Visiting a Former Communist Hideout: The Piyamit Tunnels of Betong, Thailand

I’m too young to have lived through the height of Communism, but there was a time when the ideology swept the world, dividing nations and sparking the Cold War.

In Malaysia, communism gained a foothold during the Japanese invasion. The British colonials were taken by surprise, losing state after  state as they retreated to Singapore (they eventually lost that as well). It was the communists, comprising mostly first and second generation Chinese immigrants, who took up arms and fought the Japs, guerrilla-style.

image credit: psywar.org

After their surrender and while the Brits were still in a weakened state, the communists seized the chance to establish rule in Malaya – which resulted in the Malayan Emergency that lasted for many years. They were largely supported by the rural ethnic Chinese population, who were often farmers with little to no economic and political power due to racial policies.(which was why the idea of an equal society was appealing to them)

The Malayan Communist Party eventually surrendered in 1960, but several years later, party leader Chin Peng renewed the insurgency, which lasted into the 80s. He finally fled in exile to Thailand, bringing with him a number of supporters loyal to the cause.

The town of Betong in Southern Thailand is one of these places that became ‘home’ to the exiled communists fleeing from pursuit. Deep within the tropical jungles, a large group made base camp, digging tunnels as a bomb shelter against attacks by combined Malayan and Thai forces. Today, the Piyamit Tunnels is a popular tourist attraction, offering modern day visitors a fascinating insight into the communist life of yesteryears.

It was a quiet Saturday morning when we pulled up to the place, a scenic half hour’s drive from Betong town. It isn’t hard to get to now coz the road is nicely paved, but what a trek it must have been through the jungle back in the days! The entrance was nicely landscaped with cascading water features, shrubberies and trees, and the weather was cool from its high elevation.

The construction is decidedly Chinese: a typical arched gateway with Chinese characters welcomes visitors.

Upon entering is a small garden, replete with pond and bridge lined with statues of the 12 Chinese zodiacs, a deity and guardian Foo dogs.

Visitors pay a fee of RM7 (about 70baht) to enter. (Above) Self explanatory.

Woe is me, the quintessential city girl whose experience with the ‘outdoors’ is her local park. To get to the actual entrance of the tunnels, visitors walk through a long elevated wooden platform path that cuts through the jungle, over quaint little streams and creeks. Huffing and puffing aside, the view was beautiful, with dense foliage on both sides and the air thick with the smell of jungle.

Modern piping laid out across a stream with crystal clear waters

Tropical plants form a multi-layered canopy

Our first ‘stop’ was the kitchen area, where there was a huge walk-in ‘oven’ or sorts, with niches for firewood and cooking utensils to be placed. It was apparently fashioned in such a way to avoid smoke from rising and risking detection by the authorities.

This shack would be the equivalent of a modern-day laundromat: as sunlight couldn’t reach the forest floor due to the thick foliage, the communists who stayed here had to dry their clothes using heat. Again, smoke had to be avoided.

Nearing the tunnels! There was a ramshackle guard post where lookouts would have been stationed to warn the group of intruders.

Communist propaganda posters demonstrating how chill it was underground, safe from bombardment.. although I’m sure reality was a very different thing. Exposed to the elements in the jungles, worrying about food and shelter with no proper sanitation must have been a nightmare.

Just before the first entrance to the tunnel (there are nine entry/exit points, ending uphill) was a hall area with several exhibits. There we met an elderly Chinese man (probably in his late 60s) who was a former communist (!) He shared with us on how life was at the camp back in the 70s, and how men (and women) had to dig the tunnel out of solid earth, sometimes with their bare hands (not sure if exaggerating but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true, what with their limited resources and being cut off from the rest of the world).

In a wistful tone, he recalled how he had a brother in Kajang, Malaysia.  I’m pretty sure these former communists have been blacklisted by the Malaysian gov such that they can’t ever return and I wondered if any cause was worth never seeing your family and friends again.

Yes, there were also female communists at the camp. They even had a hall next to a cleared field where wedding ceremonies could be held.

The guy advised us to visit the Museum first before venturing into the tunnels, so we stopped by the small single-storey building next to it. The walls were painted over with communist propaganda and murals, and there were also a few statues in uniform.

Inside the museum was a showcase of more communist propaganda materials and historical items: leaflets, booklets, documents, newspaper cuttings. These were mostly written in Chinese as the material was brought in from China.

Medical supplies. Imagine being injured in the jungle and all they had were rusty operating tools and no way to sterilise them properly… *shudder*

Photos of training exercises, parades, group activities and candid pictures provided snapshots into the lives of the people who lived, and some who died, here. There were happy photos: a recruit doing the gunny sack race like ones we did for school sports day, members enjoying a tug-of-war, laughing with comrades.. moments captured forever in a still. I wondered about the stories that happened in between.

Bombs, mines and weapons used by the guerrilla fighters on display.

And finally, into the tunnels we went…

Stretching 1km long, there are nine entry and exit points so that the communists could run for cover (and escape) quickly.  Definitely not for the claustrophobic: passages were narrow and cramped, and the ceiling was low to the point that we had to stoop  in some places. Lights were placed at intervals all along the tunnel, but it was really impossible to tell if it was night or day in there.

The walls of the tunnel were smooth and plastered over, but in its original state, it was just exposed earth and could collapse at any moment. There were a few nooks and crannies where people could sleep but they were few and far between. I could just imagine the immense claustrophobia and lack of air that might cause some to panic.

Moo and Pops retreated to the outdoors but the bro and I decided to walk a few hundred metres to emerge uphill before going back down to the museum area again. Some of the steps were really steep so watch your footing!

It was nice to breathe fresh air again! We made our way back down to the entrance, passing through the jungle. We saw and heard small wildlife, such as birds and squirrels.

Right before exiting, look out for the ‘chin leen shu’ (thousand year old tree). Not sure if it’s really a thousand years, but it was really, really old and absolutely massive. Reminds me of the trees that grew over Angkor Wat’s ancient structures in Cambodia.

A last look at one of the many streams in the area. The water was so clear it looked good enough to bathe in.

The Piyamit Tunnels is a must-visit if ever in Betong: it’s educational, you’ll be able to see a different side of history you don’t usually read in mainstream books, and hear it from the ex-communists who live here. The nature is lovely as well.

GETTING THERE

From Betong town, turn into Highway 410 and head to Ban Charp Parai Village, where you’ll pass by the Betong Hot Springs. From there it’s another 4 more kilometres to the tunnel, with ample signboards telling you where to turn. Alternatively, Waze.

PIYAMIT TUNNELS

Ban Piyamit 1, Tambon Tano Mae Ro

Opening hours: 8AM- 4.30PM

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Author: Luna

Bibliophile/foodie. Drop me a line at erisgoesto@gmail.com

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