A Side Trip to Songkhla, Thailand Is Worth Taking
By Teh Chin Liang
My face was fiery red, and thin lines of sweat trickled down my forehead, stinging my eyes. I walked into a noodle shop to escape the scorching heat.
Inside the shop, an oscillating fan creaked and lurched above my table, blowing hot air onto my already sweaty face.
Across the street, an imposing whitewashed stupa glistened in the midday sun. An ornate Buddhist temple sits behind the stupa, echoing the rhythmic chants of monks. The server brought forth a bowl of beef noodle soup. The aroma hit my nostrils and my stomach rumbled.
I dug in and slurped up the noodles. The meatballs exploded in a burst of juiciness. The hot soup flushed my already red cheeks. The flavors were like a party in my mouth, blending perfectly together. Enjoying a humble meal in this nondescript neighborhood is a delightful experience in Songkhla, a small yet culturally vibrant town on the east coast of Southern Thailand.
An Often-Overlooked Charming Town That Has So Much to Offer
Songkhla is the capital of Songkhla Province. It is a laid-back fishing town and a melting pot of Thai, Chinese, and Muslim cultures. From the 10th through 14th century, Songkhla was a thriving port with strong trade ties to Quanzhou, China.
In the 18th century, Songkhla witnessed a large influx of Chinese immigrants, primarily from Guangdong and Fujian provinces. This is evidenced by the abundance of exquisite Chinese-style buildings dominating the old town. The Thai government is contemplating proposing Songkhla to UNESCO as a World Heritage site due to its remarkable history and cultural wealth.
Yu Café: A Place to Calm Your Soul and Awaken Your Inner Senses
I stayed at Yu Café, an elegant guest house, and hostel located in a mansion-like building restored from a 50s-era building. An old-fashioned courtyard nestled in the center, shaded by willow trees and offers a sanctuary that promotes natural ventilation. The soft jazz playing from the speakers soothed my senses like a balm.
I was immediately swept off my feet by the charm of the place. I kickstarted my morning unwinding in the courtyard. I dozed off in the gentle warmth of the sun filtering through the lush foliage, but my senses were soon stirred awake by the symphony of chirping birds and the soft rustling of leaves.
When the courtyard warmed up in the sun, I headed to the common room, which is surrounded by open space, and enjoyed the company of friendly cats that would come close for a cuddle.
The cafe within the guest house offers an excellent selection of food and beverages, with their signature dish being the Red Curry Crab. The barista whipped up a cat-shaped froth atop my latte, as a tribute to the hostel’s cute feline residents.
A Diverse Range of Cafes Where You Can Kick Back and Relax
Speaking of cafes, Songkhla is teeming with numerous delightful cafes. Situated next door to my guest house is Lyn’s The Shanghai Café. This café is heavily inspired by ancient Chinese art.
The traditional paper lanterns festooned across the ceiling, adding a sense of nostalgia to the place.
Taking a seat by the window, I let the tunes of oldies carry me on a journey down memory lane. The cafe is a great place to relax and unwind. That was exactly what I did there: staring out the window, watching the world go by while taking hydrating sips of my bael juice until the waiter arrived with the bill and snapped me out of my reverie.
Studio 55 Songkhla is another cafe that grabbed my attention, especially with the wonderful buttery smell of pastries that greeted me the moment I walked through the door. A small garden sits at the back, adjacent to the beautiful Songkhla Lake – the largest natural lake in Thailand.
The air was a mix of the scent from the lake and the rustic smell coming from a barge moored along the bank. I climbed onto the barge to get closer to the lake. Shielding my eyes from the sunlight with my hands, I took in the sight of fisherman boats dotting the water in the distance.
Maze-Like Alleys of The Old Town
The old town of Songkhla is a labyrinth of narrow alleys. The captivating street art, depicting the simple, everyday life of the locals, makes the perfect backdrop for tourists to pose for photos. The old town is the best spot to soak up the authentic local life.
The town came to life at the crack of dawn. The narrow alleys hummed with energy as street vendors busily arranged their stalls, parents zipped their children to school on scooters, and devotees swarmed the City Pillar Shrine for prayers.
City Pillar Shrine is built during the era of Phraya Vichiankiri, with Its pillars made of Javanese cassia wood. I am not much of a walker, especially under the midday sun. Instead, I hopped on the Singora Tram Tour which took me on a scenic loop around Songkhla. A helpful tip: Be sure to book the ride in advance as tickets sell out fast!
A Museum Dedicated to Southern Thailand’s History
Outside of the old town, a white imperial Chinese-style mansion stands majestically on a busy road – It’s none other than the Songkhla National Museum. The museum’s red roof tiles and spiraling staircases exude regal elegance. Originally constructed in 1878, the building served a variety of purposes throughout the years, from a private residence for Songkhla’s ruler and upper administrative officers to a city hall.
The building was permanently transformed into a museum in 1953. The museum offers visitors a chance to learn the history of Songkhla. It’s recommended to set aside at least 2 hours to fully explore the museum’s collection and delve deeper into the town’s past.
I was drawn to the kaleidoscope of displays showcasing archaeological artifacts, folk arts, and crafts of Songkhla. My visit ended with a newfound appreciation and knowledge of this charming town.
The Beach Where Fairy Tales Come to Life
The salty sea breeze brought me to Samila Beach – an alluring sandy beach with an iconic Golden Mermaid statue. The statue was the creation of Chitr Buabusaya, Director of the Art & Craft College in Bangkok at the time. Legend has it that a long time ago, a local fisherman spotted a mermaid basking on the beach and brushing her hair with a comb made of gold.
Startled by the presence of a stranger, the mermaid plunged into the water, vanishing beneath the waves. Left behind on the beach was her golden comb, shimmering under the sun. The fisherman held onto the comb, hoping the mermaid would return to claim it. But she was never seen again.
The beach was bustling with activities – beachgoers frolicking in the frothy waves, families picnicking and children building sandcastles. Horse riding is a popular activity on the beach. With the guidance of the horse handler, I mounted the saddle and let the stallion trot me along the length of the sandy shore.
The 15-minute ride ended in front of the iconic mermaid statue, where a large crowd awaited their turn for a photo op with the statue As the sun descended over the horizon, I stole one last glance at the mermaid while strolling away from the beach.
Against the backdrop of the radiant hues in the sky, her voluptuous form sprawled among the sea rocks, and her hands running through her hair – in an almost hypnotic way. It was as if the mermaid had come alive off the pages of a fairy tale. I turned back and walked off, relishing the ephemeral moment of magic.
Night Market that Caters to All Tastes and Preferences
On my way back, I stopped by the weekend night market for dinner. Ahead, a wide expanse of fluorescent light spread out before me.
A long stretch of market stalls spanned for half a mile alongside the historic Songkhla Old City. Straw mats and low tables were spread across the sidewalks for visitors to sit and enjoy their meals.
I strolled through the food stalls and indulged myself with delectable meat skewers and grilled salmon. Deep-fried insects are a popular and traditional snack among the locals. I bought a small bag of deep-fried silkworms and crickets. Surprisingly, the taste was not as bad as what I thought it would be. It was a little crunchy and crispy, accompanied by a subtle nuance of nuttiness.
Amidst the bustling market, the melodies of traditional music wafted through the air as a local man expertly maneuvered two cut-out puppets behind a bright-lit screen, entertaining visitors with a captivating narrative performance.
Heartwarming Local Hospitality
While walking back to the guesthouse. A guesthouse worker who had just finished his shift saw me and pulled his car alongside me.
“Do you want a ride back to the guest house?” I took up his offer without a doubt. Feeling grateful, I couldn’t help but ask him if the locals are always this welcoming and friendly.
“Looking out for one another is part of our culture here.” He responded, accompanied by a subtle smile.
It was amazing how such a small act of kindness could make everything even more wonderful, especially when it culminated in the most memorable way to end a beautiful day in this picturesque town.
Songkhla is a hidden gem that is worth a visit. Add it to your itinerary when visiting popular beach destinations in the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand, such as Lipe Island, Trang, Krabi, Surat Thani or Samui Island, or simply stop by during your visa run to Malaysia.
Multiple pick-up van services are available all day long from Hat Yai (the third largest city in Thailand) to Songkhla, and vice versa. The fare is less than 100 baht ($3) for a one-way trip.