Trouble in a paradise that is Thailand's deep south
As the hot season approaches, the bougainvilleas bloom blood-red in Thailand's deep south. Huge shrubs spread their flowers along country roads and in the towns. At first glance they create a beguiling atmosphere, along with the cooing of doves - housed in ornate cages in homes and shops - and the kites flying high in the afternoon sea breezes.
All is not what it seems. The tranquillity of the day is matched by fear of the night. Dusk falls heavily in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
By late afternoon, people are speeding home from schools, temples and shops to lock themselves in their homes with their families, whether they live in villages or towns. By 5.30pm, the grilles and shutters are down as the shadows lengthen. If lights are needed, they are shielded.
Night is the domain of Muslim insurgents - loose groupings as co-ordinated and persistent as they are successfully secretive. They could not have asked for better territory for their campaign of arson, bombing and assassination by rifle and sword.
In contrast to the relatively open plains of central Thailand, the three southern provinces are lush. It is often hard to see 200 metres in any given direction. Low-slung hills covered with jungle and plantations of tall, thin rubber trees run to the sea and the Malaysian border. Flat, swampy valleys are filled with coconut groves, small rice paddies and grazing cattle. As 80,000 Thai troops know only too well, it is a hell of a place to defend.
The main roads feel quite safe, despite the heavily fortified military posts bristling with armed soldiers, barbed wire and humvees. Turn off towards the villages and it can be another matter. 'We won't be going down there. 'Everyone knows that is a red zone,' the taxi driver says, using the local jargon for a no-go area.
Such phrases are part of everyday conversation and a reminder that the deep south of Thailand is a long way from Bangkok - in every sense.
As the crow flies, it is nearly 800km from the Thai capital to its far southern border with Malaysia. Even the resort of Phuket - as far south as most foreign tourists venture - is 400km to the northeast. By road, both cities are even farther away.
Culturally, too, it is a world apart from the rest of proudly Buddhist Thailand. The three southern provinces were part of the Sultanate of Pattani - an Islamic Malay state - seven centuries ago.
Today the three provinces are home to 1.3 million Muslims - mostly ethnic Malays who speak a different language, Yawi. Ethnic Thai and Chinese Buddhists number between 250,000 to 300,000 - numbers now believed to be shrinking as the worsening insurgency drives them north.
It seems different in other respects as well. Local Muslims, wary of the rapid development of many other parts of Thailand, speak of their desire to live simple lives.
The mass tourism and commercialisation that marks so many parts of modern Thailand is largely conspicuous by its absence in the deep south.
The teak-wood shophouses in the small towns are from another era, as are the 1960s black Mercedes sedans - recycled Bangkok taxis - that still prowl the streets.
Along the coast, the contrast is even greater. Simple, largely Muslim, villages subsist on the catching and drying of squid and fish. Kilometres of long, palm-fringed beaches along the Gulf of Thailand lie largely empty. Sheep and goats graze at their edges.
Many local entrepreneurs are eyeing development, knowing that rising incomes will help foster security long-term. The insurgents seem hell-bent on keeping them away.