Award-winning Australian travel writer John Borthwick doesn’t like to do things the easy way—there are no good stories to be found there. That’s why he decided to walk across Thailand in a half a day.
Ever since (and probably before) Paul Theroux went far and did very well with his tales of railway rattling around the world, travel writers have been concocting increasingly complex, challenging or plain bizarre journeys as grist for their creative mills and sales.
Looking for a novel writing project but not being of great ambition, I sought a journey that might fit the ‘stunt travel’ scenario, yet preferably with minimal effort required. I decided I would walk across a country. In one day. No, not Monaco, Andorra or Liechtenstein. A ‘serious’, relatively large country—Thailand.
“You’re going to walk across the country in a day?” asked my expat friends, incredulously.
“Half a day, actually.”
A week later I am standing on sweeping beach on the Gulf of Thailand, 300 kilometers southwest of Bangkok. Wang Duan, just south of Prachuap Khiri Khan town, is a whistle-stop where the trains neither whistle nor stop. It does have however a sign that boasts, “The Narrowest of Thailand—10.96 kilometers.”
This is the narrowest point of Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra, where the distance from the Gulf waters to the Myanmar border is less than 11 kilometers, although the dogleg walking route is all of 13.4 kilometers.
I pull off my shoes and wade into the warm waters of the Gulf so that my quest has a quite literal starting point. The morning sun is on our backs as I walk up the beach in the company of Khun Nithima, a local farmer who will guide me. Like most Thais, she loves company and three of her women friends—Aum, On and Mam—soon join us.
Half a kilometer west of the shore, we come to Wang Duan’s blink-and-you-miss-it railway station where an optimistic monk and a dog await a train that might stop, perhaps today. We pass Nithima’s farm while heading inland along a sealed road. It’s a veritable fruit-salad farm that produces coconuts, pineapples, bananas, limes, mandarins and papaya. One of the farm boys comes out to join us. My original ‘solo’ walk with a guide has suddenly expanded to a party of six.
Our road towards Mandalay crosses a coastal plane of bamboo, lagoons and marshlands. Ahead are the low blue hills of the Tenasserim Range that demarcate the border with Myanmar, or ‘Pamah’ as the Thais say. Passing farmers, even a local cop, stop and ask, “What’s with the farang guy—and walking?” For comfort-loving Thais, the idea of walking any unnecessary distance is nonsensical—a discomfort that only a farang might relish. One man summarizes it all, ‘Ting tong’—“Nuts!”
I notice a sports utility trailing a few hundred meters behind us. It turns out to be Nithima’s husband. “In case we need help,” Aum says. ‘Help’ here is code for ‘food.’ My companions, being good Thais, love eating as much as they love company, and to go anywhere without plentiful food and drink is unthinkable. Thus, after just 45 minutes of walking, we stop for a second breakfast (we had already eaten one before starting) of pa tong go, Thai doughnuts and coffee, freshly delivered by SUV.
Redundantly refueled, I begin to stride out. Mam, who is a local politician, says: “You have long legs.” Which is the first time I’ve heard that one. This is again code, her politic Siamese way of saying-without-saying, ‘You’re walking too fast.’ Remembering that I’m now on an excursion with four strolling, fortyish Thai ladies, and not on some hairy-legged mountain trek, I shorten my stride and take in the scenery.
The Tenasserim Range, a 1700-kilometer chain of granite peaks older than the Himalayas, runs down the Malay Peninsula and is the spine of the Kra Isthmus, at the top of which is the border between the two countries. Until 1767, the whole isthmus from the Gulf westwards to the Andaman coast belonged to Siam—now Thailand—but serial wars with Burma resulted in the seaward flank of the range falling under Rangoon’s rule. The land ahead of us now climbs towards densely forested ridges. Up there, somewhere, is the border. Meantime, there are langurs and macaques in the forest, and even a monk in a cave but wisely they stay out of sight of our curious, omnivorous caravan.
A woman and child on a motorcycle join our caravan. And why not? At 10.30am, Nithima pulls out her phone, announcing that it’s lunchtime. Already? Hubby’s catering truck promptly arrives with fried chicken, sticky rice, banana chips, biscuits and drinks. When we resume walking, it is now more like rolling. The sealed road peters out and becomes a walking track. A local woman points us up a 400-meter bush trail. Then she too joins the troop. It feels like a Forrest Gump re-run or a rugby rolling maul.
There’s no border post or marker. No victory whoops of, ‘We’ve done it!’ This is it? The track simply ends at a clearing where the Thais kneel to pray before a Naga-headed Buddha altar—giving thanks that we’ve survived the ordeal? All a bit of an anti-climax, I fear. I look back across the coastal plain to the sea that we left three hours ago.
“This is the border?” I ask.
“Well, just up there a bit more,” I am told, vaguely.
I see why. “Up there a bit more” is rugged, bush-bashing terrain where my comfortable companions are entirely disinclined to go. A ridge too far, as they say. And no catering truck access. Regardless, I can say I’ve almost walked across Thailand in a day. In fact, half a day, even if was far from ‘solo.’ Our flash mob posing for the mandatory photo op is now Nithima and friends, her husband, the farm boy, two local women, one child, a dog, a motorbike, and myself. “We just grew like a pumpkin,” she laughs.
Some days later, a friend emails me a photo of another Thai sign that also boasts ‘Narrowest Point of Thailand.’ It is on the opposite side of the Gulf, in Trat province, where the distance from the coast to the Cambodian land border is a mere 450 meters. He adds with some glee: “You can now claim to have walked across only the second narrowest part of Thailand.”
One of Australia’s leading travel writers, John Borthwick's work appears in The Weekend Australian, Fairfax Traveller and color magazines—all of which keeps him too long away from surfing good waves or hiking some gob-smacking coastline.