“Aren’t you afraid of the bombs?”

Cycling through Thailand’s deep south, this troubling enquiry was tossed out multiple times each day.

Sure we were scared!

Who wouldn’t be if they had bothered to read this warning from the US State Department:

The far south of Thailand has been experiencing almost daily incidents of criminally and politically motivated violence for several years, including incidents attributed to armed local separatist groups. Although the separatist groups have focused primarily on Thai government interests in the southern provinces, some of the recent violence has targeted public and commercial areas, including areas where foreigners may congregate.

Or this very recent article found on the Internet:

Suspected Muslim insurgents staged the most deadly coordinated attacks in years in Thailand’s restive south, killing 14 people and injuring 340 with car bombs that targeted Saturday shoppers and a high-rise hotel frequented by foreign tourists.

A first batch of explosives planted inside a parked pickup truck ripped through an area of restaurants and shops in a busy area of Yala city, a main commercial hub of Thailand’s restive southern provinces, said district police chief Col. Kritsada Kaewchandee.

About 20 minutes later, just as onlookers gathered at the blast site, a second car bomb exploded, causing the majority of casualties. Eleven people were killed and 110 wounded by the blasts.

Life goes on as normal in spite of the violence throughout the region.

I have to admit this backroad “short-cut” did make me a little nervous.

Travel Warnings: to heed or not to heed

Alright, so we were well aware of the risks.  This Southern Thailand insurgency may not make many headlines in the rest of the world, but it’s big news in Southeast Asia.

Just because I’ve visited 16 of the 32 countries topping the US State Department’s list of absolute no-go countries, doesn’t mean I’m not a worrier.

I am.  In fact, I’d say I’m a bigger fretter than most.

Dogs barking in the distance will have me flying out of the tent in search of campsite invaders.  If we’re at a hotel for the night and slip out for dinner my mind’s churning away with thoughts of doors left unlocked and thieves whisking away our precious bikes.  And if it’s a lonely stretch of road we’re pedaling, you can bet I’m eyeing each approaching vehicle with suspicion.  Are there terrorists lurking inside?  Kidnappers keen on nabbing cyclists?  Highway Bandits ready to plunder our panniers?

I just can’t help it!  Or can I?

All ridiculous thoughts.  I know that.  But sometimes there’s just nothing I can do to stop their flow.

What I can do, however, is consciously decide to override their influence.

Ignore the emotions and weigh up the risks with the logical half of my mind.

And logic told me that the chance of getting caught up in the southern Thailand insurgency was very, very low.

As this New York Times article points out “…we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events and underestimate how risky ordinary events are.”

A mad dash to Malaysia

That’s the mantra I repeated as we biked past the bombed out buildings in Narathiwat.

we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events

we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events

we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events

We did, however, take heed when a local guy in Narathiwat suggested we bike like crazy to cross the border into Malaysia that very day.

I gave it my all but there was just no way my weary legs could conquer those final 30 kilometers to the frontier before sunset.

Enter the friendly Thai police.  And there are plenty of them in that part of the country.  Throwing up checkpoints and attempting to keep order.  They are there to serve.  And serve they did.

Approaching one of the many police checkpoints in Southern Thailand near Pattani

There to serve! Propaganda in Thailand

No, we couldn’t camp at their compound (although we had spent the previous night behind barbed wire at another military compound) but they would lead us to a safe place to sleep.  And FREE, they insisted.

We ended up at an abandoned seaside resort.  Abandoned, of course, because terrorism and tourism just don’t mix.

Not sure that I really felt safer with the police since government buildings are a primary target for the terrorists

Sunrise at the deserted beach at our abandoned resort hotel in southern Thaialnd

Alright, the resort was mostly abandoned.  A guard sized us up at the gate and a friendly caretaker showed us to the one and only room that was ready to receive guests.

The following day we rolled across the border into Malaysia and let out a collective sigh of relief.   No terrorists on this side of the border!

Safe and sound across the border in Malaysia!
Sizing up Security: your experiences
Ever cycled through a region where you felt less than safe?  How do you size up the security risks?
Tourism and Terrorism

12 thoughts on “Tourism and Terrorism

  • April 25, 2012 at 3:05 AM

    Hello Amaya,

    We are loving your stories, and I wish I knew where you find the time to make such a professional job of it all! We’re still travelling with you. We’re just back from the Deep South, and aiming to head back to South America for 6 months in October.

    I remember when we met you and Eric in Uruguay, and Eric asked us how we had found Buenos Aires – you guys had been warned about the place, that it was full of gangs and guns and not a good place to be. We had found it to be a cultured city, reminding us a lot of Paris, and had met a large number of delightful folk.

    When the Argentines heard that we were heading into Paraguay via Ciudad del Este, they were horrified. We were told stories that the Argentines never took their cars over there; if they needed to go to take advantage of the cheap electronics, they took a taxi. The reality? We arrived on Election day, and we had a blast!

    I’m sure that you and any other cyclist on the road can tell any number of stories like that. ToTts, or ‘Them over There tales’. When I start to twitch about places and situations that I’ve heard about from afar, I try to remind myself to look from the opposite direction:

    Who would dream of going to London, given its history of bombings and riots? Who would think of going to the US for the same reason – and the fact (quoting The Guardian) that 11,000 US citizens are killed by guns borne by other US citizens each year? And Norway? And southern France?

    I will always remember our very first cycle tour to Norway in 1981. While we were away, there were major riots in the UK, in Toxteth and Brixton. From Norway, it appeared to us that life as we knew it had disappeared and civil war had broken out throughout the UK. When we got home, home was just the same as when we left it.

    How many people stop themselves from going to visit a place because of what is reported in the news? News is just that, generally – things that make headlines. What doesn’t make headlines is the stuff that happens every day to normal folk – in otherwords, everyday life.

    One of the scariest things we have encountered in all our years of travelling was going to London – yes, London, in our own country – to visit the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square for a visa application. We arrived at the appointed time to be put into a queue which had been formed on the OUTSIDE the concrete blast walls around the building. Years later, and I’m struggling for words on that one.

    Mostly what I try to remember is that wherever I’m going, my friends LIVE there – that’s why Warm Showers and Couchsurfing is so wonderful. Generally, it’s governments that are sniping at each other and are really not interested in you. Ordinary folk are just trying to get on with their lives. And you could get blown up anywhere; at least you were doing what you loved!

    Life and Cycling, according to Lesley!

    • April 25, 2012 at 11:10 AM

      That’s an excellent commentary Lesley. Thanks.

      • April 25, 2012 at 4:36 PM

        You are so right, Lesley. If we put too much stock in all the “Them over There tales” we’d all still be at home glued to CNN waiting for the next disaster to strike.

        My apologies for the shabby treatment from the US embassy.

        When Eric turned up for his visa interview at the US consulate in Frankfurt I was made to wait outside the front gate. No appointment-No Entry. Not even for America’s own citizens.

  • April 25, 2012 at 5:06 AM

    It’s impossible not to worry I guess, especially when in a strange land. The amount we worry mostly bears no relation to the actual threat. People will tell you the road ahead is dangerous and impassable – it usually isn’t. People will tell you the next town is full of armed vigilantes – it usually isn’t. People will tell you the bears will eat you – (that one may be true!)

    • April 25, 2012 at 4:40 PM

      And don’t you just love all the folks that tell you it’s impossible to cycle to the next town 50 kilometers down the road?

      “It’s much too far by bicycle,” they insist.

  • April 25, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    Great post, Amaya! I was actually wondering how you and Eric were handling the southern Thailand problems. And I’m glad to hear you both persevered through the risks and horror stories and didn’t let them stop you from reaching Malaysia.

    It’s also refreshing — sort of — for those of us who haven’t yet begun their international cycling tour to hear such experienced travelers as yourselves still admit to a little fear. Acknowledging your fear is probably a healthy habit to have, as opposed to being paralyzed by it.

    Happy cycling!

    • April 25, 2012 at 4:49 PM

      Managing fear is a constant battle for me.

      My strategy is to figure out the worst possible outcome, calculate the chance of it actually occurring and weigh that against the experience I’m potentially missing out on.

  • April 26, 2012 at 5:36 PM

    I remember well my solo ride through Yemen in 2009, which ultimately came to a halt when I was stopped at a checkpoint and loaded onto an army pickup with a huge mounted gun on top of it for the next few hundred km, because it was ‘too dangerous’ to travel on that road.

    When it comes to terrorism, foreigners getting killed or kidnapped, etc, I think it’s important to remember that what tiny amount of terrorism does exist in the world (compared to the vast amount of life-going-on-as-usual) is always politically motivated, and that has a huge bearing on how much risk you’re at. If you’re a diplomat, journalist, NGO worker, businessperson, or otherwise present in a politically involved capacity, you’re obviously far more at risk. You’re a visible target, your whereabouts is known, public eyes are upon you, the effect of an attack is far greater for far less effort.

    That’s the same reason that tourists who flock to honeypots are at higher risk – these places are obvious targets. When you look at the statistics cited on government travel warning websites, this is all evidenced pretty clearly. Those warnings are written for the diplomats, businessmen and package tourists who are most at risk.

    As a cyclist off the beaten track, the odds are vastly altered. You spend 99% of your time a long way away from anywhere, let alone political hotspots. You’re on no schedule. Your movements can’t be predicted. You (hopefully) have no political agenda, and you’re tied to no NGO or diplomatic mission or media channel. The chances that you’ll be pootling along just as a marginalised fanatic happens to be standing at the roadside looking for a worthwhile target are practically zero. This incredibly tiny number of people have better things to do than hang around waiting for cycle travellers.

    All that is essentially why I didn’t have any issue with the idea of riding in Yemen, nor in the Afar desert, nor anywhere else on the FCO’s blacklist.

    It’s also worth saying that an element of chance is unavoidable, and you might as well make your peace with that. Statistically, if terror threats were things to live by, I’d be a fool to live in London, take the Tube or get on a bus – as already mentioned above.

    “A life without risk is no life at all.”

    • May 1, 2012 at 12:56 AM

      Thanks for sharing your views, Tom.

      Couldn’t agree more with this point:

      If you’re a diplomat, journalist, NGO worker, businessperson, or otherwise present in a politically involved capacity, you’re obviously far more at risk.

  • February 14, 2018 at 9:09 PM

    I toured the same route as you did in 2013. Frankly, I felt safe. It’s probably I speak Malay too. The so-called violent in Deep South is hiked up by news media. The locals are a bunch of peaceful folks, and the actual trouble makers are from the outside that do bad things to this beautiful Malay land for their own vested interest.

    I will go back to tour this part of the world again.

    P.S: I am not Malay btw.

    • February 21, 2018 at 4:45 PM

      Sure, I’d agree with you that the vast majority of people are kind and peaceful. The troublemakers may come from the outside, but they’re still making trouble within Thailand’s most southern provinces.

      The fear I felt cycling in that region had nothing to do with how the locals treated me. I felt fear because the locals actually told me stories of the violence they had experienced and warned me to leave the area. I saw bombed out buildings. That scared me.

  • September 26, 2018 at 9:26 AM

    We overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events.
    So true

    We underestimate the odds of dreadful but frequent events.
    Also true

    By this, I mean the dangers of getting caught up in a bad traffic accident.

    The West coast of Malaysia is full of main roads with high traffic volumes whereas the East coast of Malaysia is safer to cycle qua traffic.

    By cycling through Southern Thailand you were funneled through to East Malaysia. So, in reality, you ended up taking the safest route to Singapore.


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