While Kelantan was reported to have seen over two million vehicles entering the state for Hari Raya Aidilfitri this year, the atmosphere remained subdued at the Rantau Panjang-Golok border as the land route with Thailand stayed shut throughout the festive season.
Previous years would see the immigration check point choked with vehicles forming queues of more than 10km as travellers waited to cross the border.
Those looking to enter Thailand — mostly migrants from the country working in Malaysia — would have to wait hours for the authorities to complete their checks.
For the most part, these travellers consisted of Thai nationals who came to Malaysia to open restaurants and eateries in major cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor Bahru and Shah Alam.
For them, the long break over Hari Raya Aidilfitri would be the best time to return for a visit to their home towns.
The majority of those exiting Malaysia through Rantau Panjang would be heading for Golok, Songkhla, Narathiwat and Bangkok.
They would be joined by locals eager to hit Thailand’s famous shopping districts, where everything from clothes to fresh produce waited.
Since the onset of Covid-19, though, things have been very different.
While the business centres in Rantau Panjang were thick with customers making last-minute preparations for Hari Raya, locals said the atmosphere was nothing like it used to be.
“There were many more people before 2020,” a cosmetics trader who introduced herself as Saurah told MalaysiaNow.
“Back then, the cars would be at a standstill.”
Saurah’s stall is next to the old bus station in the centre of Rantau Panjang town.
She said not many cars had entered the area throughout the fasting month of Ramadan.
“Normally, at times like this there would be so many cars that no one would be able to move,” she recalled.
Norma Harun, who runs a small eatery, agreed. She told MalaysiaNow that the Hari Raya atmosphere this year was only so-so.
“If the borders were open, I would be able to see a line of cars all the way to the intersection near my house,” she said.
For now, only the land routes at Bukit Kayu Hitam-Sadao and Wang Kelian-Wang Prachan are open for international travel.
This year, Norma said, some had returned to spend Hari Raya with their families in Rantau Panjang.
“But the crowds were nothing special,” she added. “I have seen far more before.”
Noradzli Che Senik, a Thai national who runs an eatery in Pasir Gudang, Johor, did not expect to be able to return to her home town in Golok for Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
By staying in Malaysia, she hopes to recoup some of the losses she incurred throughout the movement control orders implemented since the onset of the pandemic.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she said many of her friends were doing the same.
“We are trying to see if we can go back for Aidiladha in July,” she added.
Rantau Panjang, a district in the north of Kelantan, is a duty-free zone next to the Thai border. It is separated from the neighbouring country by Sungai Golok.
Land travel aside, it is also possible to cross the border by air or by boat, the latter for as little as RM5 per passenger.
Before the pandemic, these were popular forms of travel, and steady streams of travellers could be seen on a daily basis.
Rantau Panjang itself is a main entry point for Thai migrants looking to return through Gerik-Jeli-Panglima Bayu.
Two of Noradzli’s workers said they were ready to return to their home towns in Narathiwat. But both added that they would not pay the high costs required to travel to Perlis in order to enter Thailand.
Instead, they said, they would take the river route in Rantau Panjang. They had already made arrangements with a couple of acquaintances who would lead them through unofficial routes or “rat lanes” to sneak into Thailand.
MalaysiaNow understands that this way of entering Thailand would cost RM50 to RM100 per person.
Such routes are popular among those looking for a short cut into Thailand.
Sometimes, the Thai soldiers posted at the border notices them passing by.
“But they just check our bags,” one of the workers, Moh, said.
“If we’re not carrying anything suspicious, they will let us through. When I leave Thailand, I normally go through the same jetty and see the soldiers there again.”
Moh said his mother would give him some ketupat and sweets to give the soldiers as a way of thanking them for letting him pass.
“There are many good soldiers at the river,” he said. “They know how to judge whether we are just trying to get home for Raya or whether we are troublemakers.”
Moh himself has always been allowed to pass through.
“I only carry food home for my mother,” he said.