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Boom Boom on the Border

On one side of the Thai/Malaysian border is Sungai Golok, on the Malaysian side it’s the town of Rantau Panjang. The two towns are separated by the Golok River and decades of furious fighting between Muslim separatists who want to reclaim some of the southern areas in Thailand under the Malaysian flag. The Thai Buddhists on the other side are happy for it to remain part of the Kingdom of Thailand. Enough of the politics. The real story in Sungai Golok is the thriving little border town that attracts Malaysian men nightly to enjoy the ‘pleasures of the flesh’, loud music, karaoke, copious booze and ‘the ladies’. All of which is frowned upon just south of the river in Malaysia.

Poised at the very south of Narithawat Province in Thailand, Sungai Golok is ground zero for border boozing and debauchery. With a population of around 38,000 it’s hardly a thriving metropolis but when the sun sets the men from south of the border flock across the river to enjoy entertainment unavailable to them in the strict Muslim province of Kelantan.

The death toll in the deep south is equivalent to the toll in the Gaza Strip

If it wasn’t for it’s strategic location on the main road heading south from Thailand you would never hear of Sungai Golok. But apart from its rising reputation as the southern red light district it’s also a strategic target for bombings and outrage from people south of the border who see the town as the epitome of everything wrong with ‘Thai and Western decadence’. The death toll in the deep south is equivalent to the toll in the Gaza Strip, the self-governing Palestinian territory that gets so many headlines around the world. But the violence in the Deep South is rarely reported in international media.

Violent attacks happen nearly every day in the southern provinces of Thailand – Pattani, Yala and Narithawat with little sign of any drop in attacks from the insurgents. Back in Sungai Golok it’s just part of the nightlife where the noise from the discos is occasionally interrupted by a bomb. Does it deter the men heading across the border for their nights of revelry or the Thai women working in the bars? Hell no. The nightclubs and bars are regular targets for the indiscriminate home-made pipe bombs and car bombs, almost daily, but it does little to dampen the enthusiasm for a good night. In fact the reputation of Sungai Golok as the ‘place to go’ for a good time continues to rise – which just puts it higher up the target list for the insurgents who want to make their point.

The troubles in the town do little to dampen the enthusiasm for the men that visit and most of them will head home after their night of fun to the conservative Malaysian state over the river unhurt. But for the girls that work in Sungai Golok it’s a constant threat to their lives. The stakes are high. The men are paying good money for the services provided in the town – the girls are eager to part the men from their money and are willing to take the risks of plying their trade in such a dangerous location.

With a single bridge across the Golok river you would think that police and army can control the flow of traffic across the river but many of the visitors slip across the small river by boat and cross the border undetected, usually without passports or any means of identification if the worst happens.

If you’re heading south from Thailand and wanting to cross the river border into Malaysia there’s only one official road, through Sungai Golok. So it seems the little towns future, and reputation, will continue to grow along with it the violence that see no signs of abating.

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Tim Newton

Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2011. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for 42 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program (public radio Australia), presented over 11,000 radio news bulletins, 3,950 in Thailand alone, hosted 1050 daily TV news programs and produced 2,100 videos, TV commercials and documentaries. He also reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and other major stories in Thailand.

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