A savour of the South

The towns of Songkhla and Hat Yai make convenient launching pads for exploring interesting sites in the vicinity or farther afield

I often find myself spending more time looking at century-old photographs than more recently taken ones. Despite the dearth of colour, vintage pictures can be fascinating, often guiding you on mental journeys back through time to periods before any person alive today was even conceived.

Those faces in antique black-and-white images were once as full of life as people I meet in my everyday routine. At the moment the picture was captured, each of those men and women must have been thinking, dreaming or even worrying about something. For sure, every one of them had gone through ups and downs before reaching that point. Each had a story. Sadly _ then again, maybe not _ in most cases those tales will remain forever untold. The youngsters portrayed in some of those sepia snaps may have gone on to become someone's great-grandparent and their memory is still cherished today by a host of descendants, or else their legacy did not endure long after their deaths and now their existence has been totally forgotten. Equally mesmerising to me is the world these people lived in and all that milieu encompassed: from the neighbourhood they called home, its atmosphere and its architecture, to the society in which they mingled and earned a livelihood, the lifestyle they favoured, the traditions and even the beliefs they once held dear.

The old photograph you see here is one of a small number displayed on walls next to a wooden stage. The scene of many a Chinese opera over the years, this is located within the compound of the shrine built to house Songkhla's City Pillar. At the bottom of this image, which has been reproduced on a large sheet of vinyl, is a caption revealing that it was taken over a century ago on the day King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) paid a visit to this southern town.

The Chinese-style structure in the middle of the photo is one of the original city gates, none of which have survived to the present day. And beyond this gate, or so the caption tells us, you can glimpse Songkhla Lake in the distance.

Judging from the deep shadows thrown by people and buildings, it was a bright, sunny day. And I bet that at the instant it was snapped the brackish water of the lake, although not as blue as the sea on the other side of the cape on which Songkhla is built, would have been no less clear than the sky above it.

The people waiting for the monarch's arrival may have been talking quietly among themselves, but they were probably not making much noise. Perhaps their beloved king and his entourage, shown in adjacent photographs also printed on vinyl, were not very far away at the time. The only sound competing with the approaching footsteps may have been that of the rapidly beating hearts of the king's excited subjects.

King Chulalongkorn's historic visit to Songkhla took place, and was immortalised on film, in 1905, a very important date indeed since it was in that same year that he abolished slavery in Siam (now Thailand) completely.

All the people featured in these photos are long gone, of course, but if you step back out onto the street you'll find that many remnants of the past linger in this old part of Songkhla.

The neighbourhood consists of three parallel streets _ Nakhon Nok, Nakhon Nai and Nang Ngam _ which are still lined with old buildings like those portrayed in the antique photographs. Not all of them are in good condition, though.

Actually, some are closed up and visibly crumbling. But walk along these streets, and others which connect to them, and you'll find that this quarter is still very much alive.

A lot of decades-old restaurants and shops selling a variety of home-made goodies are still doing a brisk business. For several generations now, they have been part and parcel of daily life for residents of this town. And tourists who venture into this part of Songkhla are invariably delighted to be able to experience first-hand the yummy stuff that the natives of yesteryear once snackced on.

These days, Songkhla is definitely much easier to get to than it was during the reign of King Rama V. But since the idiom "time and tide wait for no man" is truer now than it ever was, it's better that you get down there now and see for yourself what's left of old Songkhla rather than wait for another day only to discover that all that remains are faded photos and the power of your imagination.

The city of Hat Yai may not be as popular among Thais as it is with tourists from neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. But the fact is that, in addition to great food and good shopping opportunities, this place also boasts several interesting attractions. One of the latest additions to the townscape is a cable car which connects the two peaks of Khao Kho Hong, giving worshippers and general visitors not just easier access to the sacred images on these hilltops but also a panoramic view of the forest and the town itself. Not so far away, the Hat Yai Ice Dome gives locals and tourists alike the chance to experience sub-zero temperatures while admiring ice sculptures and having an exhilarating ride or two on the icy slide.

For Songkhla residents, the city’s old quarter has always been the ‘‘go-to’’ place whenever they crave good food, whether it be authentic southern Thai cuisine, Chinese delicacies, local snacks, desserts or traditional ice-cream. Many of the food vendors are household names here. Grandma Somsi has been selling grilled bananas on Nakhon Nai Road for decades. She is known not just for her tasty bananas, but also for her emotionless face. But I think I detected the flicker of a smile when I showed her some of the photos I’d taken of her. Another familiar figure in these parts is Auntie Lek, whose humble but well patronised noodle stall is tucked into the chest-high space under the Chineseopera stage around which old photographs of the town are permanently displayed. Similar to other old towns in which there has been a revival of interest, several new, retro-style coffee places have also sprung up in Songkhla.

Apart from the old quarter, another must-go place in Songkhla is Tang Kuan Hill from the top of which you can see the entire city as well as the lake and the sea flanking it. On the northeastern side of town is Samila Beach and its Mermaid Statue, arguably the most famous symbol of this southern province. In recent years, however, this popular beach has been having a problem with erosion. Let’s hope a lasting solution is found soon.

If you rent a car, there are oodles of interesting places within easy travelling distance of Songkhla or Hat Yai that are well worth a trip. One such destination is Thalay Noi. This is the name given to the northernmost section of Songkhla Lake. Located in Khuan Khanun, a district of neighbouring Phatthalung province, Thalay Noi boasts a rich wetland ecosystem that is home to a vast variety of aquatic plants and animals, as well as over 280 species of birds and at least 45 species of fish. Long-tailed boats can be hired to take visitors to different parts of this freshwater lake and experience a relatively pristine environment which has been designated as a non-hunting area. Apart from the various types of wildlife, you are also likely to see water buffalo foraging for food in the shallows. Their owners let them roam across the wetland to graze on submerged grass. In one of these photos you can see a bridge. It is called Chalerm Phrakiat Paedsip Phansa and is on the road that runs along the southern boundary of Thalay Noi. The bridge spans the channel that links Thalay Noi to Thalay Luang, the middle section of this extensive lake system. It is a staggering 5.4km in length and was opened to the public in December 2007 to mark the 80th birthday of His Majesty the King. It replaced a road that was often damaged and made impassable by rising floodwater.

About the author

Writer: Pongpet Mekloy
Position: Travel Editor