Kingdom’s Edge by Richard Humphries

My journey into Thailand’s deep south began in late 2005 with a minivan journey from the southern Thai city of Hat Yai to Pattani. I was living in Malaysia at that time, and about to move to Thailand. A conversation with a friend had sparked my curiosity. We were watching a news report on another fatal shooting in the farthest edge of the Kingdom of Thailand. It was interesting to learn that there was a sizeable ethnic Malay population living in the three southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala. Also, we were astonished to learn that there was in fact a full-blown Islamic insurgency happening right on Malaysia’s northern border with little to no news coverage coming from the area. As I began to research further I was astonished to discover that at that time it was the third largest insurgency in the world after Iraq and Afghanistan, and with almost no mainstream media coverage!

The lush green Sankalakhiri mountain range, seen here while approaching Hat Yai airport, stretches south from Songkhla province in Thailand to Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia. Also know as “Banjaran Besar”, or Big Range, by locals, it is the mountain range that forms the backbone of the Malay peninsula. Photo: Richard Humphries
An unofficial border crossing point between Thailand and Malaysia in the southern town of Sungai Kolok. The Kolok river in Narathiwat province marks the border line between the two countries. The border, although important for trade, has in recent years become a haven for smugglers and criminal gangs taking advantage of its porous, rugged geography, and of authorities stretched from fighting an insurgency. Photo: Richard Humphries.

There was also an added fascination for me. A border. I have always found them intriguing. They represent the edges of societies, a place where different cultures and people come together, sometimes in discord, sometimes in coalescence, some pushing, some pulling. They represent an ambiguity that I find both dangerous, and enticing. The Thailand/Malaysia border is a relatively new one; drawn on a map by the British and Siamese after they signed their agreement in 1909, dividing what was then part of British Malaya between them. A largely forgotten outlying pocket of territory that today has more in common with Kuala Lumpur than distant Bangkok.

Ethnic Chinese Thais participate in the Lim Ko Niew festival in Sai Buri town. The festival takes place every year on the 15th night of Chinese New Year. Participants carry sculptures of the Lim Ko Niew goddess through the town, letting off firecrackers as they go, and culminating in a fire walk in the evening. It is the most significant cultural festival for the ethnic Chinese community of Thailand’s deep south. Photo: Richard Humphries.
A male Menora performer from a travelling troupe from Phattalung province puts on his make-up before a show in the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani city. Menora is a type of dance drama of southern Thailand origin. It is also practised, and remains popular, in the northern states of Malaysia. Photo: Richard Humphries
Muslim women perform evening prayers at the Pattani central mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan takes place every year in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, and prayer to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad according to Islamic belief. Prayers conducted during the holy month are believed to carry much higher significance and value. Photo: Richard Humphries

Since that first minivan ride I have returned to the deep south countless times. My journey as a photojournalist has taken me along countless kilometres of checkpoint-lined bumpy roads running between emerald rice fields. I have spent hundreds of nights sleeping in cheap hotels and on concrete floors. It has taken me into the homes of strangers, into mosques, fortified Buddhist temples, and to remote jungle army camps. I have embedded with Thai troops patrolling deep into the “Red Zone” at night in armoured Humvees with nervous teenage conscripts clutching Buddhist amulets in one hand, and an M4 in the other. My journey has gifted me with hours of conversations with friends and strangers over cups of sweet milky tea. I have seen the terrible aftermath of close-quarter shootings and the direct impact that has on the victims families. I have been through the bombing of my hotel in the early hours of a rainy morning in Yala city, and I have even been attacked by an angry elephant at a wedding in Pattani.

An AK-47 assault rifle placed on a white plastic chair at the home of a village defence volunteer near Banang Sata village, in Yala province. Photo: Photo: Richard Humphries
A Thai boy scout carries a portrait of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest serving monarch, during a children’s day parade through Narathiwat town. Photo: Richard Humphries
Ethnic Malay families travel home to Kampung Dato in Pattani province on the eve of Hari Raya, marking the end of the hole month of Ramadan. Photo: Richard Humphries
Two Thai girls sit and wait above large tubs of water at an agricultural fair in Pattani city. Twenty baht gets you three throws of a wet sponge, and the opportunity to drop one of these girls into the water below. Photo: Richard Humphries
Families and friends meet at the central Mosque in Pattani on the first morning of Hari Raya. Hari Raya signifies the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan takes place every year in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, and prayer to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad according to Islamic belief. Prayers conducted during the holy month are believed to carry much higher significance and value. Photo: Richard Humphries

Through all of this the southern Thailand that I know now is a world away from the one that I first encountered. The photographs in my book Kingdom’s Edge represent my eight year journey into the Thai deep south and I have come to know the deep south as much more than the monotonous one dimensional news reports from all those years ago. The violence is still rife, and peace remains profoundly elusive, yet its cities and towns teem and bustle with life. They are places of trade and commerce, of young people and free wifi, of tea shops and markets. They are places where tudong clad girls ride four on a motorbike, where twice a day people freeze on the spot to the sound of the national anthem, and where the call to prayer fills the air five times a day. It is a complex society that is both Muslim and Buddhist, Malay and Thai. It is both old and youthful, calm and restive. It is a place that once seemed strange, but now feels less so. It is a place that I arrived at as an outsider, and in many ways I still am, nevertheless I hope that through my photography I am able to examine the complex intricacies and subtle incongruities of daily life in South East Asia’s deadliest conflict, at the farthest edge of the Kingdom of Thailand.

Richard Humphries
Richard a multi-award winning photographer and published author. He is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. South East Asia has been his passion and his patch for a number of years now so he knows his Dim Sums from his Durians and his Laksas from his Longans. Richard has also lived and worked in Indonesia, Thailand, and South Africa. During this time Richard has worked with most of the leading publications, news agencies, and NGOs.

In 2016 Richard founded Kingdoms Edge Project as a home for his long term personal project documenting daily life in the deep south region of Thailand. Since those beginnings the project has become a published book, Kingdom’s Edge, and achieved international recognition. Moving forward Richard will continue with his work in the Thai south, exploring social issues and areas of ethnic tension relating to borders.

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Ethnic Malay Muslim men perform Friday prayers at the Narathiwat central mosque in Narathiwat Province.
Muslim men drink sweet milky tea and smoke hand rolled cigarettes after Friday prayers in Dato village. In any village in the Thai deep south traditional tea shops are of great social importance. They are mostly frequented by men, and matters of all kinds are discussed around their creaky wooden tables.
Packed southbound train number 463, bound for Sungai Kolok, prepares to pull out of Hat Yai station. There are three southbound, and three northbound local trains per day. The train is a crucial mode of transport in the Thai deep south. It is free for the locals and it is an important symbol for the Thai government to show that it still maintains control in one of the more remote and wild parts of the county.
Members of a village defence volunteer program at their graduation ceremony. The course, which was funded and run by the Royal Thai Army, lasts fourteen days and the volunteers were taught reconnaissance, information warfare, and how to patrol with a vehicle. The program culminated with a live firing exercise.
Members of the public look on at the aftermath of a massive car bomb in the southern Thai town of Sungai Kolok while the Royal Thai Police gather forensic evidence.
Thai day labourers together with migrant labourers from Myanmar and Cambodia a fishing offload a vessel at the Pattani fishing port. The Pattani port is the largest such facility southern Thailand and receives and offloads vessels day and night.
Islamic prayers, and an image of the Kaaba in Mecca, hang alongside an image of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, on the wall of a tea shop in Narathiwat town.
Members of a Royal Thai Marine unit from Udon Thani, in the country’s far north, conduct a patrol through the villages on the outskirts of Narathiwat town in their armoured Reva vehicle. The Thai state currently has more that 65,000 men-at-arms in southern Thailand. During the height of the War in Afghanistan (2010-2013) the Americans had up to 80,000 troops in country.
A Buddhist monk collects morning alms under armed military protection. Buddist monks have been attacked by suspected Islamic insurgents, with some having been beheaded.
A group of men from a Thahan Phran unit take a break after a live fire exercise with the Royal Thai Army. Thahan Phran, or Thai Rangers, are a paramilitary light infantry force made up of volunteers. They function as an auxiliary unit of the Royal Thai Army. They have in the past been accused of gross human right abuses in Thailand’s deep south.
Royal Thai border police check point near the Thailand/Malaysia border.
A Huey UH-1 helicopter gunship belonging to the Royal Thai Army descends for landing after a patrol over the mountains of Narathiwat province.
Checking for weapons and explosives at a check point along a remote jungle road near Tan To village, close to the Thailand/Malaysia border, manned by a Thahan Phran unit. These units are made up of locally recruited volunteers that do a one month tour of duty before returning to their home villages for one week’s leave.
Two soldiers, part of a Thahan Phran unit, take a break on an old bridge during an early morning foot patrol near the Thai/Malaysian border. Thahan Phran, or Thai Rangers, are a paramilitary light infantry force made up of volunteers. They function as an auxiliary unit of the Royal Thai Army. They have in the past been accused of gross human right abuses in Thailand’s deep south.
A cow is sacrificed by a family in Si Sakhon village in observance of Eid al-Adha, which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his first-born and only son in obedience of a command from God. It also marks the end of the annual Hadj pilgrimage to Mecca. The meat from the animal is donated, one third to friends and neighbours, one third or more of the meat to the poor and needy.
Members of a government trained militia known as Tahan Phran prepare to take their horses for an evening ride on a nearby beach. The horses are used as part of a community outreach program for children with special needs. Tahan Phran have in the past been accused of massive human rights abuses in Thailand’s deep south. The Thai state currently has more than 65,000 men-at-arms in the deep south.
A statue of King Rama V in the centre of Pattani city. King Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn, ruled what was then Siam from 1868 to 1910 and was known as a moderniser. He abolished slavery, centralised revenues, and created a national education system. He was also a key signatory to the 1909 Anglo-Siamese treaty. This treaty effectively divided the northern Malay states between Britain and Siam, and drew the border which still exists today. The discontent from this agreement may have, in part, laid the foundations for the insurgency in southern Thailand which began in the 1960’s and continues to this day.
A British colonial era border stone on the Thailand/Malaysia border. It sits in the no-mans-land between Betong on the Thai side and Pengkalan Hulu on the Malaysian side.
Abandoned housing project on the outskirts of the southern border town of Sungai Kolok. Many large-scale investment projects in the larger urban areas have been shelved since the start of the conflict in 2004.
The Sai Buri river flowing through the town of Si Sakhon.