Southern Thailand Travel Notes: Songkhla

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Globe showing position of KrabiSongkhla, the capital of Songkhla province, is located on the Gulf of Thailand. [more] January and February are monsoon season on the gulf, but if the waters are not inviting, the town nevertheless provides enough attractions to justify a visit. We spent three nights in Songkhla eating richly, exploring local museums, and baking in the heat.

On the Road: Visiting Wat Dang School

As we proceeded South, we began to notice a number of bulls grazing by the side of the road. These are used in bull fights, bull against bull, although the animals look quite peaceful. We stopped to photograph one, to the great amusement of everyone who noticed. The bull was secured to a stake by a rope that ran though his nose, and half my photos feature the bull sticking his tongue in his nostril where, presumably, the rope was irritating him. Or maybe he was trying to free himself to teach us a lesson. We asked the guy in the red shirt not to get too close, just in case. Our next stop was at a row of food vendors by the side of the road. The featured goodies in this area are the products of the palm used to make palm sugar. We sampled palm fruit, a refreshing translucent gel with little flavor, and "juice" of the palm tree, which is sweeter than sugar cane juice. [We later stopped at a roadside stand where hard-shelled palm fruit were hacked open so that we could sample the slightly sweet, gelatinous fruit with the somewhat bitter exterior (like grapefruit pith).] We purchased various snacks for the road, and palm sugar to take home, and jumped back into our vans to find a lunch spot. We ended up at a shop which specialized in beef noodle soup; it was pretty good, and the little bags of crunchy pork rinds were a big hit. We returned to the main road and grabbed some ice creams at 7-11 before continuing to the Wat Dang school.

(2005) We stopped at the Wat Dang school to see the students put on a demonstration of Manora dance. Because Manora dance usually can be seen only at festivals in the wee hours of the morning, this was a fairly unique opportunity. Imagine our surprise when we learned that there also would be a second demonstration, put on by an exercise group in the area that practice "Manora for Health." Both were charming, and afterwards we were pulled into numerous photos and sold various soap and shampoo products by the local girl scouts. It seemed to be a big day for the students; they may have enjoyed it as much as we did.

This is the third year that Kasma has brought a group to the school to see a demonstration of Manora dance, and each year there are more activities than the year before. We walked in and immediately began shopping a display of hand-made handkerchief-sized batiks and flowers made from various natural materials. We then saw not one but three different programs. First, there was a brief program of five dances to what sounded like Chinese music. Second, six students who were studying Manora dance as an extracurricular activity performed for about 45 minutes. This was preceded by a performance of the musicians who accompany the dance, including various hypnotic rhythems and a woeful (and powerfully loud) vocal part. As usual, the girls exhibited a mixture of skill levels; I only recognized two from last year. Even when they stepped wrong or had to adjust their costumes, though, they were utterly charming. The third performance, "Manora Aerobics," featured older women from the community who participate in a program known as Manora for health. They do not try to bend or extend as far as the young girls, but they do a bit of balancing on one leg and a variety of tricky hand and arm motions. They weren't smiling much, but we were.

After the show, there were various group photos, and then the kids ran around with small pieces of paper, or just the skin of their palm, asking us to write our names. One of the more organized children offered a notebook. We were minor celebrities; the woman next to me was told that she reminded one girl of a movie star; one little girl wrote a heart next to the name of one of the guys in our group (someone much more "age-appropriate" than me). A woman outside who was selling a coconut sticky rice treat roasted in a banana leaf gave us two bundles of five snacks and didn't want to get paid the 20 baht (50 cents) they normally would go for. We were rock stars for two hours, and then we got back into our vans and returned to normal. We rolled South for Songkhla stopping only for truck stop restrooms and another round of ice cream bars.


BP Samila Hotel

[We took the auto ferry into Songkhla, and checked in to the BP Samila Beach Hotel & Resort, located on a windy beach near the town's famous mermaid statue.] Our hotel in Songkhla, the BP Samila, is one of the newest in town, and has a commanding location across from the "cat and mouse" islands, near a well-known mermaid statue, on the windy Samila beach. From our balconies we should be able to see the sun rise on the Gulf of Thailand. But first, how the heck do you work the air conditioning in this place? (There's a complicated console near the beds that works the lights, air con, and alarm clock.)

Back at the hotel I checked in at the lounge where I saw a karaoke monitor. They told me the actual karaoke bar, downstairs, was closed tonight, perhaps because of a large wedding in the hotel.

There was a pretty sunrise around 6:40AM, and it's not everyday you see a man walking his bull on the beach.

Songkhla Museums

I wasn't feeling so great, so I skipped breakfast and was a few minutes early to the 9:00 van call. Our first stop was the Songkhla National Museum, housed in the former governor's mansion. Some of the exhibits were very particular to the family that had owned this house, including many of their artworks and the intricately carved doors that formerly hung there. Other exhibits were archaeological or artistic. The presentation is nice, if incomplete. The entrance was changed from last year so visitors walk by an attractive lily pond on the way in and out. Lots of dragonflies to photograph. [The Songkhla National Museum formerly served as the governor's mansion. Built in Southern Chinese style and housing a wide variety of artifacts, the museum provided a pleasant diversion.]

Attraction Around Town

On the way back to the hotel, several of us asked for a drop off to use the Internet. We landed near the Pavilion, a hotel Kasma used to use in a neighborhood that has become a bit "sleazy." We wandered a bit until we found a place. It wasn't air conditioned, and the computers ran Windows 98, but it was sufficient for our needs and cheap. The hike home took about a half hour, and we could have used a bit more sea breeze. I had forgotten how hot Thailand is. A light mist was a welcome relief.

A day on Treasure Island

As we circled Ko Yo (pronounced "gaw yaw") island on our way to the Folklore Museum, no one was out drying shrimp or making rubber sheets. Just us tourists clogging the narrow road with our vans and buses. Perhaps the skies would clear after two hours in the museum.

Our first stop, though, was Lamphor temple, just off the bridge from Songkhla to Ko Yo. Here an enormous golden reclining buddha, visible well before landing on the island, is merely the largest of several oversized monuments. Under gray skies, the temple was not as spectacular as last year, but still quite a sight to see. We took the slow and scenic route past numerous little shrimp farms and roadside restaurants before ascending the drive to the Institute for Southern Thai Studies' Folklore Museum. We noticed several tour buses at the bottom of the hill, and there were numerous students inside, some young and some older, some eager to learn about folklore and others more interesting in goofing with their friends. A number of students were wearing pink tops with "English Major" on the front and three cartoon characters on the back: Don't, Ask and Me. Compared with last year, it was very crowded and noisy; a good sign for the local economy, but quite challenging to navigate. In one room, a veritable human tsunami of small children in blue uniforms flooded in and out, leaving us pressed into corners and up against display cases. Phew.

As the rain stopped and the sun came out, the humidity rose to unbearable and many of us took a shortcut past the last 15 exhibit rooms and headed to the museum's little snack shop for cold drinks and/or ice cream. No one was shopping in the stuffy gift shop. Here's a tip: for better sales, install air conditioning. After a few last snapshots, we loaded into our vans and headed back around the island. We stopped to poke at and photograph some shrimp that had just been put out to dry. The shrimp used to make kapi (pronounced more like gah-PEE) are only about an inch long. After harvesting they are salted and then laid out to dry in the sun. You can tell how long they have been out by the number of flies (as the shrimp dry, the flies lose interest). The shrimp smelled fresh and sweet today; in a few days, I'm not so sure. Unfortunately, they didn't have any finished product to taste. Due to heavy rains this year, production in this area is down. We decided to go straight to lunch.

When we pulled in to the restaurant, which has no English name posted, it was surprisingly busy. Our dockside table from last year was already occupied, and the next row of tables was reserved, so we sat a bit further in. By the time we placed our order, several other groups had pulled up and the place was full of tourists. I ordered a young coconut, which at least provided a little "meat" to tide me over. Service was slow, and the vegetable dish had to be changed a few times because they kept running out of vegetables, but except for that last dish, the food was excellent. We began with shrimp cakes, somewhat like crab cakes formed into a shape similar to a small doughnut and deep fried. These were served with a fruity dipping sauce. This was followed by a hot and sour coconut milk soup with mixed seafood, including large pieces of crab and shrimp complete with their heads attached. Tasty broth, but lots of work to clean out the shells. A squid salad was tender and unusually heavy on the tentacles; a deep fried whole fish was bathed in a sweet red sauce that seemed more Heinz ketchup than Thai. Black pepper crab showcased the freshness of the crab without too much heat, while hot and sour whole prawns kept us asking for extra rice. When our vegetable dish finally arrived, it was canned mushrooms with shrimp, all too similar to bad Chinese food you could find anywhere in America. We tried to eat it, but we couldn't made much of a dent. By the time we were washing up, tub of dirty dishes and soup pots had collected at the edge of the restaurant. If this is the normal lunch rush, I don't think I would want to work here.

Ko Yo is known for its cloth, so we visited a local weaving collective for a demonstration and some shopping. I purchased cloth here last year that I still have in its plastic bag, so I figured I didn't need any more. I did buy a couple of cheap batik shirts at our next stop up the road. These were printed (imitation) batiks on cheap fabric with bad finishing. At an asking price around $2.50 per shirt, what do you expect? The good stuff costs more like $15. I found one with the local mermaid on the back and one with cute little children doing Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing). Priceless.

Songkhla is located on a peninsula (not unlike San Francisco) and a bridge (not unlike the Bay Bridge) runs across the lake to the West of Songkhla through the island of Ko Yo (not unlike Treasure Island). We spent the day on Ko Yo visiting the Thaksin Folklore Museum, having lunch near the water, and stopping for a bit of fabric shopping at a weaving cooperative. First stop, though, was Lamphor Temple, a work-in-progress that features a very large reclining buddha and other oversized statuary. Driving around the island, we found some men creating sheets of rubber the old fashioned way. After draining the sap from the rubber tree, it is coagulated with oxalic acid into a jiggly blob, which then is flattened to about an inch thick with the feet and then pressed using two hand-cranked machines into a sheet. We next encountered large quantities of small shrimp drying in the sun. These eventually will be made into the ubiquitous salted shrimp paste used in many Thai dishes, gkapi. When made correctly, it is not at all "fishy."

The folklore museum has a large number of exhibits on topics ranging from religion to old coins, pottery to weaponry, and textiles to fine art. Many of the exhibits were absorbing, although those that did not have air conditioning tended to get a more cursory look because the rooms could be quite hot and humid.

I didn't get the name of the restaurant, but it would be recognizable from the strange statuary near the entrance, and the screeching birds in cages just inside. We started with deep-fried squid, which was accompanied by a spicy-hot green salsa. A mixed seafood curry came domed in aluminum foil; presumably it was cooked in a foil-lined pot and then inverted for service. Prawns in a garlicky red sauce; stir-fried vegetables with shrimp; cracked crabs sauteed with black pepper; oysters and eggs; and whole steamed fish with sweet and sour sauce completed the all-seafood menu. For dessert, we shared some pomelo purchased earlier at a roadside stand. After lunch we visited some weavers to watch them work their looms and to support them by purchasing fabrics we really don't need...


For dinner, we headed around the corner to Nai Wan Restaurant, one of many seafood eateries located near the beach. Our large dinner included crab meat with green beans and curry; a salad of thin, crispy duck shreds, red onion, sliced lemon grass and chili; green-lip mussels with lemon grass; squid salad; stir-fried Chinese broccoli (actually I think it was some other green vegetable, but this was the translation given); and whole steamed fish "soup" with ginger and preserved vegetables.

For dessert we headed into town for roti. After consuming numerous plates of plain roti with side dishes of sweetened condensed milk and sugar for dipping, and several more of roti stuffed with bananas, Kasma's friend and the stand's most talented roti maker showed up to show us how it's done and put us well past "full."

Dinner was at the excellent Nai Wan seafood restaurant around the corner from the hotel. Last year, my photo of the duck salad was out of focus, but my memory of those delicious, crispy duck shreds in a lime-based dressing remained sharp and clear; and it was just as good as I remembered. The rest of our menu, except for stir fried morning glories, consisted of seafood dishes: juicy crab meat in a yellow curry; shrimp stir-fried with some kind of large, flat beans, onions and red chillies; green-lipped mussels in a tasty broth; crispy deep fried stuffed squid; and a whole fish with black mushrooms and picked vetables in a soup-like poaching liquid. We skipped the desserts and headed to the night market for dessert roti at Kasma's favorite place. The town expert was not there, but her brother went to get her and the giant roti soon were on the griddle. She recognized me from stepping in the sewer hole last year. I guess that doesn't happen very often (and the hole is still open!). The roti were served both plain, with dishes of curry sauce and the classic dessert combination of sweetened condensed milk and granulated sugar, and stuffed with bananas. This really was just a preview of tomorrow night's roti feast. Something to get our bodies ready to process the sinfully rich meal to come.

We headed back to the hotel for some free time. Time to cool down and catch a nap before dinner. Then we went back to the night market for our roti feast. We began with the basics: fried bread and a curry dipping sauce. The curry was rich and delicious on its own, and with the tasty (and only slightly greasy) roti, it was really great. I drained three bowls of the curry myself (one would be a typical lunch serving). We then moved on to dessert roti, and I lost track, but certainly I went way over any rational limit on the number of calories to be eaten at one sitting. Toward the end of the evening, the chef demonstrated her technique in forming balls of roti dough. It was good to have time to do hang out and do nothing (but I definitely don't recommend the bathroom here!).

Friday January 21, 2005

We met in the lobby at 8:15 AM after a quickie breakfast at the hotel's Tonson Restaurant (where I had rice porridge with fish chunks, Chinese sausage, and salty preserved eggs), and headed out to the bank to rebuild our depleted reserves of Thai baht.

For dinner we returned to the roti stand where we got both a demonstration of fine dough-stretching techniques and a decadent dinner of roti with curry, roti filled with eggs and various little bits (somewhat like an omelette), dessert roti, and French toast (that part I didn't really understand). While positioning for a photograph, I felt my left foot reaching downwards into a hole in the sidewalk. As I touched down into something wet, I realized that I had just stepped into a nasty sewer drain. While my Hepatitis A vaccination had become fully effective, the process of cleaning the foot and sandal, and dressing the scrape on my heel, were an unfortunate distraction from an otherwise festive meal. Later, after a change of footwear, I headed out for an Internet cafe and then home again with a spare roll of "tissue" (toilet paper) for the islands we would be visiting soon, after our journey West to Satun.

To The Breaking Point

February 2, 2006

The museum is in the same part of the town as most of the banks and quite a bit of shopping, so naturally we dallied here before lunch. I started at the bookstore by picking up a map of Songkhla which also would be useful for a trip out to Satun and the Tarutao park. For now, I thought it would help me better navigate the area local to the hotel. I picked up a few necessities at the drugstore and tried to find a battery for my camera (this probably will not be possible now that camera stores are scarce to nonexistent). Finally I strolled to the post office to pick up another box for souvenirs, check out any fancy new stamps, and enjoy the air conditioning. Much more important than shopping in these hot towns.

For lunch we tried a local place that had been recommended by one of Kasma's cooking students. The restaurant serves chicken over rice with an unusual spicy brown bean sauce on the side that combines Thai and Hokkien Chinese influences. Containers of shredded ginger, ground chillies, sugar (we had to exchange the one full of ants), fish sauce, and thick sweet soy sauce were put on the tables for fine-tuning the seasoning. We passed around Pomelo for dessert. Simple, tasty, and the fans did a reasonably job keeping us cool. I'd come back here.

Our afternoon was free until 5:00, so I thought I would go out at 2:00 with my new map, minimal sunscreen, and a quest to find that Internet place I used last year. It did not go so well. Not only did I not find the Internet place, I did not find the 7-11 that was nearby, and I nearly baked to death. I wandered out to the beach where there was a strong breeze, but still not enough shade and made my way back to the hotel, picking up a bottle of icy cold water on the way. I decided it made more sense to crash in my room than explore further.

Our first stop during our "golden hour" excursion was a mountaintop template that was recently restored. As we slowed the vans, we spotted some monkeys coming down from the hills, presumably to feed. As we focused our cameras on the two or three early arrivals, 15 or 20 others emerged from the weeds and began going in all directions, evening causing a little bit of chaos crossing the street. We heard a woman yell in protest as a monkey grabbed some food from her. It was time to escape into the temple's welcoming lobby. Here the kind folks had built a tram to save you the hot and humid hike up the hill. We took photos and (some of us) rang the bells. It was a nice vantage point to see the rest of Songkhla. After the journey back to street level, we headed out to the point to see the traditional farewelling of ships: they are wished luck with firecrackers. Apparently the ships had changed schedule as we saw only a few leave and only one lit firecrackers. (We were happy that the one carrying liquefied petroleum gas did not light anything.) After many sunset photos we headed toward dinner.

Tonight we tried a new place. It was unapologetically targeted to tourists, but it had its charms nonetheless. Perhaps the first person we noticed was a shapely woman in a short, skin-tight Tiger Beer dress. Her job seemed to be to use her looks to sell Tiger Beer, which is not very good compared with other Thai beers. Sadly, therefore, we were not able to give her any business. Our attention turned to the food now appearing before us. We had morning glories in oyster sauce with garlic and Thai chillies; tamarind prawns with slices of pineapple in a sauce that was a bit sweet for my taste; fish steaks in a hot curry sauce with green peppercorns; a sour curry with shrimp; a plate of crunchy fried dark green leaves similar to tempura (I have no idea what they were or what they were supposed to be); and a fish mousse/curry served in a young coconut. Pretty good, and maybe we'll come back next year.

After we returned to the hotel, I decided to head out for one final check of e-mail. The place from last night was pretty slow; I thought there must be a better place near the Pavilion. My search was not very successful, and I headed down a side street. After passing Bliss (a restaurant) and the Smile Lounge, the street became dark. Groups of young men hung out in lightless doorways; in California this would be alarming, but here I didn't know what to think. Eventually I stumbled into an Internet/games place. They seemed surprised to have any customers but they sat me down and I got started. Everything was modern and reasonably fast, and when I finished I tried to pay and they said "free, free" so I was back out into the dark and on my way back to the hotel. This would be our last night in a nice hotel for a while, so I enjoyed the fruit basket and the strong air conditioning to the best of my abilities while planning for an early wake-up.

We hit the BP Samila's Tonson buffet for a final breakfast, and the rice porridge with various mix-ins was fine. But there had been several snafus with laundry the evening before (not affecting me) which delayed our departure. Service seemed to be falling down in general: they forgot to bring my bags down from the hallway. Eventually we were underway to the South end of the town to visit a small fishing village and view boats painted in the style of the Southernmost provinces. The boats seemed rather worn out, and the garbage that washed up on this part of the beach did not provide an attractive background. Life here looked difficult; whether it was always thus, or was related to recent problems (drenching rains and flooding) we couldn't tell. But it was time to move on.

For our last breakfast in Songkhla, we once again visited the hotel buffet (in my case, for less than 15 minutes) for rice soup, a piece of omelette, fruit and tea. Once under way, we had to pull over for rambutan (I forget the Thai name), a red fruit with many soft green protrusions that tastes somewhat similar to lychee. The stand also had very ripe durian, which I tried for the second time (and really didn't like much better.)

Our next destination was Satun.