I’m already sensing that this post is going to be all over the place, so let’s just start with an email I got from my Mom:

Sorry, Mom! Maybe an internet blog isn’t the most graceful way to tell you that I sort of glossed over my itinerary in this email, but you shouldn’t worry. I am safe and sound in Chiang Mai, with only the tomfoolery of Songkran water throwers threatening my bodily soundness. So don’t get worried. Yay for safety!

It’s not that I meant to spend a lot of time in the southern part of Thailand. Quite the opposite, in fact, after reading stories of violent insurgence with religious and political agendas resulting in a series of bombings earlier this month. Maybe it’s just me, but I really have no desire to visit places where tempers flare and bombs soar due to religion of all things, even if it’s statistically safer for me there on foot than here on the back of a motorbike.

In the good ol’ US of A, we just get killed by shooters without a specific agenda in schools, malls, grocery stores, parking lots, and in our homes. We get killed because guns and weapons are comparatively easy to buy. We get killed because, like any large country, we’re home to psychopaths and criminals. We get killed because people fall through the cracks with no safety net to catch them and because our mental healthcare system is not equitable and accessible to the population at large.

We don’t often die from violence rooted in religion and/or politics and ignited by vendettas and a thirst for revenge that spans generations. One of the very best things about America is that our system, with all of its faults, provides room for demonstrations, protests, and (perhaps ineffectual) citizen action. The law protects almost all speech, so we get to go about venting and ranting about whatever we want until we tire out and return to our relatively safe homes.

But, of course, I’m getting off track.

While putting together our train travel itinerary, we initially wanted to have only three legs: Chiang Mai to Bangkok, Bangkok to Butterworth, Butterworth to Singapore. Not only would this cost less money and preserve precious sanity, but it would completely bypass southern Thailand, which I wasn’t super interested in visiting even before the latest surge of violence. Unfortunately, booking train travel in Thailand is an adventure of its own, and we quickly learned that we would need another stop, this time in Hat Yai.

Then the bombs went off.

Andy and I sat down and considered all of our options seriously. We looked at flights, cancellation fees for all the accommodations and travel we had already booked, and scoured the internet for alternative travel plans. We carefully watched the news for arrests, police action, and safety strategies being employed across Thailand. We analyzed the patterns of violence, especially the targets, and brushed up on our history and understanding of the conflicts in Thailand’s southern provinces.

After agonizing for days, we concluded that our layover in Hat Yai would not be dangerous, and we were right. Army officials clinging tightly to leashed German Shepherds greeted us as we stepped of our rather empty train and into the Hat Yai train terminal, weaving in and out of police officials and unphased rows of local vendors looking bored behind carts of fried chicken and steamed buns.

To the folks in Hat Yai, it was business as usual, another Thursday in the unending trail of days spent shilling eats to worn-out passengers from Bangkok and Malaysia. It was perhaps their nonchalance about the affair that relaxed us and immediately broke our tentative plan to hunker down in the train station for the entire afternoon, back to back, on a vigilant look-out for terrorists. Instead, we ventured out into the streets in search of a cup of coffee. It felt safe.

I loved Hat Yai. Though not particularly beautiful, the city proved vibrant, colorful, and full of resilient energy. How could you be scared walking down a street with children darting across the sidewalks playing games and families out on a morning stroll? As the two of the small handful of Western tourists in the area, we received funny looks and generous smiles as we ordered breakfast in Thai. For the first time overseas, we sat as the only two foreigners eating fried eggs and toast in an American style diner.

We walked around the city’s wide, clean, mostly unobstructed sidewalks (quite exotic in Thailand) while dripping sweat and chugging water, stopping every once in a while to buy a snack, a swimsuit, or write a blog post in a coffee shop. The pace of life here felt calm, yet smiley, and, as my Mom mentioned in her warning email, a bit off the beaten track for Americans.

Hat Yai could be a sister city to Worcester, where I attended college. Like Worcester, the population is diverse and integrated, with Thais of many religions living along with Chinese and Malaysian populations. Because of this, Hat Yai looks, feels, and tastes different from many places within the country, with old and new Thai architecture and food blending with the other cultures’ own. The city pours money into tourism, where it is often met with enthusiastic travelers from Malaysia and Singapore and still ignored by most Westerners because of the proximity to attractions deemed safer and grander.

No one goes to Worcester on purpose. Everyone knows you get mugged at gunpoint as soon as you enter the city! But in that city, with all of its faults, and where I was a victim of theft several times over (though not with the threat of knives or guns, which happened to a lot of my friends), I found a unique place with offerings I still crave in a city.

In the four years I spent in Worcester, I ate at delicious Vietnamese, Ethiopian, El Salvadoran, and Jamaican dives within walking distance of my apartment and shopped for groceries in small, ethnic grocery stores. I found a burgeoning, yet unpretentious art scene and supported a fledgling food co-op. If my friends and I were feeling solvent enough to actually go to a bar, it wasn’t uncommon to practice Spanish. These experiences don’t happen so easily in Boston, or Austin, or any other city where racial or cultural tensions are lessened because everyone is cordoned off neat little zones, by choice or by force.

I’m glad I trusted my intuition and went to Hat Yai, not buying into fear. I don’t know if I otherwise would have gotten the experience of being in a Thai city that doesn’t thrive on showing Westerners the idea of Thailand that we want to see; Hat Yai contained a level of rawness that I’ve only found in small towns. Our experience wasn’t glamorous or remarkable in the way that makes great travel stories, but it was comfortable, friendly, and eye-opening. I’m beginning, barely, to understand why people with the resources to move continue to live in dangerous places (like parts of Israel).

When we circled back to the train station to board our train to Malaysia, we found plenty of contented people arriving and bouncing happily into the city. As we waited in the station, a train loaded completely with army vehicles rolled in, and soldiers poured into the tracks, opening up water valves, snapping pictures, and generally goofing off after what I can only assume was a tough few days in the deeper, more violence-prone south. Their energy was infectious, and I enthusiastically boarded our next train, blissfully ignorant of the debacles to come…

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8 Responses to The South

  1. HillyG says:

    WOW! Very brave! I live in a part of the Middle East that constantly has my parents asking me to move back to the US of A even though they KNOW it’s not dangerous here. I’ve received emails like the one your mom sent you. I think it’s great that you explored something 90% of people wouldn’t dare go near! Very brave, indeed!

    • Susan says:

      Probably brave, probably foolish, probably over-rationalized based on statistical research on ways I’m likely to meet an accidental demise! Low on that list? Terrorist attack in Hat Yai as a foreigner (non-target) in the highly-policed aftermath of a recent attack. High on the list? Cars, stairs, motorbikes, choking.

      I think this experience actually did give me greater insight into Israel. Honestly, it’s still not on the top of my travel list, but I’m beginning to understand why people with roots there might be less phased than people who live far away by periodic reports of violence…

  2. Mom says:

    I remember the tire-slashing, but your friends in Worcester were threatened with guns and knives? Thank you for not telling me…

    Ya, “Asia lite” seemed a little vague.

    • Susan says:

      Well, “Asia lite” refers to Singapore. And to be fair, when I sent that email I was currently looking at plane tickets that would have me jumping straight from Bangkok to KL…

  3. Anna says:

    I think that it’s often through these difficult times that we learn the most about the country. But be careful!!

    • Susan says:

      Right. I think the basic lesson I took from the afternoon in Hat Yai was how resilient people can be. Thinking about it, if something scary and unreasonable of the bombing variety were to happen in Austin, I wouldn’t flee either…

  4. Erica says:

    Sometimes it’s the most unremarkable of cities that you have the most remarkable of experiences.

  5. Laura says:

    Glad you listened to your gut and went anyway.

    I had an incredible amount of panicked emails after the earthquake and tsunami here last year.
    I ignored them all, tried to reassure people I was safe, but people thought (and maybe still think) that I was mad staying here!

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