Southern Thailand’s Songkhla province is richly endowed with natural resources, fine beaches, waterfalls and scenic lakes, yet its two major cities, Songkhla, the provincial capital (974 kilometres from Bangkok),
and Hat Yai (947 kilometeres from Bangkok), separated by a mere 30-minute road journey are worlds apart in terms attractions, facilities, size and character.
Songkhla, a medieval pirate stronghold, is a historic, albeit sleepy town with thriving fishing community and a fine beach facing the Thai Gulf whereas Hat Yai, inland and major gateway to southern Thailand, is a modern city the principal southern commercial, communications and entertainment centre.
A study in contrasts, Songkhla province boasts several authentic tourism attractions and Hat Yai makes an excellent base for exploring Thailand’s southernmost destinations.
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HOW TO GET THERE
Hat Yai is connected by daily road, rail and air (1 hour and 15 minutes by direct flights) services with Bangkok. Hat Yai is 3 hours by airconditioned coach from Penang, 12 hours from Kuala Lumpur, and 19 hours from Singapore. hat Yai has convenient and regular rail and air connections with Butterworth / Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
There are no direct rail or air services to Songkhla.
Hat Yai boasts several first-class airconditioned hotels with international facilities and innumerable economy-class hotels, inns and guest houses. Songkhla’s accommodation is less luxurious and varied, its major hotel a beachside complex facing Songkhla famous mermaid statue on the Samila Beach headland.
CITY ATTRACTIONS / ENTERTAINMENT
Songkhla’s major attraction is the lovely Samila Beach which faces the small Cat and Mouse islands. Samila headland features a mermaid statue which fronts beachside hotel, bordered to the south by a public 9-hole
golf course, and to the north by beachside seafood restaurants.
Samila Beach extends some three kilometres southwards to Khao Seng headland which shelters a Muslim fishing village where distinctive Kolae fishing boats are decorated with hand-painted floral motifs.
Khao Noi, a low hill behind the hotel, overlooks Samila Beach and Songkhla’s northern shore, and has a small topiary garden.
Major inner-city attractions include a lovely 19th-century Chinese mansion on Ruangmuang Road which houses the local branch of the National Museum; the 400-years-old Wat Matchimawat, Songkhla’s largest temple, on Saiburi Road, which contains a fascinating museum; Wat Chaimongkon near Songkhla’s former railway stations; and the Pak Mae Nam Lai Soet Fort on Lai Soet Road which dates from the early 1800s ‘modern’ Songkhla was built.
A few kilometres from town, on Route 407 connecting Songkhla and Hat Yai, Sinakarinwirot University’s Institute for Southern Thai studies houses a fine collection of southern handicrafts, religious manuscripts, antiques and archaeological discoveries.
If Songkhla is most attractive by day, Hat Yai is most attractive by night. Other than a 100-acre municipal park where southern cultural performances are regularly staged, and a crocodile farm and zoo on Ratchawithi Road, Hat Yai’s major attracting is vibrant nightlife which draws innumerable pleasure-seekers, particularly from Malaysia
Numerous first-class Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Muslim and seafood restaurants provide excellent cuisine while international fare is enjoyed in several coffee shops and leading hotels.
Excellent dining is a prelude to a nightlife revolving largely around nightclubs, coffee shops, bars, bowling alleys, massage parlours, video houses, cinemas and discotheques.
Songkhla’s major provincial attractions is the Great Songkhla lake, locally known as Thale Sap, which extends some 80 kilometres north from Songkhla’s fishing port and is some 20 kilometres at its widest point. The lake is dotted with small islands and hosts the 520-square- kilometre Khu Khut Waterfowl Park, Asia’s largest such park, which support some 140 species numbering tens of thousands of birds.
Khu Khut is reached by crossing the lake’s estuarine entrance at Songkhla and proceeding northwards along Route 4083. At Km. 33, a left turn leads to Khu Khut village where boats may be hired to explore the Waterfowl Park. Khu Khut is best visited in the early morning or late afternoon when birds are most active.
Some 10 kilometres north of Khu Khut is the ancient Wat Pakho, former residence of southern Thailand’s most respected abbot, the late Luang Pho Thuat. A popular legend claims the abbot was kidnapped by pirates while crossing the lake. A violent storm arose and the boat carrying the abbot and his captors drifted for several days. Lacking of food and water, everyone faced starvation. Then, the abbot placed his foot in the lake’s salt water, whereupon it became drinkable. The pirates were so grateful they returned the abbot safely to shore.
Songkhla’s famous Ton Nga Chang (Elephant Tusk) Waterfall lies some 26 kilometres west of Hat Yai in Rataphum district along Highway No. 4, and at the end of a turning from Hu Rae village. The seven- tiered waterfall cascades down a steep cliff in two separate columns which ‘resemble’ elephant tusks. The waterfall’s third level is particularly quiet and beautiful, and affords an exhilarating view of surrounding countryside, but entails a punishing climb which should not be attempted by the aged.
Another waterfall worth visiting is the Boriphat Waterfall, also in Rattaphum district, some 40 kilometres from Hat Yai.
Hat Yai offers particular good buys in Thai handicrafts, ready-made leisure wear and sportwear, preserved Thai fruits and seafood delicacies, and imported foodstuffs from all over Southeast Asia and China. Principal shopping areas are concentrated around the Niphat Uthit 2 and 3 Roads and Plaza Market.
Songkhla’s major shops selling local products, including the native cotton product Pha Ko Yo, dried shrimps, cashew nuts, crisp fish and shrimp crackers, and shadow-play leather sheets, are concentrated on Nakhon Nai Road.
Hat Yai is the ideal place from which to visit other southern destinations. To the north and northwest, these include Phatthalung, 115 kilometres from Hat Yai, where, at the northern end of Songkhla Great Lake, the
lotus-bordered and spectacular beautiful Thale Noi Nok Nam bird sanctuary supports some 150 species; and Trang, 65 kilometres further west, where the mountainous Khao Chong Nature Reserve contains one of southern Thailand’s loveliest waterfalls.
To the south, 109 kilometres from Hat Yai, Pattani has Thailand ‘s most beautiful mosque, the famous Wat Chang Hai and the sweeping Panare Beach where local fishermen have hand-painted hundreds of Thailand loveliest Kolae boats; 100 kilometres further south, Narathiwat is noted for its Pa Cho Waterfall, a massive seated golden Buddha at Wat Khao Kung, and the border town of Sungei Golok with its liberated nightlife.
Finally, Satun, 102 kilometres southwest of Hat Yai, is capital of a province whose major attraction is the sprawling Tarutao Marine National Park situated 30 kilometres off the coast near the Thai-Malaysian Indian Ocean maritime border. the 51-island cluster covers a total sea and land area of some 1,400 square kilometres,
offers simple bungalow accommodation and camping facilities, and some of Southweast Asia’s best scuba-diving in waters where dolphins, whales, smaller sharks, sea turtles, rockfish, colourful coral fish and soft coral are found. Weekend excursions originating in Hat Yai make regular departures from Pak Bara Port in Satub’s Langu district to Tarutao between the non-monsoon months of December and April.