Songkhla: a hidden gem in Southern Thailand

Given that this time last week I actually hadn’t heard of Songkhla, it was always likely to hold some surprises. Thankfully, unlike the vast majority of 2020, Songkhla turned out to a very good surprise indeed.

Our weekend in Songkhla was a typically last minute affair liberally sprinkled with my usual lack of planning and forethought. We’d originally intended to head to the cool climes of the north for the latest long weekend – it transpired that a lot of folks had the same plan. With Thailand’s borders still locked up tight, we had to look elsewhere for a good getaway, and I’m so glad that we looked south to Songkhla.

Songkhla is a small city which clings to a tapering spit of land in the far south of Thailand. Bordered on the east by the South China sea and on the west by Songkhla lake, it’s a naturally picturesque and diverse setting. Despite being a far flung 1000km from Bangkok, Songkhla is really easy to get to – there are multiple, cheap flights daily to and from both Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi from Hat Yai airport.

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A storm over Hat Yai meant our plane was unable to land, and we spent a good 15 minutes circling low around the area before touching down in a great plume of spray on the runway. After this slightly nervy start it was plain sailing onward to Songkhla. The best bet is one of the taxis out to the front and left of the airport exit. They say that they are metered, but from the airport to Songkhla city is a flat 500 THB and takes around 40 minutes, unless your taxi driver takes a gigantic detour for petrol like ours did.

The drive is scenic but standard – a green hill here, an angry buffalo there, general lunacy behind every wheel. We chatted away to the taxi driver in our broken Thai, and got a strong inkling that – even pre-Covid – they didn’t see too many westerners in these parts which the next couple of days did nothing to dispel.

Into the Old Town of Songkhla

What was immediately obvious on arrival into Songkhla Old Town was that Songkhla deserves to be much more on the radar than it is today. After getting thoroughly lost in the small lanes and alleys of the old town, we bundled out of the taxi at our hotel – Baan Nai Nakhon.

Located right in the heart of the old town, this old four storey building is part hotel, part living museum and part art gallery. The owners are probably the most welcoming we’ve met in Thailand – our room was beautifully designed and on top of that, the breakfasts they served us in the quiet courtyard garden were the best I’ve had, anywhere. The cost? 1,500 THB a night, or about 30 quid, for both of us including breakfast. If you’re looking for accommodation in Songkhla, look no further than Baan Nai Nakhon.

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Songkhla is a peach of a place. We found it both completely unique and reassuringly familiar. It’s a blend of recognisable things which melt together to make something brand new. The Chinese shophouse style buildings and shrines take us to the back streets of Yaowarat. The spectacular hilltop views and ramshackle wooden houses have a hint of Luang Prabang. In the mid-afternoons when the pace of life moves from slow to standstill – all quietness, dusty alleys and buildings shuttered against the heat, you could even be in a Spanish village.

That’s not say Songkhla is some dull backwater, far from it. After a concerted effort over many years, the old town especially is a visitor’s delight. It’s a small area easily covered on foot, with three parallel roads criss-crossed by alleys. Many of these alleys have been decorated with a wide range of street art from classic scenes to contemporary art, often in the most obscure places, making for a good treasure hunt.

Next to the street art is the architecture itself, from lumpy, rickety wooden piles to stately blocks of well to do concrete.

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I am usually more interested in the contents of a building than the exterior, and Songkhla comes up trumps again here. The old town is littered with tiny little cafes, 100 year old ice cream parlours, and good restaurants serving up dishes which reflect the wide mix of cultures that call Songkhla home.

Eating and drinking in the old town

On the cafe front, be sure to check out Ong Heap art cafe on Nakhon Nai road (closest to the lake) for both great coffee and a very cool setting. Studio 55 by the lake also looked great for the discerning coffee snob.

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For the food fans, we absolutely loved the Malay/Indonesian influenced Makan on Nang Ngam road where we had nasi lemak, massaman/rendang and fried chicken unlike any I’ve ever had – cooked with curry powder and lemongrass. There are no photos because it disappeared too quickly, and our feast cost a paltry 380 baht.

Stop in from the heat at Iew’s ice cream, also on Nang Ngam just next to Baan Nai Nakhon. This near-ninety year old ice cream shop, still run by the daughter of the original owner who must be well into her 80s, serves up coconut ice cream with cocoa powder and a sweet egg yolk topping. That may not sound great but it is.

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Head towards the southern end of Nang Ngam, towards the mosque, for some excellent roti served from street carts in the late afternoon. Roti Ama, at the end closest the lake, did a divine crispy roti with condensed milk and brown sugar. One dish we didn’t manage to try is khao mun gaeng gai, a speciality of these parts we were told. The shops in this area all seemed to sell it judging by the signs.

The reason we didn’t manage to try it was because they were all closed. This highlights another quirky feature of Songkhla: it hasn’t realised it’s a tourist destination. Songkhla has tons to enjoy, but it hasn’t developed in the professionalised way of many towns. It was a Thai public holiday when we visited, so a bunch of the restaurants were closed for their own holiday. For most destinations, a long weekend is a chance to cash in, but in Songkhla that mindset is yet to set in fully, and the town is better for it in my opinion. It sits in this very pleasant middle ground – plenty to do but not very developed.

It has everything a tourist would want, but is not touristy. People were surprised to see non-Thais to the point where they beeped horns, waved, said hello and stopped for a chat on a regular basis. There is a massive, picturesque lake just feet away from the main strip in the old town, but only two small paths and a couple of cafes with terraces from which to see it, the rest still supporting a variety of marine industries. One of these, Cafe Der See, is also a great evening spot next to the lake for dinner and drinks with a wide range of southern curries. Restaurant 2549 is also well-regarded for fiery southern Thai fun.

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Your other option for evening entertainment is the Blue Smile cafe, stacked with art, rambling staircases and boasting a rather lovely roof terrace for a beer or two. They also have live music downstairs.

Chatting to the owners of Baan Nai Nakhon, we learned that the tourism to Songkhla has historically been almost exclusively Thai. This has insulated them from Covid to a degree, but they were keen to spread the message to other travelers that Songkhla is here and ready to welcome you with open arms. The south of Thailand has had its fair share of recent violence which likely puts a lot of would-be visitors off, but Songkhla and its surrounding distrcits are seen as a safe place to visit.

Monkeys and Mermaids

Outside of the old town’s charming jumble of buildings, you can get a sense of Songkhla’s natural beauty. A 15 minute walk brings you to the foot of Tangkuan Hill, and a huffing 10 minute climb brings you to the top of the naga-banded staircase. Even on the way up the views back over Songkhla Lake are quite something.

At the top, you’ll be treated to the full HD glory of Songkhla’s geography, bordered by sea to one side and lake the other.

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A big family of monkeys live at the top waiting for snacks from passers by, but we didn’t find them aggressive at all. A lot of the time it just looked like they were queuing patiently for the cable car down the other side.

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Said cable car – or possible funicular – pops you out very close to Samila Beach, where you can stop for a seafood lunch at one of the many beachfront restaurants, see the mermaid and cat and mouse statues, or just dip your toes in the water and watch people ride small, sturdy ponies up the beach.

This all amounts to a decent stretch of the legs, but in 5 minutes you can be back in the heart of the old town using Grab or any of the tiny songthaews that whizz around town.

On the way back to the airport the (same) taxi driver performed a neat flip of the usual tourist trope – he asked for a picture with us, which sort of sums up how far off the radar Songkhla is. It surely can’t stay off the map forever.

We managed to pack all this into under 48 hours but you could easily spend a few days just relaxing in Songkhla and taking your time. Even in doing a lot we felt refreshed and relaxed after our short trip. The combination of great people, food and visual appeal makes this town unique, and it’s hard to believe it’s not better known. As a weekend break option in Thailand, Songkhla ticks all the right boxes.


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Mark Burton
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