Do you ever wonder what it was like to travel Thailand 30 years ago? There were fewer tourists then of course, smaller crowds and shorter queues for sure.
In many ways that describes the attraction of Yala today in 2019. Top tourist attractions, like the Iyerweng Sea of Mist, might get a little busy at peak hour. But that’s because they’re popular with local Thais, or the odd Malaysian group, with few international visitors to be seen. Other attractions, like Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary, seem virtually deserted and literally unseen to all but the boldest visitors.
This, however, is poised to change if those in charge have a say. Local Thai officials in Betong are keen to promote these attractions and bring in more international and domestic Thai travellers to the area.
According to Mr. Anan Boonsamran, Chief District Officer of Betong, the new 1.9-billion Baht Betong International Airport in Yala and the expanded ‘skywalk’ at the Iyerweng Sea of Mist will be game changers for both Betong itself and the extended province of Yala as a whole.
“The new Betong International Airport is scheduled to open in June 2020, at the same time as the new signature ‘skywalk’ at the Iyerweng Sea of Mist. Together with Hala-Bala, we have important pieces in place to be a gateway to Southern Thailand’s tourism gems while showcasing Yala’s most pristine natural attractions,” Mr. Anan said.
It’s easy to see why he’s excited about the Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary. There are few places like it left in the world, much less Southeast Asia. On a recent day out, only one other boat was spotted on its massive lake and canals. It was a live aboard houseboat-like vessel available through local tour operators for charter on a one-night, two-day basis. It looked like an ideal way to explore Hala-Bala’s wilderness-like waterways, complete with creature comforts and a very cool waterslide on the stern.
The Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary was officially established in 1996 near the Thai-Malaysian border and covers the Sankala Khiri Mountain range, Hala Forest and Bala Forest, which are deep first generation jungle forests. The diverse flora and fauna create an ecological balance here that makes it a not-to-be-missed attraction for nature lovers and birdwatchers alike. And is also home to several endangered species native to Thailand including the large black gibbon or Sia Mang.
The new 50-metre Iyerweng Skywalk will also boost the destination’s profile. It will extend from the side of the existing tower that sits on a peak just 100 metres above the Iyerweng Lake. Every day at sunrise and sunset, mist envelops the Skywalk giving visitors the feeling of floating above the clouds.
The 91-million Baht project is the jewel in the eye of Betong Mayor Mr. Somyod Lertlamyong, who believes the attraction plus new airport will make Betong the pride of Southern Thailand.
Mayor Somyod said, “When the new Iyerweng Sea of Mist Skywalk and airport open, Betong will have some of the best natural attractions in Thailand, if not the world. We intend to bring down the reigning Miss Thailand World for a photoshoot to help put Betong on the international map.”
Mayor Somyod noted how Yala’s natural attractions complement the quaint tourist sites in and around town. Betong boasts a plethora of tourist attractions just outside the city, including Wat Phutthathiwas, the Betong Hot Springs, Winter Flower Garden, and the former communist stronghold at the Piyamit Tunnel.
Others within walking distance of the city centre include the Betong Museum, Clock Tower roundabout, the self-proclaimed world’s largest Post Box, and Betong Mongkollit Tunnel, the first and largest road tunnel in Thailand.
Mayor Somyod is also keen to promote Betong’s considerable culinary treats and position it as a city of gastronomy. He cites the toothsome convergence of Chinese, Muslim, and Southern Thai cuisines that the city is famous for. To be sure its street food is as tasty as any in Thailand, the city has a signature dish that it is very proud to promote: Betong Chicken.
This free range bird is beloved by owners and diners alike. Betong chickens cannot be raised on an industrial scale and are the essential ingredient in the Hainanese chicken style rice dish the town is famous for. So much so that the city even has towering statues and colourful street art celebrating its love for Betong chicken.
Both Thai officials are obviously banking on a tourist windfall when the new airport opens in 2020. Infrastructure that helps tourism development is always a good thing, as it means more income for local Thai communities.
However, for intrepid visitors still hungry to experience what it was like to travel Thailand 30 years ago, there is no better time than the present to experience the natural beauty of Betong and Yala province for what it is: one of the Kingdom’s last unseen destinations and a true hidden gem.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT) Newsroom. The TAT Newsroom does not assume any liability for the materials, information and opinions provided on, or available through, this web page. Details provided regarding travel in Yala, Pattani and Songkhla provinces are based on the best available information when the trip took place in April 2019.