South Thailand’s main urban hub, vibrant multi-ethnic Hat Yai is prime shopping territory and travellers arrive in their droves to splurge at its malls and markets. Fuelling the purchase-laden crowds are stellar street food vendors who dish out some of the tastiest eats in the country. At night, the city’s much-vaunted clubs and bars heave with revelers.
Catch Songthaews (converted pick-up trucks that function as buses) cruising along the Phetkasem highway. Tuk-tuks, taxis and motorbike taxis are extremely common and are significantly cheaper than they are in bigger tourist centres such as Bangkok or Chiang Mai. English is less widely spoken here so it’s worth having your destination written in Thai to show drivers.
If you’ve come to shop, Hat Yai is the right place. This commercial hub of the south attracts shoppers on the hunt for branded goods, designer knock-offs and electronic gadgets. For a modern shopping experience, try the Central Department Store or Lee Garden Plaza. For something more traditional, head for the Klong Hae Floating Market. Vendors here pile goods onto boats and compete for the attention of shoppers who stroll along the canal.
If the busy shops and bustling markets prove too manic, find solace amid the lush Hat Yai Municipal Park. Ride the cable car for views over the city and enjoy leisurely strolls by the lake. The park is also the setting for three temples, the most prominent of which is the hilltop Phra Buddha Mongkol Maharaj where locals pray beneath a 20m-tall golden Buddha. On the same hill lies Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, home to yet another Buddha statue – this one made from blazing white jade. At the park’s third temple, San Phra Phrom, a striking three-headed elephant statue gets the most camera clicks.
If you need a hiatus from the urban hubbub, follow the call of the wild to the rugged terrain of Khao Nam Khang National Park or the Ton Nga Chang waterfall, a spectacular seven-tiered cascade in the Ton Nga Chang Wildlife Sanctuary. The higher up the rocks you scamper, the better the views, but be warned, it can get slippery here, particularly after rain.
Temple enthusiasts will find a surprising secret hidden away in Wat Hat Yai Nai. Inside, an enormous reclining Buddha lounges. At 35m, this big guy is the third largest reclining Buddha in the country. Despite its impressive size, this Buddha doesn’t get much publicity and depending on when you go, you may well be the only tourist in his presence.
Another Hat Yai happening that gets precious little outside attention is the Loy Krathong Festival in November. If you’re in town, the spectacle is well worth a watch. During the event, flower-filled lantern baskets are let loose down the water, floating away prettily into the horizon.
Thanks to its multi-ethnic population, Hat Yai’s edible offerings are pleasingly diverse, ranging from Massaman curry to Indian lassi(yogurt drinks) to Malaysian-style Bak Kut Teh (pork ribs with herbal soup). Seafood is widespread, though if there is one dish most representative of Hat Yai, it’s got to be Thai-style fried chicken, which is marinated in dried spices before being cooked. Hat Yai’s night market is one of the best spots for cheap eats. Bring a phrasebook to try and figure out what you’re ordering or, if you are feeling brave, simply point.