Photo 1: The 1974 memories are kept alive in my photo album including those of the late Michael Chua who wrote, “Dear big Pete, whenever you look at the photo think of the good times we had together and me.”
Haadyai, isn't it a big farang tourist trap? It was actually a big tourist town from the late 1960s through 2007 for tourists from mainly Malaysia, who were there for the weekend although some Singaporeans did go there. However Haadyai is unlike Phuket, Pattaya or Bangkok’s Patpong because Haadyai was never on the R&R list of U.S. servicemen involved in the Vietnam War; so the influence was never there. While you can find wild crowds of merry Westerners, street bars, katoeys, pole-dancing, lap-dancing, street walkers, and music (that increases in volume as the moon rises), the same cannot be said of Haadyai.
Photo 2: Left – Standing on Niphat Uthit 3 Road. In the background is the present-day Yong Dee Hotel and Yongdee Market. Middle – We’are on the way to the “chicken farm”. Right – The short and taller blocks of Novotel Centera Hotel (circa 2009). The shorter block was the original Sukhontai Hotel. The neon corporate hotel logo faces the Hadyai Junction Railway Station.
My recent trip to Haadyai was more heritage than anything else: of utmost importance was to locate the old Sukhontai Hotel where we stayed, 35 years ago. That day my luck was pretty good. I spoke with a Thai-Chinese money-changer and was told the Sukhontai Hotel (under new management and ownership) is now Novotel Centera Haadyai. I hurried off with my friend but a big surprise awaited me. The single 10-storey block became a part of an even taller tower block with a podium block. I was very happy on one hand and confused on the other. I could not figure out some of the old photos with the street names and nearby buildings. Once my orientation became better, nostalgic memories came back: our Minute steak at the Morakat (the popular Sukhontai coffee house), BBQ seafood, cha-cha-cha dancing, our first experience with fiery hot Thai chili padis, Mohan Rao’s hand trapped between the elevator doors, and not forgetting the night life in Haadyai. What night life?
We got educated about “chicken farms” and what was available as an after-dinner treat. We probably pissed-off the bell-hop (who acted as a sort of go-between) after visiting the “chicken farm” on the outskirts of Haadyai town. Despite generous discounts from the opening price of 1,300 bahts or so for an “8pm to 8am companion” our minds were made up. We were not into that kind of excitement. I still can remember the moment our tuk-tuk arrived at the “chicken farm”; a loud whistle brought all the girls together forming a circle as if ready for parade inspection. You won’t find chicks from southern Thailand, the vast majority of the girls selling their bodies (as is usually the case) were from the northeast of Thailand. Why would an 18 year fair-skinned girl do that? We got the standard answer: farmers and families paying off their loans in kind because the rice harvest was poor that year. Then there was the occasional Myanmar girl who was given a Thai nickname “Nok or Phin” - and she looked similar - but you will only discover that if you speak Thai. Generally, the Myanmar girls don't speak any Thai, or speak a very limited amount. “Lah” means he’s from Malaysia. If you hear “Cheap”, that’s from Singapore.
We went to check out a few night spots because we heard so much of their cabarets and unique shows. As these photos show, we soon learnt the "house specialty". Initial bubbling excitement soon became monotonous. We had many questions but few answers. It was easy to deal with the ala Rose Chan performances but suggestive non-stop couple-acts (and more couple to couple acts) and paraphernalia were very mind-boggling. Was it humanly possible to do it? It sure looked a tough way for any
Photo 3: Left – Can you use your hands? Full suction power to pick up the coin (or suck Singha beer through the straw) and transfer it to another bottle? How could she ever do it? Another entertaining act we saw that night was one of using an artist brush to paint a “Van Gogh”. (Funny thing - Asians, especially couples, like to sit in the front row while Angmohs sit backstall.) Those who sat in front row got a rude surprise. The performer sprayed “water” by bending her knees/body backwards and resting her palms on the floor. Right – In the dark the audience could not make out whether the sexily-clad dancers were real women or "post-ops". Could you tell the difference? I think I might have the answers for both photos.
There has been an effort in the last few years under the leadership of Mayor Prai Pattano to clean the town up. 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. Ever since the Muslim insurgency problems in the southern provinces flared up, Haadyai's tourist economy had to change. Today you can be forgiven when you mistake Haadyai for a Malaysian town because out in the open, many Thai Muslims and Thai Muslims of Malay origin are wearing the tudung.
Photo 4: Left – Everywhere you go, you find this new Haadyai cultural landscape. Right – I tried the “Korek Telinga” service at 50 bahts. Everywhere I went, I found foot massage services.
Before rushing off to catch the last train back to Padang Besar, we found time for one “last fling”. We headed for the spa because we know that in Singapore, a spa treatment can run into hundreds of dollars and you had to reluctantly purchase a package of 10 sessions in order to get the best deal. Here at the Preuksa Spa (ask for “Toy”), an hour cost me S$20 (S$1 = 23 Baht); in Singapore the equivalent of S$90 at a wellness and spa retreat. Come to think of it, even a doggy in Singapore gets a good body massage, so why can’t I pamper myself?
Photo 5: Doggy gets a massage at Bishan Park (Photo Credit: a Flickr user). Middle – The spa tariff from Peruksa Spa on Niphat Uthit 3 Road (Photo Credit: Ms. “Toy”). Right – One of the treatment rooms at Peruksa Spa. I slept for 3 hours because of the rustic ambience, the soft piano music and lavender-scented body massage.
Personally I am glad I found my old Sukhontai Hotel. When the group holds the reunion at this year’s end, we should have a good program lined up. Where else can you have a bowl of original beef ball kway teow soup for 30 bahts? Tired bodies and Singapore-made stress? I have the answer. Even Mr. Asdang Sukwises, the general manager of Novotel Centera has promised us the hospitality of a lifetime after he heard about how we crossed the Malaysian-Thai border to come to Haadyai 35 years ago. Now, it’s time to sit back and reminisce about Haadyai back in 1974:
In the concluding series, I will tell you more of our return trip through Sadao to Changloon, the nearest Malaysian border town 10km from Thailand.