Why go to Hat Yai
For the overwhelming majority of Western travellers Hat Yai is nothing more than a big transportation hub of southern Thailand, so very few of them (us) venture out to the city itself, making just a brief acquaintance with Hat Yai based on impressions produced by its train and bus stations at best. Yet it is still worth making a stopover in Hat Yai to feel that special atmosphere of a thriving city where traditions meet modernity. Brand-new shopping malls rub their shoulders with colourful markets, excellent Malay and Chinese restaurants cannot overshadow curries from hawkers’ stalls, and serious business-style hotels and friendly old-school Chinese guesthouses all have their fair share of guests arriving to Hat Yai.
Hat Yai is a convenient stop on your way north from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok and other cities of Thailand. Take your time and some rest from a longish journey and enjoy this brief introduction to the culture of Thailand.
How to get to Hat Yai from Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur is connected to the southern city of Hat Yai in Thailand by trains, buses and planes. The choice of the means of transport depends entirely on your taste, as all of the mentioned ones are convenient and affordable enough. If choosing between trains and buses, note that there is no more direct rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Hat Yai: you have to change in Padang Besar. Opposite to trains, there is a choice of direct buses departing throughout the day.
From Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai by train
Alas, there is no more direct train from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai. You can still get to Hat Yai by train, but you will need to connect via the border town of Padang Besar, where all the border formalities are performed. Though changing trains is more hassle, the total time of such journey is considerably less than before as ETS trains operating in Malaysia are much faster than ordinary trains used to be.
There are four trains a day from Kuala Lumpur to Padang Besar, all taking less than six hours to reach their destination (MYR80-MYR107). If you want to get to Hat Yai from Padang Besar the same day, you need to take the first one (#9220 at 6.50am) as it connects rather conveniently with a shuttle train from Padang Besar to Hat Yai at 2.40pm/3.40pm (Thai/Malaysian time!). There is no need to book tickets for this shuttle train in advance: buy them directly at the station on arrival.
With all the other departures from Kuala Lumpur you can use a local bus/taxi to get from Padang Besar to Hat Yai, which is only 60 km away from the border.
In Kuala Lumpur, trains for Hat Yai leave from Kuala Lumpur Sentral. A real architectural delight and the largest railway station in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur Sentral is located in Brickfield, also known as Little India. Kuala Lumpur railway station is easily accessible by LRT, KL Monorail, KLIA Ekspres and KTM Komuter which all pass through KL Sentral.
In Hat Yai, train station is conveniently located in the centre of the city at the intersection of Th. Rotfai and Thumnoonvithi Rd. To get from the station to any destination around the city, use a tuk-tuk: they are readily available in front of the railway station and normally ask reasonable prices. Do negotiate the cost of your trip before you get on, though.
Tip: Border crossing opening hours are from 5am till 11pm Thai time (6am to midnight Malaysian time). It means that you will hardly have time to cross the border the same day if you arrive from Kuala Lumpur by train #9204, which leaves Kuala Lumpur Sentral at 6.15pm. If, by some reason, you still want to make a stop in Padang Besar, look for cheap accommodation on the Thai side – there are not so many choices on the Malaysian side.
Note: When entering the Kingdom by land, many nationalities are granted 15 or 30 days visa-free period of stay. Though Padang Besar check-point is mentioned on the official web-site of the Thai Immigration as a check-point where VOAs are granted, there have been issues with obtaining one while entering Thailand by train. To be on the safe side, get prepared accordingly.
From Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai by bus
After the direct train from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai has terminated operation, buses now are the only direct overland link between Kuala Lumpur and Hat Yai. The route is served by a number of operators departing from different bus terminals in Kuala Lumpur, includingAlisan Coach which travels to Hat Yai from the major transportation hub in the southern part of Kuala Lumpur, Terminal Bersepadu Selatan. The driving distance from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai is 540 km, and buses take about eight hours to cover it – including waiting time at the border crossing between Malaysia and Thailand. Tickets cost more or less the same with the majority of the operators: expect to pay about MYR60/THB500 per seat in a VIP coach with light lunch and some snacks and water included. There are several convenient night departures crossing the border and arriving to Hat Yai early in the morning which also saves you a night at a hotel.
Note that not all of the buses serving the route have toilets on board! Buses make several pit stops en route; but anyway, come prepared.
Flights from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai
AirAsia has tow flights a day from KLIA2 in Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai at 11.45am and 3.55pm. Flying takes you just 1¼ hour and normally costs under THB1500, if you have at least a couple of weeks flexibility.
In Kuala Lumpur, AirAsia flights originate from KLIA2 terminal. The best way to get to/from KLIA2 to the city centre is by KLIA Ekspress and KLIA Transit services. The former brings your to the destination in just 33 minutes and the latter takes 39 minutes. KLIA Ekpress trains operate between 5am and 12.30am, tickets costs MYR55 one-way. There is also a cheaper shuttle bus (MYR10), going from/to KL Sentral. Bear in mind, though, that travel time of it may vary greatly depending on traffic which tends to be quite intense in Kuala Lumpur. In any case, expect to spend about one hour from KLIA to KL Sentral and vice versa.
Where to stay in Hat Yai
Though at first glance (and at the second, too) Hat Yai does not look like a popular tourist destination, it is to a certain extend as weekends see a lot of holidaymakers from Malaysia and Singapore. That means that accommodation in the city abound but it is all booked on Friday and Saturday nights. During the week there is no problem to find a good deal, and very often – opposite to what you may be used to – tourist agencies offer better rates than those which can be obtained through hotels directly. There are a few budget digs and mid-range hotels within an easy walk from the train station in Thanon Thamnoonvitti and Thanon Niphat Uthit – both addresses are quite central and especially useful if you arrive by train.
Onward travel from Hat Yai
Hat Yai is a convenient starting point for all the trips further north in Thailand. There is a whole bunch of trains leaving Hat Yai in the afternoon and in the evening heading to Bangkok. En route they call to Suratthani and Chumphon from where you can reach the three most popular islands of the Gulf: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao.
Buses connect Hat Yai to the main southern destinations, including Phuket and Trang. It is also possible to travel by bus to Bangkok – though there are no sleeping coaches, the journey is still comfortable enough and takes less time compared to the railway.