A Trip To Hatyai, Thailand.
by Catherine Chia
In early September, 2003, we tried to make some bookings to visit Hatyai. The only available tour had rather poor conditions as the bus was a shabby one and accomodation in some budget hotels. No thanks, I do not want to sound snooty or snobbish but a little comfort zone can go a long way. Later, we decided to check on the internet with Lee Gardens Plaza Hotel, Novotel Central Sukontha and The Regency Hotel. The latter confirmed our booking of a two nights stay at a rate of 1,700 bahts (RM170.00) daily. The tour coach ticket purchased from the counter at the former Kuala Lumpur Railway Station was priced at RM80.00 per person, one way. All arrangements reconfirmed, I am pretty sure I should be able to hunt down some cheap but good food finds as my underlying philosophy.
It was 11 p.m. when we left Kuala Lumpur in this comfortable double-decker coach. This mode of transport lives up to it’s name of Nice 2 as seats were spacious and well uphoistered. Service was good as we were served mineral water and dim-sum as a late night snack. Clean blankets were handed out to make us feel snug as the air-conditioner was rather cold. Though lights were dimmed, you can switch on your reading light to catch up with some reading or watch the latest 'in-flight movies’. Some passengers who felt bored, descended to the lower compartment for a cuppa and sang at the Karaoke cubicle.
Eight hour later, we arrived at their local destination as the border post of Sadao was seen. Loads of tourists intermingled with the locals as it was a sea of chaos. But our couch attendant did all the documents processing for us as there is less red tape for travellers like us. This was totally unexpected as service had improved and the authorities kept their cool with the least minimum of fuss.
Hatyai is the third largest city in Thailand behind Bangkok and Chiangmai. The geographical position of lying in the southern part of Thailand makes it fairly accessible to Malaysians and Singaporeans who pop across the border during holidays for an unparalleled shopping outing.
We have not been to Hatyai for almost two years. Were there any visible changes? As the coach entered the city, we glanced on every side. Things are just the same as on this area stands Novotel Cebtral Sukontha. It was only eight a.m. and our room at the hotel, The Regency, is just across the street. The routine check-in was done and after a quick washup, we started the day with breakfast at this little stall near the hotel. Apparently, this foodie stall has been around for 15 years, selling duck noodles and porridge. Our order of rice noodles came shortly with braised sauce. The bowls were each filled with some cooked chicken meat, egg, spare-ribs, meat ball, fish fillet, coriander leaves and a sprinkling of diced spring onions. Fish sauce was drizzled on top and an extra topping of ground chilly powder, sugar, lime juice, chilly padi was strewn around. We tossed it well and took a bite. Can this not be delicious with such an amazement of ingredients.
We strolled around town, near the BP hotel area and saw a little stall with a huge, white plastic signboard. Red Thai letterings were splattered all over it. I approached the owner, only too glad he could converse in broken Cantonese. An Ipoh boy at birth, he has made Hatyai his home, years ago. The signture dish is “Deep-fried Lou Mei”. Literally translated, it is deep-fried braised meat and offals. He had introduced a better menu to regulars by adding eggs and seafood. We tried this meat portion dunked into a batter and deep-fried to a crisp morsel. Little did we knew the degree of hotness in his chilly sauce. It was fiery and burnt our tongues. Richard scrambled to the next stall to purchased two fresh coconut drinks. The sweet juice managed to ward off the spicy effects.
Small travel agent booths are popular here as they sprout like mushrooms everywhere. We discussed about the short trips listed on the boards but a loud voiced Darin, caught our attention. This lady, a local Thai, had talked us into joining a day trip group to visit the tunnel tomorrow. We felt compelled to book the tour with her constant driving force. We felt Darin should know of good, non-touristy stalls for a good meal. She recommended us to visit the Wat Che Chang, an area near the temple where there is always a large display of food selections. Business commences from three p.m. to midnight so we made a vow to be there later, tonight.
I may have been here umpteen times but still it thrills me to shop, wine, dine and window-shop. My most adored stimulation is a good, traditional massage. While many tourist ghettos offered massage sessions at a dime a dozen, I am not into such seedy joints. As I sought the youthful but experienced masseuse at the hotel we stayed in for a beautiful theraphy rubdown, Richard joined me for the same relaxation. The correct strokes applied on my body soothed away aches and untangled all painful knots. They applied very good pressure on us but managed to maintain a nice gentle level. Good things always come to an end too soon. The charge was 200 bahts (RM20.00) per person.
Before nightfall, we proceeded by motorized tut-tut vehicle to the stalls recommended by Darin. The hawkers street was a good choice as the platter of flavours were coming from the Thai-style fried rice noodle, grilled pork satay, pig’s trotter rice, oysters omelette, bbq seafood, kuih-muih, fruit smoothies, drinks and desserts. Everything is so tempting so we started with a bowl of black sesame seed glutinous rice balls topped with gingko nuts and ginger syrup. This is supposed to ward off windy tummies. The next stall run by a Teochew-speaking lady had a good plate of rice noodles fried for us. Her ingredients consisted of bean sprouts, dried shrimps, taukwa, egg, chives, chilly paste, sugar, fish sauce and a final topping of toasted mung beans powder. The owner had gone through great lengths to ensured it tasted good.
Pig’s trotter rice in Hatyai is as common as chicken rice in Kuala Lumpur. You order a plate of white rice which comes with a good drizzle of braised sauce. Trotters are generally cooked with garlic, soy sauce to a certain degree of softness but retaining the springy bite. Plates of condiments were served together, like sweetish pickled mustard shreds, braised eggs, oyster sauced kai lan, coriander leaves. Fantastic taste at a very affordable price. This is in our note book, it is worth checking out this stall again the next time we come to Hatyai.
Pork satay, from thigh meat was well marinated with spices and herbs. Our own conventional satay is normally basted with a piece of bruised lemon grass dipped in cooking oil. But here pandan leaves are knotted into a brush and dipped into a solution of diluted coconut milk. The pork satay was brushed constantly with the coconut milk, resulting in an aromatic snack minus the normal oily taste. Usual side dishes comprised of sliced cucumbers, chilly padi, onion shreds, pickled achar and peanut chilly sauce. It was 20 baths (RM2.00) for 10 skewers of satay. Cheap, cheap, cheap. The or-chien or oysters omelette had only a thin batter of egg unlike the ones normally served in Kuala Lumpur. The omelette had thumb-sized oysters oozing out, the dip was a good home-made chilly sauce. Prices ranged from 30 bahts to 100 bahts (RM3.00 to RM10.00). We had refreshing lemon drinks to accompanied the meal. Tonight, we had spent only 200 bahts (RM20.00) for the complex dishes. That is pretty good value as all foods simply bursted with flavour.
The night was beautiful so we decided to walk back to the hotel, Midway, we bumped into a hawker selling the ever-famous Thai dessert, Mango With Glutinous Rice. Our gluttonous nature made us stopped to savour this dessert. Glutinous rice was well steamed with a springy texture and the diced, whole mango was sweet. This proper Thai version had the toasted mung beans sprinkled on top before drenching it with thick coconut cream. Priced at only 40 bahts (RM4.00) this amount is probably what I have to pay for a single mango back home in the markets.
Departed hotel in the morning for the trip to Songkhla’s Natawee District. The journey took one hour 15 minutes and we were taken on a tour of the Khao Nam Khang Historical Tunnel. Built in 1972 by the then, Communist Party of Malaya, it was completed two years later. Numerous unsuccessful interventions and political combats, they finally surrendered. The days of political unrest was over and the deserted tunnel was reopened as a suggested route for tourists to visit. The tunnel may seemed pretty compact but it had accomodated a host of functions. It used to house an office, a conference area, beds, washrooms, kitchen, food cellar, and a telegraphy room. We listened to the horrible ordeals suffered and the repentance story told by the former members, Mr. Leong and Mr. Phang. A little restaurant nestled amongst the hills served us a simple lunch. The three dishes were Yam with Braised Meat, Traditional-Style Fried Kampong Chicken, Fried Vegetable. A herbal chicken soup was enjoyed by all.
Coming back to Hatyai town, I had another shopping spree buying local products and ended up with another massage. With so much of food activities and walking, this was a good excuse for a nice rubdown. Richard did the same and felt refreshed.
The Nice 2 tour coach departed early for Kuala Lumpur. Hatyai, synonymous with shopping, cheap buys, delicious food, has a lot to offer to tourists in terms of their arts, Thai sports, national parks, trekking, golfing, farming, off-shore islands, waterfalls beaches. Two days a trip is too short for us to sample every dish but it is memorable. Bye-bye Hatyai, you are a part of the Land of Smiles.