Heard of Songkhla? If you have, chances are you associate this province with Hat Yai, Southern Thailand’s largest metropolis. But Songkhla is also the name of a middle-sized city, located a mere 28km away, or 30 minutes car-drive, from Hat Yai.
Despite their proximity, the two cities are miles apart. Hat Yai has a population of a quarter million. It is brash, crowded, polluted and has very little charm with countless buildings showing the very worst of 70s and 80s architecture. It is, however, bustling with life, attracting Southern Thais looking for work and Malaysians, who come mostly for the cheap goods and fun. Songkhla City, by contrast, has a mere 80,000 inhabitants and seems to have been frozen in time, as if there was a need to redress the excesses of its bigger, brasher neighbour.
Don’t expect high-rise buildings, nor fancy shopping centres or trendy ‘hi-so’ shops. Instead, what you will find is a quiet city with a breezy coastal location (parts of it are nestled along the sea, face out towards the Gulf of Thailand, others back on to Thailand’s largest inner lake) and historic charm in spades.
Its old port was a busy centre of trading for 300 years. In the latter half of the 17th century, towards the end of the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya, Hokkien Chinese traders settled, bringing prosperity to the city. They then received the endorsement of various Thai Kings. Today, the heritage of these Chinese traders is still very much alive and Songkhla City can probably be considered the best preserved and most authentic Chinese enclave in all Thailand.
Some of the area’s old shophouses back to the King Rama III-era (around 1840). Most, however, were built eighty to hundred years ago, and – with their mix of western and oriental styles, wooden balconies and carved facades painted in fading colours – bear a striking similarity with the shophouses found in Penang and Phuket.The old quarter is demarked by Nang Ngam Road, Songkhla’s main street, as well as Nakhon Nai, Nakhon Nok, Yala, Yaring and Pattani streets. Walking between these roads, venturing into the old-school shops, is like entering a time-warp into a by-gone age. Restaurants with multi-coloured tiles are still cooled by their original fans; old ladies sell cakes in front of their houses; and more than a few coffee shops double up as antique shops. A few batik (traditional textile) workshops also survive.
Amidst this living heritage, there are a couple of structures not to be missed. In the heart of the old town stands Wat Matchimawat, a temple built during the late Ayutthaya period. The complex is an eclectic mix of styles, the main chapel (Phra Ubosot) decorated with exquisite frescoes depicting life in the old port. Nearby is the City Pillar shrine, a typical Chinese structure looking like a gate.
The most stunning building in the city centre, though, is the Songkhla National Museum (Wed-Sun 9am-4pm). Built between 1879 and 1894 in traditional Chinese-style, the former residence of Songkhla’s governor has recently been restored and now hosts a very comprehensive collection of art from across Southern Thailand.
Not all of Songkhla’s charms are man-made. There are also pristine beaches near the city centre – ones that have been spared the concrete eyesores that plague many a Thai coastal city. The only man-made element you are likely to come across, in fact, is likely to be on Samila beach, where bronze statues of a mermaid, and a cat and mouse, both inspired by Thai folklore, draw tourists with cameras.
What could be the secret of Songkhla City’s resilience to over development? Maybe it has something to do with General Prem Tinnasulanonda. The former Prime Minister and President of the Privy Council of Thailand, a body of appointed advisors to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is Muang Songkhla’s most famous citizen and the driving force behind Songkhla’s preservation. The Pathammarong Museum – a simple structure – displays memorabilia owned by him and his family.
Finally, a sojourn in Songkhla City could not be complete without spending a few hours exploring the neighbouring Island of Ko Yo. Located in the midst of Songhkla’s great lake, Ko Yo Island is populated by fishers’ communities who live in wooden houses with a distinct architectural style. Also, dominating the island in the vicinity of the Tinnasulanon Bridge, is the Institute of Southern Thai Studies. As well as a small museum depicting the lifestyles, folklore and customs of Southern people, it offers stunning views of the island and Muang Songkhla.
There is no question that the distance from Bangkok, lack of world class hotels and the slow-burning Muslim separatist violence that has plagued the region for years now (check your country’s travel advice so you can make an informed decision) are holding back Songkhla’s desire to become a major tourist destination. But, given the city’s history, culture and laid back character, it’s surely only a matter of time before this southern jewel gets to shine?