Yep, I know I have not been updating this site for too long. I may write an emotional post on how things have gotten boring and sad lately, but I’ll spare it for the good of mankind. I start publishing instead a report of my May 2011 trip to the backwaters of Southern Thailand… I do not know whether or not there will be a follow-up, but some information on Hat Yay may be definitely worth for the world out there. Do not hate me. I have a monstrous writing block, lately, and things may have to stay this way for a while.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: the first time I traveled extensively in Southern Thailand in late 2008 I was badly impressed by the state of commercialization and flock of “Banana Pancake Trail” tourists ala “Tubing in the Vang Vieng” t-shirts. After I did my open water dive certification in backpacker heaven Koh Tao, although having visited less explored areas like Nakhon Pathom and Nakhon Si Thammarat, I decided I had had enough of the major islands of the Thailand Gulf. When I arrived in Penang for the first time, the change of atmosphere won me over for good, and touristy Thailand was quickly forgotten.
I went back to Bangkok in early December 2009, on my way to Yangon, Myanmar. A day and a half spent around Kao San Road became dull after three hours, but the temples, the Chao Praya River boats and Chinatown were always great to stroll, especially at sunset. I have a love-hate relationship with Bangkok, still remaining one of those cities I never miss so much, but I always enjoy when I pass trough.
I did not plan to go back to Thailand, let alone in those places I already know are stacked with foreign tourist of all sorts. The chance occasion was the visit of my friend Matteo and his girlfriend Carola, visiting Malaysia on their way to Bangladesh and India, and the graduation of my roommate Shararee. Being their first time in Southeast Asia, I thought giving them a look of Thailand just across the border would have been an enlightening experience. My desire was to explore some off the beaten track parts of the country, in order to get a more authentic glance to a country that has a lot to scratch under the surface. The proximity of Penang to the southern Thai border came handy, because it is in the remote southeastern provinces that I thought I could find some interesting differences. Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces border with the eastern and more conservative and muslim Malaysian states of Perak and Kelantan. It is here that since 2001, recurrent bombings have made it the unsettling scenario of a separatist movement contributing to give Islam a bad name. Part religious extremism, part fight against the harsh repression put forward by the Thai military (being the suppression of the Tak Bai demonstration of October 2004 the most cruel, with more than 80 people dead because of police action… suffocated in the heat of police trucks’ while being transported to an army camp in Pattani province), groups of rebels terrorize the areas with random bombings, shooting sprees and assaults which have targeted not only the military, but also thousands of civilians, including monks, kids and women.
After a bit of research, other travelers’ reports seemed to describe the area as quite safe to travel, and I decided to head exactly that way. The curiosity was high, although I clearly knew it would not have been a problem, as this report testifies. I’m in one piece and still standing.
We left Penang at 12 pm on a minivan departing from Komtar, 28RM for a four hour trip up to Alor Star, and then northeast to the border at Sadao. This border is the most trafficked between Thailand and Malaysia: easy, with bored officials who do not like to smile nor talk to you, and treat your passport like a piece of toilet paper. You get off the bus, clear Malaysian formalities, get up again, and get off a few minutes later at the Thai border. Same here, get your 15 days stamp, proceed through the gate and get the minivan on the other side. From here, you reach Hat Yay in a breeze.
I’ve been to Hat Yay before, but never actually bothered paying a closer visit and spend a night there. We headed straight to the Cathay Guesthouse, very close to the railway station, and pretty central. They have very big, clean rooms for 200 Baht, and serve a pretty good and cheap western breakfast in the morning… the place look a bit run down and the toilets are definitely not the ones you find all over Thailand. I had a particular insistent cockroach on the wall behind me during the whole stay, and man, even scoops of water didn’t persuade it from crawling back up each time, regaining its spot on that same wall. This said, to the contrary of the reports found in Wikitravel, the beds are immaculate and the linens smell clean, and I would recommend it to anyone passing through Hat Yay.
We visited a few temples before setting back for the night markets area, where I had some delicious friend chicken with rice for 40 Bath. Definitely cheap. Hat Yay looks rugged and run down in parts, but has a good vibe… the night market is pretty bustling, and locals are friendly and curious. It is also famed for its prostitution and cheap shopping bargains attracting Malaysians and other locals, so I had to give a peek. We decided for the Pink Lady, a big complex with a lounge bar at the first floor. As I stepped in, a bargirl came out to smoke a cigarette. She looked quite appalled, and judging from the other masseurs’ pictures advertised next to the main door, did not seem the only one. I peeked inside: a dark room was laid out with tables and a bar looking straight outta the seventies, attended by few men, and a couple trotting ladies. No fun, like the stare in the eyes of the smoking girl, standing there, looking at us and in the distance, enjoying her break. Time to have ours, as well… and back to the guesthouse to enjoy some Singha beers.