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All quiet on the Tak Bai front

Visiting a little gem in Narathiwat province

The lonely beach of Tak Bai's Koh Yao. Peerawat Jariyasombat

Amid its tranquil atmosphere, Tak Bai of Narathiwat province has hidden gems worth stopping for. On the banks of the peaceful Tak Bai River, a refreshing breeze blows through a century-old pavilion.

Just steps from the river is the architectural heritage of Narathiwat province, Chon Thara Singhe Temple. The wooden gable pavilion shows excellent craftsmanship in southern-Thai style, while the abbot's residence, a one-storey concrete-and-wood building, shows off the carving on the roof.

"Tak Bai was part of Siam. In the division of land between Siam and British Malaya in the Anglo-Siam Treaty, the British wanted it. However, Thailand raised the fact that this was an important temple showing obvious Thai character, so the area should remain with Thailand. The British agreed to use the Sungai Golok River, a few kilometres away in the South, as the boundary," says Boonruan Chairat, on staff at the museum in Narathiwat, who also explains that the change of boundary saved 256km².

I agreed with her. This temple is quite outstanding among a handful of Buddhist temples in the Deep South. It contains a number of artefacts that mirror influence from the central and northern regions, ranging from murals to Buddha statues that share characteristics with the Chiang Saen style.

A Narathiwat lady and the expensive pla kulao fish. Peerawat Jariyasombat

A unique cultural heritage here is the Chehe, or Tak Bai, dialect. While locals in Narathiwat speak Malay, residents of Tak Bai speak Chehe, a mix between central and northern Thai, as well as some royal words that derive from the Khmer language.

According to Boonruan, some academics believe the Chehe dialect came directly from Sukhothai, as both dialects share many words.

"This temple saved a large area for Siam. However, a number of Thais were left in Kelantan of Malaysia after the land division. Today, it is estimated that there are some 50,000 of them living in Malaysia. Of course, they speak Thai and Chehe."

Tak Bai is a quiet district, but a number of Thai tourists keep lingering here because of a local speciality, pla kulao -- or threadfin fish. The dried fish is softened, salted and treated with secrets handed down through generations.

"I clean the fish, roll over it with a glass bottle to make it softer, and bath it with sea salt. After this, the fish will be hung to dry slowly in the sun. Flies love its smell and always lay eggs on the fish's eye. But I will not let them do it," says Mae Pan, who inherited the recipe from her mother, and who keeps the fish in a drying row covered by fly screens that protect them from insects.

It sounds astonishing, but pla kulao from Tak Bai is priced at 1,500-2,000 baht per kilo. Production depends on how much fresh fish they get, and the weather. That is the reason it is a rare gift. You may spot a number of shops showing fish, but most of them are spoken for. It may take a few weeks or even a month to get fish, but customers are willing to wait.

The evening breeze and relaxing atmosphere by the Tak Bai River always attracts locals to linger at a beautiful bridge named Saphan Khoi Roi Pee, or "The Bridge Of A Century-Long Wait".

The 345m-long bridge links Tak Bai Market with Koh Yao, a 9km-long island with stunning beaches. Dwellers from Koh Yao have been accessing the market by boat for a long time. After requesting the bridge for decades, it finally came. To them, it felt like a century.

Today, a new concrete bridge stands side-by-side with the old wooden bridge. Lovers and groups of friends enjoy time in the riverfront park. Soft conversation in the Chehe dialect and Malay fills the air. Kids play on the beach.

Saphan Khoi Roi Pee in the evening. Peerawat Jariyasombat

Architectural beauty and murals at Wat Chon Thara Singhe. Peerawat Jariyasombat

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