Published: January 29th 2011January 29th 2011
Nestled in the mountains. And boisterous.
Today's distance: 140km
Total distance: 469km
Time on bike: 7 hours
Betong is quite the interesting town. It has several claims to fame: southernmost town in Thailand, largest mailbox in the world, and the only place in Thailand where there is a road tunnel constructed.
My guidebook lied again when it told me that Betong is a quiet and peaceful town. In reality, it is a noisy and boisterous party town. It is a border town and it also has lots of Chinese influence. Malay tourists mainly come across the border and spend their cash on the seedy sex pleasures which this town has no shortage of.
The thing about Betong is that it's located in Yala province, yet far enough away from the main urban center to be considered safe. Basically it means the insurgency hasn't affected this town, and that is confirmed by the lack of army checkpoints and general army presence.
Getting here was a different story! My earlier failed attempt was to try and go directly from Narathiwat along the backroad that mainly parallels the Malaysian border. As a general note to travelers, don't bother with it. The only way to reach Betong
This one was stunning
from within Thailand is to do the following:
1. Catch a train or bus to Yala Town
2. Make your way to the minivan station
3. Catch a minivan to Betong. It costs 140 baht and takes about 3 hours. They leave once full.
Along the way to Betong there is only one road and it's still in pretty bad condition. Lots of potholes, really run down conditions, the most poverty I've seen in Thailand, and zillions of army checkpoints. The atmosphere felt tense and really not good. My guess is that Yala is the most severely affected place with the insurgency, and this is likely the only province that still has the curfew. The other provinces had the curfew lifted. So if you're doing the van route, do it in the daytime.
I stashed my folding bike in the train / van and did the above. Since the road was so twisty and hilly getting there, not to mention pissing rain, I figured that cycling back wasn't a very good call. So I crossed the border into Malaysia and took it from there instead. That was a much better call, as the Malaysian side was dry,
The "temple" in front is actually immigration
due to the monsoon and mountain effect. Readers can also breathe a sigh of relief in the sense that it's also much safer. I counted zero army checkpoints on the Malaysian side, and a noticeably wealthier and more stable atmosphere.
Malaysia is a different cup of tea from Thailand. On the plus side, the transport system is much better and the road signage is top notch. I never got lost once, all the way from the border to Alor Star, using a complex network of country backroads. It was simply a matter of following the signs. In Thailand it's not like that and you have to stop a lot and ask locals for directions. It can be a fruitless exercise as they don't know themselves. Another plus of Malaysia is the food is AWESOME! You can stop for food at any stall on the road, and there are things like Ice Milo, Nasi Goreng, Mee Goreng, and many others. Locals are super friendly, and they like cyclists. I got a ton of 'Welcome to Malaysia'
The difficult part is the traffic and city amenities. Roads are much narrower and there are many cars so it makes for tough
I have an affinity for these buildings
sledding. Also, Malaysia isn't set up for tourists the same way Thailand is so you have to work harder at finding stuff. This is all part of the fun of cycle touring, and it's a different experience than ordinary travel.
It was quite the long ride north to Alor Star, but here I am. Next up, trying to decide to go straight to Langkawi, or double back into Thailand again.