It has been a rather warm hot season, to put it mildly. When the air gets too hot, I usually like to head off to the beach somewhere near Bangkok such as Cha-am or Pattaya. This year, however, I went farther — all the way to the southern province of Songkhla and its capital city of the same name.
This charming city located 950 kilometres from Bangkok is surrounded by beautiful beaches including Samila and Son Awn. It is also blessed with captivating waterfalls and a peaceful lake. The old area of the city has still managed to maintain its unique identity and ancient flavour reflected in local architecture and cuisine. I like to wander through local markets, try Muslim-Thai fusion cuisine and relax at the beach.
The Songkhla I remember was lively and full of energy. But this time it was different. I drove around Samila Beach and found the famous mermaid statue was still there. The two islands Koh Nu and Koh Maew (Mouse and Cat islands) can still be seen clearly from the beach. Nai Wan Restaurant, selling great seafood, is still there. The beach itself is as white and well-preserved as ever. In fact, nothing much has changed except the lively spirit of the place.
On my most recent visit, I found slow-paced Songkhla had become even quieter. Unlike other seaside towns, Songkhla is clearly not a holiday destination for Western tourists. What struck me was how this amazing and tranquil city had somehow been left unexplored. I could not help feeling sorry for the place since it is really the last safe city where tourist can experience the unique atmosphere of Thailand's deep South.
In contrast to most other provinces, Songkhla is not the largest city in the province. The newer city of Hat Yai is much bigger, with twice the population. Hat Yai is perhaps better known than the provincial capital itself.
While the city of Songkhla is noted as a fishing town set in a tranquil environment, Hat Yai is busier and seen as the commercial hub of the South, linking neighbouring provinces and Malaysia. Even so, compared with the speed of development of other major provinces, progress here admittedly has been quite slow. The economy of Songkhla province as a whole has grown less than the national average, at just 2.81% annually from 2001-13 compared with 4.14% for Chiang Mai, 5.31% for Khon Kaen and 6.47% for Phuket.
Looking on the bright side, things should be getting better for Songkhla soon. There are already many positive signs. In preparation for the Asean Economic Community late this year, the government has established a special economic zone (SEZ) in Songkhla on the border with Malaysia. Similar zones exist in Tak, Mukdahan, Sa Kaeo and Trat. Infrastructure development has been approved and investment incentives as well as public health, education and safety measures are being discussed.
The Songkhla SEZ covers four tambons: Sadao, Samnak Kham, Samnak Taeo and Padang Besar. The SEZ is important not only because of its link to Malaysia but also in terms of border trade. Its two customs houses — Sadao and Padang Besar — account for half of Thailand's entire border trade or 489 billion baht last year.
Songkhla itself is also very important in terms of its size. The largest province in southern Thailand, it accounts for almost 20% of gross regional product or 221 billion baht — much more than Phuket (133 billion), Surat Thani (162 billion) and Krabi (68.1 billion). The figure also exceeds those of Chiang Mai (184 billion baht) and Khon Kaen (191 billion).
While serving as an agricultural production centre, Songkhla also has the potential to become an investment, business and tourism hub. With infrastructure linking all regions of the country, the province can serve as a gateway to distribute wealth and add value to Thai products and tourism.
In not many years from now, I hope the city of Songkhla will be bustling with more visitors. The old part of the city located along Nang Ngam, Nakhon Nai and Nakhon Nok roads is well worth being widely explored by world tourists. Travellers can experience the simple, interesting life of local residents, try restaurants and traditional coffee shops and recharge at Samila Beach.
Thailand until 2013 was the 10th most visited country in the world before slipping to 14th place last year, although arrivals are once more on the rebound. Still, there are many places with untapped potential that could help to increase our ranking in world tourism further. Songkhla is an example of a forgotten town that is worth exploring and investing in. It is a southern gem that will definitely reward rediscovery.
Dr Tientip Subhanij holds a PhD in economics from the University of Cambridge and has a dual career in banking and academia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org