Hat Yai and Songkhla are very closely linked but if they are twins they were separated at birth and brought up very differently. Songkhla is everything that Hat Yai isn't, and vice versa, with Hat Yai having most of the vice and Songkhla having most of the versa.
Hat Yai is dirty, brash, aggressive and frenetic. Songkhla is the cleanest Thai town I have ever visited; it's quiet, peaceful and actually quite pretty.
This is not by accident. The Thais have identified certain locations they wish to protect from tacky tourism and commercialism and Songkhla is one of them. One local told me it has nothing to do with the fact it is Prem Tinsulanonda's home town.
I don't believe this for a minute and feel certain that Prem's influence has gone a long way in making Songkhla what it is today, but that is a good thing.
Many Thais live in Songkhla and work in Hat Yai, or perhaps live in Hat Yai and study in Songkhla. For this reason, hundreds of buses and minivans travel between the two towns every day. There used to be a train that served this route but it was discontinued many years ago.
It's never a problem travelling between the two places up until around 7pm or 8pm, as there are frequent minivans and buses.
Being the administrative centre for Songkhla province, there are lots of government buildings, as well as schools and universities. There are also lots of temples. These buildings are located on wide, clean streets with little traffic and flowers everywhere.
Equally significant is what Songkhla doesn't have. Most conspicuous by their absence are any large supermarket chains. The citizens of Songkhla don't want these kind of places and are happy to make the journey to Hat Yai when they need to shop.
In fact, there aren't really any large shops in Songkhla at all - just small shops and traditional markets. You also won't find massage shops every 10 yards or shops that have been set up purely for tourists - as you will find in Hat Yai.
There is a small nightlife industry in Songkhla and to a certain extent it is driven by the local oil industry which employs a lot of foreign workers.
Something significant that Songkhla has, compared with Hat Yai, is a beach and some coastline. To be honest, it doesn't compare with certain parts of the Andaman coast in terms of beauty but the beach is clean and some days the sea does actually look quite blue.
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Historically, this area was home to many Chinese and Muslims and you will still find areas which have been predominantly settled by these two ethnic groups. One ex-governor was Chinese and his Chinese-style house is now the Songkhla National Museum.
Nowadays there are lots of Buddhist Thais and not an insignificant number of farangs but nothing on the scale of Phuket, Samui or Pattaya. Farangs living Songkhla, if they are not there as oil workers, tend to be those types who want a quiet life in Thailand. The town, with its many schools, also provides opportunities for English teachers.
It is a favourite day-trip retreat for people in the three troubled southern provinces. On the beach you will see lots of Muslims and if you speak with them - as I normally do - you will often find they come from Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.
They are just as tired of the ongoing problems as everyone else and take trips to Songkhla to escape the madness.
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There is a very active commercial fishing industry in Songkhla and if you pass anywhere near one of the fish canning factories on a hot day the overwhelming smell will make this quite evident.
From atop the hill on Ko Yo (a small island near Songkhla town) you will see thousands of enclosures in the surrounding sea where people buy small fish and grow them into large ones to sell.
Songkhla has many seafood restaurants, especially along Samila beach. There isn't much between them as far as the food is concerned but probably the most attractive restaurant is Samila Sea Sport (Tel. 074 327244-5).
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Things To Do
As I said, Songkhla is for people who like a quiet life. Occasionally, a banana boat drags people around but you won't find hundreds of jet-skis as you will at Pattaya or Patong.
Samila beach is very popular on Sunday evenings. People stroll along the beach road, eat seafood, and Thai teenagers like to cruise around on their motorbikes.
The National Museum I mentioned above is located in an interesting old Chinese house but it isn't the greatest museum in the world. Near the museum is part of the old city wall.
Nearby Ko Yo, which I also mentioned above, is a pleasant place. The Institute of Southern Thai studies is a far better museum than the one in Songkhla and I have covered it elsewhere in these pages. Ko Yo produces lots of fish and fruit, and there is also an active cloth weaving cottage industry.
Songkhla zoo (which I have also covered elsewhere) is a fantastic zoo in a fantastic location. The local government (so I am told) has plans to build a cable car system at the zoo but I suspect it will be many years before this happens - if at all.
The newly opened aquarium has been very well done and is worth a visit. It's not the largest aquarium you will ever see but they have a pretty good selection of fish.
One of my favourite areas is the old town, especially Tanon Naang Ngaam, which is full of old wooden houses and Chinese temples. Chinese lanterns are strung across the street and I believe the area is protected by a preservation order.
There are lots of small speciality shops selling such things as traditional, home-made Thai ice cream and sticky rice with mango. This dessert is only available when the mangoes are in season and the shops that sell it are so famous that people travel great distances to buy this sweet delicacy.
Tang Kuan hill has a Buddhist shrine at the top and a funicular railway to get visitors up and down. From the top of the hill there are good views of Songkhla. This area is also home to a large colony of monkeys. Vendors sell bananas and peanuts to feed them and it's good fun watching their antics.
The problem is that their main source of food now comes from human visitors. On a Sunday, when there are plenty of visitors and plenty of food, the monkeys are quite well behaved but on quiet days with few visitors and little food to go round they are hungry and can get quite aggressive.
I enjoy watching them but I am always a little on edge because they are wild, unpredictable animals with large teeth. You do not want to upset a full-grown male macaque, or even a female nursing a baby. The consequences could be pretty dire.
Treat them the same as you would any wild animal, be careful, and don't tease them - as I saw one Thai man doing.
Kao Seng is a small Muslim fishing village at the southern end of Samila beach which I enjoy visiting. The people there live simple lives that revolve around fishing. The men go out early for the catch while the women repair nets and prepare the fish ready to be sold.
The children in the village play simple games to amuse themselves and the sea is their playground. Muslims cannot touch dogs so Muslim areas of Thailand are one of the few places where you won't see hundreds of stray dogs. One small shop in Kao Seng is home to a large collection beautiful Persian cats.
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Maybe later I will add some specific details, if I have time, but for the time being here is an overview.
The main beach hotel is the BP Samila which offers sea view rooms for Bt1,250 a night and rooms with a view of the golf course on the other side for a little less. I have noticed a gradual deterioration in quality at the hotel since I first stayed there at the end of 2003 but it's OK and the location is convenient.
The Rajamangala Pavilion a little further down the coast is a smaller hotel with better rooms at cheaper prices but the location isn't quite as convenient. I have stayed at both hotels.
There are a number of small hotels in town as well as guest houses. Some backpacker type guest houses can be found next door to the National Museum.
It's not normally necessary to book but the large hotels host meetings and seminars fairly often which can limit room availability. You can try to get a discount but last time I stayed at the BP Samila I heard the receptionist talking to a farang on the phone who was trying his best to get a discount and she wouldn't budge on the price which she claimed was already discounted.
- BP Samila Beach Hotel and Resort
Address: 8 Rachadumnern Road, Songkhla, 90000
Telephone: +66 (0)74 440222
Fax: +66 (0)74 440442
Web Site: BP Samila Beach Hotel and Resort
- Rajamangala Pavilion Beach Resort
Address: 1 Ratjadamnoennok Road, Amphur Muang, Songkhla, 90000
Telephone: +66 (0)74 487222, 487081-4, 487438-50, 487352
Fax: +66 (0)74 487353
Web Site: Rajamangala Pavilion Beach Resort
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