On sea mermaids, treasures placed under boulders, a cat with a mouse on its tail, a single electric fan, Chinese communists far from home, the Kingdom of Langkasuka and other world changing issues.
by SeenThat on September 17, 2009
Known as "the Great City on Two Seas," Songkhla is unique among Thai towns. Despite being part of the fourth largest metropolitan area in Thailand – together with Hat Yai – and of being the provincial capital, the city retains its traditional ambience, reminding of a fishing village. Beaches, a large port and excellent facilities for travelers combine with its unique mixture of Thai, Chinese and Malay cultures to create a superb leisure destination. Another sign of its southern links is the city’s original name: Singora. Does that sound similar to "Singapore?" That’s not casual; both names are derived from Sanskrit and mean "City of Lions."Reaching the BeachSongkhla is simple to navigate; the main beaches are at its northeast, beyond two low hills. Despite being less flashy than Koh Samui, the turquoise waters and the looks of Hat Samila Beach, definitely belong to the Gulf of Thailand. Within the city itself – on its northern side - the Samila Cape houses the best and most popular beaches in the province. Hat Samila is the most popular among them; it is located on the gulf’s side, where the shoreline draws a hook on the map. Its features are well known due to the mermaid statue placed in a rock next to the waterline. Near it is one of a cat with a mouse on its tail, honoring two islands in front of the beach.The islands of Koh Nu and Koh Maew (Mouse and Cat) can be seen from the beach and are very popular for fishing activities. Legend says that a dog, a cat, and a mouse, traveling on a sampan stole a magic crystal and tried to swim ashore. The cat and the mouse drowned on the way and created the island, while the dog died on the shore and became Khao Tang Kuan, a hill offering excellent views of the area. The crystal became the white beach of Hat Sai Kaeo.Khao Tang Kuan is a hill next to Samila Beach. It can be climbed with a cable car; though a long staircase is also available. Beyond the sights, the hill includes the Sala Vihan Daeng Royal Pavilion built during the reign of King Rama V and a Dvaravati cheddi with Buddha’s relics dating back to the Nakhon Si Thammarat Kingdom.A Rocky Beach with Hidden treasuresKhao Kao Seng is located south of Hat Samila, on the next hook drawn by the shoreline. Beyond being emptier than Hat Samila, it features large boulders on it. Some of them are told to hide treasures beneath them with spirits guarding them.Songkhla Lake"The Great City on Two Seas" is a wrong name; Songkhla is on a cape trapped between the sea and a lake. Songkhla Lake is the largest in Thailand; it is about 80 kilometers long and 25 kilometers wide. A small population of Irrawaddy Dolphins lives in it. Its freshwater gets brackish near the mouth connecting it to the Gulf of Thailand, but it is still worth a visit. Boats depart from the wharf behind the post office and the fresh market. Next to the pier is the Laem Sai Estuary Fortress, which was built in the early 19th century.Several islands create beautiful sights, while the Tinsulanond Bridge spans the lake and is part of Road 408. The longest concrete bridge in the country is made of two parts, both connecting on the Ko Yo Island. Despite being tiny, the island is popular with travelers due to its two products: jampada, a local variety of jackfruit, and hand-woven fabrics with complex designs that make good gifts.AccommodationsThe Amsterdam Guesthouse next to the intersection of Thanon Rong Muang with Thanon Saiburi is a basic choice; around the corner, on Thanon Saiburi, is the Sooksomboon 2 Guesthouse, which offers rooms with private bathrooms and air-conditioners. On Temples and Buddha RelicsThe most important Buddhist temple of the province is Wat Matchimawat (also named Wat Klang), located on Saiburi road within the city. The complex is about 400 years old and includes Wat Liap on its north boundary and Wat Pho to the south. Within it is the Phattharasin Museum; its collection includes various artifacts from the area.Wat Chai Mongkhon is at the very center of downtown, between the Phet Mongkhon and Chai Mongkhon roads. The first street is named after another temple located on the near Wat Chai Mongkhon. This temple is highly revered due to a Buddha relic brought from Sri Lanka in the 19th century.City PillarSongkhla’s City Pillar - located on Nang Ngam Road, near Wat Matchimawat and the lakeshore - is one of the town main attractions. In sharp contrast to similar shrines across Thailand, it is housed within a low, Chinese-styled pagoda. The pillar itself is unusually covered with Chinese silk. Within the same compound is a Chinese opera stage. All this should remind the traveler that a significant part of the denizens are of Chinese ancestry.International IssuesBeing the province an important gate to Malaysia, its capital is home to three consulates: Indonesia, China and Malaysia. Not surprisingly, the three of them are at walking distance from the Samila Beach.FoodFew things compare to sampling foreign food while sitting by its hometown beach. Songkhla offers an eclectic culinary mix which includes also exotic fruits. I already mentioned in this entry the jampada fruit, but also the sapodilla is local, being grown in one of the lake’s islands. Popular also in Central Laos, this oval, brown fruit is exceptional in Thailand for its always being eaten ripe and sweet. For those disliking sour and spicy fruits, this is the perfect alternative. It makes superb shakes.Another local hit is seafood, especially fish crackers (called "keropok" in Malay) typical of the area. For the most adventurous travelers, pickled wedge-shellfish is recommended. The dish is prepared by placing the cleaned shellfish under a thick cover of salt for a few days and is best consumed with large amounts of liquids.MuseumsIf feeling too spoiled after a few days at Hat Samila, the town offers also more serious cultural attractions. Songkhla National Museum, on Chana Road and near the lakeside, occupies the former Songkhla ruler’s mansion. Built in Chinese style, it houses a collection of local arts and crafts, including Thai and Chinese ceramics. Except for Mondays, Tuesdays and holidays, it is open between 9 AM and noon and then from 1 to 4 PM. The establishment charges a low entrance fee.Nearby – on the same road – is the Phathammarong Museum. This one occupies a typical Thai structure, it resembles the house of a local that became Prime Minister, and houses a more contemporaneous collection. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, between 8:30 AM and 4 PM, entrance is free.
Kingdom of LangkasukaLangkasuka was an early Malay kingdom founded at Kedah and later moved to Pattani, in modern Thailand. The modern Province of Songkhla was part of this kingdom. Langkasuka means "Resplendent Land" in Sanskrit.Apparently the kingdom was founded in the second century, but the earliest external reference to it is in Chinese records when it was called Lang-ya-xiu during the sixth century. A Chinese Buddhist monk visited it back then and described the kingdom’s capital city as being surrounded by walls, having double gates, towers and pavilions. In year 515, King Bhagadatta of Langkasuka established relations with China.By the 12th century, the kingdom became a tributary of the Srivijaya Kingdom. The last was quite different from other empires and kingdoms in the area because it dominated mainly coasts and maritime trade routes. In the beginning, it controlled the trade routes of commodities grown out in the Musi River Basin. The main products were camphor, aloes, cloves, sandal-wood, nutmegs, and cardamom, though various metals were included in this golden basket. Afterwards it began expanding and gained control over the Sunda Strait from Palembang and the Malacca Straits from Kedah. This part of the Silk Road controlled much of the trade between China and India. Charging a toll on passing ships, the kingdom accumulated wealth of mythical dimensions.By the twelfth century, the kingdom included parts of Sumatra, Ceylon, the whole Malay Peninsula (including Songkhla, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Surat Thani and other locations within modern Thailand), Western Java, Sulawesi, the Moluccas, Borneo, the Philippines (the Visaya Islands in the central Philippines were named after the kingdom), and the Sulu Archipelago. Its core was the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Java. However, the Indian Chola invasion and the sedimentation of the river connecting its capital – Palembang – with the sea, sealed this kingdom’s fate.The city of Nakhon Si Thammarat became a kingdom controlling much of the northern Malay Peninsula after the fall of Srivijaya. Songkhla, Surat Thani and Chaiya became part of this kingdom as tributary states. In parallel, Nakhon Si Thammarat was suzerain of the various Thai kingdoms (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Thonburi and the modern one); thus Songkhla and other parts of former Langkasuka entered the Thai sphere of influence.During the troubled 18th and 19th centuries, when Thailand (or the Kingdom of Siam as it was called back then) was under threat by the Burmese from the west and the French from the east, Songkhla was of little importance and retained a certain degree of suzerainty. In 1893 the French used border disputes to provoke a crisis with Thailand. French gunboats appeared at Bangkok, and demanded the cession of territories east of the Mekong. King Chulalongkorn appealed to the British, but these offered no significant help, though they made an agreement with France guaranteeing the independence of the rest of Siam. This event precipitated the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 that fixed the borders between the British Empire and Siam and gave Siam a much needed recognition as an answer to the French expansionism. In that treaty, Songkhla was formally annexed to Thailand.The next time Songkhla City was part of significant events in Thai history was in December 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Army landed there and in other Thai cities.PopulationTaking in account these events, the presence of a significant Malay minority in the province – and in all of southern Thailand is clear. However, the cultural reality of Songkhla is more complex since a large and influential Chinese community exists.Many immigrants from Guangdong and Fujian arrived here during the 18th century and became the major economic force in the province. In 1769, one of these families – named Na Songkhla - became the governor of the province for eight generations until 1901. The former Na Songkhla family house has become the Songkhla National Museum and can be visited in Songkhla City.And Hat Yai?During most of these events, Hat Yai was a very small village. However, when the railway crossed the area and the town became the junction connecting Bangkok, Songkhla and Malaysia, it began growing rapidly until it became the main city in the province.
If advancing from Bangkok Index southwards, it is impossible to ignore the growing amount of mosques in each city. The same is truth if reading the news about the area in recent years. Songkhla Province borders Malaysia and is home to a substantial Muslim population that reaches about a quarter of the total population. Yet, it is still a predominantly Buddhist area. Thai is still the main language, though it is spoken faster and with less emphasis on the tones than in other areas of Thailand.The Greater Hat Yai - Songkhla Metropolitan Area would be the focus of most visits to the province since it includes cultural and natural attractions. In fact this is a long corridor between two cities: Hat Yai, a large commercial center and Songkhla, the provincial capital. Hat Yai is mainly a weekend shopping and entertainment destination for tourists from Malaysia and Singapore, while Songkhla is a port city with awesome beaches. Overall the metropolitan area has a population of about a million and is the fourth in size in Thailand.Other point of interest in the province is the border with Malaysia, which allows renewing the Thai visa.A point to keep in mind is that Songkhla Province was a very secondary scene of the recent troubles in the southern provinces. The only signs of them are the decrease in the number of visitors and an increase in the number of soldiers posted in the area. Visiting it is safe.Khao Nam Khang National ParkDue to its tropical climate, proximity to the sea and rugged terrain, Songkhla features several parks. One of them is special. Khao Nam Khang National Park combines nature with history. It occupies a mountain range next to the border with Malaysia; due to the tropical climate, these low mountains are covered by a lush forest which includes species like Malacca teak, bamboo, orchids, ferns, and others. Tapirs, wild pigs, bears, barking deers, various monkeys, and other animals occupy the area, though spotting them is difficult. The area is home to many birds, to the point of resembling an open version of Singapore’s Jurong Park; bird watching is a popular activity among visitors.The lush nature surrounding the main attraction can be found elsewhere in southern Thailand, but the Chinese Tunnels are unique. They were built by Chinese Communist Fighters between 1972 and 1978. After they surrendered to the Thai in 1987, the tunnels were renovated and in 1997 where opened as an historical attraction. The site is run by former soldiers. Including three different corridors and levels, the tunnel reaches a depth of forty meters and is roughly a kilometer long, making it the longest in the country. Sixteen entries served it; some of them demanded climbing upwards because part of the tunnel was within a hill. Several rooms along it could accommodate up to 200 people and served various purposes, including a firing range, radio transmission facilities, living and meeting quarters and more. The resemblance to the Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City is striking.Khao Nam Khang is very accessible; head south from Hat Yai throuh National Highway 4 – the highway reaching Malaysia. After Sadao turn left into a narrow road crossing the park until the offices are reached. A four wheels drive car is the best option for traveling the road crossing the park. The offices collect the entry fee and provide detailed information on the park attractions.Timing the VisitAs in most of Thailand, boat races – named Chak Phra Festival - can be enjoyed during Ok Phansa (the end of the annual 3-month Buddhist Rains Retreat), usually celebrated between mid-October to mid-November. In Songkhla it includes additional events like a run up the Khao Tang Kuan hill.The Thai New Year (Songkran) is celebrated in April or May, mainly by wetting people walking down the street with water.A festival specific of the area is the Boon Sad Dean Sib Festival – in August - when denizens honor their ancestors in the temples and prepare special dishes for the event. In September or October, the Thai-Chinese present their offerings to the moon, or Queen of the heavens, at the Chinese Lunar festival.Lak Phra is held on the new moon in the eleventh lunar month, around October. A large cloth is wrapped around the top of the cheddi on Khao Tang Kuan and in the morning of the festival, alms (tak bat thewo) are offered to monks at the foot of the hill. If speaking of cultural issues, it is worth mentioning Nang Talung, the southern Thai variation of shadow puppets shows. Puppets prepared from animal hides are placed against white screens and in front of a bright light so the audience sees their shadows and hears a story told by narrators. The same shows can be enjoyed in Nakhon Si Thammarat.
1. Timing TravelCertain aspects of the Thai culture can be enjoyed only while travelling at night. Many travelers are reluctant to do so; they prefer to see the landscapes during the day, or to save time by flying to the destination. I understand the first group, but the second one gives up to one of the greatest joys in travel. A traveler must adapt to constantly changing surroundings. Thailand is a long country; many fresh products are constantly moved between its extremes. The northern parts expect to get fresh sea food on a daily base, while the central parts want to get exotic flowers that can grow only in the north.That means that a substantial part of the population works or gives services to the transport industry. The last works mainly at night, so that the products arrive early in the morning at their destination. Denizens also prefer to travel between far away destinations at night, for the same reason. The result was the development of a unique night culture.For the international traveler that’s an opportunity. Taking an easy day at one of Bangkok’s shopping malls and then arriving at the bus terminal during the late afternoon allows buying a ticket in a comfortable VIP bus to any one of the country’s extremes. Air conditioners, wide windows, comfortable coaches, snacks and coffee make sure the trip would be pleasant.Moreover, the buses stop at least for one meal in a night market along the way. Those are open all the night and offer meals, snacks and souvenirs to passers-by. These cater mainly for the local population and offer thus sights and products the traveler would find hard to find elsewhere.It’s not only that – or the stunning views of illuminated pagodas and city gates along the way – but also the fact that at night, the Thai weather is at its best. It is still warm, but not suffocating. The sights can be enjoyed without the bright sun of the tropical days. Located in the far south, Hat Yai and Songkhla offer a golden opportunity for a night trip out of Bangkok.2. Traveling to the End of the (Thai) WorldFew places are easier to reach in Thailand: take Highway 4 from Bangkok and travel almost to the end of the line. 950 kilometers after leaving the metropolis, the end of the Thai World is almost reached and Hat Yai appears. Further away along this road is the Sadao - Bukit Kayu Hitam Pass to Malaysia.The other main location reviewed in this journal – Songkhla City – is reached by traveling northeast from Hat Yai through road 414. Both cities are part of the same metropolitan area.RailwayHat Yai has an international railway station, handling trains arriving from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. This station caused Hat Yai to become the largest city in the province.Four railways lead out of Bangkok; they are called according to the direction they travel to: Northern, Northeastern, Eastern and Southern, the last is connected to the Malaysian railways and passes through Hat Yai. Daily rapid and express trains depart to there at 5:35 PM and 7:30 PM respectively. The railway connecting the last with Songkhla has been discontinued.Located on Rama IV Road, Rongmuang, Bangkok’s Hualampong Railway Station is easy to find; nowadays there is a Metro station right at its door, Bangkok's Chinatown is across the highway.The services are divided into regular trains, rapid trains, express trains, and the Sprinter or special express train; they offer 3rd class, 2nd class sleeping, 2nd class and 1st class sleeping cars with or without air-conditioning. The trains are rather old; traveling across Thailand by bus is faster.The State Railways of Thailand's International Express leaves Hat Yai for Butterworth in Malaysia daily at 5:50 AM. In the other direction, trains leave Butterworth at 1:15 PM and arrive at 5:30 PM. Other options for traveling directly from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur exist.AirSeveral daily flights connect Hat Yai with Bangkok and Phuket. As with most other domestic locations in Thailand, reserving seats is not necessary. Being an international airport, it is connected to Singapore.Taxis connect the airport with Hat Yai and Songkhla. The airport is near downtown Hat Yai. A point to keep in mind is that it is located southwest of the town and thus away from Songkhla. Thus it is highly recommended to stop at Hat Yai before reaching Songkhla.BusBangkok’s EndHat Yai and Songkhla can be comfortably reached with air conditioned buses from Bangkok’s Southern Terminal. Please note that the terminal was moved in recent years further away from Thonburi’s center. It can be reached with bus 4 from the Victory Monument or with a taxi. The bus 4 trip to the terminal costs a staggering thirty baht as compared to the regular seven baht fare; to that, the transport to the Victory Monument should be added. The Skytrain has a station at the Victory Monument.From Hat Yai and SongkhlaHat Yai’s bus terminal serves buses to Bangkok and main destinations in Southern Thailand: Nakhon Si Thammarat, Surat Thani and Phuket enjoy good connections. The same is truth for Songkhla. In Hat Yai, the bus terminal is southeast of downtown; hence, using the stop by the clock tower, next to the Night Market, is recommended.The main lines from Hat Yai are:Nakhon Si Thammarat: Buses leave during the day (between 73 and 102B, 4h).Bangkok: A regular bus leaves at 07:00 (315B, 13h), while the VIP leaves at 15:00 (830B, 13h).Surat Thani: Buses leave during the day (between 160 and 207B, 5h).Padang Basar (Malaysia): air-con minibus tickets are available at the Cathay Guesthouse (220B); the share taxis cater mainly to the Malaysian and Singaporean tourists.Frequent minibuses and buses connect Hat Yai with Songkhla. Within the towns, the best way to move around is with songthaew trucks.Bus services to Kuala Lumpur, Penang and other destinations in Malaysia exist, including minivans reaching just the border. The last serve mainly travelers wishing to renew their Thai visa.
Where is the "Small Beach?"Thai names are always interesting, throwing light into fascinating aspects of this culture. Hat Yai means "Beach Big" while the city doesn’t feature any beaches. Ironically, awesome beaches are nearby, on the provincial capital - Songkhla - whose name is not related to beaches in any way.Yet, logic is not completely void. If there is a "Big Beach," then a small one should exist somewhere; accordingly "Hat Lek" is the southernmost border cross between Thailand and Cambodia.The Big CitySo, there is no big beach, but at least a big city exists. Songkhla is one of these rare Thai provinces in which the provincial capital is not the main city in the province.An important national highway and the railway to Malaysia cross Hat Yai and transformed it into the largest town in the province. Together with Songkhla – the formal provincial capital – it forms one large metropolitan area, one of the largest in the country and the only one in southern Thailand.How come there is such a large city on the kingdom’s corner?The Gate to Malaysia - Hat Yai - is the main access point to Malaysia and Singapore from Thailand; many tourists from these countries enter Thailand from here. The town caters mainly to Singaporean and Malaysian tourists entering mainly during the weekends. Consequently, the prices here reflect more the economic reality in those countries than the Thai one.AttractionsMunicipal ParkA few kilometers out of downtown, along the road to Songkhla is the large municipal park. It includes green areas, a small lake with a pavilion on an island, a shrine on a hill, and several statues, including those of King Rama V and of Guan-yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy.Wat Hat Yai NaiThis province features few important Buddhist temples. The most important one in Hat Yai is Wat Hat Yai Nai on Phetkasem Road, near the Khlong U Taphao Bridge. Its distinction is due to Phra Phuttha Hattha Mongkhon, a reclining Buddha statue which is the third largest in the world.Markets, Food and SouvenirsMarkets always offer a faithful taste of the local culture. The unique cultural mix of Hat Yai created a very special market experience, especially due to the street food, which features Thai, Chinese and Malay qualities blended to perfection. The preferred local breakfast is called "kow yam;" it is made of dry rice with grated toasted coconut, bean sprouts, dried shrimps, lemongrass and the obvious chili. Another local dish is "gang tai plah," a curry made with fish stomach, pickled bamboo shots, green beans and potatoes.Hat Yai has many places serving Malay and Chinese dishes; the Night Market – northwest of the center, just before the municipality junction - is the perfect place for experiencing the fusion cuisine.Kim Yong Market – on Suphasamrangsan corner Phetkasam – is a popular market in downtown offering food, house ware, electronics and gifts. A similar market located south of it – on Nipat Utid 1, 2 and 3 roads – is the very similar Suntisook Market.A few modern shopping malls are located nearby. The Robinson Department Store is on Thamanoonvithee corner Nipat Utid 1. Lee Garden Plaza – on Prachathipat Road, next to the Regency Hotel – is the most upmarket shopping mall in town; it houses popular restaurants like Sizzler, Swensens and fast food outlets among others. A multiplex cinema, karaoke booths, music and book shops complete the picture on the cultural angle. Near it is the Central Department Store – not very different from its larger branches in Bangkok. Ironically, there is a Top’s supermarket in its basement. South of there – on Sripoovanart Road and not far from the main bus terminal – is the Dianna Department Store, which is a great place to visit while waiting for a long distance bus. Few bus terminals in Thailand can claim high-quality coffee can be enjoyed nearby.Other AttractionsIt is difficult to pinpoint other urban attractions for the traveler in town. Despite its size, Hat Yai displays a provincial town ambience, with many buildings dating to the early twentieth century or built in the mixed Thai-European style typical of that era. On the northwestern corner of Phetkasem Road (it draws a curve) there is an attractive fountain, and a block south of it – still on the same road – is a clock tower. Klong Toey is a canal running within downtown and featuring a notable number of curves; exploring downtown by walking along it is an impressively bad idea.AccommodationNext to the bus terminal are a hotel and a guesthouse, but they are of low quality and far from the centre. The best deals are around Thanon Thamnoonvithi, the avenue leading to the train station, though even them are not great deals; Hat Yai is distinctively more expensive than most of Thailand.The many tourists crossing the town mean that finding a suitable bed may be difficult, especially during weekends. If in troubles, the Cathay Guesthouse, at the corner of Thanon Thamnoonvithi with Thanon Niphat Uthit 2, provides basic rooms and has one (#330) which was transformed into a very basic dormitory, which costs 100B per night. The dormitory is hot and damp, the beds are too crowded and a small, single electric fan in the room provides no relief; the toilets are of the kneeling type and the shower has no hot water. The point of light is the reception area that doubles as a café and information centre; the information available here is invaluable and justifies a visit even if not planning a stay.Should I stop in such a town?With some of the best beaches in the country less than an hour away, the border cross to Malaysia nearby and several national and provincial parks in the surroundings, Hat Yai seems to lack any real appeal for the traveler. Regardless his – or her – taste, something attractive is awaiting near the town but not quite in it. Yet, this southern travel hub is an attraction by itself; offering views of a traditional Thai town, good food and a peaceful break in the race after attractions.
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