Exploring the back roads of Songkhla province by motorbike may be a good way to unveil some of the mysteries of this less-visited southern province.
by Marco Ferrarese.
“What shall we do now?” “Let’s continue North, I guess.”
We are waiting at the side of motorway 408, stranded under a blistering mid-day sun. Our motorbikes sputter like sick things with a bad case of bronchitis, and we wish we had taken a GPS with us. An empty country road, the same that took us out of Songkhla’s city center, onto a rickety ferry ride, and across farmland and pretty orchards until here, stretches onward to the horizon.
“Maybe we should turn back,” suggests my friend. But I don’t want to hear it. We set out to circle the lake of Songkhla, a massive body of water perched inland like a salty extension of Thailand’s Gulf. We both knew that it’s too much of a ride for a single day, and nevertheless we escaped the town heading for the ferry crossing.
Don’t get me wrong: visiting Songkhla was beautiful. We arrived on a bus from the bustling, Chinese influenced border town of Hat Yai, the gateway to Thailand’s extreme South – and famous Islamic extremist “danger zone.” What we appreciated most about Songkhla’s tiny, wellmanned alleys was the convivial atmosphere and the great absence of international tourists. Since the city’s pulse was rather slow during the day, we decided to wait until evening and check out the sea.
Songkhla, in fact, is laid on an isthmus flanked by the Gulf of Thailand to the East, and by the salty waters of the homonymous lake to the West. In the past, such a natural position helped the city establish itself as a crucial trading post for Indian, Persian and Arab sea routes.
Today, Songkhla remains one of the less visited beach destinations in the Southern Thai seaboard, partly because of the international travel advisories that do not recommend a visit to this part of the kingdom. And because, I suspect, one stone mermaid has cast a powerful magic over this sleepy province. We rent two automatic scooters to see if we can break her protective spell.
She sits on a boulder along Samilla Beach, proud, combing her hair in a braid. Behind her, an island soars from the calm waters as if it were the back of a colossal ostrich that’s hiding its head underwater. When we arrive, the golden mermaid statue burns hot in the sun, her beach kingdom all to ourselves. Along the road that snakes along the beachfront, hawkers simmer fresh fish over barbeque grills and prepare lemon juice with sour plum to quench the thirst. We spend the best part of the day zooming along the coast and checking out the empty beaches that encage Songkhla on both sides. Khao Kao Seng, three kilometers south of Samilla, strikes us with its crystalline waters and a boulder that balances over a bed of rock.
“It’s Hua Nai Raeng,” explains a food seller as she flips a charcoalblackened fish over its uncooked side. “Legend says that the treasures used to pay for the construction of the Chedi of Nakhon Si Tammarat were hidden under it.” Before we return to town, we wait for the sun to turn the world pink over gentle and calm waves.
At night, compact Songkhla town transforms into a smorgasbord of flowers, food, colors and relaxed locals who stroll among the stalls of a vibrant night market. Sitting for a bite along the road, we are surprised to see two other white women approach the seller to order their food. They look as disoriented as we are, without all of the English-written signs, reassuring tout-pestering and “easy tourist life” of many other Thai towns up north. Like us, they dared challenge the mermaid’s spell… and got lost.
“So, we continue riding along or not?” My friend’s voice brings me back to the heat of motorway 408. To my right, the ocean is a hazy string connecting earth and sky, and far ahead, the asphalt twists and shimmers.
I turn my throttle and speed along, taking him by surprise. We drive for a few kilometers until the curved roof of a temple that sits next to a fish farm distracts me. The place is so serene that I feel the impulse to continue driving off the main road, and I think I’ve been rewarded when we bumped into a group of friendly locals who, despite the language barrier, invite us to witness a forbidden pleasure: cockfighting. While excited men take turns betting on their favorite birds, we sit back to take all this testosterone in. For a moment, I think we have broken the mermaid’s protective spell, and unveiled one of Songkhla’s most authentic secrets. But I’m wrong: once we leave the ring, the sun’s about to set and we must steer wheels back to town. As expected, she has deceived us, steering us away from discovering the rest of Songkhla’s secrets.
How to get there: Daily bus service from Bangkok to Songkhla takes about 13 hours (Tel: 02 435 1199-200 or visit www.transport.co.th.). Trains leave from Hua Lumphong Railway Station for Hat Yai each day (travel time: about 17 hours (Call 1690, or 02 223 7020; www.railway.co.th). Several domestic and international air carriers from Thai and Asian cities fly to Hat Yai daily but there is no regular service to Songkhla.
Where to stay: No big international chain yet, but local hotels are clean and comfortable. Some recommendations include Narai Hotel; Chan Hotel; Viva Hotel; Lake Inn; Hat Kaeo Resort; Pavillion Songkhla Hotel; Green World Palace; B.P. Samila Beach Hotel and Resort. Check their websites for details.
Where to eat and drink: Dont miss the spicy Southern Thai food, which are easily available in many places. But you can also enjoy international food and local delicacies at hotels and restaurants. There are some clubs and bars too.