I have made an attempt in these pages to describe Hat Yai accurately. I do not believe in being politically correct or trying to sanitise something when all that will do is create a false impression.
When describing nightlife anywhere in Thailand - if it is done accurately - there will be a great deal of sexual content. This is no different in Hat Yai, with many Chinese Malaysian men (living as they do in a Muslim country) regarding southern Thailand as some kind of a sexual playground.
If not for the sex trade, places such as Dannok on the Thai/Malaysian border would not be what they are today and Hat Yai wouldn't have the amount of hotels, bars, restaurants, massage shops and night clubs that it has.
To be fair on visiting Malaysians and Singaporeans - who make up the majority of visitors to Hat Yai - the town is also well-known for its night time activities to (among others) Indonesians, mainland Chinese, and Japanese, not to mention some Westerners and Thais themselves.
Some of the following content is therefore of an adult nature and therefore if you feel sensitive about such things you should leave this page now.
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Everyone has their own idea about what is fun to do when the sun goes down. Hat Yai has a selection of different activities that should suit most tastes. I'll attempt to explain some broad categories and then give details of a few actual venues.
There isn't a huge amount on this page but it's not because there aren't a lot of venues; there are. It's because there isn't much variety or sophistication. The 'No Bra' bar (Chamois Members' Club as it is was but now the Florida Cafe) is about as sophisticated as it gets in Hat Yai but who am I to complain about being served beer by semi-naked Thai girls?
Many of the big hotels have house bands playing typical lounge music with pretty girl singers wearing evening dresses. Some have hostess girls who take it in turns to sing. For younger Thais and Westerners there are typical Thai-style pubs with house bands banging out raunchier music.
Attached to a few hotels are disco-style night clubs but to be honest I've never had the inclination or been inquisitive enough to take a look.
One area of town, Thai Akarn Road to be precise, caters for boys who like boys - or maybe girls who like boys? I've been told it's not only Malaysian men who come to Hat Yai to rent Thai girls, but also Malaysian women who visit to rent Thai boys. I don't think the boys on sale worry about what gender their customers are as long as they pay their money. Thai boys - in fact, boys from anywhere - have never done much for me, therefore this is not an area of Hat Yai's nightlife I have explored.
Several places have what they bill as 'Sexy Shows' but these tend to be quite tame compared to what you might see in Bangkok or Pattaya and just consist of pretty girls in various states of undress parading around. The prostitution scene ranges from dingy little 'Karaoke' bars in three equally seedy areas of town to huge, newly-built bathhouse brothels with thick carpets and plush upholstery.
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The Cleaning Up of Hat Yai
Over the last few years there have been a number of changes in Hat Yai; some major and some quite subtle. I think it has a lot to do with the current mayor, and he's doing a good job. The pavements in the central part of town look good now, and putting the masses of unsightly electricity cables underground was a major improvement.
Jiranakorn sports stadium has been refurbished recently and the Hat Yai Plaza area around the famous clock tower is now in the process of getting a serious makeover. There have also been a number of other changes.
Two of the photos above are now quite old. The 'No Bra Bar' no longer exists and although Chaophya 4 is still very much in existence - and still going strong - it has been toned down a little. The photo above shows pictures of sexy girls on the outside of the building but these were removed a long time ago.
The commercial sex scene will always be present but a lot of the sleaze that used to be in Hat Yai has moved out to Dannok.
What is happening in Hat Yai is not unlike what was attempted in Pattaya a few years ago to make it more family friendly. The commercial sex scene represents something of a dilemma to many Thais. A lot of middle-class, conservative Thais don't like it but they are not oblivious to the fact that it brings in a huge amount of money.
Acting too harshly would be financial suicide and would hurt a lot of influential people who benefit from the trade. The compromise solution appears to be let it continue but to get rid of the really sleazy places and to make the rest of the industry a little lower key.
It's not actually a bad solution. The girls can still make a living; men can still satisfy their urges; and respectable Thais bringing up children don't need to feel they are living in a big brothel.
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With a few exceptions, Thamanoonvithee Road is the place to go for bars. At the railway station end can be found various farang expat hangout bars (The Pubb, Post Laserdisc, Monkey Bar, The Swan, etc.) and as you continue along Thamanoonvithee towards the university, the bars tend to cater more for locals.
I can't make any recommendations because a) I'm not a bar person; and b) places close and reopen all the time. What was at one time the Water Bar, changed to the Crazy Dog for a brief period, before metamorphosing into the Star Bar.
Most (all?) have live music and some have 'coyote' dancers. Some of the bars aimed at farangs may even have bar girls but Hat Yai isn't Phuket, Samui or Pattaya in this respect. There are no Go-Go bars as far as I am aware but I'm not an expert as I have no real interest in the nightlife scene.
Most places entice customers in with lots of exceptionally pretty Thai girls, such as High Society (which, as of the beginning of 2009, seems to have closed down) and Sa-by bar. It's not exactly a free service though. These girls are employees and their wages need to be paid. Certain places can be very pushy when it comes to buying garlands for dancing girls as a way to tip them, and drinks are expensive.
Beer companies employ beautiful 'beer girls' to sell their products and they go from bar to bar, maybe spending a month working in one place before moving on. The sexy clothes they wear will often feature some brand advertising. They aren't pushy. They use their beauty and charm to sell beer ... and it works. At times, I have been tempted to buy a beer from some of these girls even though I stopped drinking a few years ago!
Don't get any wrong ideas about the beautiful girls employed to get customers through the door or sell beer because that is all they do. You will often find they are students just trying to earn a little extra money at night, and they are normally very respectable girls. Just because a Thai girl is beautiful doesn't mean she sells her body.
Bars not on Thamanoonvithee Road include those in the Pink Lady, Corazon (see below), the Acoustic Bar and Restaurant, and Sa-by Bar on Prachathipat Road.
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There are quite a few bars with resident bands and the quality of the musicianship is very good. In Asia, copying things has been turned into an art form and Thai bands performing well-known songs is no exception. They do a good job, even if the pronunciation of words by the vocalists is often rather dodgy.
Most places encourage requests so if you have a favourite song, let them know. One word of caution. If you spend any amount of time in Southeast Asia and like listening to live bands you will be sick to death of Hotel California and several other Eagles tunes in no time at all.
Thamanoonvithee Road is the main place for this type of live music bar.
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There are multiplex cinemas at Lee Gardens Plaza (074 225616-8), Robinson (074 355331) and Diana (074 428965/428379 department stores. It is advertised whether the soundtrack has been dubbed into Thai or left in the original English version. Thai subtitles are included in English language films and sometimes vice-versa but not always.
On one occasion when I and a Thai friend decided to go to see a movie there wasn't one movie anywhere with English subtitles.
Just like music in Thailand, the home-grown variety is very popular. Big Hollywood movies do appear but many films are made in Thailand and cater very much for Thai tastes. As far as Thai movies are concerned, the magic ingredient are ghosts, monks and toilet humour. You should be aware that 99% of Thai movies are about ghosts.
Before all films a tribute to HM the King is shown and the royal anthem is played. It is expected that everyone will stand as a sign of respect to His Majesty. I once saw two farang girls sitting in the front row who sat through the whole thing munching popcorn, completely oblivious to all the people standing behind them.
Thais understand that many foreigners are clueless about Thai culture so don't get upset but Thais have actually been jailed in the past for failing to stand during this show of respect to the King.
Thais love noise. Everything has to be played at a noise level that is uncomfortable to most foreigners. Why this is, I don't know. The sound systems are always cranked up way beyond what would be a comfortable level. Prepare your eardrums for a severe battering.
Locals show little respect to others while at the cinema. I have tried to watch films while people talk constantly to their friends or on their mobile phones. Bored kids will play games on their mobile phones and portable games consoles. Thumping kids on the back of the head while their parents aren't looking sometimes works.
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I really didn't want to write anything about this because I have no desire to promote Hat Yai as a centre of sex tourism. I am not prudish but a lot of what goes on is just downright ugly and I'd rather not see it.
However, Hat Yai is already well known among Malaysians, Singaporeans and others as a destination for sexual recreation, and how can you write about nightlife anywhere in Thailand without mentioning something about commercial sex? It's one of the country's biggest industries.
Wherever there is demand there will be supply, and with southern Thailand being next door to a Muslim country that also has a huge population of non-Muslim Chinese and Indians, the cross-border sex trade was always going to be inevitable.
Having said that, it sits uneasily with a lot of local Thais who are extremely conservative. You don't tend to find many prostitutes in Thailand who are from southern Thailand. There are a few but the vast majority of the girls selling their bodies (as is usually the case) are from the north and northeast of Thailand.
The north and northeast regions are the poorest areas of Thailand and it is honourable for a girl to support her family no matter how she earns the money. Ethnic-Chinese tourists also favour white-skinned girls so there is more demand for white-skinned northern girls in Hat Yai than in tourist areas where there are farang sex tourists who don't mind, or actually favour, the dark skinned girls.
There has been an effort in the last few years under the leadership of mayor Prai Pattano to clean up the town. The results can be seen with the new sidewalks and the removal of the overhead electricity cables, but it has gone a little further than that.
Places selling sex that used to have photos of the girls posted outside have removed the photos so that now it is a little more low key. Many massage places, especially those attached to the large, well-known hotels, provide massage, and massage only.
According to local Thais I have spoken to, many Chinese Malayian sex tourists prefer very young girls and the Hat Yai police have made an effort to get those very young girls off the streets. The effects haven't gone unnoticed and now many Indian and Chinese Malaysian sex tourists go to Dannok instead, where it is similar to Hat Yai used to be.
However, prostitution will always exist with so many poor girls in the country. Because of the poverty and attitudes towards prostitution, there is a never-ending stream of girls from poor regions who move to other parts of the country to earn money through commercial sex in order to support their families back home.
Not only that, but lots of other Thais make a good living out of prostitution without being directly involved.
In Hat Yai, there is a strange little woman who acts as a go-between between male tourists and prostitutes. She operates around the Lee Gardens area and has approached me a few times. Her English is quite good and she isn't in the least bit shy.
She will approach foreign male tourists and ask them if they want a girl. If they do, she will ask his requirements and then get in contact with people she knows who supply girls. Obviously, she takes her cut and this is how she makes a living. She's clever in the way she describes the girls because her descriptions match the perfect girl in the eyes of Chinese men, and most of her clients are Chinese Malaysians.
The Lee Gardens area is also a popular hunting ground for independent streetwalkers in the evening. They just hang around and stare at male tourists, gauging the men's reaction to ascertain whether they might be interested. They always look quite risky to me.
There are a number of aap op nuat places in town. This translates to hot bath and massage but really means bath and sex. They are very prominently positioned and everyone knows what goes on inside, despite prostitution being illegal in Thailand.
The loophole is that the services being offered are perfectly legal - bath and massage - and anything else that happens is purely consensual between two consenting adults so no laws are broken. Clever, huh?
The premier bath and massage place in town is Chaophya 4, a little way out of town on Thamnoonvithee Road (Map 4). There is another place opposite the Hat Yai Merlin hotel also Map 4, and of course the famous Pink Lady in the centre of town near Lee Gardens (Map 3). By the way, Pink Lady seems to have renamed itself as the Pink Hotel.
These places have an ever-rotating selection of girls priced according to their looks. I am not familiar with prices these days but would imagine anything between Bt1,200 and Bt2,000.
At the other end of the aap op nuat scale are a few other places - Atami, Chintana and Paris - in the next road to the Hat Yai Merridian hotel (Map 4) where I believe a bath and massage session will cost around Bt500. As is always the case in life, you get what you pay for.
There used to be a dilapidated old building on Phetkasem Road opposite the VL Hotel (Map 3) where prostitutes at the very bottom end of the scale operated. The building was demolished, but no doubt the girls now work somewhere else.
I was offered a 'short time' for Bt400 so I guess the price for Thai men was around Bt200. That should give you an indication of the type of girls who worked there. If you're looking for a cheap thrill on a budget, you might want to check out the Mandarin Hotel.
Karaoke is the favoured euphemism for brothel in this part of Thailand and there are three areas where lots of 'Karaoke' bars can be found. In the daytime, the girls sit around outside waiting for customers. Longer term hires are more usual in Hat Yai and the girls will normally stay with their customer from when he picks her up until the following morning.
Tuk-tuk drivers, upon seeing farang males wandering around the streets of central Hat Yai will ask, "You want booking?" or "You want booking lady?" 'Booking' is the quaint term used in Hat Yai for engaging with a prostitute; a term I haven't heard anywhere else in Thailand.
Malaysian men also use the term 'booking girl'. With so many Malaysian tourists arriving every day, the Hat Yai locals pick up Malaysian exporessions and I guess this is where it came from.
Your hotel bellboy will probably also ask the same question as he shows you to your room. Should you answer yes, he will probably take you to Soi 2 on Niphat Uthit 1 Road across the road from the Amarin hotel (Map 3) where there are a number of 'Karaoke' bars.
If you can't find a girl you like, his next stop will probably be the Channivet area (Map 4) where there are more Karaoke bars. The third place is the Chee Gim Yong area around the Daichi hotel, also Map 4.
There are also lounges where men can drink and talk with girls before taking them home. A Thai friend had told me that the lounge at the Hat Yai Garden Home hotel (Map 4) had some very attractive girls but it took me a long time to check it out for myself.
When I finally did take a look (and a look was all I took), I did see some very attractive girls. There are some real lookers. Naturally, they are all fair-skinned and most probably come from the north or north-east. The short time rate was Bt2,100 and you could have one stay overnight for Bt3,900.
This is expensive locally, but not for foreigners. These girls are beautiful; they come showered, perfumed and dressed in beautiful dresses and you can spend all night with one for the same price as 20 minutes with an Eastern European hag in a Soho walk-up.
If your preference is just for a massage with a happy ending, there are a few places in Hat Yai that provide such a service but many that don't. In many places it certainly isn't guaranteed and whether you get lucky or not will depend very much on the individual girl, how much she needs some extra money, and how much she likes you.
Even if you get a massage in the privacy of your hotel room, don't take anything for granted because there are plenty of massage girls in Hat Yai who simply aren't interested. This applies especially to Burmese girls and there are now a couple of massage shops that only have Burmese girls. The shops give the Burmese girls Thai nicknames - and they look similar - but you will only find out if you speak Thai. Generally, the Burmese girls don't speak any Thai, or speak a very limited amount.
For naughty massages, you will be advised to stay away from the big hotels and go to the smaller places that look a little dodgy. There are a few spa-type places in Hat Yai that are a notch up from the regular massage shops and they definitely don't offer this kind of additional service. Most tuk-tuk drivers in Hat Yai will know where to take you if you are specific about your needs.
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Kate 8 (Thai: Kate Bpairt)
This area - a little outside of central Hat Yai - is another that is well known for its after-dark activities. Clustered around Hansa Plaza ladyboy cabaret (see below) are a few other evening entertainment venues that are very familiar with locals and visiting Malaysians.
Paragon is a large disco; Bar Berry offers 'sexy shows' which consist of pretty Thai girls parading around in various states of undress but not actually naked (even for the shower show); Sotus Pub has pretty beer girls and waitresses; and at the Hansa Karaoke you can sing in a VIP room with pretty Thai girls.
Sex is not sold as blatantly as it is in other areas of Hat Yai but there will always be girls looking to make money in the time-honoured tradition. This, after all, is Thailand.
Further along Kate 8 you will find more bars and Karaoke places. If you go as far as the traffic lights and turn right, there are a number of small Karaoke places before the railway bridge. From what I can ascertain, these places cater also exclusively to Thai customers.
I had driven past on a number of occasions but never stopped. One evening I went for a stroll to find out what was going on (purely as an exercise in research for this web site). Farangs are an unusual sight there so I got some strange looks but everyone was keen to chat.
The people working there were mainly girls but with a few ladyboys also. Most were from Isaan (as usual) but a few claimed to be local girls - which is unusual - and a few said they were from Bangkok. Ostensibly they are there to provide company to men who want to drink and sing but from their appearance and general behaviour (tattoos, smoking and drinking) the girls obviously make their money doing other things.
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Patpong-style Sex Shows
As I mentioned below in my write-up about Kiss Channel, Thailand is full of baffling and contradictory behaviour. The allure of sex with pretty girls is used all the time to draw people in to places but it's only bait. Once inside, you will often find it is a very different story.
The so-called 'Sexy Shows' in Hat Yai all feature clothed girls. They may be clothed only in a bikini but, nonetheless, they are clothed. Should you wish to see shows featuring naked girls you have two options.
On Phetkasem Road fairly close to Carrefour (on the opposite side of the road) is a venue called Valentine just behind the My House Hotel (Map 2). The other place is called Hawaii (Map 4) and it is fairly close to Diana department store at the intersection where Sripoovanart and Thai Arkarn roads meet.
I haven't been to either of these places but taxi drivers and male hotel staff have told me about them. As a farang male in Thailand I am automatically labelled as an alcoholic, sex-obsessed whore-monger so they believe I will be interested in this type of thing. I'm not.
I went to a 'ping-pong' show in Patpong on my first visit to Bangkok in 1987 (it's mandatory for all first-time visitors to Bangkok) but the next time I went to one of these shows I was bored to death.
The entrance fee at Valentine is Bt400 and I guess it is similar at Hawaii. However, anyone who has been to a second-floor sex show in Patpong will know that paying out doesn't finish once you have paid your entrance fee.
After every performance the performers go into the audience for 'tips' and they are quite pushy. I would imagine it is the same at these two places in Hat Yai so take along a good supply of Bt20 notes.
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For lovers of theatre, opera and ballet, Hat Yai is probably not your best bet. The pavilion in the Municipal Park stages occasional art and photography exhibitions and one thing I can guarantee is that you won't need to worry about fighting your way through crowds.
On the occasions when I have visited such exhibitions I was the only one there and got to have a good chat with the artist or photographer whose work was being exhibited.
These events don't tend to be very well promoted or advertised. The local municipality will normally put up some posters around town but unless you can read Thai they won't mean much to you.
Students at the Prince of Songkla Nakarin university (Mor Or, as it is known locally) put on occasional performances of classical Thai music, dancing and theatre but unless you have good local connections it will be difficult to find out when such events are taking place.
Conversely, the various nightclubs and bars around town - especially those offering 'Sexy Shows' - will be advertised and promoted everywhere, and every taxi driver and hotel bellboy will know about them.
Hat Yai isn't Paris, London or Vienna. Most night time entertainment in Hat Yai involves prostitution and/or ogling at partially-clad girls while drinking bottles of beer and cheap Thai whisky. This, apparently, is what visitors to Hat Yai want and the local Thais are happy to supply their demands.
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