I got to spend a month in Thailand’s 4th largest city, although don’t be surprised if you have never heard of it. It’s right down in the far south of the country, only around 40 kilometres from the Malaysian border, which was handy for the visa run I needed to do in the middle.
The British embassy advises against all but essential travel to Songkhla province (of which Hatyai is part), being as it forms part of the southern provinces, where lawlessness abounds and Muslim insurgents plot to claim back their land and prevent the Thai Buddhist education system from corrupting the people.
Most of the killings go on in the so-called ‘deep south’ (Narathiwat and Pattani), and rarely involve tourists (maybe because hardly anybody goes there), which is why we don’t get to hear too much about it. The Thais are obviously keen to downplay any danger, lest it effects the tourist trade. There were, however, a couple of explosions last month (injuring 10 people), although it wasn’t widely reported by Western media.
Hatyai itself doesn’t get a lot of western travellers. Mostly it’s just the odd person who misses their train connection on their way to the border or who has a few hours to kill before making their connection.
It does, however, receive a lot of visitors from Malaysia and Singapore. Every weekend Chinese Malaysians pour over the border to frequent the brothels, which are in abundance in Hatyai. Thai girls, mostly from the north because the Chinese favour the light skinned women, are available working from clubs and massage establishments, mainly grouped around the Thamanoonvithee Road area.
Lonely Planet guide struggles to fill a page in its Thailand guide with information about Hatyai. I suppose when you compare it to Bangkok, which uses up a whopping 100 pages of the guide, Chiang Mai (48 pages) or Koh Samui (19) it doesn’t have quite the same appeal. There aren’t the sights to see, or the crystal clear waters to dive in or the glitzy nightlife. Lonely Planet notes the prevalence of Malaysian sex tourists. It then goes on to note that it’s a good place for food, having a plethora of restaurants serving a fusion of Thai, Chinese and Muslim dishes. It then lists one mediocre business-class hotel and that’s it. I do wonder if their writer actually got off the train here, or whether they just peered out of their window on the way to somewhere more interesting and scribbled a few notes.
So what else is there in Hatyai? Well, there is the obligatory night market. However rather than the usual products aimed at western tourists that I’ve seen in night markets everywhere in Thailand (harem pants, ethnic bags and jewellery, henna tattoos) this one is more about dried food and computer games. Clearly they know their customers and this is geared to appeal to the Chinese. It does have some wonderful stalls serving delicious cheap food though.
There is a floating market, small but less touristy than the ones in Bangkok or Ayutthaya. There are shopping malls (more like little complexes of shops and restaurants rather than malls in the usual sense of the word, but they have good air conditioning). There is a multiplex cinema although, unlike Bangkok, all movies are dubbed into Thai for three weeks out of four every month. There is a small but thriving bar and restaurant area.