Kelantan is one of the most fortunate state in Peninsula Malaysia to have two border crossings. Earlier and yesterday, I made a good crossing from Pengkalan Kubor to Tak Bai in Thailand. Today, I made a third time crossing and this time from Rantau Panjang, Kelantan to Sungai Golok (Thai: Su’Ngai Kolok) in Narathiwat, Thailand. From here onwards I prefer to spell Sungai Golok as Sungai Kolok like how they write in Narathiwat, Thailand.
Sungai Kolok is a bizarre town and for a long time it has been one of the many popular crossings for travellers from Malaysia, much more than Bukit Kayu Hitam (in Kedah, Malaysia) and Danok (in Songkhla, Thailand) crossing. There was even once a rail connection between Rantau Panjang and Sungai Kolok but that has thus far become defunct for a long time – no one actually knows why the service is discontinued perhaps it was way during the Colonial times as more of logistical transport rather than public transport for commuters.
Apparently, the Immigration, Customs, and Quarantine Sections (ICQS) have improved tremendously since I last visited. The pedestrian ICQS is simple and impressive. On the Malaysian side, despite there’s a queue line for both Malaysian and foreign nationalities, on the other side of the counter, the Malaysian immigration authorities have set up a feasible passport reader and scanning machine for Malaysian passport readers. As I stepped into the booth the machine closed the booth’s door, scanned me as the passport, scanned my thumbprint without any fuss and in a matter of seconds, confirmed me as the passport holder, and the booth’s door on the other side opened to say that I was cleared. Similarly, on my return from Sungai Kolok, after four hours later, the machine on the returning side cleared me as well. Somehow, some officials saw my actions as bizarre, perhaps no one had yet to use the machines, and most Malaysians and Thais prefer the queue line to get their passports or travel permits (those that stayed on the borders and traverse along Kelantan and Narathiwat can get travel permits from the Malaysian and Thai immigration authorities) checked and stamped. I was the most glad person for this development – and on my way out I gave both my thumbs up and the authorities thought perhaps I was mad or what.
That was however untrue for the Customs side of the enforcement – there weren’t anybody at all especially on the side where visitors from Thailand entering Rantau Panjang, Malaysia. The bag scanning machine was turned off and not sure where are the customs officials. Having said that, however, Malaysia ICQS have in fact one of the best vehicular inspection bays consisting of 5 vehicular bays. Perhaps Customs officials are better stationed to check vehicles rather than pedestrians crossing the borders.
The Thai side of the ICQS at Su’Ngai Kolok has improved tremendously since those days they stationed on the wooden bridge (along the Sungai Kolok) and a row of connected of offices were built adjacent to the then Thai immigration office. The Thai immigration office shifted inland and they set up similarly to the Malaysian ICQS. When I arrived at the Thai pedestrians’ ICQS, its very organized and straightforward two queues in tow. The clearance is simple, efficient, and fast. I took my time to take a few pictures for this write-up and also took my time to fill up the traveller or tourist immigration card. Still the clearance only took like less than half-an-hour. The Immigration Officer was also meticulous as well and queried me as to my whereabouts in Sungai Kolok because I did not input a residence as I would be there for a few hours only. In the end, I did offer him my input that I will be hanging about in the morning market in Sungei Kolok and he was indeed satisfied. I wasn’t annoyed at all, and thought his actions and questions were relevant, important, and commendable, as Sungei Kolok was troubled with a bomb blast a couple of weeks before and not far from the ICQS.
As I exited the Thai ICQS, I noticed a poster of wanted persons on banners. Not sure whether these individuals are wanted for a series of troubles in Narathiwat and Southern Thailand.
About 100 metres from the Thai ICQS, there’s a military checkpoint with two soldiers in full military uniforms and weapons straddled on their shoulders. They were pleasantly nice and offered their “hellos” or “Sawadee Krap” as most Thais will do. Thailand like any country in the world, when their country is besieged with a violent problem, the full force of the military is called upon to make the presence felt rather than to enforce the law.
After the military checkpoint, the immediate building near the ICQS zone is the Thai Tourism Office and Exhibition Centre. The buildings are so massively built that it kind of reminds tourists and travellers that Narathiwat is not dangerous and patrons are free to visit and travel anywhere in Southern Thailand. I did not go there because I felt silly and felt the buildings are just ‘white elephants’ because even from the outside, it seemed quite empty and not much actually feel the insides even though today is a Sunday. Trespassing is not my best suite anyway and decided to prod on towards more exciting places.
My aim is to find out where the Sungai Kolok Train Station was.
As I proceeded on, I saw another banner in fact one big banner was actually stationed across the Tourist and Exhibition Centre and its about the International Competition on Chinese Lion Dance and to be held sometime in May 2018. Participants from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and Australia are invited to the competition together with the Thai competitors and it will be held in the Exhibition Centre. Further down there were smaller banners hanging straight down on the lamp post.
Just after the Genting Hotel, the shops came into view; I was surprised to see so many shops and further into avenues, five-foot way shops sprung and there were security checkpoints with policing figures stationed at these checkpoints. In these controlled areas apparently, many Thais of various ethnic groups (despite majority are still Malay Muslims) conducted their businesses. Most are Chinese owned shops and they employed Muslims to run their shops – whether its eateries, sundry goods shops or pharmacies. Most of these Thais spoke dual languages, Malay and Thai. And some even can converse in local Chinese dialects like Hokkien or Teochew to my delight.
The odd thing about this, is that, it seemed the controlled secured areas are run by Thais whom have assimilated comfortably into the Thai culture. It seemed as compared to Tak Bai, Thai Muslims in Sungai Kolok are pretty comfortable with their lifestyles and have assimilated more readily. When I was having my lunch at one of the eateries, they played and sang along with Thai pop songs that one could listen readily in Bangkok and not those traditional Thai music. And to my delight most of them are Muslims and yet they don’t feel the uncomfortable and at ease.
I managed to arrive at the Sungai Kolok Train Station, and the station had metal detecting machines and military figures but it seemed they either uninterested or lackadaisical in their attributes. Hence, the metal detecting machine is for show as deterrence rather than for enforcement. I went to the ticket window to inquire the ticket price for a lower berth sleeper from Sungai Kolok to Bangkok and got a favorable answer.
I did not hang around that long and decided because this place is anywhere like Thailand and thus did not thrill me at all, apart from the vegetarian lunch I had and thought it was delicious.
I returned to the immigration and observed what are the impossibilities but it seemed, on the Thai ICQS side, one have to go to one of the vehicle bays and not back to the office. Nevertheless, everything’s efficient as well but I just feel its rather queer to have to be examined and checked at a vehicle bay.
All in all, my experience with the Rantau Panjang and Sungei Kolok crossings is one of positive note, if not the best, and most efficient crossings of all times. Despite, the crossings is considered well enforced but still I could see bike runners offering rides to pedestrians, however, I did not see any of those who want to risk crossing illegally.