Since my last blog post I’ve crossed the border into Malaysia. It was the easiest border crossing yet. I took the ferry from Satun to Langkawi. All I had to do was get stamped out at the ferry station on the Thai side and get stamped in on the Malaysian side. No visa, no bribes, no hassle. Malaysia has been showing itself as a pretty awesome country so far, about which I’ll post something soon. This post is about my last couple of days in Thailand.
I had left the backpacker haven of Koh Phangan (see my post ‘Inland territory‘) and made my way to the small town of Songkhla, some 30km from Hat Yai. Whereas Hat Yai is the better known destination of the two (being the fourth-largest city in Thailand), I had chosen Songkhla on purpose because it was not in the Lonely Planet. The more I travel, the more useful that ugly brick of a book gets… to know where not to go. Being featured in the LP is almost a guarantee for a place to be overrun with tourists, charge inflated prices, and be devoid of any original charm. Since all the tourists clot together around LP-featured destinations, that leaves other places wonderfully free of them.
Songkhla didn’t disappoint. During my entire three day stay I encountered exactly three Westerners. One of them was just in town to visit his Thai inlaws. The other two looked like backpackers (but could have been any other kind of travellers wearing backpacks). The town offered a few mildly interesting attractions: a funicular up to a temple situated on a mountain, a beach boardwalk, a lake, two small museums, and a Friday night market. Just enough to make for some pleasant exploring on foot (or by the free tourist tram, or on one of the free loan bicycles the tourist office offered) each day.Much more interesting than these attractions was the local daily life. Without a large tourism industry, the people here were just going about their everyday business: working in their shops, buying things at the market, and eating at the small restaurants that lined the roads. Many locals seemed amused by my presence in their town. They smiled, greeted me, and tried to strike up a conversation if they spoke any English at all. Restaurant owners were thrilled if I stopped for a bite in their restaurant, but didn’t try to charge me three times the normal price.
I discovered a coffee shop that offered exactly the environment I need to work: strong airconditioning, comfortable chairs, fast wifi, and good coffee… all at reasonable prices. The place was called Fresh Coffee, located on Platha Road (across from the Songkhla Pavilion Hotel). I ended up spending many hours there, catching up on some work, writing my friends, and, I admit, downloading a movie or two.
I would have loved to stick around for another week or so. If I can get a good workspace, an affordable hotel room, great food, and nice people in one place, I’m happy to stay for a while. Even if there are no real attractions or sights. But my days in Southeast Asia are limited (I have a flight out of KL in less than a month), and there are still a few more places that I want to visit. So after three days I decided to move on.
I travelled to the other side of the country, which was a breeze, being at one of the most narrow parts of Thailand. I took a minivan to Hat Yai, and then another one to Satun, from where I would be able to catch a ferry to Malaysia (or cross over land, if I fancied). It is one of the less frequently used border crossings between Thailand and Malaysia, and few travellers spend the night in Satun. For me that was a good reason to do exactly that: spend an extra day in Satun.Much like Songkhla, Satun is a small town with few attractions as such. There are two guesthouses that cater to Westerners (Ang Yee’s Guesthouse and On’s Living Room), as well as a few hotels used more by Thai and Malaysian tourists. Again being one of the very few Western travellers in town, I received many friendly smiles and hellos. The locals (many of whom spoke reasonable English, probably because of the proximity to the Malaysian border) were always happy to have a chat with me. I gathered my dinner together from the local night market, and the vendors were excited to explain their offerings to me. They didn’t just want my money. They were proud that their work attracted the attention of a foreigner.
After travelling through Thailand for six weeks, Songkhla and Satun rank among my favourite places in the country. Together with Ubon Ratchathani, Nang Rong, and Koh Chang Noi, it is where I encountered the friendliest people, learned most about local life, and didn’t constantly have to worry about getting scammed. My least favourite places (that I visited) are easily Bangkok and Koh Tao, both of which I found to be charmless overpriced tourist traps rife with scams.
If you are interested in learning about a country through travelling, I can strongly recommend that you visit some smaller towns that are not listed in the Lonely Planet. Just take a look at the map and pick a random dot somewhere on the railroad track between two major points. While you probably won’t see anything spectacular, you just might be rewarded with an authentic taste of local life, and many a friendly smile on top.