Aug 19, 2021 • 6M

Couchfish Day 251: The good people of Yala

Of trains and scholarships

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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Side note: This story kicked off on a train trip I took from Sungai Kolok on the Thai Malaysian border to Yala. So please set aside the transport realities for a moment! If you’re wondering, the most comfortable way from Songkhla to Yala is a bus to Hat Yai and the train from there. If you’re in a hurry, there are vans from Songkhla to Yala via Pattani.

Travelling alone, it doesn’t take long for me to get chatting with fellow passengers—even if my Thai is terrible. So I feel like I’ve struck gold when the middle-aged Thai man sitting opposite me speaks excellent English.

Old and new in Kota Bharu. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Like me, he and his son have come from the Malaysian city of Kota Bharu. I’d not seen them on the bus to the border, but they’d seen me. Sitting down, he remarks that it is a coincidence, them seeing me on the bus and then us sitting opposite one another on the train. I smile, nod, and we start making small talk.

The coincidences continue. Like me, they’re heading to Yala—though for them it is home, while I’m using it as a transit point. He notes they don’t see many backpackers in Yala, then asks if I mind if we chat as he gets little chance to practise his English. “Sure,” I say. His English needs little practise, it is near flawless, and his son, in his early teens, is also a solid speaker.

We cover the usual “local meets traveller” stuff, then I say I’m planning to only stay in Yala one night before moving on. I explain I want to go and see the communist tunnels at Betong. He nods but suggests I stay longer in Yala. I’m not convinced.

The best thing about Sungai Kolok is leaving it. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It can be tricky when you meet a local, baffled why their home isn’t on your radar. I’ve rattled off the names of regional towns I’ve hit like Satun, Narathiwat and Pattani, but he’s adamant Yala rocks. The train pulls into a station and we buy some snacks off a vendor as we keep talking.

Like the majority of the population in this part of Thailand, he’s Muslim, and he asks after the faith in Australia. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t have much of an answer to that, he nods, then mentions his son hopes to go to university there.

At the time I was involved in the education business in Bangkok and I answer the son’s many questions. Dad sits there, nodding and encouraging his son to ask more. As is often the case, we end up discussing scholarships and the best avenues for the son to explore. I’ve had this conversation what feels like hundreds of times at the Education Centre in Bangkok. I say they’re extremely competitive, that he should study hard, then to his Dad, I add, “start saving now”.

A Yala sunset. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

As we near Yala, the sun is close to setting and the father asks where I plan to stay. I shrug. Somewhere cheap and near the station, I’m not too fussed as it is only for a night. He scoffs and laughs, then asks if he hasn’t convinced me a longer stay is a good idea yet. I shrug and mumble something about clocks ticking and so on, but he waves me off.

“You can stay with us,” he says, “then I can show you why Yala is good to stay for longer.”

I think he is joking, but he isn’t, and I accept his kind offer. Shortly after, the train grinds to a halt, we climb out and walk down the ballast by the flank of the train.

Always take up an offer that helps you avoid cheap hotels. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We follow the tracks for a spell, then go down a narrow road. The son’s university questions are still coming as we walk. I think Dad is listening to my answers closer than the son.

Then we’re home. It is a shopfront, scooters in front, birds in delicate wooden prisons hang from the roof. Shoes off, we walk inside, I meet his wife and his younger daughter. She’s around eight years old, very shy, but it doesn’t take long for her cheekiness to surface.

In no time his wife is off to the market, returning thirty minutes later with a ridiculous banquet. We eat, cross-legged on their living room floor. The son is still going, the daughter gazing at me intently. The father translates some of my answers to his wife, as her English isn’t quite as good.

The reclining Buddha at Yala’s Wat Na Tham. I almost slept this well. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

When we’ve finished eating, they refuse my offer to pay for the meal. When I go to help clean up, again I’m waved away. The father and I retreat to the front of the house, he smokes, and we both drink tea.

The son has vanished, yet the university questions continue. His son is clearly intelligent, but Dad is concerned he’ll not get the education he deserves in Thailand. I say Thais tend to do their Bachelors in Thailand, leaving Australia for their Masters. I keep coming back to the cost—it will not be a budget undertaking. Their home is comfortable, but they do not strike me as wealthy people. They will need plenty of coin for the son to be able to study overseas.

We retire inside. While she is nowhere to be seen, his wife has laid out simple bedding on the floor, with a towel neatly folded to the side. The father tells me we’ll spend the day tomorrow together so I can learn about Yala, then he bids me good night.

I guess I’ll be in Yala for two nights after all.


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