Anxious glances flicked around the bar. The silence was deafening. I had just announced my plan to cycle through Pattani and Natirawat, two states in Thailand's 'Dangerous Deep South.' Unlike the rest of Thailand, Buddhist, these states are Muslim, and formed largely of Malay people. A separatist movement to split away, flairs into violence or bomb blasts every few months. No-one in the bar thought I should go. But then again, no-one in the room had ever actually been. I consulted the British embassy, whose ever-cautious advice was also not to go.
I don't want you to think I was reckless in my decision though. I spoke to people who lived there, and others who had travelled through, who said if I didn't go I'd be missing out. And I had been travelling long enough to recognise the negative glasses the media views the world through. What's more, along this trip I have come to terms with risk, which, by the way, is everywhere. There have been several terrorist attacks in England in previous months; should I be advising people it's not safe to go there?
The next day I cycled through a military checkpoint, and entered the state of Pattani. There was no gentle transition period; I was just plunged into another world, as if I had stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia. All women were now covered with a hijab, and men wore strange Songkok caps and long sarongs. Buddhist temples were replaced with mosques, which called their followers to prayer in tuneful Arabic. And rather than Thai, the people now spoke in Malay.
This was the first of 28 military checkpoints I would pass over the next two and a half days, which reminded me of television images I'd seen of warzones in Iraq and Syria. Coils of shiny barbed wire were draped generously over fences and besides the road, soldiers peered down from watchtowers while other pairs of eyes followed my movements from slits in a sandbag bunker. I manoeuvred around a large tank which sat in the road, and didn't look at all out of place. Men stood in the road, clutching at large automatic rifles, stopping cars and questioning where they were going. Soldiers demanded answers to loaded questions, as if everyone was a terrorist. My heart beat through my chest so loudly I wondered if everybody else could hear it. Had I made a mistake coming here?
These precautionary measures clearly highlight a tension in this area but it felt so at odds to my experiences there. I have always been overwhelmed by Muslim hospitality, where the guest is greeted as a gift from Allah, but in this area, where few tourists venture, my bravery was rewarded with an especially warm welcome. Smiles, and calls of Hello followed me wherever I went. Waiting at traffic lights a car window rolls down; “How can I help you?” the woman inside calls out.
The first night I stayed in Pattani with Hassan and his wife, who would give birth to a baby boy three days later. Hassan's greeted me with a huge smile, as though I was a friend he had waited a long time to see. He smiled and laughed a lot, which was extremely infectious. He immediately sat me down at his table with a glass of freshly-squeezed lychee juice and eight chocolate bars. On account of it being Ramadan, Hassan hadn't eaten or drunk anything in nearly 14 hours, so I only ate three bars of chocolate(!) I didn't want to make him feel too hungry.
“So is it safe here?” I asked bluntly after a little while. “Yes. It is safe.” he said, though he confessed that bombs did go off, and that he avoided crowded places. Half an hour later, we had gone to the market to buy food to break the day's fasting. Everyone else had the same idea, and the market was packed, and we squeezed through the pedestrian traffic. I reminded him of his earlier comments, but he just laughed. “Safe here.” he said.
Leaving Hassan the next day, I faced another day of increasingly hostile checkpoints, until I reached Naratiwat, where I met Farida, an English lecturer who wanted to welcome me. When someone offers to host me, I never know where I will be staying until I arrive. It doesn't really matter to me. I'm just appreciative to have all these angels helping me however they can, and it is a privilege to get to know them – I am constantly meeting the best of humanity. Having never even met me, Farida had booked a night in a hotel for me, “I think that way you will be most comfortable.” she said.
I joined Farida's English Department to break the day's fasting. The restaurant was full, and food was laid out on each table, but no-one ate or drank. When Azan (Imam's call to prayer, which signals the end of fasting for the day) was heard, everyone downed a few glasses of water, and began tucking into the feast.
Two hours later, we went to another restaurant, famed for its rotis. “Which one would you like?” Farida asked? “Ohh, there's too many to choose.” I replied, struggling to select just one. “Okay, I'll just order you one of each then.” she said, leaping up to order another feast. Most travellers would avoid travelling in Muslim countries during Ramadan because of the scarcity of food during the day, but for me, this is adequately compensated by the abundance of delicious food and sociable party atmosphere in the evening.
The next morning I said my 'goodbye's' and cycled into Malaysia. Both Hassan and Farida had invited me to stay longer, but my visa, which expired that day, forced me out of the 'dangerous' states I had been so hesitant to enter, and now, was so reluctant to leave. Once again, I had found the world to be a far friendlier place than we are normally led to believe.