Betong lives up to its name come the morning. A wet and chilled mist envelops the city as I jump into the Mercedes for the run back to Yala. We’re running by the side of the reservoir, by the time the sun burns through.
Unlike the other day, today Yala is only a transit point in my travels—no lingering allowed. My driver drops me off with a wave and a “Chok dee” (good luck) at the minibus stand, for the onwards leg to Pattani.
Now that is a fishing boat. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
There are a few legends explaining the town’s origins, but my fave involves a goat-sized mouse deer. The legend ties in with Pattani’s coastline, which does not come up short of the beach front. The closest municipal beach is Talor Kapor, which is a great spot to see kaw-lae boats (more on those in a bit). Head a bit further southeast though, and you’ve got almost 50 km of sand south to Narathiwat. Not that you’ll find beach bars and bikinis though—Pattani is Thailand’s most conservative Muslim province.
From Yala it is a straight run north, around 45 minutes in the van, to Pattani. Crammed into the back bench seat, I get talking to a Thai Iranian guy who is here to see his extended family. From memory, he was an academic of some description, but this was years ago and I’m not one hundred percent sure on that.
All lined up in a row. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
He’s surprised I’m heading to Pattani—it is the least visited province in the country. At the time the region had suffered repeated bombings and attacks related to the South Thailand Insurgency. We’re stopped a couple of times en-route by heavily armed military checkpoints but they wave us on after a token check.
I tell him my main interest is the traditional fishing boats Pattani is famous for. Beautifully painted with steep prows, they’re one of the most famous symbols of the province. Of course, he knows a boat builder and we arrange to meet early in the afternoon for a guided looksee.
Eagles and dragons. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
A few hours later, I jump on the back of his scooter and we ride east to Talor Kapor beach. The beach does have some pretty stretches, but it is primarily a working beach. Fisher shacks run right up to the sand’s edge and the sand is scattered with refuse and flotsam.
We stop at a small mosque, where my impromptu guide chats to a few of the guys lounging around. He tells me we’ll leave the bike here and walk. As we stroll I ask about the village and how day to day life is. There are kids running around, women doing laundry, men smoking, chatting or fixing nets. The village is poor, but the poverty isn’t grinding—at least not at a quick glance.
A steady hand is required. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
He explains most of the families who live here rely on fishing and have done so for generations. Business though is not good. The men are small scale sustainable fishers and the fishing grounds offshore have been decimated by commercial fishing. They often fish too close to shore—illegally—and damage the traditional grounds these families rely on. It has long been a point of contention between local fishers and their larger, wealthier, and far more influential, industrial relatives. That these local fishermen practise a far more sustainable form of fishing seems lost on the powers that be.
We reach the sand, and there’s kaw-lae after kaw-lae lined up above the high tide mark. Each has its own home made of sun-dried palm fronds against a wood or bamboo frame. The dull shades of the houses contrast to the bright and beautiful prows peering out of each.
Nothing else quite like it. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
If you’ve ever seen a Thai longtail, you’ll be familiar with the eyes and sashes that often decorate the prow. The kaw-lae though, are a totally different beast. Beautifully intricate patterns swirl around a motif based on the area. On one, two eagles surround the motif, with a dragon flying down the prow. It is magnificent.
We find a man working on one. With a small pot of turquoise paint, he adds detail to the flank of the boat. His hand steady, he chats to my guide as he paints, his eyes never leaving the brush.
The entire boat is painted by hand he says, though it starts easy and gets harder as each new layer is added. The one he is working on is almost done. When I ask if this is the hardest bit, my question doesn’t need translating and the painter chuckles. He lowers the brush and jokingly offers it to me, as if to ask would I like to find out how hard it is.
No two boats are the same. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
We sit with him for about an hour. Him painting, my guide translating my questions. There are few jobs and the bottom has fallen out of the fishing, he says. When I ask about the insurgency, the conversation goes back and forward for a long time without translation. In the end, I’m told a good start would be for the central government to enforce the law on illegal industrial fishing with the same enthusiasm it prosecutes the insurgents. My Thai Iranian friend sighs, and goes on to say the situation is very complicated—he thinks it would be better to talk of other things.
Later we meet the painter’s daughter. She’s just out from school and is flabbergasted to find her father entertaining a farang. We go through the half dozen English phrases she knows, and she cackles at my attempts at Thai.
Then the painter is done for the day. He needs to go and pick up his son soon. First though, he puts away his paints, washes his hands and we all sit for tea.
Am I excited? Yes, I am excited. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
It is late afternoon and the sea breeze takes the edge off the heat. We make small talk in front of the audience that has gathered to watch and listen. A couple of questions float in from the onlookers, but most people are silent—aside from the occasional “farang” I hear in hushed tones.
Then it is time to go. My guide has another commitment, but he’ll give me a ride back to my hotel. I thank the painter and he gestures for me to shake his hand. Before I know it I’m shaking hands with everyone there.
I leave the daughter till last, and when I put my hand out to her, everyone cracks up in laughter. She looks at her toes and giggles as we shake hands. It feels like the right time to leave.
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