The people of Hat Yai must watch with great frustration, as the hordes of tourists pouring out of the arrivals terminal are whisked away by tour busses and vans shuttling them off to other southern destinations such as Samui, Koh Phangan or even Malaysia. International airport it may be, but major tourist destination Hat Yai is not.
We, 11 representatives of the Chiang Mai media invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to tour Songkhla and Nakhon Si Thammarat, were some of only a few people who were actually leaving the airport to explore the two southern provinces.
Swaying palm trees: check. Beautiful forests: check. Diamond clarity seas: check. Glittering temples and mosques: check. Vibrant city scene: check.
There is a lot to offer down there, yet you won’t find pretty girls greeting you at tourist attractions with aromatic garlands and coral-lipped smiles; there are no dancing troupes or cultural shows packaged for tour groups a la kantoke; markets are not lined with souvenirs of kitschy Buddhas or croaking wooden frogs to place on your mantelpieces back home; and factories do not come attached with glitzy showrooms advertising their acceptance of Visa cards. In fact, when visiting the handful of top attractions in these provinces, you’ll most likely find yourself either alone or accompanied by a few other tourists, all of which are most likely to be Thai or Malay.
And that is part of the joy of travelling in this area. Sure, the distances between attractions – a fantastic restaurant, a beautiful sunset mountain view, a deserted beach or a splendid millennia-old temple – may take hours to traverse, after all, this is not Chiang Mai where 34 temples cluster conveniently for tourists within a square mile. But, if you have the time, then the mountain roads are spectacular, and the crystal clear streams and waterfalls with sandy-bottomed pools beseech you to join in their gurgling frolic. Villagers proudly adorn the front of their houses with pretty signs, tropical flowers and trimmed hedges, often displaying the daily pickings of fruits from their orchards for sale, and the sea views rival any of their more famous neighbours’.
Driving up and down the provinces should be a lazy exploration, with no expectations beyond the promise to self-gratify every curiosity.
Hat Yai itself is a bustling big city; in fact, it is the third largest in Thailand. The heart of the city is a diverse metropolis which reflects its cultural and ethnic diversity. Tall glass-encased office buildings teeming with suit-clad professionals squeeze in between the few remaining Sino-Portuguese town houses with jellybean-coloured masks making for a façade of fiesta-like joviality not lived up to by the rather dour businesses they house, which range from a dentist to a tyre repair shop. Wedged in between them all are markets, such as the Chinese-sounding Kim Yong Market, which feels more like a Muslim souk. There, bags of macadamia nuts and old boxes of dates from some Middle Eastern country, can be taken home as souvenirs. At the neighbouring Suntisuk Market, electrical knickknacks are sold next to dark alleyway stalls displaying albums of illegal DVDs alongside a bewildering, and at times physics-defying, assortment of battery operated toys…the kind made for his and her pleasure. Sometimes at the same time.
Incredibly, the land in this hodgepodge of an area is the second most expensive per square wah in Thailand, after Silom.
There are a number of attractions as well, ranging from a cable car between two hills, large Buddha statues and a very random ice dome where sculptors from Harbin, China have created a funky exhibit. But being so near the sea, it would be sacrilegious not to visit the beach – a mere half hour’s drive will take you across spectacular scenery to Songkhla town, with its pristine shoreline and famed mermaid sculpture. Wide beach avenues, green parks and well-maintained waterfronts bring in a trickle of tourists and locals every day. Swaying ton son trees whistle in the breeze, allowing picnicking groups nibbling from Tupperware bentos to play peek-a-boo with the sun. Gleaming mosques with elegant minarets puff out their chests towards the sea while gilded pagodas glisten serenely by. It is all rather lovely.
From Hat Yai, it is a three hour drive north towards Nakhon Si Thammarat, a typically unattractive rural Thai town where modernity is rapidly stifling any character it may once have had. Considering it is one of the most ancient cities in Thailand (previously called Ligor) and dates to the third century, with magnificent ruins and temples which claim to have originated from that era, it is a bit of a shame that the city planning, as with so many others in Thailand, has been a tad poor. Further up the coast, however, are some stunning beaches around the Khanom bay area, where pink dolphins cavort and seafood is served with a virtual pulse.
Now as to the food, oy! Of course I have to talk about the food _ it was, after all, a Thai group tour, and this meant that we were averaging about five meals a day! Anyway, I now firmly believe that southerners have long perpetrated a hoax on the rest of us. With each and every southern restaurant and food stall in Chiang Mai serving dishes which are designed to disintegrate the tongue, project the roof of the mouth through the skull and do permanent damage to one’s taste buds, you can imagine my very pleasant surprise in discovering that not every food outlet in the south conformed to this fiery tactic. In fact, the food down south is as varied as in any region in Thailand; it is not all about spicy curries and sauces, but an intriguing array of dishes inspired and drawn from a variety of Asian cuisines, including Malay and Chinese. Dishes can be refined, complex and very different from what we find up here.
All in all, it was a pleasure to spend time in these two little-visited provinces. While they may not be the shiniest pieces in the mosaic that is Thailand tourism, they are nonetheless fascinating destinations worth exploring. And best of all, you will feel as though you have them all to yourselves.
Beginners’ Guide to Nakhon Si Thammarat and Songkhla
Reun Pak Good (Nakhon Si Thammarat)
All locally grown organic produce – anchan flowers, herbs, mushrooms – made into creatively sumptuous dishes served in a restaurant by a gurgling brook half an hour’s drive from town.
Copee (Nakhon Si Thammarat)
Must, must, must visit this fantastic breakfast venue with Chinese donuts, brothy meat soups, fried shrimps on stock-steamed rice and punch-in-the-gut-and-wake-you-up coffees. THE hot spot!
082 277 6299
Larn Ta Chu (Pattalung, on the main road between the two provinces)
Steaks, southern food, fusion and all sorts of world and local cuisines creatively put together in this uber popular venue. In fact, as we arrived, Abhisit Vejjajiva was just leaving.
Chokdee Dim Sum (Songkhla)
Breakfast of Hat Yai champions with steaming hot dim sums, Chinese donuts and an assortment of food to keep you well fueled…until lunch.
074 356 779
Decha Fried Chicken (Hat Yai)
One of the culinary highlights of the trip, perfectly fried chicken with fried red onion and sticky rice. Yum.
You can visit www.tourismthailand.org to see all the famous to do things in the area, but here are a few more alternative suggestions.
Shadow Play House of National Artist Suchat Sapsin (Nakhon Si Thammarat)
Learn all about this dying art at the home of the national artist. His children will take you around the museum, give you a short performance and show you how the puppets are made. You can also buy some nice souvenirs to take home.
075 34 6394
Ban Khiri Wong (Nakhon Si Thammarat)
Breathtaking 200-year-old village flanking meandering rivers at the foothills of the highest mountain in the south. Stop by fruit orchards, learn how to make tie-dyed hankies, take a trek to a waterfall, sleep over at a home stay and learn how to make soap, all from multi-award winning villagers. In fact, the village itself has won numerous national awards for its self-sufficiency, its community spirit, and its get-go attitude.
Institute for Southern Thai Studies (Songkhla)
A fascinating and excellent museum honouring all things southern, from artefacts to crafts to language to religion. A great celebration of all the peoples of the south, it sits at the foot of the Tinsulanonda Bridge. (You wouldn’t get a bridge with that name up in this part of Thailand!)
Salarian Pavilion of Wat Kutao (Songkhla)
Granted an Honorable Mention by UNESCO for its community effort to preserve an old sala, it is also worth waking up at the crack of dawn to go to this temple early to take in the hustle and bustle of the Buddhist/Muslim market, which starts at 4 a.m.
Bull Fighting (Songkhla)
We didn’t see a fight, but apparently it is a beloved “sport” for all locals. To find times for fights you can contact the TAT office in Songkhla.
Aava (Nakhon Si Thammarat)
Sumptuous Scandinavian-owned resort by the sea.
Ligor City Hotel (Nakhon Si Thammarat)
No frills, good location, city centre and great prices.
Ravadee (Nakhon Si Thammarat)
Intimate little boutique hotel with unbeatable prices.
Buri Sriphu Hotel (Songkhla)
Great city boutique hotel with all mod cons and a rooftop pool.
Ubiquitous Centara, but fabulous location in between the markets.
So, there you go. Not even close to being a comprehensive list for the southern provinces, but it should get you started. I bet you will discover a lot more if you simply rent a car and drive around.
A huge thank you to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Chiang Mai) for organising this fabulous trip and to AirAsia for generously sponsoring our flights.