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Located in the Songkhla province of Thailand, this southern gem was built on tourism mainly from Malaysia and Singapore. Like the ever-busy Bangkok, Hat Yai is a sprawling food and shopping hub (two of Asians’ favorite hobby). However, what makes this vibrant city stand out is the panoramic nature views it offers. From the endless array of night markets to the Ton Nga Chang Waterfall, let’s explore the Bangkok-worthy city the world has never seen.
If you think Thailand is too touristy, think again. There is an abundance of obscure and off the beaten track destinations to be uncovered. And Hat Yai is one of them. I was traveling across Malaysia on a solo backpacking trip when I landed in Penang and how I ended up in Hat Yai was completely spontaneous. It was a decision I never looked back ever since. Many have tried to put a finger on what exactly sets Hat Yai apart from others (including myself), but it’s truly something that cannot be explained, only felt.
Despite being a cosmopolitan hub mainly for travelers from Malaysia or Singapore for a weekend trip, the prices are undoubtedly reasonable. It is definitely cheaper than Bangkok, don’t worry. Hat Yai is segregated into districts of brimming night markets, shopping, and entertainment.
Getting Around in Hat Yai
With the wide range of transportation modes you can choose from, getting around is fairly easy and most importantly, cheap. From Tuk-tuk to motorcycle taxis, you would not want to walk, ever. Within downtown Hat Yai where shopper’s paradise exists, it is recommended to make use of the Tuk-tuk, where the cost can be shared amongst passengers evenly. A ride in the city will usually cost around 20baht (0.60 USD) to 60 baht (1.90 USD).
However, to get to the outskirts of Hat Yai where the magic lies, to escape the bustling city and experience tranquil nature, the travel fares are slightly higher. Getting to the waterfall via a Tuk-tuk is tough as, if there are no passengers are going to the same destination as you, you will have to bear all the cost by yourself. Hence, renting a motor is highly suggested as it is difficult to get any transport back to town. Additionally, like most of the Southeast Asian countries, motorbikes give you freedom! You can ask your local friendly hotel receptionist for the rental of motorbikes.
Furthermore, if a motorbike is just not your thing, there is always the Grab/Uber option which costs higher around 300baht (9.50 USD) or more. You can opt for the driver to wait for you if you are going to somewhere secluded like the Ton Nga Chang Waterfall or the Khao Kao Saen at a higher price, of course.
Where to stay in Hat Yai?
Like the night markets, Hat Yai is sprawling with hotels and hostels too. Fortunately, it is inexpensive in this city! Moreover, most of the accommodations are located in the center of the city and it is only a stone throw away to the main shopping and entertainment area. With the railway station being in the city itself, it just adds to the convenience if you are traveling by train.
Personally, WE Hostel Hatyai is recommended for backpackers for its strong wifi, shared lounge, simple yet chic dormitory rooms, and low price. Strategically located in the downtown of Hat Yai, you are spoiled for choices when it comes to street food and relaxation. It is about 5km away to the three big night markets in Hat Yai.
However, besides hostels, Hat Yai has an abundance of low rates hotels to choose from. Xis Chic Inn is the people’s choice due to the location and budget-friendly traveling. As low as 19 USD, your rooms are equipped with a private bathroom and a TV. It doesn’t sound much but for us backpackers, that’s like heaven for sure.
Things to do in Hat Yai
What is Hat Yai without its shopping? Being a shopper’s paradise, this southern gem has three major night markets to indulge and get lost in. The best part is, these three markets are located on the same stretch of road and you can do the night market hopping.
With a swamp of shops on the ground floor and food stalls above, ASEAN Night Bazaar is a kaleidoscopic experience. You can find almost everything here from electrical goods to clothes and this is where you will put your bargaining skills to good use. Keep tabs on your belongings and group members though as this place is teeming with crowds. After all the bargaining and endless shopping, head up for some gastronomical adventures. From the insane tom yum seafood noodles and Pad Thai to Malaysian fried rice, this night market has everything!
If ASEAN Night Bazaar doesn’t fancy you, no worries, Greenway Night Market is there for you. Located within 3 mins walk from the previous market, this is slightly different than the aforementioned night bazaar. It serves a variety of lifestyle products like handicrafts, cosmetics, and clothes. As compared to ASEAN Night Bazaar, the hawker center here is spacious and clean and furthermore, they offer over 1,000 items in the menu from local Thai food to international dishes.
Tired of the shopping amidst the heat and bustle of the crowd? Take a respite from the heat and continue your shopping adventures at Central Festival. It is Southern Thailand’s largest and newest mall. There is even an ice skating rink in it!
Visit the Khlong Hae Floating Market
Thailand has an extensive amount of floating markets from the North to the South. They are crazy about this and apparently, it is a way of life for them making it possible to travel and sell their goods. It remains a popular means of trade until today.
Most of the floating markets in Thailand are only open on the weekends. To beat the horde of tourists, it’s best to visit before lunchtime or early in the morning (when the goods are still fresh).
Scale the immense Ton Nga Chang Waterfall
This is where Hat Yai stands out from the basic Bangkok and it only gets better. This waterfall is not three, not four but seven stories high amidst the dense jungle of a wildlife sanctuary. It’s advisable to leave early for this magnificent waterfall if you hope to reach the upper tiers for the insane views. Do bring along your trustworthy sport shoes for the rewarding hike.
Visit Wat Khao Kao Saeng Songkhla
Take a step back from the hustle and bustle of the city and into the languid and tranquil side of Hat Yai. Khao Kao Saen has been developed partially with a supportive budget from the Tourism Authority of Thailand for its splendid landscape.
Behind these extraordinary rock formations, lies a royal temple. So, wear decent clothing for visitors. Despite its royal connections, this place is quite far off the map and secluded hence a hidden gem right here. There are wide boardwalks and the rocks are huge you can even climb on it (do it for the gram). With the breath-taking view of the ocean and sea salt spraying in your face, you can’t believe this is Hat Yai.
An iconic symbol of Songkhla as a mermaid can be found on Samila beach. Locals believe it has the auspicious charm and it will bring them good fortune.
On this beautiful stretch of beach, you can even have a seafood dinner nearby or simply enjoy the golden sunset! Note, you can do pony riding on the beach too but I’m against animal abuse so do check with the operators on how they are being treated or just stay true to your principles. You can ignore them anyway.
I ended my day on this beach with a fresh coconut drink, laid back and witnessed the glowing sun, a crisp circle in the skies of Southern Thailand.
Where to go next?
There are several options you can choose from here to continue; southwards till you hit Malaysia or all the way north to Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
Instead, I made the journey to the west and into the ever famous Phuket for 600baht (19 USD). The journey is insane, cramped into a minivan for a six-hour ride with two pit stops along the way.
In a nutshell
Hat Yai has a charming blend of old and new, tranquillity and liveliness all in one city. It is great that it is underrated and not popular to retain its authenticity and beauty. As much as I would like to keep it a secret, I figure Thailand is more than Phuket or Bangkok and the world isn’t ready for Hat Yai’s pearls. Hands down!