Where did the wild things go?
A 30-year time lapse between stays in Songkhla finds virgin beaches turned into banana boat chaos as well as a once tight-knit remote community overrun by a huge population influx and a building boom. James Eckardt remembers all that the wave of modernity has washed away
Every Sunday during my salad days in Songkhla I would march out onto the sands of Samila beach with the mighty Boontongs Bombers _ the Volleyball Team for Gentlemen _ whose blue shirts were emblazoned with our motto from Cicero: Otium Cum Dignitate which, if you remember your Latin, means Leisure with Dignity. We played the screaming hellions of Songkhla Nursing College, the tough Taiwanese construction chiefs of the new Songkhla Port, the Charming Hostesses of the Smile Bar, but our most common foes were the loathsome troglodytes of Songkhla's Hash House Harriers. Thus every Sunday was a battle of Good against Evil.
THE LADY LINGERS: The mermaid statue, the famous symbol of Samila, sits at the beach’s southern end. Beaches that were once empty for miles have since become crowded with tourists and hawkers.
We played Jungleball Rules which turns volleyball into a body contact sport _ mayhem with a net. You could fling your body up against the net and reach over to whack your opponent on the head. Most often, Good triumphed over Evil, leaving our foes weeping with frustration and chewing the sand. Then we'd swagger back to Boontong's cafe to wash off the sand and gather at a long table to hoist celebratory flagons of beer.
The kiddie contingent was headed by my little daughter Elizabeth. She was queen of the dek. Boontong's daughter Awm had a kiddie car which Elizabeth would commandeer. She would order the other kids to push her along the promenade to the Mermaid Statue, turn around and command: "Now push me back!" And, "YAAAAAAY!" screaming with joy, the kids would obey.
As night wore on, Elizabeth would grow tired. She'd grab my arm and hang her full weight from it, gazing up at me with big doleful eyes: "Papa, I want to go home."
"Can I just finish my beer and my cigarette?"
At other times, she'd be busy playing when I told her it was time to go home.
"No, Papa, have another beer. Have another cigarette."
modern Songkhla at night. Top right, a kite-seller at Samila beach.
The issue would be decided by the ringing of the big black telephone on the cashier's desk of Boontong's wife Pen. She would pick it up and tell my wife, "He just left." Hanging up, she'd say: "Jim, go home."
So my daughters Elizabeth and Linda would mount the back of my motorbike and I would head down the beach road. They would be singing and I would watch the silvery play of a full moon on the ocean waves. I'd listen to my own happy song which came not from inside my head but through the wind rushing past my ears. And I'd think: This is perfect felicity.
Those two little girls are 34 and 32 now. Those people gathered at the long table at Boontong's are all long gone. In 1992, after 15 years in my wife's hometown of Songkhla, I left to become a journalist in Bangkok. Now I'm back after 20 years. Songkhla has doubled in size and changed immensely. I think about how it was when I turned up first on a motorcycle from Malaysia in February, 1976.
Songkhla was a tropical Dodge City, dusty and made of wood. The better homes were tall Victorian mansions with wide verandahs with gingerbread trim. None of them survive today. There were no bars. If you wanted a beer at night, you went to the market and drew up a table by a food vendor's cart. One night a rampant stallion with a full metre-long erection came charging down the main street in hot pursuit of a mare. He crashed into a fruit stall to the vast amusement of everyone except the stall owner.
Cows wandered the streets too, but not bulls, especially fighting bulls. An old map of Songkhla shows a bull stadium on a field just back from the beach. This was before my time but every morning little boys would lead the fighting bulls down the beach for their morning exercise _ 30kg of kid leading two tonnes of bull. The owners would meet them, pouring honey atop mounds of choice grass. Nothing too good for our babies.
The beach was empty then, kilometre after kilometre of it, owned by the Royal Thai Navy. In the morning, the only people on the beach were a half dozen Muslim fishermen in skullcaps and faded sarongs. Standing motionless, lead-weighted throw nets at the ready, they scoped out signs of fish schools.
Suddenly springing into action, one would toss his net high in the air, forming a perfectly lethal dome as it splashed in the sea.
The water was gin clear. You could stand in it up to your neck and see the hairs on your toes. Here at dawn I taught my bride how to swim. Though she grew up in a fisherman's town, she didn't know how to swim. Many people didn't, including the fishermen. We'd play Thai boxing on the beach. Mem is a couple inches taller than five foot, I'm an inch under six. Still, she could sweep a roundhouse kick that nicked my chin. Useful info for future marital combat. We used to boast that we'd been married longer than World War II. Now we've surpassed the Thirty Years War.
tourists can enjoy views of the town from a cablecar above.
At the headland behind Songkhla's mermaid stood the three-star blockhouse of the Samila Hotel, its swimming pool often a putrid shade of emerald green. Around the corner was the Nai Wan, Boontong's father's restaurant; on Samila Beach itself was the son's along with six others. All featured low wooden tables and canvas deckchairs where sensible Asians cracked crabs and shunned the sun underneath the shade of casuarina pines.
A couple hundred yards offshore were coral-studded rocks. With masks, fins and snorkels, and a spear gun smuggled up from Singapore, Boontong and I would try our luck out there, most often settling for a bag of mussels. Later on, Boontong bought a longtail boat and we'd spend every Sunday morning hunting the reefs and rocks off Cat and Mouse islands for big game pelagic traffic: jacks, wahoos, sea bass.
Songkhla is basically a sandbar shaped like a pointing hand. The forefinger was a forest of casuarina pine. In the cool of the day, Mem and I would take the bike along the fishing harbour and out to the point ''to look the sun'', then swing round to Boontong's for shellfish and chicken foot salad, so hot that my southern Thai wife would have to aerate her tongue. Then it was early to bed in our traditional latticework wooden house up on stilts. Such was life in the early days.
The nexus of my life came to be Sadao Road: the US Consulate where I worked for 12 years and the Wandee School across the street where my kids started kindergarten.
A common sight in those days was a wizened samlor driver peddling eight or 10 of these little scholars in their pink smocks and plastic pith helmets. Wandee School has moved up from wood to sleek concrete and glass. The year after I left Songkhla, the American Consulate became the Chinese Consulate. On front of the building, all they had to do was replace the American eagle with the red star.
The recent history of Songkhla is largely told in its roads. A two-lane beach road once stretched from the Samila Hotel past two large empty fields and then stopped at the dirt track that led to the Muslim fishing village of Khao Saeng. The road's been widened to four lanes and runs all the way to the village and behind the headland to continue for many miles along the coast past the old Vietnamese refugee camp that has now been completely obliterated, huge fragrant fish factories and new beach resorts. Another road now runs along the lakefront and between them have grown a whole latticework of new streets.
There's a new zoo and water park and hilltop restaurant overlooking all of Songkhla, a funicular railway leading to the ancient wat atop Khao Noi, a proposed cable car across the harbour, a new aquarium, a nightly walking street market, a tourist trolley, a refurbished museum, a shopping mall. The little Samila Hotel has been replaced by the massive five-star Samila Beach Hotel. The beach that runs down to Khao Saeng has filled in with a sports stadium, parks, playgrounds and pavilions, a score of upscale restaurants, a new branch of Rajamangala University, the Rajamangala Songkhla Mermaid Hotel and the Rajamangala Pavilion Beach Resort. Those patient Muslim fishermen of yore have been replaced by water scooters and banana boats.
New apartment blocks tower everywhere whereas in my day nothing was taller than four stories. The population has doubled or maybe tripled. My wife attributes part of the influx to people fleeing the violence of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat to the south. A huge number of women now wear the hijab. A long time ago, Muslim schoolgirls from Pattani would wander Samila beach in their blue cowls and tunics and white sneakers, identical as so many penguins. Back then, there were plenty of Thai-Muslims in Songkhla town but they didn't dress the part.
There has also been a mysterious invasion of those flying rats known as nok pilap or pigeons. They menace Songkhla now in swarms numbering in the hundreds. There never were any pigeons 20 years ago. Mem speculates that someone brought the first pigeons here as pets. Like the Englishman who introduced rabbits to Australia.
The old casuarina forest on the point is mostly gone, devastated by both natural and man-made disasters. The trees seemed doomed to the fate of Sherwood Forest. The poor pine is now an endangered species.
The bars I knew are long gone. But that's the nature of bars. The first bar in Songkhla, the Sai Tong, opened in 1978. It was air-conditioned, with red-and-white checkered tablecloths centred by Chianti bottles with melted candles. We thought it was so cool. The Black Gold was the first bar dedicated to the Union Oil offshore rig workers, with cute waitresses in white short-shorts and black T-shirts As soon as the expat bosses and their Thai crews touched down by helicopter they made a beeline for the Black Gold. In its place is an internet coffee shop now.
The expats loved Thailand. Before they'd been working in such garden spots as Libya, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of Songkhla. A good many of the oil field trash are retired here now with their Thai wives and families. But the expat population has shrunk drastically from its heyday. A hundred people used to run the Songkhla Hash House Harriers. Now maybe 15 do. You can no longer buy Time or Newsweek in Songkhla but must taxi to the Central Department Store in Hat Yai. The old road was two lanes wide, hemmed in by rubber trees. Sometimes bad guys would cut a tree down and rob whoever came along. Now you don't see a rubber tree till until the outskirts of Hat Yai. The space has been filled in by urban sprawl and those ever fragrant fish factories.
I can remember when there was still a train running between Hat Yai and Songkhla, filled mostly with old ladies and little children. The alternative were the daredevil taxis: giant finned Buicks and Chevys from the 1950s, fitted out with diesel engines and big enough to accommodate four passengers in back and three in front, with the driver hanging halfway out the window. That old fleet of gargantuan land boats has disappeared. People prefer the loht too or van. The standard price is 28 baht. The driver passes back a wicker collection basket like in church and everyone contributes. Then the basket is simply shoved up against the dashboard. Thailand is a country where you can always count on correct change.
Now that I'm back in Songkhla, I've seen a good number of my old Thai friends, though my oldest and best friend Boontong died of a terrible asthma attack in 1997. I've been disappointed to meet only three farangs I knew from the old days.
It seems I'd forgotten my own advice to people who came back to Songkhla for a sentimental visit and were invariably disappointed: ''You can always revisit the place, but the time that you were here has gone forever.''
Songkhla pier prior to the massive development which has reshaped the city over the past 30 years.
About the author
Writer: James Eckardt