15 August 2009

The "Old Smuggler's Trail"

In this post, Peter Chan describes an epic journey which he made with his friends to Haadyai 35 years ago. All of them had just turned 20 that year. Hmm... Haadyai? Could it be the men's rite of passage to turn them from boys into real men, something which National Service in Singapore had failed to do? Yes, it is the "S" word. However, it is not about sex this time. Read on to find out.

On my way to the Thai Immigration & Customs Checkpoint, I briefly conversed with Anan. After many decades, this would be the first time I was using my “pasar bahasa”. Anan is of ethnic Malay descent but holds Thai nationality**. He makes a living by fetching passengers on his 100cc Honda across the Malaysian-Thai border crossing at Padang Besar, Perlis.

Anan: “Kenapa awak mau datang ke-Padang Besar?”
("Why do you want to come to Padang Besar?")

Me: “O, macham ini-lah. Lebeh 35 tahun dulu, ada enam olang Singapore naik keretapi sampai ke-Padang Besar. Mereka nak pergi Thailand dari Padang Besar…….”
("O, it's like this. More than 35 years ago, there were 6 Singaporeans who boarded a train to Padang Besar. They wanted to go to Thailand from Padang Besar......")

Anan: “Berapa hari di sini? Sekarang nak chari apa? Ini tempat sangat sengep. Semua orang sini chepat tidor
("How many days you plan to stay here? What are you looking for? This is a very sleepy town. All the people here go to bed early.")

Padang Besar is located at the north western corner of Peninsular Malaysia and happens to be an important border-crossing and rail connection between Malaysia and Thailand. I dare to make this trip after spending 2 years of planning, researching and analyzing the information. The background work faced many shortcomings because I relied on information from backpackers, Malaysians and Thais - people who visited Padang Besar but with very little knowledge of the 1970s era. I even turned to motoring road maps and street directories but none were available on this remote Malaysian town. Literatures from Tourism Malaysia were vague.

The break-though came about three months earlier when an important parcel arrived from England. It contained a 1: 63,360 topographical map of the Padang Besar area prepared under the direction of AD Survey, Far East Land Forces and revised by the Survey Department of Malaya. This excited me because “Survey Department of Malaya” was something I could connect with. Back in the 1980s, I had worked for an American IT vendor which supplied the software mapping package to the Survey Department of Malaysia, now called JUPEM. JUPEM is responsible for land surveying, mapping and aerial photography. Why didn’t I think of this “Malaysian Kawan” right from the start?

Photo 1: Left - Topo map of PD vicinity (circa 1960). The black line across the map is the Butterworth to Bangkok railway track. The old Padang Besar Station is the black rectangular box below “2102”. Center - In the background is the border which is shared between Malaysia and Thailand. In the foreground and right of the track is the old Padang Besar Station which was completed in 1957. The future new railway station would be to the left of the Padang-styled roof. Photo courtesy of Chayaphiwat . Right – The border areas between Malaysia and Thailand were closed between 6pm and 6am as shown by these border security signboards (circa 1970s). This explains our predicament at the Padang Besar Station which housed both the Malaysian and Thai immigration & customs facilities.

The topo map corrected any previous perceptions which I had of the landscape and the relative positioning of prominent landmarks such as the old railway station, the railway siding and the “bukits”. When the topo map was superimposed over Gogglemap, I could see that the entire landscape has radically changed. For example, an important building, the old Padang Besar Station has disappeared to inside the inland KTM Bhd. container-yard. The railway siding is now the roundabout. Some landmarks did not change: the single railway track across the border, the Chinese temple in Pekan Siam, and the highway to Sadao. The new landmarks that appeared included the semi-concrete security fence, a PETRONAS gas station, Bazaar Padang Besar, and of course the new Padang Besar Station - entirely in a new position carved from the former hilly terrain.

So why do I attach so much significance to this trip?

There were six of us who made the trip on July 20, 1974. All of us turned 20 that year and so a trip to Haatyai was meant to be a celebration. Of the six who went, Michael Chua passed away in 2000 due to terminal illness. It was sad to hear of his demise but the spirit has to continue because of a pact we made; that by the time we reach our golden years, we would come back for a reunion and make a commemorative trip for old time sake. You see we all knew that we would part ways after NS. We were also aware that each of us had to pursue a career and possibly even settle down with families. That would have meant we would never “talk shop” or do things like we once did as “young cocks”. Only See Kit and I kept in touch; each time we met he would ask for the others; Rennie Wee, Mohan Raj and Teo Wee Kiang. Thirty-plus years is a very long time and the fear is whether people and places change. So in a way it was my “baby” to make sure our forthcoming commemorative trip at the end of this year will turn out well. Today this trip was a reconnaissance mission. Now I like to share with you on the legacy of this project.

Photo 2: The group of six with the late Michael Chua as the camera man. We stood in front of the newly opened Sukhontai Hotel (now Novotel Centera Haatyai). We travelled with the Nam Ho Travel bags and a shared Samsonite suite-case. Besides the Sukhontai Hotel, the other top-rated hotel in Haatyai at that time was the Montien.


About 8pm we arrived at the Padang Besar Railway Station in a hired taxi from Butterworth. It was certainly the wrong time to come because the Thai and Malaysian immigration counters inside the railway station area were closed for the day and there was no way we could cross the international border nor find hotel accommodation in Padang Besar because it was an “ulu town” (and it has ever been since thy kingdom come). We were dejected until a dark tanned figure appeared and told us he could take us into Thailand the very same evening for a fee of M$10 per person. Anan is the modern version of that dark tanned figure of 1974 except for one major difference. He does it with official approval from the Thai and Malaysian authorities. Unlike foreigners, Anan does not need a passport or show letters to cross the checkpoints. Incidentally, Anan was once a runner fetching people across the border in the 1970s.

It can be very difficult for me to explain the route we got into Thailand. Firstly there was no moon that night and no street lights, secondly no map and thirdly no camera to take any photos; if we did we had no camera-flash. However there was something good which has stood the test of time – our memory.

“Face the Padang Besar Station’s main entrance from the main road, kekanan pusing and chepat jalan 250 meters until you come to a concrete-paved open space. Walk in a 1 o’clock direction and cross a railway track. Belok kanan until 2 o’clock position and walk for 100 meters before reaching a fence with plenty of shrubs and lallang. Get down on all fours and crawl through the hole in the fence. Bediri dan chepat jalan 150 meters, then berhenti.”

How does this look on a map? Let’s examine Fig 1 closely.

Fig 1: My mental map of Padang Besar reinforced by fresh inputs from topo maps and street-level photographs. The orange colour indicates the route taken by us from the railway station through the border fence. Inside Thai territory is the Pekan Siam to Sadao Highway which we traveled to get to Haatyai. This is the same highway which connects to Danok and Batu Kayu Hitam.

After emerging from the other side of the fence, technically we were on Thai territory. The unmistakable sound of the percussion instruments and someone singing “Lol Lol Krathong” was the evidence. It didn’t strike us that we were doing the wrong things because the runner had assured us everything was above board. We thought it wise to organize ourselves just in case something unexpected was to happen. Walking in a section battle formation of “1-Up”, we walked down a narrow track, lallang on one side and trees on the other. The further we walk; the lights in Padang Besar became smaller and dimmer. We came to a wooden hut and waiting for us at the steps was another tanned-looking fellow (only this time he was a fat one) dressed-up in a sarong and white Chinaman singlet. Our runner whispered into his ears and on his signal, we handed-over six Singapore international passports to him with M$10 neatly tucked inside. Our passports were returned to us. There was something unusual about our passports; the passports were not rubber-stamped but carried hand-written signatures and the date of entry. Of course we were suspicious but language difficulties prevented further probing. A short while later a big beige 1960s Chevrolet appeared which took us for a 1.5 hour drive to Haatyai. We did talk about it in the car, whether the endorsements in our passports would be valid on our return trip into Malaysia but the long journey up from Singapore – by train and taxi - simply drained all our energies. That issue was the last thing on our minds. Whilst one or two of us kept awake, the others fell asleep. An hour and the half drive would not be considered long by any standard but in southern Thailand and the only car on the road at this hour of the night did give rise to concerns. What happens if we were kidnapped? Can the Thai driver be trusted – he was always so polite and laughing? He didn’t speak English, we didn’t speak Thai. The only light was the car’s headlights beaming weakly into the dark.

We (honestly) didn’t know that we were on the “Old Smugglers Trail” when we crossed the border. It is only after much reading and getting comments from others that we know what we did 35 years ago. Some commended us on our courage. Smuggling along the Thai-Malaysian border was very rampant in the 1970s, comprising rice, fuel, sugar, fire arms, cigarettes and the vice trade. You can imagine the consequences if we were detained by the authorities or worse still by the smugglers. Beside the smugglers, there were also fear of the Communist Terrorists (CTs) and armed bandits. Today, Malaysian Rangers from the 8th Infantry Bde are deployed on the Malaysian side of the common border because of militant secessionist movements.


Now try and guess where did we enter Thailand in today’s context?

Photo 3: (A) 2.4 meters high border fence beside the railway track. (B) The empty plot of land on the Thai side of the border viewed from a passing train heading into Malaysia. We came through the gap between the two parked trucks and continued walking to the tree on the right. Behind that tree is now a metalled road and a row of 2-storey houses. (C) The view of the parked truck and the border fence from the metalled road. Behind me on my right is the Chinese temple. (D) The road beside the railway track where container trucks enter/leave Thailand for the KTM inland container-yard. This container-truck is heading back into Thailand.

Photo 4: (E) The semi-concrete security fence when it was under construction (2002). Photo courtesy of Jasa Kepada Rakyat Malaysia. On the left of the fence is Malaysia, the building right of the fence belongs to the Thai Immigration & Customs. The “Bukit” in the background is at the spot height of 660 feet. The security fence begins from Wang Kelian in Perlis to Rantau Panjang in Kelantan. (F) The same Thai Immigration & Customs building today. (G) The Maybank branch was the spot where a road led to the old Padang Besar Station.

Photo 5: Left - Anan brought me to this location to see a recently discovered secret “smugglers trail”. Grey colored markings on the rubber trees and tree trunks buried in the sand serve as direction indicators. After its discovery by the Malaysian authorities, this trail was shut-down. What is the clue to this location? Look out for places (along the border) with rubber cultivation. Right – A typical hole in the fence. Notice there is no concrete wall below the fence unlike today’s border fence.

The next time when you visit Padang Besar, look out for those places I have mentioned. Just picture this as a young adult’s adventure which only can happen once a life-time. On the other hand should you think that is inappropriate, try to imagine then as a “Then & Now” thing; i.e. you are into heritage trail stuff. Next time I might consider writing the next episode of our return journey from Sadao (Thailand) to Changloon (Malaysia).


** There is a difference between an ethnic Thai Muslim and an ethnic Malay Muslim of Thai nationality.

Further readings:

The Smugglers' Express


yg said...

those days, they closed the borders earlier. today, they close at midnight malaysian time/11pm thailand time. i have not been to padang besar but i have heard similar stories of friends who got stranded. every where there is a border, there is bound to be some form of smuggling.

Icemoon said...

Let's have a quiz. Which one is Peter?

yg said...

the one on the extreme right.

Roger said...

And you all looked groovy (we used to say that didn't we?) Well, it conferred bragging rights to say you had been there.

Lam Chun See said...

He looks so 'cool'.

Icemoon said...

At 20, he was already more muscular than his peers. In the photo he did not carry anything. The last bag must be the photographer's. So Peter was 'arrowed' to carry the shared Samsonite case? Haha.