Travel news - destinations in south Thailand

Fine dining, temples and tunnel hideout

This is the third of a three-part series covering Thailand 's trouble-plagued far-southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala. For a traveller willing to accept the risk of touring an area with heightened security concerns, the writer finds more than enough to fill a few postcards. Yala is the only landlocked province of Thailand 's far south yet ironically is home to one of the best seafood restaurants in the region. So good, in fact, that I'd return to the same-named provincial capital for the sole reason of gorging myself on more seafood. But there's much more to landlocked Yala than seafood guzzling.

As with its neighbours, Pattani and Narathiwat, Yala Province has been blighted with violent attacks on innocent passers-by. These attacks culminated in a series of brazen attacks in early July on targets within Yala town itself. As with the neighbouring provinces, you should stay abreast of developments in this part of Thailand before considering visiting.

Yala has long boasted that it is the cleanest town in Thailand , and while it is a sparkling spot, it is not exactly overflowing with sites of interest. Its best gem is indeed a seafood restaurant, Tara Seafood, a streetside affair that does a roaring trade serving up some of the most outstanding seafood I've come across _ don't miss it! Other minor sites to see include the largest mosque in Thailand and the Kwan Muang Park, which makes up for Yala's lack of beachfront with a massive pond. The park hosts the annual ASEAN Barred Ground Dove festival which is held every year in March. While I missed that, I'm sure it's a crucial event on Southeast Asia 's dove-showing circuit.

Staying fairly close to town, jump on a Hat Yai-bound bus for the eight kilometre trip out to Wat Khuha Phimuk, better known as Wat Na Tham. This pleasantly cool cave temple is set a short climb up a limestone karst and contains an 81-foot long reclining Buddha, believed to have originally represented the Hindu god Rama, constructed in the year 757. Later in life, it was altered to Buddhist iconography. The cave opening is flanked by a nasty-looking demon and offers a sprawling view over lush rice paddies and distant villages.

Around 140 kilometres directly south of Yala lies the town in the mist, Betong. Sitting just shy of the Malay border, the road here is flanked with stunning forest-clad mountains and is best undertaken in one of the many Mercedes share-taxis that ply the route. After the far more conservative Narathiwat and Pattani, Betong is a bit of an eye-opening place with many karaoke bars and massage parlours offering dodgy services for border-hopping men, but these bars are mostly crammed in one area of the town and easily avoided.

Betong is home to the largest mailbox in the world _ the world. Why? It defies explanation, but it does. Luckily there is a palm tree growing next to it which is handy for adding scale to your photos. It really is big.

Just north of Betong lie a series of tunnel networks, which while not of the scale of Cu Chi and Vinh Moc in Vietnam , nevertheless protected communist guerrillas from aerial bombardment. The Piyamit tunnels were excavated and lived in by Malay communist guerrillas _ the TAT brochure calls them terrorists _ and stretch for over a kilometre underground. Facilities include storerooms, sleeping quarters and wells that were used to ferry goods to the surface. On site is an incredibly comprehensive museum dedicated to these fighters, though the nearby souvenir stall would have die-hard communists rolling over in their graves.

A few years ago the network started to subside and collapse so the caretakers widened and cement-rendered the tunnels, making them both safer and easier to get through. The setting is among spectacular lush rainforest and given the short distance from Betong, the tunnels should certainly be on your itinerary.

On the way back to Betong from the tunnels lie the Betong hot springs . Should you be in dire need of a boiled egg, stop here, pop an egg in and seven minutes later you'll be munching on one. I bet you're licking your lips already.

Back in Betong town, stop by the town's top landmark, Phramahathat Chedi, which sits atop a hill at the southeastern edge of town providing terrific views over Betong _ particularly in the early morning when the town is bathed in mist. The first floor of the chedi contains architectural renditions of many of the most famous chedis across Thailand , while the exterior is adorned with four glowing gold Buddhas striking different poses. Fifty metres below is the largest bronze seated Buddha in Thailand , measuring some 80 metres tall.

While Yala is known for its seafood, Betong has two culinary standouts _ kao yok is a streaky pork and taro construction similar in appearance to a Western meatloaf. While tasty, if you manage to get a whole plate of it down you'll need to walk back to Yala to work it off. Far lighter on the waistline is mee curry, a spicy egg noodle dish that makes for a super tasty breakfast.

If you're not really up for the hike back to Yala, Betong is an international border crossing with Malaysia , so from here you can continue your journey onward. But that, of course, is another story.
Bangkok Post 11 August 2005 www.bangkokpost.com

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