Traveling in Thailand is always an adventure. A hodgepodge of local trains and buses link Thailand's broad area of varied terrain, stopping at each little village along the way. Yet traveling through the southern tip of Thailand is a strange disorienting experience. It is Thailand, and yet it is not. An ethnic enclave of Moslems Malays comprise 80% of the population there. Malay is the vernacular and, south of Yala, stately mosques supplant Buddhist temples, and only their colorful minarets break the bleak horizon.
Jean and I caught the early morning local train at Surat Thani, only an hour after stumbling off the grueling all night boat from Koh Samui island; yet we faced a long, slow journey south. Some time after noon we reached the busy trading center of Haad Yai, where the main line turns southwest toward Penang and the bustling west coast of Malaysia. But we continued down the sleepy east coast on the local spur line that stops abruptly at the sleazy border outpost of Sungai Golok.
Rolling south out of Haad Yai through the dry afternoon heat, the passengers grew fewer and poorer; the scenery bleak and boring. Sandy alkali soil gives way to but a few orchards and patches of vegetables. Just across the border in the Malaysian state of Kelantan, irrigation brings forth farms of relative prosperity, but southern Thailand is badly neglected because the people are neither Buddhist nor Thai.
Then at some dusty little station just beyond Yala, a troupe of smugglers boarded our car and entertained us all the way to the border. That they were smugglers was no great mystery. Several young boys rushed into the car, flung open the windows, and began hauling in boxes and gunny sacks from their consorts outside. Screwdrivers appeared from every pocket as they dismantled the seats and side-moldings and stuffed clear plastic packets of rice inside the entire railway car.
We were alarmed at first by this blatant lawlessness, and for some time I stared into my novel, feigning oblivion. But eventually we had to stand in the aisle as they continued stuffing bags under our seat and dismantling the wall next to us. And across the aisle, a heavy-set young man who was directing part of the operations, was intent on practicing his English conversation on us.
The gang consisted mostly or young boys from 8 to 15 years old, but the ringleader and her confederate typified middle-aged Thai country women. Two of the boys now climbed out the window and onto the roof of the moving train, their shadows dancing along the ground as they secured their bundles on top. All the while, various uniformed men -- trainmen, police, and soldiers -- wandered through our car. Most of them, however, seemed interested in helping the smugglers conceal their loot, or at least in watching them do so.
We had assumed that the rice was merely a cover for the raw opium or diamonds that must be hidden inside. At one point however, one of the packets burst, showering white rice all over the car -- but not a diamond in sight. There was a pregnant pause before the bungler was scolded and the rice sloppily brushed into the corners.
Lookouts at the door gave a sudden warning, and sacks and screwdrivers quickly disappeared. Everyone stiffened as an old gentleman stalked in, cane in hand. He immediately began checking under the seats, and when he spotted a poorly concealed packet, he gruffly ordered them to hide it properly.
The little drama had us completely baffled, especially since the contraband appeared to be nothing more than common white rice. In fact, the Malays are great connoisseurs of rice, distinguishing perhaps thirty different types, each with its own special use. However, they find the excellent rice of Thailand superior to any they can grow themselves. It brings high prices in Malaysian markets but its import is restricted by law, if not in practice. Since the railroad does not enter Malaysia at this point, the rice would likely be hauled across the river border somewhere upstream, once the authorities had been sufficiently lubricated.
As the afternoon waned, the final act unfolded. The Border Inspector made his entrance and everyone gathered to watch him and his assistants search the seats. They unscrewed the side panels and removed the packets that had been so stealthily secreted not long before. At this point, the smugglers' paranoia subsided and they settled into idle chatter as the rice was confiscated -- later to appear perhaps at someone's dinner table for further investigation.
Ultimately, the inspectors made their exit and, as we pulled into Sungai Golok, the smugglers were free to run about, frantically collecting the majority of the packets which had been left behind. The bags were tossed out through the windows and, without a bow, the little troupe dashed off the train. We too, disembarked as the curtain of night fell on yet another long, but not uneventful travel day in Thailand.