Hat Yai is a city in Songkhla province in southern Thailand, near the Malaysian border. It’s a major travel hub, with a railway junction and international airport. There’s a good chance you’ll pass through here if you’re travelling to the Satun Islands or to or from Malaysia.
Hat Yai is not a typical tourist city, and being inland doesn’t help its cause. I like staying in these unassuming provincial cities as they are like a palate cleanser after being somewhere touristic.
I’ve passed through Hat Yai a number of times on the way to somewhere else, but I also like to stop here if I have the time. The last time I stayed here I was getting the train through the troubled deep south to Malaysia.
On my most recent visit I was on my way to the Satun Islands, so rather than go straight through I stopped for two nights.
This visit to Hat Yai felt different to my previous visits. It felt like Hat Yai is becoming a cooler city. Has Hat Yai changed? Have my tastes changed? Maybe it’s a bit of both, but it does feel like Hat Yai is evolving into more than a place you just pass through.
The largest city in the south
Hat Yai is the fifth largest city in Thailand, with an urban population of over 400,000 people. There are some big hotels in the downtown area that give the impression you are in a city centre.
Despite its size, it’s not a provincial capital. It has the odd distinction of being larger than the eponymously-titled provincial capital of Songkhla. (Here is a full list of the provinces and their capitals.)
Thailand has a population of over 70 million people, and I’ve often wondered why there isn’t a big metropolis in the south of Thailand. I came to Hat Yai with this in mind for a potential story for Future Southeast Asia.
Wandering the old city centre
There are a few remnants of old Hat Yai, but most of the old shophouses have been lost.
If they had of been able to preserve old shops as Phuket Town has done, then Hat Yai might be a more popular tourism spot today.
There are some old wooden houses as well, which is even more remarkable that they haven’t crumbled into the ground by now.
Hat Yai has a large population of Thai-Chinese, so there are some interesting temples around the city such as Wat Chue Chang.
A junction town with a true city railway station
One the things that I find appealing about Hat Yai is that the railway station is in the city centre. The station is on the edge of the downtown area which is compact enough to walk around.
The station serves as a junction for two branches of railways that go to the Malaysian border. The main line goes to Padang Besar for onward connections to Kuala Lumpur. The other line goes to Sungai Kolok, where you can cross the border to Malaysia by foot.
Walking along the track there are houses that are owned by the State Railway of Thailand. These old wooden houses are a common site near stations in Thailand, though they are becoming a rare site.
Malaysian tourists in Hat Yai
One of the noticeable things about Hat Yai on this trip was the amount of Malaysian tourists. Hat Yai has alway been a popular destination for Malaysians, but it seems to have become more popular.
News reports are remarking on the trend, and tourism operators in Malaysia are concerned that Malaysians are flocking to Hatyai instead of Langkawi.
Hat Yai is close enough to the border to make it a convenient weekend destination. There is a sizeable Thai Muslim population in the south, so Malaysians are catered for when it comes to halal food.
Hat Yai also has many Chinese and seafood restaurants, so there is a great variety of eating options in Hat Yai.
I was in Hat Yai on a weekend, which might have skewed my perception of it being a Malaysian travel hotspot. This article mentions that Hat Yai receives an average 5,000 Malaysians during the week and 10,000 Malaysians during the weekend. If the majority are staying in the city centre then it’s no wonder that it felt like Little Malaysia when I was there.
I met some Malaysian men at the hotel I was staying at. They started talking with me while in an elevator, which never happens. They were on holiday and happy to be there.
I went to the night market and took a seat at a shared table with a family from KL who drove up for the weekend.
While southern Thailand is more conservative than the rest of Thailand, it’s still more liberal than conservative Malaysia. There are glamorous ladyboys wandering around to promote their cabaret show, and then there are the cannabis cafes (which are still legal at this point). You could say that Hat Yai is like Malaysia’s Tijuana.
[ladyboys and cannabis – welcome to Hat Yai!]
Bars and cafes
The first time I came to Hat Yai I don’t think there was an espresso machine in the city. Now there are lots of cool cafes to choose from, serving Melbourne-quality coffee.
[Cafe latte at HUM.]
I enjoyed going to HUM Coffee Brewer.
There are a number of expat bars here which have been here ever since I have been coming to Hat Yai.
I liked the look of Villa Vanilla, which reminded me of the cool bars that are popping up in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
I loved the vibes of this Izakaya in a Southern Thai setting.
My next stop was to Koh Lipe (one of the island of Satun province). You can get the overnight train from Bangkok to Hat Yai or an early morning flight, and then get a minivan to the port for the speedboats to the island. The port is 120 km away and takes 2 hours by minivan, so I was glad to break the trip up in Hat Yai.
I thought that the amount of travel friction to get to Koh Lipe would mean that not many people would go there. Boy was I wrong. I should have been alerted to its popularity just by seeing all the travel agents around town displaying the timetable of minivans to the port.
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