Hat Yai, Thailand’s 4th largest city, is a dirty, sprawling metropolis in a province that has seen its fair share of terrorist bombings, religious uprisings and race-ridden ridiculousness. It is a scrappy town of seedy dive bars, aging expats and nervous Malaysian sex-tourists. It has more dentists than any town needs, a relatively unimpressive live animal market and a smattering of halfway decent street vendors. And its ugly.
There is absolutely nothing to attract tourism to Hat Yai and almost everything to deter it. But I love it.
Hat Yai is where I discovered Kao Ka Moo (a sickly sweet, fatty, slow-cooked pork dish usually served at street stalls or in shopping mall cafeterias). It’s where I came to terms with derelict squat toilets and found that bum guns are actually multi-purpose foot bathing, hand washing, dirty luggage cleaners. Its where I spend my nights between visa runs in a $10 concrete box in a repurposed utilitarian building which offers no amenities whatsoever, listening to the honking of midnight traffic. The only drink-able coffee is at the recently bombed-and-rebuilt McDonalds, but there is a surprisingly shiny sushi restaurant just out of town. And there isn’t much else. A few shopping malls, a pharmacy here and there and like everywhere in Thailand, a 7-11 on every street corner.
When you work in the Thai tourist industry as I do, you tend to get a little over-inundated with the unreal. Exaggerated smiles, yes mams and yes sirs, mamsir, sirmams. All around you there is an elevated and enforced desire to serve and please, but with a quiet undertone of resentment. You get used to tempered flavors, frustrated instructions and a habit of apologizing for you’re customers’ mis-managed behavior.
My semi-frequent mini-trips to Hat Yai are a refreshing dose of reality and welcome relief from forced civility. This is a city that is unapologetically genuine. And not in a travel brochure way. There is no pretense of “culture” here, no shiny resorts and very few western restaurants.
Hat Yai is nothing special in and of itself, it could be any of a hundred Thai towns just like it, but it reminds me of a different Thailand than the one I am accustomed to. It offers a glimpse into a the real lives of normal people who’s salaries and livelihoods don’t count on impressing me or coercing a sale out of me because of my foreign face; people who really don’t care that I am there at all. Despite being even more a minority in a place like this, I somehow feel less of an obvious target and I love it.