The south of Thailand often conjures up images of white sandy beaches, palm trees and beautiful five star resorts. But there is much more to the southern part of Thailand and venturing off the beaten track will reveal quirky old villages, authentic night markets and long stretches of deserted beach.
Oftentimes dismissed as a transport hub or a means to get to more popular nearby islands, Hat Yai is in fact anything but. The capital of Songkhla province is a lively centre for commerce and those who take the time to explore the city will be rewarded with a thriving food scene, bustling night markets and lots of affordable shopping. The city centre is dominated by the Central complex which features a hotel and a large shopping mall with local and international products. But venture just a few blocks away and you will find yourself in sleepy streets where life takes a different pace and small shophouses serve tea tarik, a sweetened pulled tea drink from Malaysia, or perfectly fried chicken, served with fragrant yellow rice, slices of cucumber and sweet-sour chilli sauce.
Each night, the streets around Supasanrangsan Road turn into a vibrant night market where visitors can get a taste of authentic Thai food and drinks. Enjoy grilled luk chin, lightly flavoured meat balls served with salad leaves and chilli sauce, or tuck into a bowl of steaming hot noodles. Finish off with freshly cut mango or the juice from an ice cold coconut.
One of the most popular attractions in Hat Yai is the Klonghae Floating Market, located a short drive outside of the city. The market is on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and vendors sell a variety of items including fresh Thai food and snacks but also bamboo baskets, clay pots and clothing accessories.
Confusingly, the capital of Songkhla province is Hat Yai and not Songkhla town. And that may be the reason why many forego this sleepy town on the edge of the province, facing towards the Gulf of Thailand.
The town is divided into two different areas with vastly different atmospheres; there is the area around Nang Ngam and Phattalung Road, the old town, where large wooden houses, peeling paint and sleepy cafes make it feel like the town has stood still for decade – and then there is the commercial centre around the night market and Chana Road, where car and electrical shops vie for space with multiple 7-Eleven stores.
The night market is well worth a visit, especially for those interested in tasting some local food. Try the khao yam, a spicy salad made from plenty of herbs, vegetable and rice, or hoi tod, deep fried Thai oysters served on a bed of bean sprouts and with a sweet chilli sauce on the side. The latter is definitely not for those watching their weight.
Walk northwest out of town and reach Hat Samila beach. The area has been developed for recreation and locals actively use it for picnics, kite flying or simply just for some leisurely walking. At the north end of the beach, the bronze statue of Mae Thorani, the Hindu-Buddhist earth goddess can be seen squeezing water from her long locks, and further along the beach a string of street kitchens have set up, serving freshly caught seafood in simple surroundings.
Like Hat Yai, most travellers only come to Trang in order to transfer to nearby islands and that’s a shame because the city offers a good dose of southern charm including numerous local festivals, culture, markets and some excellent food to boot.
Praram VI, the main road that runs from the train station past the local wet market and up to the clock tower, is where most for the action happens but don’t be afraid to venture into small side streets for a view of everyday life for the locals.
The market is a great place to sample local food – if you get up in time. It doesn’t really ever close, but most shops are most active from sunrise till late morning when locals come and do their daily grocery shopping. Trang is particularly famous for its moo yang, grilled, marinated pork, and several places sell it at the market, cut up for consumption right there and then, or packed for take-away.
Along Praram VI visitors will also find some incredibly charming tea and coffee houses where locals of Chinese descent sit around old marble and wooden tables and chat over the daily newspaper and a cup of kafae boran, strong, black coffee sweetened with condensed milk, or jamine tea.
For a nice day trip out of Trang, hire one of the many tuk tuks that drive around town and ask the driver to take you to Pak Meng beach. It’s less than an hour away from town and well worth the trip for the scenic route but also for the long stretch of virtually deserted beach. The only other people likely to show up here are a few local children and people foraging for shells and worms in the sand. Along the beach, a row of simple restaurants serve excellent seafood – menus, and especially those in English, are rare so just smile, say “khor aharn talay krap/kaa”, which translates to “I would like some seafood, please” and enjoy!
- Trang has a large Chinese minority which means the town has some unusually good Chinese food. Try one of the many dim sum restaurants for a hearty start to the day.
- Southern Thai food is known for its spiciness so be prepared for lots of taste and spice when trying the local food. Saying “mai phet”, which means “not spicy” may help but visitors should still expect rather spicy food.
- The southern provinces are also home to a large Muslim population and that is also reflected in the food. Halal food is common and many restaurants do not serve pork. One of the most popular muslim dishes in Thailand, and a dish that many Buddhist Thais have adopted with good reason, is khao mok gai, a chicken rice dish with fragrant rice, tender, marinated chicken and a generous sprinkling of fried shallots.