Expat Tiew Thai: Exploring Thailand Beyond Our Comfort Zone
Scene: Late night, chef Alessandro Frau’s award-winning Italian restaurant Acqua in Phuket. Postprandial drinks in hand, three men chat laconically. “I’m feeling restless,” grumbles young videographer Charlie Stevens. “Me too,” sighs property developer Peter Hamilton. “But this will not do!” says I. “What we need is a road trip...but where?” “Somewhere down here in the south,” suggests Peter visibly perking up. “Birds always fly south about now. Birds are smart. And we can do it in my e-car.” “Yes! A leisurely eco-friendly drive through the countryside seeing and doing interesting things. You organise it Nigel and we shall record it for posterity,” Charlie chimes in with sudden enthusiasm. I should have kept quiet, but goodness knows we needed a break from the urban sprawl and the new normal and rural communities across the country have been crying out for help, any help. It’s a little surreal that Thailand has gone from one of the most visited countries on the planet to not receiving any tourists at all. The battle to keep Covid 19 at bay has undoubtedly been successful but at what price to an economy so heavily reliant on international tourism? To mitigate the situation, the Thai government has taken the opportunity to partially subsidise domestic tourism through various travel incentives and cash handouts.
It’s a far cry from the days when the tourist gates were wide open and most domestic and international travellers stuck to the familiar in major cities and on the most popular islands. Consequently Thailand’s ‘off the beaten track’ provinces have been mostly the domain of a few intrepid locals and backpackers. But these pathfinders are always first in the know, so having determined on a road trip starting in Nakhon Si Thammarat and taking in stops in Phatthalung, Hat Yai and Songkhla, we tapped the Tourism Authority of Thailand for tips on what to visit and researched activities we thought might make for interesting diversions along the way. And for good measure we took a small film crew along with us.
Nakhon Si Thammarat
Given that so few people are travelling by air these days, it was surprising to see 24 daily flights from Bangkok to Nakhon Si Thammarat. It turns out that the vast majority of the travellers are pilgrims on their way to visit Ai Khai, or Egg Boy, whose spirit is said to reside in the town’s Wat Chedi temple. Eschewing acts of devotion, instead we headed to our first activity of the trip at Pottery Phasukyud in the town’s Pakpoon neighbourhood. The workshop is run by Daeng Poompou and his wife Supajin Phromkaew who spent a patient hour teaching us about the craft before letting us loose with the clay to make a large vase, a small bowl or a tiny ashtray, depending on how ambitious we were.
A little later—ashtrays in hand—we took the short drive over to the Coconut Sugar Making Learning Centre at Mae Thong Phring Farm where we met another husband-and-wife duo, Kawee and Sopha Mhanthanom, to learn how to make syrup from coconut nectar. It was fun bashing away at bowls of sticky goo but equally enjoyable learning how the fortunes of coconut farmers in the region are on the rise after years of hardship—the move to sustainable farming and healthy organic plant-based cuisine has seen the demand for coconut flesh and juice grow significantly.
After a quick snack of hand-made candies we were off to Suan Kam Singha, an orchard run by Sophit Singhaboon. Southern Thailand has a reputation for some of the finest fruits and Sophit’s refreshing, pink-fleshed pomelos are at the top of that list. Then to round off the sweet toothed experience we made a stop at the home of One More Thai Craft Chocolates factory, where Krajang Suwannarat and Jirayunut Achariyakajorn gave us a whirlwind two-hour demonstration of how to make our very own chocolate bars. Again, we had much fun and who knew just how tasty cocoa fruit sap is when eaten raw?
Our final activity of the day was a long-tail boat trip around the perimeter of Songkhla Lake to help with the local community’s reforestation work. The area we were assigned to plant mangrove saplings in was essentially an alluvial bog that required a foolhardy disregard for safety and a sense of daring to enter. One could not help thinking that perhaps the locals were having a good laugh seeing just how far we would go in following instructions! The activity was certainly energy-sapping but also very rewarding.
Following a restorative sleep we woke early on day two for the drive to Phatthalung through hamlets that show how little has changed in generations for most rural Thais. Our destination was Nhanmoddang guesthouse, one of 30 or so offering river trips that take advantage of the run-off from Huay Nam Sai reservoir. The river isn’t deep but it is rocky and narrow in places, requiring plenty of concentration for kayakers tackling the five-kilometre stretch of water. A chat with host Somboon Kaokaikaew over lunch suggested this was a great value-for-money getaway—in this case 900 baht (around US$30) per person per night with the three-hour kayak trip, breakfast and lunch thrown in. Somboon says her mission is to dispel the myth (among Thais) that Phatthalungians are unfriendly, which most definitely they are not—although beware the Nhanmoddang water slide, which is not so friendly and can fling the unwary a startling 20 metres into shallow water. In my case my impromptu impression of an ungainly shrieking bird was filmed and the look of sheer terror on my face as I took flight should stand as a warning to anyone before they take up this challenge.
Once out of the water and recovered the afternoon was altogether more sedate. Our next stop, Varni Handicrafts is a delightful eight-room home-stay a little out of the way but worth a journey to. Owner Varni Senghuad has been weaving stylish rugs and bags her entire life and remarkably she still sits, back straight and legs folded under, among the local weavers as they produce beautiful handicrafts. Her son, Manattapong, was on hand to greet us and guide us through hand-painting our own rattan bags. This was a challenge that was taken on with gusto. Charlie, having felt demeaned by his less-than-stellar thimble of an ashtray the previous day, decided to draw his much-loved childhood pet, a South African pygmy hedgehog called Spikey. Peter dreamed up a strange bunny rabbit with ears growing out of its eyes, while I played safe and copied the design on my T-shirt. Manattapong diplomatically called the result a tie.
Our resting place for the night was Sripakpra Boutique Resort, which is ideally situated at the entrance to the Thale Noi waterbird sanctuary. A 5am wakeup call the following morning had us a ready for a pre-dawn long-tail boat outing. First stop offered an incredible photo op of a fisherman operating a one-man yaw. This is a traditional bamboo platform anchored in the shallows, which supports a counter-balanced net that the operator dips in and out of the water to scoop up any unwary fish. We then spent a very pleasant two-hour pre-breakfast tour of the western parts of the lake, taking in some of the many species of wild bird that call the area home.
Leaving the sanctuary, a 60km drive south had us at our next destination on the lake—the Cape—where more hi-jinks were scheduled at The Cove, a popular Rastafarian-inspired water sports hangout. Here we opted to try paddle boarding and wake boarding. A personal tip when wake boarding…don’t hit another wake boarder because you may well end up with a couple of broken ribs, like me. Not the best preparation for a 4am wakeup call for the next leg of the trip and another pre-dawn adventure.
We had been told that the best place to get a view of the lake and the surrounding towns was at sunrise from the top of Khao Koo Har Mountain. The 30-minute climb up the limestone karst is relatively easy, although ropes are provided (and needed) near the top to help navigate the steepest bits to the summit. Being prepared, we had torches to help keep to the path and a small burner to heat up some coffee when we reached the top. This is really something you should try to include in your itinerary because the perspectives of the surrounding countryside from the summit in the early morning sun are breathtaking.
Descent negotiated (tip—best done in dry weather), it was back to Peter’s electric MG crossover—not exactly the ideal vehicle for a road trip, given the distances travelled and the lack of fast-charging ports, but which nevertheless added an extra dimension to the exploratory nature of our journey. A word here for the delightful friendliness we encountered over our five days of travel—not once were we asked for any payment for an overnight car charge and our attempts to engage in discussion were never re-buffed. The friendly and helpful locals we encountered also had a refreshing pride in their countryside and attractions.
Songkhla / Hat Yai
So onwards to Hat Yai we went, where the first stop was the city’s municipal park. Driving into town we passed a poster for the Magic Museum Hat Yai and by chance a show for a large group of local students was just beginning. We joined the throng expecting a somewhat rowdy child-friendly routine but what we got was an astonishingly good performance by a very accomplished Thai illusionist, who we later discovered has performed with some of the world’s best known magicians.
Hat Yai is a destination favoured by millions of visitors from Malaysia and Singapore and in addition to a good choice of Chinese and Malay restaurants, nearby is the ornately decorated Wat Chue Chang temple and the rather grand Songkhla Central Mosque. And spruced up Songkhla Old Town is where we headed for the journey’s end. On the way we enjoyed a lakeside seafood dinner at Sirada restaurant on picturesque Koh Yo island before turning in for our last night at the wonderfully-named Songkhla Tae Raek Antique Hotel, which has a charming antiquated Chinese theme.
As our film crew was anxious to get one more shot of us trying to injure ourselves—and not wishing to depart from our theme of packing as much as we could into every moment of the trip—Charlie and Peter started our last morning doing cowboy impressions with an impromptu rodeo on the beach (I couldn’t ride—sore ribs). And sadly that was all we had time for, except for a last lunch at the delightful Khrua Ruean Thai restaurant close to Central Festival Hat Yai on our way to the airport. The husband and wife owners are friendly hosts and the food is worthy of a Michelin mention if they ever find their way to inspecting restaurants in the area.
We certainly enjoyed a great action-packed escape tailored specifically to take us off-track and keep us busy. Apart from the incredible friendliness and value-for-money we encountered everywhere, the sheer pleasure of escaping town and meeting new people happy to showcase their unique corner of Thailand was a much needed boon. As for a recommendation…locals, resident expats and travellers from the wider region (when they can return) would do well to look south and take a Thai road less travelled.
Watch the teaser of Expat Tiew Thai below:
For more information on what to see, where to stay and where to play in southern Thailand, visit tat.or.th.
- Photography Tatler Thailand, Charlie Stevens, Songkhla Tae Raek Antique Hotel, Varni Handicrafts, Pakpoon Community