Photographs + Story by: Matt Hunt
Ask around, and most Betong (เบตง) locals will proudly tell you that their city is the southernmost of many things in Thailand. Betong town is the capital of the Betong District and the southernmost town in Yala, the southernmost province in the Kingdom.
In early 2022, after years of issues with construction and contracts, the Betong International Airport (BTZ) opened, giving new attention to Betong as a domestic tourism option. Before the current spotlight in the Thai tourism market, Betong spent decades growing from being a just border town to a destination for Malaysian tourists and business people stopping over before continuing on Highway 410, the one road leading to the rest of Thailand.
The push to make Betong look more like a destination for western tourists is already underway, with murals made for Instagram popping up along the alleyways and a couple of options for “western” food being penciled into menus around the town.
However, daily life in Betong is barely affected by the impending development. The way of motor traffic depends on a lot of independent decision-making; business opens late and closes early; at any given time, you can overhear one of several Thai and Chinese language dialects being spoken interchangeably on the street without hesitation.
The history of Malaysian tourism and the development of the deep south region of Thailand created a unique mix of Chinese, Malaysian, and Southern Thai cultures that are all on display together—but separately—at the same time.
Betong is a mix of people with vastly different cultural heritage that share a Thai national identity. Most people cooperate with the difference and practice tolerance in ways that demonstrate an understanding of each other as Thai people while maintaining a public, somewhat prideful display of individual identity, keeping their cultural heritage visible and intact.
Betong is ornate mosques on the same block as a Buddhist temple; vendors wearing hijabs making Halal food next to Chinese fried noodle stalls. It is a place where details of many different cultures are splashed throughout the city in blocks of color and food that stand next to each other but barely ever blend.
The following photographs were taken in February 2022, one month before Betong International Airport opened and the area began to be promoted as a tourist destination in domestic and international markets.
Aerial view of Tok Ku Chae Bridge during sunrise over the jungle.
Multi-colored houses, often doubling as storefronts on the ground, paint the downtown area of Betong.
A maintenance worker cleans the sidewalks outside of The Betong Mongkhonrit Tunnel (อุโมงค์เบตงมงคลฤทธิ์).
Local people run around a track at a public sports complex in Betong. The official slogan of the city, “Ok Betong, “is painted on the bleachers behind the runners.
A Muslim family plays at Sud Siam Public Park (สวนสุดสยาม)
People play competitive sports at a public recreational area in Sud Siam Park (สวนสุดสยาม).
Betong Central Mosque.
The Chedi (stupa) at Wat Phutthathiwat in Betong.
Guards carrying shotguns ride a motorcycle through a residential neighborhood.
A man living in a mountain village in Betong poses for a portrait.
A farmer herds her goats along a steep mountain road in Betong.
A bunker made of sandbags is seen around a police checkpoint in Betong. These checkpoints are common along the roads in the bottom three Thailand provinces.
Armed military guards perform anti-terrorism patrol along Highway 410 in Betong.
Aiyerweng Skywalk (ทะเลหมอกอัยเยอร์เวง)
Photographs displaying memories of historical importance to the city are seen on display at a gallery.
A public official paints a piece of a new zebra crossing in downtown Betong on February 4, 2022.
A street food pushcart vendor sets up shop in front of a mural downtown.
A pet goat walks through a pedestrian crosswalk in a residential area of Betong.
Sunset in Betong.
View of downtown Betong at night, with its clock tower as the centerpiece.