Budget-conscious Malaysians flock to Hat Yai for holiday as prices rise at home


While Hat Yai has always been a favoured weekend escapade for Malaysians residing in the north, it is now pulling more visitors from the south. - ST Photos

HAT YAI (Thailand): When Norfareha Abu Bakar vacationed in Hat Yai in February 2024 for the first time, she had so much fun that she returned to the southern Thai city in May.

“I like the food, the nature and their culture. There are lots of things to explore in Hat Yai and around Songkhla,” she told The Straits Times. Hat Yai is in Songkhla province.

Norfareha also went to neighbouring Phatthalung province to visit the Thale Noi wetlands and Phraiwan waterfall.“It is a bit cheaper than Malaysia, for now,” added the 34-year-old chemist who spent three days there from May 31 to June 2 with friends.

Hat Yai, Songkhla province’s biggest city, is fast becoming one of the top travel hot spots for budget-conscious Malaysians as the weak ringgit makes the city attractive to those seeking a non-domestic getaway.

The ringgit was among the worst-performing regional currencies in 2023, but has slowly edged higher in recent months.

Hat Yai is also easy to get to without taking a flight, Norfareha pointed out. “For other countries, such as Indonesia or Vietnam, you have to book a flight ticket. I don’t want to keep checking for cheap flights. For Hat Yai, I can go any time.”

The jaunts – just across the border from Malaysia’s northern Perlis state – are made easier with the April 2024 reintroduction of a Kuala Lumpur-Hat Yai train service.

An added boost to the city’s popularity among Malaysia’s ethnic Malays is the wide availability of halal food, as 95 per cent of Songkhla’s population are Malay-Muslims who speak a dialect of Malay.

While Hat Yai has always been a favoured weekend escapade for Malaysians living in the north, it is now pulling more visitors from the south.

The city is around 50km from the Perlis border town of Padang Besar, and about an hour’s drive by car from the immigration checkpoint.

Hat Yai is around 500km from Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur by road.

One influencer, celebrity chef Khairul Aming who has five million followers on TikTok, in July 2023 shared about his trip to Hat Yai, highlighting nine places for meals.

This led to many users posting about their own experiences in the city.

Most Malaysians interviewed in Hat Yai on a recent visit said food and accommodation are affordable when compared with holiday destinations in Malaysia.

“For less than RM100 (S$28.50) a night, you would think twice about staying at a hotel in Malaysia because of the cleanliness and stuff like that but, in Thailand, it’s okay. We pay about 500 baht (S$18.40) and we can get a nice, clean room,” said engineer K.K. Yum, 55, from Kuala Lumpur.

A stay in a three-star hotel in Kangar, the capital of Perlis, ranges from RM100 to RM225 a night. In Hat Yai, an equivalent hotel charges 850 baht (S$31.50) to 1,762 baht.

Using Hat Yai as a jumping-off point, Yum also ventured to other areas such as Patthalung and the nearby Krabi province.

“Five years ago, I didn’t see many Malays coming here but because there is so much halal food now, you see there is a balance of Malays, Chinese and Indians,” he said.

“Hat Yai has also gone viral because of social media,” he added.

Hat Yai Songkhla Hotel Association president Sitthipong Sitthiphataraprabha said the city’s diverse food choices, easy accessibility and affordable hotels make it an ideal budget-friendly vacation option.

He added that the city typically draws around 5,000 Malaysians daily, with the number doubling to nearly 10,000 on weekends.

“On peak season weekends (Christmas and New Year), Hat Yai welcomed an average of 20,000 Malaysians daily, while weekdays see around 10,000 visitors,” he told the Bernama news agency in January.

Hotels, especially those in the downtown, have enjoyed full occupancy during peak holiday weeks, he said.

Malaysia’s national railway, Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTM), in February 2024 announced the return of the MySawasdee (MyHello) special service from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai.

It operates only on specific dates in the year, beginning from April 11, 2024.

“In response to the sustained interest in travel to Thailand, we have introduced the MySawasdee train, which operates from KL Sentral (terminal) directly to Hat Yai, specifically during long weekends,” KTM chief corporate officer Suhaimi Yaacob told ST.

The service first rolled off on Sept 15, 2022, logging 10 trips that year that drew 3,787 passengers. In 2023, it made 20 trips, serving 7,864 passengers.

“The surge in demand underscores the need for such a service, prompting us to plan additional services for 2024,” said Suhaimi.

The MySawasdee train can carry 400 passengers each way, with 240 seats and 160 sleeper berths. A one-way seat starts from RM95, rising to RM119 for a lower berth in the sleeper coach.

Tickets for the first trip this year on April 11, and the second on May 31, sold out within minutes. The journey takes 11 hours and 20 minutes.

The air-conditioned ride comes with a cafe serving drinks, snacks and hot meals.

Once in Hat Yai, one of the top activities is food-hunting.

A plate of kerabu Maggi, or instant noodle salad cooked with seafood and vegetables, costs 80 baht – about RM2 cheaper than KL’s RM12.

A shabu-shabu buffet meal for one person, including prawns, salmon and beef slices, costs 299 baht, at least 17 per cent cheaper than in KL.

Visitors also sniff out clothing and craft bargains in the markets. For those who prefer international brands, there is the CentralFestival mall. Nature lovers flock to nearby waterfalls and wetlands in Phatthalung, as well as Samila beach and Tang Kuan Hill in Songkhla.

Dr Sri Ganesh Michiel, deputy president of the Malaysia Budget and Business Hotel Association, told ST: “Malaysians feel very welcome there. Thailand creates a tourism atmosphere.

“Hat Yai is just like a normal town during the day. But when you go out at night, you see all the shops and massage centres. A foot massage is RM25. That is cheap.”

Malaysians are estimated to have spent RM4.6 billion in Thailand in 2023.

Malaysia’s consul-general in Songkhla, Ahmad Fahmi Ahmad Sarkawi, was quoted as saying by Malay-language newspaper Utusan Malaysia in May that the figure is based on the assumption that the 4.56 million Malaysians who visited Thailand last year spent RM1,000 each.

“For this year, the figure is expected to increase based on the trend of visitor arrivals to Thailand,” he added.While Hat Yai is basking in the sun, at least one Malaysian holiday destination could be feeling the heat from the competition.

An employee of a state-owned company in Malaysia’s No.1 resort island of Langkawi told ST he sees fewer tourists, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is very quiet in Langkawi now. The tourists are going to Phuket, Hat Yai. There are more activities in Thailand. They have the Songkran festival and food festivals. Langkawi needs to have more activities,” he said.

Songkran is a Thai New Year festival known for its water-splashing traditions.

He added that the frequency of ferry crossings between the mainland and Langkawi has also been reduced due to the pandemic, to only a couple of times daily. - The Straits Times/ANN

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