Sandwiched between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, Thailand’s southern region seems to have been blessed by nature. The 14 provinces running from Chumporn and the Isthmus of Kra down to Narathiwat are filled with lush tropical forests, while the adjacent seas teem with an abundance of seafood. Although the region has one of the smallest populations in the country, it also has one of the highest per capita incomes, thanks primarily to the tourism industry – a great climate and stunning coastlines mean both local and foreign visitors flock year-round to the mainland beaches of Krabi, Phang Nga, and Trang, and the golden sands of islands such as Koh Samui and Phuket.
But beyond its idyllic islands and white sandy beaches, the South has a lot more to offer with its unique mix of cultures. Many of its coastal towns were once important hubs of ancient kingdoms such as Langkasuka, Tambralinga, and Srivijaya. They left a substantial wealth of historical and cultural legacies and the foundations for Brahmanism and the rise of Buddhism in the grand monasteries and pagodas in Nakhon Sri Thammarat and Surat Thani.
Islamic influences can be appreciated in the magnificent mosques and local architecture of the four southern provinces of Pattani, Satun, Yala, and Narathiwat, while colonialism left its mark with the many Sino-Portuguese mansions and shop-houses found in Phuket and Songkhla.
In terms of ethnicities, besides the southern Thais there are the Sea Gypsies and the Sakai, indigenous tribes of proto-Malay descent. Some Sea Gypsies still live primitively in the Surin archipelago in Phang Nga while the Sakai have assimilated into modern society.
Then there are the Peranakan, the Straits Chinese, who blend local Thai and Malay cultures with Chinese traditions. Their customs, beliefs, language, clothing and food combine not only two Eastern principles but also Western influences derived from the British, Dutch and Portuguese. Hence, while most Thai Peranakans are Dheravadhan Buddhists, they also believe in Taoism and Confucianism.
The southern Thai dialect is also another element that makes this region unique. Its rolling and hurried tones are infectious but difficult to master. People often jest about how fast southerners can talk – an old joke has it that even two passengers on passing trains have time to find out where each is headed. One shouts, “Nhai?” (Where?) The other quips, “Yai” (Hat Yai in Songkhla).
While words may be sparse, the fieriness in southern Thai food isn’t. The majority of Thais and visitors think that Isaan food (from the northeast) is the hottest going but in fact, many dishes from the South are as spicy or even more so. Most notable are Ghaeng Dtai Pla or Ghaeng Poong Pla (curry of fish stomach), Khanom Jeen Nahm Yaa Bpuk Dtaii (fermented rice noodles with southern style sauce), and Khua Ghling (spicy stir-fried minced meat). These fiery foods actually come with an antidote of turmeric to calm the heat.
Southern ingredients are also famous for their distinctive flavours and notorious odours. Ghapi, or krill paste, is made from fermented and sundried little shrimps or fish, and salt. Sa-dtaw (stinky beans) and Loog Niang (Djenkol beans) are delicacies for those with an acquired taste. Jackfruits and durians from the South also give very particular smells that permeate and linger in the air.
Like other regions, food is a major component in festivals. For the Sart Thai (the new moon in September) and the Ching Bpetr (Feeding the Hungry Ghosts) celebrations, southern dishes and desserts with symbolic meanings are served. The purpose is to pay homage and send gifts to the spirits of departed ancestors. While some Thais adopt vegetarianism for over a week in October, the devotees at the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket go further by performing ritualised mutilation. Under a trance, they impale themselves with metal spikes as a mark of veneration for their gods and families.
Southerners also enjoy local sports and entertainment exclusive to their lands. Some still watch and bet on bullfighting. Then there is the dance of Nhora or Manhora, which blends curvaceous gesturing and acrobatics.
Increasingly scarce today, it might have been inspired by the Kinnaree (a mythical creature said to be half-human half-bird). The dancers wear colourful costumes and long fingernails that imitate the plumage of birds. They are a singular sight in what is a truly unique part of the country.