Monday, September 26, 2011

All quiet on the border front


Malaysians flocking to the Thai town of Golok for cheap food and shopping are as much victims of bomb blasts that target sleazy entertainment joints that supporters of a militant movement frown upon.

So how’s Golok? I asked a supervisor at a parking lot in Rantau Panjang next to the Golok River that separates Kelantan and Thailand’s Narathiwat province.

“Look at the car park. It is practically empty. Usually it is filled with cars,” said Mie of the RM5 a day parking lot, about 100m from the Malaysian immigration check point.

Four days after the triple bombings at Golok in Narathiwat province that killed four Malaysians (including a three-year-old boy) and a Thai national, and injured 50 people, Malaysians are staying clear of the border town in Thailand’s restive deep south.

“Are you going in without a passport?” Mie asked as I negotiated for a motorcycle ride into Golok town about 2km away.

I raised my eyebrows.

“There are men who don’t use their passport so that their wives won’t know they’ve been to Golok,” he said.

I asked him if it was safe to venture into Thailand without using a passport.

“Actually can. It is just a matter of whether in your heart, you feel safe,” said Mie.

“If you want to be safe, the hotel to stay in Golok is Genting Hotel (which has no relation to the famous resort in Pahang).

“It (the hotel) is closer to the Malaysian border – therefore clearer Malaysian mobile phone reception – and further from central Golok,” my colleague Syed Azhar told me.

“Don’t stay in Marina (in central Golok). It is located next to the entertainment centres, and can be a target.”

Room 904 in Genting Hotel has stained carpets and the smell of stale cigarette smoke permeated the air.

It was as if the room represented Golok.

“Where did the bombs go off?” I asked the bellboy in Malay.

The bellboy, a Thai Malay Muslim, pointed towards central Golok, about 2km away.

“Toom toom there at Marina Hotel and Merlin Hotel,” he said. “Now Malaysians are afraid to come to Golok.”

Once I had unpacked and hidden my iPad and passport under the bed, I went to look for a motorcycle taxi.

Pai toom toom,” I told the driver in the little Thai that I knew (in Thai, pai means “go”).

He smiled and nodded his head. And he drove me to YB Karaoke, a greenish-coloured joint. Seated outside were smiling female GROs (guest relations officers) with brownish tinted hair and slender bodies.

There was no sign of “toom toom”.

Oops, I realised it was a classic case of “lost in translation”. He thought I wanted “boom boom”.

Boom boom, I was told, is the main reason Malaysian men visit Golok.

But that night there weren’t any. There were no Malaysian men with sweet, young Thais hanging on to them in Sin City.

The other Malaysians drawn to the border town are families on the lookout for cheap food and shopping.

“Boom! boom!” I told the driver with a tone that sounded like a bomb blast. And he understood that he had taken me to the wrong place.

The three bombs hidden in two motorcycles and a car set off a few minutes apart on Sept 16 night targeted two karaoke joints and a popular eatery near the Merlin and Marina hotels.

The bomb that killed the Malaysians was hidden in a car parked near the eatery. The place had an eerie, abandoned atmosphere to it.

Across the eatery, in Merlin hotel, a shattered glass pane has still not been replaced.

The day before I visited Golok, I was in Universiti Utara Malaysia in Kedah to interview Duncan McCargo, an expert on Thailand’s Deep South conflict.

I asked him why Golok was targeted.

“I don’t know who did it. Or what their particular motive was,” he said.

“But clearly this kind of incident is very effective in harming trade, in reducing the income that these communities receive from people coming from Malaysia.

“Many of the people who sympathise with the militant movement don’t like the entertainment industry.

“They don’t like bars, they don’t like prostitution and they don’t like a lot of the things that they see as symbols of the activities in Sungai Golok.

“And they don’t like the tourists going across the border to patronise those kinds of services, which they can’t necessarily access in Malaysia.”

In case you’re curious, no, I did not have the time for an ancient Thai massage with a happy ending.