhaps?

I now know, it seems, my fear was justified.

On February 18, the day after my train Journey through southern Thailand, 11 bombs went off over an hour long period in the states of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

The British government has reaffirmed its warnings not to travel through the area. I have received no such warning from the New Zealand government. Cheers guys.

Every Thai person I have spoken to about what is going on in the South lowers their voice. There is a fear the situation could explode. And now two large clusters of bombings have happened in their nation within seven weeks.

First Bangkok, and now the conflict in the south. The conflict is escalating... from shootings to highly organised bombing campaigns.

No one will win this conflict. It is southern Thailand fighting itself. Shadow boxing.

Whatever happens it will not be pretty. The military presence in the region will grow. It may make Malaysia nervous and who knows what will happen then. Instability leads to crisis.

According to the Malaysian New Strait Times (Feb 20) 29 bombings and 20 other attacks have occurred in the Southern Thailand region since Chinese New Year celebrations began on February 18.

Hotels have been targeted in the "coordinated attacks". Karaoke bars, commercial sites, schools, petrol stations and the power grid have also come under attack.

Nine people were killed and 44 injured in what is described as the first coordinated attacks across the region since the conflict began in 2004.

Over 1900 people have died since the insurgency began.

The New Strait Times says the 'army installed' prime minister Surayud Chulanont has called a special security meeting to discuss the attacks which targeted mostly Buddhist and ethnic Chinese homes and businesses.

Malaysian citizens have been advised to stay away from the area.

Datuk Seri Syed Hanid Albar, Malaysia's Foreign Minister says it is better to avoid going into the area.

"I hope Malaysians will not go there now and endanger their lives."

All I know is we are all human, yet we just express ourselves differently. And what is the point of killing one another over a different interpretation of the same truth.

The Thai are beautiful people it is tragic some feel the need to kill one another.


Memories Of A Penang-Styled Chinese New Year

Swathes of incense, from joss sticks up to four foot high (no kidding), fill the air and drift slowly down the street. Dragons dance with gay abandon outside stores wanting good luck in the year of the pig. Welcome to Chinese New Year in Georgetown on the island of Pulau Penang, Malaysia.

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I arrived to this swarming mass of cultures around 10 days before writing this piece. From the moment I stepped off the train this old colonial outpost for the East Indian Company has held me in awe.

A complex mix of cultures and religions co-inside in Georgetown without the conflict which could occur in a city which is home to a large Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Indian, Tamil, Malay and a worldly mix of other races and religions.

There are cultural undercurrents but generally everyone here gets on.

I cannot articulate what it is like to be in a culture that acts on the basic principal –we are all human, different, but lets just get on with it.

It's like the rest of the planet but without the bollocks.

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It is also a city where everyone smiles, stops to chat, helps you –sometimes before you even ask- but without that 'you're just another dumb foreigner face' on.

People in this city genuinely want to know about you and it is bloody charming.

(It also helps that English is the common linga franca between the differing ethnic groups especially if you are not so hot on the Malay or the myriad of other languages the local speak.)

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Chinese New Year is 15 days of celebrations including huge fireworks displays to the very early hours, (My balcony at Hotel Mingood just out of the town centre gave me a ring side seat – cheers Arthur!!!) amazing scenes at the local temples, to an "Open House" day in Little China which has drumming, food galore and all of Georgetown's Chinese culture on display.

This city is a foodies paradise.

I have eaten curries which defy explanation, Chinese food like nothing else, Malaysian by the bucket load, soups, cakes, sweets, fruit, BBQ eggplant from the Red Garden Food Court which is spicy, tasty and mouth-wateringly delicious – I could go on but I would have to go out and eat again.

(Street-food hawkers here also treat with everything from Tandoori to stir-fry up for grabs.)

Nearly every street you walk down has a temple or mosque – the call to prayer rings across the city throughout the day – they are generally open to the public and that maybe the key to this city's uniqueness.

Diversity is open here. It isn't something discussed of in opposition to the majority, it just is.

I have fallen in love with this city - the food, the people, the colonial architecture, the culture, it's tough stray cats, the characters who play card games on the sidewalk late at night… and the shopping is also rather fantastic.

I leave Georgetown knowing this Kiwi kid will be back for seconds.


Alexandra Bremner is a New Zealand writer reporting on her experiences of the countries and peoples of South East Asia.


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