SEASONED traveler and retired journalist Michael Aeria discovers the charms of Haatyai
There are four reasons why people visit Haatyai in southern Thailand. Shopping, more shopping, food and sex.
I was excited about going on this trip even though I am not crazy about shopping or food. That’s because I haven’t been to this popular tourist resort, much to the surprise of my Penang friends. I nearly did not go on this journey as my wife and I forgot to bring our passports to Penang when we drove up from PJ for a reunion of a unique group, the KPNUTS.
This group shares a common passion — Hay Day, an online farming game. And the ladies in the group are very competitive, getting up at 2am to complete tasks for a worldwide weekly competition in which they have regularly emerged as champions.
The gathering was to welcome the group’s leader, Kimmy, and her husband Mario, from England. Fortunately, we managed to have our passports couriered to us, so we are able to follow the group to Haatyai.
And what an experience it turned out to be.
So off we went, the 10 of us in a tour package arranged by Chong, the youngest member of this group. Besides me and Mario, the other thorn in the group is Quah. The husbands, I think, are there to carry the items bought by the wives. And Haatyai is a shoppers paradise. You literally shop everywhere until the last minute.
We set off very early, at 5.30am, because we wanted to avoid the queue at the border. Our first stop was Changlun, about 10km from the border, for us to fill immigration forms, buy travel insurance, change money and have breakfast.
One of the ladies, Bi Ai, had prepared tuna sandwich for everyone. Chong brought cakes. That was the start of the many meals we would have during this trip. The ladies started organizing themselves. They started a common pool with each one putting in 1,000 baht.
The money is to be used for meals, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses. This solves the problem of figuring out who is to pay and how much we owe each other. The job of handling this fund was given to Bi Ai.
Changlun is also the place where Malaysians park their cars and continue the rest of the journey in a Thai taxi. You are advised not to drive in Thailand. It can get very messy if you meet with an accident. Well, we had a taste of messy when we were lining up at passport control. The lines were miles long. That’s because it was Thaipusam and whenever there is a public holiday, there is an exodus of Malaysians into Haatyai.
So there we were in our queue, inching our way to the counter and when we were almost there, the computer went kaput. I thought that only happened in Malaysia. So how? We did not want to go to the end of the long queue at the other counter. We cut queue and stood our ground until the immigration officer gave in. Thai hospitality at its best and Malaysian behavior at its worst.
An hour after leaving the checkpoint, we stopped at a restaurant famous for its chicken rice. I can’t tell you the name of the shop because the sign is in Thai and Chinese. Anyway, just tell your tour guide or driver that you want to try this famous chicken rice and they will know where to take you.
It’s 9.50am Malaysian time but only 8.50am Thai time, so I am not sure whether this is brunch or is it still breakfast. Whatever it is, that was our second meal of the day. After checking into the Mayflower Grande Hotel, the ladies wasted no time in getting down to the business of shopping.
We booked two tuk tuks, paying 100 bahts for each taxi van to take us to the big market. Top of the list among the things to buy, for my wife anyway, are tiffin carriers. And they must be Zebra brand. That was where the tuk tuk dropped us off. After making the purchases, you don’t have to lug them with you. Just leave them at the shop, and collect them after you finish your shopping. Two hours were set aside for shopping because food is just as important.
Clothes are popular with the ladies. A few are grandmas, so they need buy for their grandchildren, too. We spent a lot of time at a shoe store, too. They are cheap and good, I suppose.
Chap Goh Meh is around the corner, and a must for the Penang Hokkiens is bubur cha cha. At a wet market, the ladies found a stall where the ingredients (sweet potato and yam) come all nicely cut up and packed for as little as 35 baht (RM4.50) per 1kg. it is very cheap, I am told, compared to what the traders are charging in Penang at this time.
Generally, it was a good shopping session. Most came out carrying three or four bags. Quah and wife Anna bought one of those big China plastic bags so that it will easier for them to carry the many small items bought by them. And that was only half a day.
Just before we went for lunch, we came across a roadside stall selling glutinous rice with mango. How can you visit Thailand and not eat this favourite dish. That was our third meal of the day.
Sometimes it is not good to argue with the locals, as we found out when we were booking a tuk tuk to lunch. They know better. A tuk tuk driver insisted that his van could take all 10 of us. However we insisted on going in two vehicles. Chong, our tour organiser, even managed to bargain the price down from 200 baht a vehicle to 120 baht.
Guess what, we got separated. The second driver was not listening properly, probably too busy haggling with us. He got lost and asked us the name of the restaurant. Of course, none of us knew. To make matters worse, the driver did not have a handphone. So we tried contacting the Malaysians in the other tuk tuk. One after another, the response came back that their phones had been switched off.
After many, many failed attempts, we managed to get through. Poor Mario! He had to suffer, sitting in the vehicle under the hot sun. After that we could laugh about it. At least, this experience is something Mario could tell his grandchildren about.
Lunch partly made up for ordeal, especially in an air conditioned room. The meal, our fourth for the day, at Suan Chuen Sook Restaurant, located near Haatyai University, was good. We had fish cake, Thai salad, buah petai with prawns, pork knuckle, and fried fish. And for dessert, there’s water chestnut. The bill came up to 2,170 baht or RM275. Now what is good after a nice meal? A relaxing oil massage at a safe environment.
After our bad experience with the tuk tuk, we decided to walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner. The restaurant looks like a medical hall. For the first course, each was given a claypot of boiling soup with a choice of either birds nest or shark fin. You then have to put in the uncooked bean sprouts, coriander and spring onion.
Next was oh chien (oyster fried with egg), noodles and pineapple fried rice. That was our fifth meal of the day. After a good meal, you need to walk a bit, right? Why not shop as well? This time, we went to a backlane where there was a row of shops. Some of the ladies were looking for shorts and they found one where they got what they wanted.
We were still not done. Cindy, another member of the group, wanted to buy battery-operated LED candles at the Home Decor in the Big C shopping mall. This place, was a distant away, so we had no choice but to go on a tuk tuk. This time, we listened to the driver and all squeezed into his van. He charged us 20 baht each and we gladly paid.
Shopping can be contagious. A few followed her and bought these candles. Chong bought wall lights even though she did not plan to do so. I did not want to be left out, so I bought a bluetooth speaker with changing lights. On the ground floor, we came across a stall selling shorts, so I bought one.
The journey back to our hotel was also in one tuk tuk although I felt the van was much smaller. This was also quite an experience because the driver was speeding all the way. But there is no speed limit in Thailand, at least not to the driver.
All of us adjourned to Heoh’s room for supper, where we had pandan cakes made by Chong. That was our sixth meal of the day. We were up bright and early the next day and headed to the small wet market nearby at 7am. Guess what, the traders were up earlier and had lined the way to the market with their goods. The temptation was too great, so the ladies bought more blouses and even covers for ironing boards.
Breakfast was the Thai version of koay teow thng with lots of ingredients. We also had bee hoon with ulam and “ham chim peng”. For drinks, you don’t have to say kurang manis (less sugar). On every table, there is milk and sugar for you to decide how much to put in your drink.
We left the hotel at 11.10am but there is one more item to buy. Chong wanted to get this cool motorcycle helmet with goggles and it was sold at 500 baht (RM63). Cheap, right? I was so tempted to get one for myself.
Halfway to the border, we stopped at a shop to buy another “must have” item — white and black glutinous rice. Each one is allowed to bring into Malaysia 5kg of the rice. That’s not all. The driver went to a nearby shop to buy 3 cartons of tom yam instant noodles for three ladies. The van was already packed with all the purchased items. I am amazed that they are able to squeeze in the extra bulky stuff.
I thought we had finished with our buying spree when we arrived at the border. Sorry, no! One of the stalls was selling “harum manis” mangoes, an item grown in Kangar and very difficult to buy or very expensive in Penang. Another sale made. As if breakfast was not enough, Kimmy decided to treat everyone to coconut jelly.
This time, there was no hitch at the border crossing. At 12.55pm, we were back in Malaysia. And to round off our trip, we had to have another harrowing experience of going round and round looking for a Thai restaurant which serves the best food in Jitra. The sambal at this place, they say, is to die for.
All of us marvelled at how patient our driver Eng was. He was very cool even though we ended up in many deadends after following phone instructions from Chong’s friend in Penang.
Finally we found the place, Restoran 5 Utara. The verdict: the food was excellent. It was worth the mad and long search for this restaurant. The sambal was so good that the ladies bought some packets to take home. This is one trip, I am sure, Mario and Kimmy won’t forget easily.
Michael Aeria is a retired journalist & seasoned traveller.