It was my second time in Hat Yai, and this trip was even more brief than the last; six hours between an overnight train from Kuala Lumpur, and a second overnight train to Bangkok. After hearing me rave about the stainless steel temple, Caroline wanted to see it too, so we waved our way through touts at the station (Taxi? Hello? Tuk Tuk? Yes?), walked past the stalls of Thai muslims selling food (mostly fried chicken and fried meatballs, with sparrows happily standing on the tables tearing at the chicken) and made the mistake of talking to a shifty man about renting a motorcycle. He lead us to his friend’s tourism package business, which was full of confused and unhappy looking foreigners. Our shifty friend motioned to the man behind the counter who momentarily glanced up at us, then continued to furiously write something for one of his customers. We slipped out, ignoring the calls of the touts behind us, and headed to a hotel.
Hotels are a wonderful, free source of information for people not staying in them. The staff usually have it ingrained into them to answer the questions of travelers, and most of the time somebody speaks English. So we asked the smiling receptionist where we could hire a motorcycle, and got an honest, straightforward answer.
Last time I was in Hat Yai I hadn’t had any practice riding a bike, so I got around on the backs of others, paying more per ride than we did this time for an entire days worth of rental. The bike we got was a step up from our bike in Kalimantan. This one had mirrors and functional displays, it didn’t cut out if we dropped below a certain speed, and it could actually overtake other vehicles. Caroline took the back seat, we took some instructions on how to get to the temple, and we took off.
It was a Sunday and the city was a lot quieter than it had been on my first trip. That time I had been so focused on trying to get around that I failed to notice the city itself. I had Hat Yai pegged as a bit boring, but now, with the luxury of private transport, I could relax a little and see the town from a new angle. It certainly wasn’t a town of pretty, or historic, or even interesting architecture, but the functional, brick-and-plaster buildings had been painted in a rainbow of colours, giving it a friendly feeling on the fringes. Closer in the centre were tuk-tuk and taxi drivers, lazing on their vehicles and half heartedly calling out to anyone who would listen. We watched vendors setting up for a night market, and munched on young mango with tamarind powder. Outside a 7/11 was a man lying on a trolley, his arms and legs so emaciated that a skeleton wouldn’t have been much thinner. He curled his legs up and down repeatedly and was being fed a thick, yellow liquid by an old woman. Inside the 7/11 people, including us, bought bottles of water, yoghurt drinks and jackfruit chips.
On our way through town towards the temple, we pulled over at an eatery with no English in the title. Using a type of universal sign language (mostly flailing) and speaking very slowly to the incredibly helpful man serving us, we managed to order two bowls of porky, sour and spicy soup, a green tea and a lemon juice. Apart from the man serving, nobody in the cafe could speak a word of English, and the man himself could speak very little. They all found it very amusing that we were struggling, but not in a way that we found embarrassing. They seemed impressed that we were at least trying to eat local food, and attempting to communicate. Caroline had written down several Thai phrases and, unlike me, had managed to remember a few basic things like numbers and colours and food types. Later on we learned that there are different types of kuey teow here. In Malaysia kuey teow means thick, flat rice noodles. In Thailand there are several different types of kuey teow, which simply means ‘noodles’: bak mi (egg noodles), sen lek (thin noodles), sen yai (fat noodles), sen mi (rice noodles), and wun sen (glass noodles). There’s probably more too.
Back on the motorcycle we headed away from town and towards the mountainous area where the temple was located, slowly honking our way up the windy hill around the blind corners. For me, seeing the structure a second time was just as awe-inspiring as the first, but this time there were subtle differences that made the experience unique; there was a long, devotional song on repeat, being played softly but audibly from raised speakers that I hadn’t noticed were there last time; it was a lot hotter, therefore harder to comfortably stand on the forecourt and look at the entire temple for too long; there were fewer giant moths on the inside (“They’re not that big,” said Caroline upon spotting one); there was no taxi driver waiting for me; I noticed the mountains to the north-east; and finally, Singaporeans did not show up halfway through and start smashing the bells and gongs while laughing and yelling obnoxiously.
Coming down from the mountain and back towards the city we spied a gigantic, golden head towering above the surrounding buildings. Using it as a landmark we weaved through a few streets and ended up in the back lot of a Buddhist monastery. Several young monks were busying themselves with trying to fix one of the many water features, and so we strolled around the otherwise deserted complex, climbing a giant, seven story pagoda with an enormous, hidden bell at the peak. Hanging next to bell was a small hunk of tree suspended by two chains, the edge of which would hit a yin yang symbol on the bell when pulled back and released. It was awfully tempting to swing the log and chime the bell, but we weren’t even sure if we were allowed to be up in the pagoda, and so I restrained myself.
Almost as tall as the pagoda, and certainly taller than the surrounding buildings, was a colossal, golden Buddha, carrying a staff with eight rings hanging from the four tips, two on each. The rings can often be found on staffs like this, and the jangling is supposed to warn sentient beings, such as insects, that the user is approaching so they may take evasive action. In this case, we can assume that the sentient beings would consist primarily of elephants and concrete trucks, fighting to escape the giant, lumbering Buddha’s peaceful (but likely clumsy) wrath.
Inaccessible because of the working monks was a garden with hundreds of life-sized golden statues, all facing the ‘auspicious’ direction, towards Buddha, which is usually north or east. Koi carp swam in the ponds, and we walked about in the windy heat, strolling in this peaceful refuge at the fringe of the city.
With a small amount of time left to kill in Hat Yai we found a food court on the fifth floor of a department store. It was practically empty save for forty-odd Chinese people taking turns at singing karaoke on a medium-sized stage. I drank a truly disgusting plum drink as we sat at a counter and watched the cacophony. It was a strange little haven they had built for themselves, up here on the fifth floor. They all clapped without enthusiasm as each person finished his song, the claps dying away with the fade of the music, leaving an awkward silence between numbers. For those with an inclination to work out, a free gym was functioning in another corner, fully kitted out in expensive looking equipment and weights. Two woman did squats in front of a mirror, but apart from that it was empty. Knickknack stalls went unpatronised as well as unsupervised. It was odd and delightful
And then we left and went to Bangkok.