Most visitors to the kingdom never get any further south in Thailand than the island of Phuket, but they're missing out on some of the country's most intriguing metropolises
The capital city of the province that bears its name, Trang is the very definition of a sleepy railway town. Located southeast of Phuket, the city owes its importance to the tracks that pass through it, part of a series of lines that, ultimately, connect Laos to Singapore. Traditionally, it has mainly been a stopping off point for backpackers on their way to the stunning islands offshore, including Koh Kradan, Libong, and Ngai.
Settled by Chinese workers in the 19th century, many of whom struck it rich in the tin trade, Trang has similar heritage Sino-Colonial architecture to that found in Phuket. However, where the immigrants really made their fortune was the rubber trade – the first rubber tree in Thailand – brought up from Malaysia – was planted here in 1899 by Governor Phraya Rasdanupradit (and it still stands, in the nearby town of Kantang).
The major landmark in town is the Clock Tower, which lies at the top of the main street Rama VI, but the principal attraction here is food. There are two main cafes, known locally as kopi tiam from Hokkien Chinese) shops, you should visit. The first is Yue Chiang, on the corner of Rama VI and Soi 1, which has occupied the same wooden home for more than 100 years, and still serves the distinctive strong coffee and fiery hot southern-style curries that generations have enjoyed. Then, right next to the train station is the slightly newer Kopi 1942, which is the place in town to enjoy dim sum.
On weekends, the carpark in front of the station becomes a heaving night market, with stall after stall selling culinary treats, fashion, and handicrafts. Outside of the city, if you have the time, and transport, make the 20 minute drive south to the Peninsula Botanic Garden (known in Thai as ‘Thung Khai’). This nature preserve is a great place to hike in the woods, but even better is the canopy walk, where a series of walkways take you higher and higher up into the treetops. For the perfect local souvenir, pick up a Trang sponge cake, which comes in a variety of interesting flavours like durian.
Of all Thailand’s southern cities, the ancient town of Songkhla is probably its most intriguing. Once known as Singora (a name the local ethnic Malays still use), it was founded around 1600 by a Persian trader, who established a sultanate on the site. The settlement then grew and thrived for almost a century, attracting Portuguese, Dutch, French and Chinese traders, before finally being destroyed by a Siamese army, after Singora's sultan had angered the Thai rulers in Ayuthaya by declaring independence.
Visiting the quiet city today, it feels like Songkhla never really recovered from that devastation, for despite being the official capital of the province, the city is not even the most important – that honour belongs to nearby Hat Yai, the upstart city to the southwest. However, what it lacks in flashy pizzazz, Songkhla makes up for in charm.
Western tourists are few on the ground, though it attracts its share of Malaysians and holidaying Thais, drawn by the area's distinctive geography: Songkhla sits on a small peninsula; the east side faces the vast Gulf of Thailand, and is lined by a 5 kilometer long beach, with clean sand but a fresh breeze and strong undercurrents. The west coast faces a vast, shallow seawater and freshwater lake, and offers a safe harbour for navy, fishing, cargo and supply ships; the latter sail out to the oil rigs that lie offshore.
While the beaches are popular with kite surfers (do make sure to snap a selfie with the famous mermaid statue at Samilia on the north coast, not too dissimilar to the little one in Copenhagen and check out the view from the top of Khao Tang Kuan), the most interesting part of the city is the old town, a collection of Chinese shophouses that house local restaurants and businesses. While the area is gentrifying – try the shrimp cakes at the Blue Smile Cafe – local life still rules here, and the surprisingly impressive Songkhla National Museum does a great job of explaining the city's illustrious history.
As befits many border towns, Hat Yai really exists to cater to tourists. Having historically played second fiddle to the provincial capital Songkhla, in the last few decades Hat Yai has grown quickly to become the Kingdom's fourth largest city, witnessing an influx of Malaysians, who hop across the border for fun weekends. Indeed, with a predominance of ethnic Malays and Chinese, the city bears a similar makeup to the country only 60 kilometres to the south, and it's not uncommon to hear the local Chinese speaking Mandarin with visiting tourists, or even Teochew dialect.
As the commercial centre of the south, Hat Yai has a downtown full of skyscrapers and malls, including Central Festival, Lee Garden Plaza, and Robinson. Found alongside these are the city's many street markets, including the famous ASEAN night market, a labyrinth of stalls selling bags, shoes, clothes, and souvenirs, with a food alley selling snacks of all description – try the deep fried chicken skin paired with spicy vinegar.
The best times to experience Hat Yai's festive spirit are Chinese New Year in late January or Songkran (the Thai New Year, but best known as one huge water fight), usually held in mid-April. For a unique view of the city, head up to the Hat Yai Cable Car, a 535 meter long journey that makes a great way to end your tour of the south.