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…….The World Without Boundaries

A Road Trip to Betong

Written By: jipp - Oct• 14•18

So I’ve just returned from a road trip to the far North of the Malaysian Peninsula, to a small town called Baling in the Malaysian state of Kedah. It was my first time traveling to that corner of Malaysia, although the furthest I went last time was Lenggong to check out the latest site in the country to be inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Reaching Baling at night, we checked in at a hotel called Hotel Bayu where I had a full view of the beautiful Baling Hill from the window of my hotel room. The plan was to climb up the hill, which I was told would serve climbers with beautiful view of Baling town from the peak. Unfortunately, we woke up the next day to a heavy rain so the plan had to be scrapped. After doing what we were there to do, we drove over to Pengkalan Hulu before crossing over to Betong in Thailand. It would be my very first time driving into Thailand so I was quite excited. It was something that I had always wanted to do but never got around to doing it – not until this one.

The process was quite simple. You first need to drive through the gate on the Malaysian side – where you need to show them your car registration card (also known as car grant of course), and they’ll register your car plate number on a log book. Then later near the gate on the Thai side, you need to park your car and come to the counter to fill up forms – one for the car and another for your entry. Somebody is there to help fill up the forms for you – with a little bit of charge of course – and all you need to do is to hand over to them your passport and car registration card.

Then you need to bring the forms to the immigration counter where the forms will be stamped, together with your passport. Now mind to tell you that there is a little slip of paper that they’ll tuck in your passport and you really don’t want to lose this paper. They’ll ask for that paper when you return to check out, and they’ll charge you some RM1k (according to the Malaysian personnel that registered the plate number of my car) if you don’t have it with you. The Thai officers wouldn’t tell you that – and of course we all know why.

Done with the stamping, we drove on through the gate and voila – we were in Thailand. The change of environment was almost immediate. Even the air felt so different to my lungs (heh). There were suddenly the familiar Thai architectures everywhere – the fancy gates, the giant posters of the King and Queen of Thailand, the convoluted Thai abugidas and the most noticeable one is the motorcyclists not wearing helmets.

We reached the town center of Betong almost in no time and were surprised to see how quite the town was. Having lost the phone coverage by now, we found ourselves totally disoriented. Thinking that we couldn’t go anywhere without the help of Google map, we bought a sim card from some random tele shop for RM20. With the internet back in the phone, we were ready venture on.

The first place that I had in mind was the Piyamit Tunnels. It was a place that I had always wanted to go. Following the instructions on the Google map, we were led across rubber plantations, a series of beautiful villages with ancient-looking wooden houses, then further on into the lush greenery of a hilly forest. By then it was beginning to drizzle and by the time we arrived at the gate to Piyamit Tunnels, it was raining cats and dogs.

After buying the ticket at the counter for RM8 (Malaysian currencies are generally accepted all over Betong) per person, we ventured into the forest to see for ourselves the tunnels that were used by the Communist insurgents during their guerilla campaign against the British Malayan armed forces (which was later joined by a range of Commonwealth armed forces) – a campaign that lasted for 5 decades.

Walking along the concrete walkway towards the tunnels, I could see why the place was handpicked by the Communist insurgents to be their base for air raid shelter and storage of food supplies and probably weapons. Located on a hillside, hidden among the hills with lush forest (but a quick look at the Google Map shows that it is now surrounded by farms and the forest where the tunnels are is merely a sort of a left-over) with a steady stream of water coming down to it from the surrounding hills, the location and geographical settings of the place were just perfect for militant activities.

The fact that it was so well maintained and the forest was almost intact caught me by surprise. Going to the tunnel complex and back turned out to be a bit of a hike, but it really was a nice hike. The walkway was nicely roofed so I put my umbrella aside so that I could enjoy the hike even more.

At the main entrance of the tunnels is a mini-museum. A soft-spoken old man was there to explain a little about the tunnels – and I was so impressed at how he did it in Malay. It was broken Malay, alright, but very much understandable nevertheless. Inside the museum was a display of an assortment of clothes, tools, devices and even weapons used by the Communist insurgents while undergoing militant training and probably during their militant operations.

Pictures depicting the lives of the insurgents at the shelter are plastered all over and my attention was especially caught by the pictures of them building the tunnels. They looked very manual and they actually had beautiful ladies helping them out. That probably explains as to how they managed to stay hidden in the tunnels for so many years. Heh.

Even the tunnels are so well-maintained. I’m not sure if they are of the original sizes or have already been widened to provide easier access to visitors but for sure they are much more spacious than the Chu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. They seem to have just about everything down there. In fact they could go inside the tunnels without having to go out in the open for months provided they’ve got enough supply of food and water of course. They even have a quite sophisticated furnace system that minimizes the release of smokes so that they will not be detected by enemies.

By the time we had made it to the exit (one of the 9 exits), the rain had already worsened. In fact, it felt more like a storm. Since I already had mine, the old man handed an umbrella to each of my companions and we walked back to the gate on a different track (not roofed). I must have walked about 30 yards when I suddenly felt like running back to the old man and gave him a little bit of token of appreciation. He seemed genuinely surprised when I handed over twenty bucks to him even though I wish I could have given him more.

The concrete walkway led us past what is called the Thousand Tree. It is more like a stack of Strangular figs that have overgrown into each other, forming a giant cluster of trees. They look very ancient and it would only be days later that I found out that the ‘thousand’ is actually referring to their age. I wish I could stay there longer but the rain was going really mad and I couldn’t help but getting a little bit worried that the walkway might get flooded at any time now and I’ll be stuck in the forest – alone. Somehow I felt relieved when I managed to make it back to the gate where my two friends had long been waiting.

Still raining so heavily without any sign of slowing down, we pulled out of the Piyamit Tunnels park area and headed back to Betong. By then it was already dark so after parking the car at some random spot, we entered the first Halal restaurant that we bumped into. Overlooking a busy junction, the restaurant was at a perfect location from where we could watch the world go by in Betong. Since it was a halal food restaurant, I didn’t expect much from the food. Thailand may be considered the food capital of the world by many but I’m quite sure that refers more on non-halal food.

We wrapped up the night by doing a little bit of shopping. Unfortunately, shopping in Thailand for Malaysians are not as affordable as it probably used to be. With the Ringgit weakening for more than a year now, I found the prices of stuff to be quite expensive. Luckily I found some left-over of my Bahts tucked deep in my travel pouch – those that I didn’t get to spend during my previous trip to Thailand – so I used them to buy a few stuff.

Despite the less attractive prices on offer, even after hard negotiation, we actually found ourselves rummaging through things up until the very closing time. The best thing about Betong is the fact that most of the people there could converse in Malay so negotiating the prices should be much easier for Malay-speaking Malaysians.

Re-entering Malaysia was easy-peasy. By then it was almost 10pm so the gate was almost deserted. We parked our car at the now deserted carpark and walked over to the counter where a sleepy immigration officer was waiting to stamp any passport that probably comes his way.

The only time we got stopped was at the custom check where a group of all-female officers asked if we had purchased anything from Betong, or Thailand for that matter. One of them craned her head out to see what that was to see inside our vehicle. Of course there was nothing much to see but those clothes that we bought back at the shop in Betong. Later at the gate on the Malaysian side, the uniformed personnel didn’t even bother to stop us. We were back in Malaysia before we knew it.

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