Exploring the Deep South of Thailand
Most people associate Thailand either with its bustling capital Bangkok, serene tropical islands or the cultural north, but little do people know about the provinces in deep southern Thailand. Unfortunately, many travellers disregard the region as the media covers it non-stop as a dangerous and violent place.
While there is no denial about several bomb blasts in recent years, the south is relatively easy and safe to travel through, but one has to be prepared for an increased security environment. At the moment, the situation is stable but it’s still necessary to check safety measures before traveling through the region.
That being said, if it’s not for the above-mentioned reason, the southern provinces of Thailand are quite inviting for travellers, especially those seeking for off-the-beaten-path experiences in Thailand. Something the north is no longer able to offer because of the big herds of tourists that are traveling to Bangkok and the north every year.
The eclectic mix of Thai culture, blended with Malaysian and Chinese influences spreads a magnificent cosmopolitan atmosphere everywhere you go. Whether it’s the food, architecture or language, the cultural differences as oppose to the rest of Thailand are amazingly unique.
Yes, when traveling to Thailand it’s hard to cross out overly popular tourist destinations as Bangkok, Phuket and the tropical beaches out of your travel itinerary. But still, if you want to experience the rare authentic Thai culture, these are three vibrant places you shouldn’t miss out when traveling to Thailand.
Hat Yai: a yet to be discovered culinary hotspot
Having been a popular getaway for Malaysians and Singaporeans for short holidays and shopping trips for a long time, this fourth largest city in the kingdom is Thailand’s commercial hub. It’s a destination that has a lot to offer. Widen your horizon in the vibrant culinary scene and taste the food that is a huge part of the Thai culture. Even though each province has their own distinctive stamp in the world of Thai food, Hat Yai is definitely ahead here. Thai, Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisine are widely represented, as well numerous international restaurants.
Being the center of culinary Thailand, Hat Yai has many traditional markets such as Yongdee and Kimyong, a market famous for its imported snacks from Malaysia and Singapore. The Khlong Hae Floating Market is often missed by visitors but pales in size and atmosphere when compared to the ones in Bangkok. Although it still offers tourists a great shopping and dining experience of local products and food.
Leaving the central district of Hat Yai, you will find the Municipal Park with its superb vistas from the Kor Hong Mountain over Phra Buddha Mongkol, southern Thailand’s largest standing Buddha statue, to Thao Maha Phrom, the four-faced Brahma.
Getting around the city is very easy to do as you can find taxis and motorcycle taxi (called ‘mo-ter-sai’) around every corner. Although being of the beaten track, Hat Yai has a wide offer of accommodation, varying from simple homestays to splurge five-star hotels like the Centara Hat Yai. The big offer of daily flights from cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai Phuket as well from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur is a great reason to include this booming spot that is not yet hit by mass tourism into your travel itinerary. Even if it’s only for a few days.
Pattani: a mix of nationalities
Nestled between the provinces of Songkhla, Narathiwat and Yala, the charming capital of Pattani never fails to impress with its diverse influences of various ethnic groups such as Malay-Muslims, Chinese and Thai.
While the city itself is located on the coast, the remaining and widely unspoiled countryside stretches out to the west. Until 1785, Pattani was part of the Malay Sultanate of Patani Darul Makrif plus it was one of the first towns in the region that was regularly visited by European and Arabic traders.
These international influences reflect pretty much the current culture in and around Pattani town. Some roads are still fringed with beautiful sino-Portuguese shop houses while it’s not rare to see Buddhist temples and mosques almost next to each other. Apart from a few temples and historical sights, the city doesn’t offer much in terms of sightseeing. It’s more about soaking up the unique culture which is significantly different from other parts in Thailand. Visit the Pattani River though, which runs through the center of the city, as you can see dozens of fishing boats here that are constantly sailing in and out after a hard day of fishing.
Pattani is a blind spot for most tourists, so don’t expect many locals to speak English here. Public transportation around town is either by tuk-tuk or taxi motorcycle. If staying in a luxury hotel is your idea of vacation, than don’t bother since good hotels are rare. You may find the CS Pattani or Southern View Hotel satisfying if you’re not too picky. Some more guest houses and simple hotels can be found around town.
The difficult access to Pattani strengthens the statement that this region isn’t overflown by tourists. Travelers who make the effort of reaching Pattani after a long bus ride will be rewarded with an unique and rare view on the Thai countryside.
Yala: an alternative for the North
The less attractive definition of Yala, located south of Pattani, is that the capital is widely considered as the administrative capital of southern Thailand as its home to various planning and development offices. For travellers, the interesting definition is that Yala is mainly famous for the annual ASEAN Barred Ground Dove Festival – an event to attract and make relationship among dove-lovers – that takes place in March and draws many visitors from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries.
Yala was as well part of the Malay Sultanate of Patani Darul until 1785 when Siam took over control. The province is the only southern province that is landlocked which makes it quite interesting due to its picturesque natural mix of mountains and dense forests.
The culture here is also widely mixed while Muslims make up the largest ethnic group in Yala. As Yala is not pretty frequented by travellers, you will not find many tourist attractions around town. Nevertheless, Yala is nature wise a fantastic place, offering a stunning scenery of lakes, mountains and lush forests. You’ll find countless waterfalls here, trekking options, a cave (Tham Krachaeng, the village of the Sakai (an ancient tribe), the Piyamit Tunnel which served as air raid shelter, hot springs, as well a few temples and mosques.
As with Pattani, traveling to Yala takes a bit of time and planning as the province doesn’t have an airport. But as it is with all great travel experiences, anyone who makes the effort will find a decent alternative for the crowded and commercial northern provinces.
Travelling around the deep south of Thailand is a great opportunity to explore some unknown cultural gems. It’s not difficult or expensive to get around. Consider taking Hat Yai as base, since it has an airport, train- and well served bus station from where you can travel further south.