It wasn’t hard to find a room in Hat Yai. I walked to the end of the open-air bus depot, crossed the main thoroughfare, and immediately noticed signs for hostels and guesthouses on the first side street. I took a 15-second tour of a private room at the first guesthouse I came to and said “I’ll take it.” Private rooms with a decent double bed, nice linens, ensuite, air conditioning, ceiling fan and safe go for $10-$15 a night in Hat Yai. This one was $12. I wasn’t in the mood to haggle over a buck or two. Besides, I had full access to the “Charles Bronson-approved” in-house entertainment centre.
The one thing you don’t get for 12 bones is a sink. The bathroom was tiled from floor to ceiling, a toilet sat on a raised pedestal in the corner, and there was a shower head mounted on the wall. The floor sloped toward a trough that separated the bathroom from the bedroom. I felt guilty brushing my teeth and spitting on the floor but it all got washed down the drain soon enough so I guess there was no harm done. It just felt weird.
Dinner on my first night in Hat Yai was a simple meal of rice and chicken from an open air restaurant on the corner. A few locals watched with great delight as I dug into the chicken which the cashier had described as “too hot for you.” It was hot, that’s for sure, but I got through it on a single bottle of water.
I decided that I’d head to the train station in the morning and let the availability of tickets decide whether I spent one, two or possibly three days in Hat Yai. There were two guys chatting with the hostel owner when I walked to the front steps. I assumed that one drove the minibus that was parked out front and the other was probably a motorcycle taxi driver. I didn’t know which was which when I negotiated a price of $2 for a one-way ride. The older man, who I would assume to be the minivan driver, then hopped on the motorcycle and looked at me as if to say, “What are you waiting for? Get on.”
I hopped on the back and we sped away. We didn’t get one block before I was relieved of the knock-off Yankees hat that I had purchased at the “locals” market in Phuket. I was very proud of that hat for the fact that I got the dealer down from 500 Baht to 100 Baht in less than two minutes. There goes $3.80, I said.
The overnight train to Kuala Lumpur leaves Hat Yai at 4:00 every day. There were no sleeper berths available for the next three days, and only First Class seats on the train that left in two days. The train that left that night was completely sold out. I had read that the difference between First Class and Second Class was little more than air-conditioning (meat locker vs. sauna). There’s not much difference in the width of the seats, space between rows, angle of recline, etc. I forked over 450 Baht ($17.04 CDN) for the First Class seat and set a reminder on my phone: Get hoodie from bottom of backpack.
With a train ticket in hand and 32 hours to kill in Hat Yai, I set out to walk back to the hostel. I was reasonably sure that I could retrace the route the motorcycle taxi had taken, but if not I could always consult Google Maps. The days of getting completely and hopelessly lost are over, I’m afraid.
I had been told that Hat Yai was famous for its shopping. One guidebook said: “Tourists, particularly Malaysians, flock to Hat Yai for tax-free bargains and world class selection.” That was a bit of a stretch, I thought, but I was happy to poke about the city even if the closest I came to a recognizable brand was a single Robinson’s Department Store. There were lots of photo ops but few Western stores.
It was 5:00 in the afternoon and I was within a few blocks of my guesthouse when I decided to ask one more person where to shop for shoes. I overheard a food seller speaking English so I struck up a conversation. After two-minutes I came to the conclusion that she had some mental issues and was more interested in telling me about the cats that were spying on her than where I might buy Nikes.
I had given up any hope of finding the main shopping district and instead stood for a while and watched a man fashion 3-D letters from the Thai alphabet out of sheet aluminum. After a while he looked up at me and said: “American! Go!” He pointed across the street to an alley that broke up the long block of stores. I wasn’t sure if I was being told to get lost or perhaps directed to something that he thought “Americans” might want to see. I decided to throw caution to the wind (like there’s any wind in sweltering Hat Yai) and I set out for the alley.
I cut through the opening between stores, made a left turn and came face to face with this:
And this is just the back wall of the Central Festival Mall. I walked around three sides of it in search of the main entrance. That took 15 minutes. There’s a loading bay where more than a dozen trucks can be unloaded simultaneously, an eight level parking garage, and a separate motorcycle lot. When I was taking this photo I realized that this is just the employee’s motorcycle parking lot – customers park their motorcycles inside the secure garage.
As I rounded the corner for my first view of the front entrance, I noticed the familiar green mermaid.
I also noticed a very long lineup. I doubt that many locals can afford to enjoy a $6-$8 latte but those who can, do. A venti latte and a pastry will set you back about $13 in a Thai Starbucks. My perfectly good hotel room cost $12.
I had mixed feelings about shopping in a mall that a small percentage of the locals could probably afford to buy a coffee in, let alone rent skates and skate on some very good-looking ice for an hour or two. I got over my initial hesitation once I got a whiff of the dark roast coffee.