Beach tourism in Thailand is cliché. The country receives over 30 million foreign tourists per year, and most of them head straight for that thin line where the sea meets the land. That's about half of its population. One would assume the only areas of Thai coastline not yet entirely covered by solid lines of resort hotels are undeveloped rocks somewhere in the jungle. Luckily, this is entirely wrong. Tourists are herd animals, they all go where all others of them go, rubbing shoulders with the rest of their kin on the same little patches of sand while leaving most of the country unspoiled. There's no shortage of quiet seaside towns in Thailand; a few of them may be too industrial or lacking a good beach, but most are inviting and worth staying at least for a day. One such town is Songkhla in the extreme south, next to the Malaysian border. While not offering too many impressive sights, it’s a lovely and peaceful stopover.
Songkhla was founded in the 17th century by Dato Mogol, a Muslim Persian, as a sultanate of Singora - literally, "a city of lions". The town stands between the sea and a string of karst hills; the latter apparently resembling lions to the early dwellers. Or, maybe it just sounded fancy. Anyway, Dato Mogol was not the first to utilize this strategic spot. According to archaeologists, there was a well-developed center of trade in this area since the 10th century AD. Muslim past and the proximity of Malaysia have resulted in the tangible presence of Islam, but local ethics and civil laws are still Thai; a swimsuit shouldn't shock anyone. Malaysian influence, however, is felt in other ways. The local ethnic group, Yawi, have their own cuisine, very similar to Malay and only slightly mimicking Thai. Expect sweet, spicy coconut curries and lots of roti (fried flatbread).
First of all, there are classical sea and sun. Samila Beach is right in town - a long stretch of sand housing a statue of Mae Thorani. This Thai version of Boddhisattva Vasundhara looks to a Western eye like a typical mermaid, the kind you would find cast in bronze on every second beach in the world.
Son On Beach is not far away and has a pine grove next to it. There are many more. In town, a number of Buddhist temples are predictably peaceful and worth a visit. Wat Khlang is the main and probably the most interesting of them. For another touch of Buddhism, combined with good aerial views, climb Tang Kuan Hill. If you're feeling lazy (and Songkhla is hot, inducing laziness even in lifelong hikers), ride a cable up there instead. The main mosque in Songkhla is new but looks impressive enough to be considered a sight. You can also visit a nearby lake, covered with intricate patterns of fish traps (a photographer's delight of silhouettes and textures), or authentic Yawi fishing villages. Ko Yo Island just off the coast is a center of weaving.
Songkhla may be off the main tourist grid, but it has plenty of hotels, both urban and bungalow-style. A few villas for rent, short- or long-term, are also available. Unlike other, tourism-oriented locations, Songkhla is a self-sufficient town, so the choice of food isn't limited to tourist restaurants. Local eateries and street stalls cook, fry, and grill a variety of dishes - Malay, Thai, and Chinese cuisines. Probably the best dinner option is freshly caught fish grilled and served from stalls opening in front of Samila Beach after sunset. Transportation is easy. Direct buses connect Songkhla with Bangkok (a long journey), as well as with most cities in between. Minivans also run regularly to Hat Yai. One could arrive on an overnight bus from Bangkok and be in Malaysia by noon, but this would be a pity. It's a lovely, quiet town, worth staying in for at least a couple of days.
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