Songkhla: Past and Present
Table of Contents
Introduction and general information
My first trip to Songkhla
Songkhla (Singora in the past) is a city in the south of Thailand. It has been largely overlooked by western tourists due to the ongoing insurgency. Even before 2004, when the trouble in the Deep South started, Songkhla was not a popular tourist destination. Few people are aware of the rich history of this city, which has been an important trading and fishing port for centuries, attracting merchants from across Asia and even from my home country, the Netherlands. I had visited Songkhla in the early nineties on my way back from a visa trip to Malaysia. I remember I spent one night at a guesthouse, called Holland House. The owner was a Dutchman, who has passed away years ago. At the time Songkhla didn’t strike me as an interesting destination but how wrong was I!
This page is a work under construction. I will add content and pictures over time. For the past decades, I have been focusing very much on the north of Thailand. After six visits to Songkhla since April 2018, I decided it was time to put pen to paper and write down my experiences.
The unique setting of the town
Songkhla is located on the mouth or strait of the Songkhla Lake (Thai: Thale Sap Songkhla – ทะเลสาบสงขลา) This is the largest natural lake in the country, covering 1,040km2. The lake consists of three interconnected lakes: the Songkhla Lake, Thale Luang, and Thale Noi. These lakes border the provinces Songkhla and Phattalang. You can make great boat trips on the Songkhla Lake from the city but more about that later. The city Songkhla has a strange and unique narrow shape with the South China Sea on one side and the Songkhla Lake on the other.
Songkhla is the capital of Songkhla province and borders the provinces Satun, Phatthalung, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Pattani, and Yala. It also borders the Malaysian states Perlis and Kedah.
My return to Songkhla in 2018
It took me more than 25 years to go back to Songkhla. I spent two nights in the Singora Hotel during Songkran in 2018. I got a glimpse of the Old Town, we visited Tangkuan Hill. One month later I was back in Songkhla, starting a ten-day trip through the Deep South to see for myself why everyone told me not to go there. On this trip, I visited Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala, Hat Yai, and Betong before I ended my trip in Songkhla. I made further trips to Songkhla in October 2018, May and June 2019, and March 2021. After Chiang Mai, Songkhla became my second favorite city in Thailand. It is by far the most interesting and scenic city in the South of Thailand, in my opinion. You can easily spend three or four days in this pleasant city.
A short history of Singora and Songkhla
The early history of Singora
In the past, Songkhla was known under many different names. The most used names are Singora or Senggora. Before the foundation of present-day Songkhla, there was a Sultanate, called Singora. A sultan is a Muslim ruler. Singora was located opposite the current city of Songkhla, on and around a hill called Khao Daeng. A man from Persia, named Dato Mogol, founded Singora in 1605. His son Sultan Sulaiman Shah succeeded him. Under Sulaiman Shan Singora experienced its heyday. The Dutch East India Company had a trading post in Singora but also traders of other countries frequently visited Singora. The records of the Dutch East India Company (“Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie”, abbreviated VOC) contain much information about Singora in those days.
During its existence, Singora, just as the sultanate of Pattani, was a vassal entity of a Siamese kingdom that has Ayutthaya as its capital. It was a troubled relationship that ultimately led to the destruction of Singora in 1680. Siamese forces besieged Singora, destroyed it, and took its inhabitants in captivity.
The Dutch East India Company in Singora
The Dutch East India Company (Dutch: VOC, initials of Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) had a trading post in Singora from 1607 until 1622. Pepper seems to have been the most important product of Songkhla in those days. The VOC also had a trading post in Pattani which was closed at the same time as the post in Singora (called Sangora in VOC documents). Just north of Songkhla, close to the former location of Singora, is a cemetery where some VOC employees found their last resting place.
The cemetery is located on the premises of the Thai company PTTEP, the Exploration and Production Public Company Limited. To visit the Vilanda Graveyard, as it is called, you have to ask permission of the guards. The coffins of the deceased are just below the surface so you are only looking at a grass field with a remembrance stone. Being a Dutch national it made sense to visit this place. People of other nationalities might want to skip this place.
The foundation of Songkhla town and province
After the destruction of Singora in 1680 Siamese forces left the city abandoned. In the 18th century, people founded the current city of Songkhla on the other side of the strait that connects the South China Sea and the Songkhla Lake. During the reign of the Siamese king Rama III, they constructed massive city walls in which there were ten gates. It took them ten years to build these: from 1836 until 1846. Only a part of these walls remain.
Later on, the city expanded further east. The city once more became a vassal of a Siamese kingdom, now based in Thonburi. In 1896 Songkhla became part of a Monthon, a new administrative division of Siam. The Monthon Nakhon Si Thammarat consisted of the current provinces Songkhla, Nakhon Si Thammarat, and Phattalung. After the revolution of 1932, the new government abolished the monthon system, which made place later for the division of the country in provinces.
British consulate at Singora
In the old days, there was a British consulate in Singora. It was located opposite Signal or Tangkuan Hill and was established in 1911. The consul, based in Singora, looked after the subjects and interests of the British empire in the Deep South. The provinces Yala and Narathiwat bordered the British colony Malaya. British companies were involved in tin mining in Yala and Patani provinces. Australians, South Africans, and British nationals worked at these mines.
Besides that, there were a couple of civilians involved in rubber plantations. I have not seen any evidence of Burmese and Indians living in the Deep South but there probably were Malay nationals. I have not found information on the closure of the consulate but it might have been in the late 1940s.
Songkhla in World War Two
Japanese troops landed on the beach of Songkhla in the early morning of December 8, 1941. The three regiments that were involved in the landings belonged to the 25th army, commanded by General Tomoyuki Yamashita. From Songkhla, these forces of the Imperial Japanese army immediately started their advance to Malaya, a British colony.
They met the resistance of Thai troops that were based on Khao Kor Hong, a hill near the town of Hat Yai. The fighting didn’t last long. In the course of the day, Thailand surrendered to Japan and hostilities thus ceased. The first targets of the Japanese forces were the tin mines in Yala and Pattani provinces. British companies operated these mines and employed many foreigners, including people of British, Scandinavian, Australian, and South African nationality, amongst others.
The World War Two Memorial House
The World War Two Memorial House is in Songkhla’s Old Town. It is a tall building, dating back to 1938, that apparently survived the Allied bombing in July 1945. When I visited in 2021 the building was empty. On its Facebook page, it says it is a history museum but it seems to become an Art Center. In the front of the World War Two Memorial House is an information board about Squadron Leader Arthur Scarf who died on December 9, 1941. Scarf and his crew flew a solo bombing run to attack Japanese forces who had landed at Songkhla the day before. He was severely wounded during the flight but managed to fly his Blenheim bomber back to a base in Malaya. He died of his wounds but the other two crew members survived. Afterward, the British government awarded him the Victoria Cross, the highest award for the armed forces.
Hat Yai eclipses Songkhla
Before the advent of Hat Yai as the economic and political hub of the Deep South, Songkhla was the most important city in the Deep South. It was the main transportation hub of the south: ships from the Asiatic Steam Navigation company called on the port of Songkhla on their way from Bangkok to Singapore. Before the tourist boom, the beach must have been one of the more accessible beaches for tourists. A railroad line ended at Songkhla but it closed in 1978. There were regular commercial flights to Songkhla airport, not anymore. Hat Yai has gradually eclipsed Songkhla in the 1970s.
Great things to do in Songkhla
The National Museum
This is the best place to start your exploration of Songkhla. The museum offers excellent information on the history of the town and has great exhibits. The explanation is in English and Thai. Amongst others, I found some old cannons with the logo of the Dutch East India Company aka VOC. It is not only the exhibition that makes this museum worth visiting. The museum is housed in a beautifully restored Chinese-style building.
They built it in 1878 as the residence of the ruler of Songkhla. After that, it was used as the City Hall, before they converted it to a museum. The museum is closed on Monday and Tuesday. On other days it is open from 9 AM until 4 PM. The entrance fee is 100THB per person.
Visit the wonderful old town
Being a port city you’ll find an interesting mixture of Chinese, Thai, and Malay influences and architecture. Songkhla’s Old Town has experienced a revival and now attracts mainly local tourists. They have restored many of the old houses. Staying at the Singora Hotel I can easily walk to the sights that are of interest to me: the Old Town, Tangkuan Hill, the Beach, the National Museum, the market, and the location of the Songkhla Walking Street.
Just behind the hotel is a street with bars where the small foreign community hangs out. It appears most of these men once worked or are still working in the offshore industry.
The great waterfront
You can easily spend two or three full days in this attractive city. Spend half a day exploring the old town with its narrow streets and Chinese shophouses. Enjoy a coffee and roti at Mr.Lee with a view of the waterfront. I made several boat trips on Songkhla Lake with its picturesque scenes of fishing boats, minarets, and fishing villages. The National Museum is worth a visit.
In the early morning before sunrise, I walked to Songkhla Beach and onwards up Tangkuan Hill with its old lighthouse, chedi, and a palace dating back more than 100 years ago. The views from the hill in almost all directions are amazing and the macaque monkeys are plentiful. They don’t bother you but local staff told me their numbers are out of control. Standing on the hill you will appreciate the unique setting of the city.
Enjoy delicious ice cream in the Old Town
In the Old Town, there are several ice cream shops, for which Songkhla has acquired a reputation. The specialty of these shops is coconut ice cream with fresh egg yolk on top and sprinkled with Ovaltine. I didn’t mind the Ovaltine but dislike egg yolk on ice cream. Try it out, I would say. The Jiu ice cream shop also serves ice cream with sticky rice. Another shop, Ong ice cream, has been in business for more than 70 years.
Take a samlor ride in the Old Town
Samlors are bicycle taxis. “Sam” means “three” and “lor” means wheel in the Thai language. The story goes that a French national introduced these bicycle taxis in Thai cities in the 1930s. With the advent of motorized vehicles, samlors started to disappear from Thai roads. In Chiang Mai, I have been working for quite a few years to help the remaining drivers, who are mostly elderly single men. Hopefully, the new generation will continue this tradition and tourism is the key to this.
The samlors I have seen in South Thailand are in museums. Fortunately, I found this driver in Songkhla who pedaled me through the streets of the Old Town.
Tang Kuan Hill aka Khao Tang Kuan
The Tang Kuan Hill
This small hill overlooks Songkhla Beach, the city of Songkhla, and the Lake. There are two ways you can get to the top of the hill: by a staircase or by a kind of lift. I usually go in the early morning before the lift starts operating so I ascend the hill via the Naga staircase. This makes for a great early morning workout. Khao Tang Kuan is one of my favorite places in Songkhla. It is a great place to be during sunrise. Along the way, you will pass the Phra Sala Wiharn Daeng, a brick building: the Pavillion Residence of King Rama IV. Construction started during the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868). When his successor King Rama V visited Songkhla in 1889 he ordered the building to be finished. He also ordered the construction of a staircase to the top of the hill.
On top of the hill
The Royal Pagoda (Phra Chedi Luang) on top of the hill seems to date back more than 1,000 years. King Rama IV ordered the restoration in 1886. The lighthouse dates back to the late 19th century as well. Khao Tang Kuan is a great place to visit in the early morning or late afternoon. You will probably be alone with the macaque monkeys that live on the hill. The last time I visited the hill, the local staff told me that there are too many of them. They will normally keep to themselves but you have to be aware: they like to steal stuff. There is a lighthouse as well on Khao Tang Kuan. According to my information this lighthouse dates back to the late 19th century.
The funicular railway
Most visitors to Khao Tang Kuan are local tourists or tourists from Malaysia. I have not seen any western visitors on the hill. Most of them use the funicular railway to the hill, which costs 30THB per person for a roundtrip. Opening times are 10 AM to 7 PM from Monday until Friday and from 8 AM until 7 PM on Saturday, Sunday, and public holidays.
The forts of Singora on and around Khao Daeng
Map of the forts
Khao Daeng (“red mountain”) is the hill opposite Songkhla, on the other side of the “mouth” of Songkhla Lake. I climbed Khao Daeng several times. On and around the hill are the ruins of the fortifications of Singora, which were destroyed in 1680. The map shows most of these forts, except forts 10, 11, and 12. You can visit most of the forts on this map in half a day. No.16 is Khao Noi (“small hill”) where there is no fort but the Chedi Khao Noi. Forts 4, 5, and 6 are located along a staircase that leads to the top of the hill where there are two chedis (fort 18). From here you have a nice view of Songkhla.
Fort no.8 is close to the ferry landing. From there is a trail that also leads to the two chedis on top of the hill. Forts 7 and 17 are difficult to reach. Fort 9 is along the main road from Sing Nakorn to the Tinsulanonda Bridge. It is the best-preserved of all forts. I walked up to the two chedis several times before sunrise and around sunset. During most of these visits, I didn’t meet anyone else.
The Chedi Khao Noi
The Chedi Khao Noi is an ancient ruin located, northwest of Khao Daeng, on the grounds of Wat Khao Noi. Only the impressive base of the chedi remains. “Khao Noi” means small hill. From the temple grounds, you have to walk up a staircase through the forest. This ruined chedi probably dates back to the period before the foundation of Singora in the early 17th century. I have not been able to find more about this intriguing ruin, which is beautifully located.
The Fine Arts Department has performed excavations and found evidence that the Chedi Khao Noi has been restored several times, notably in the Ayutthaya period (17th-18th century). From the Khao Noi hill, there is a trail that leads to Singora fortress no.9. It is not easy to find so you have to be a bit adventurous.
Boat trip on the Lake
A boat trip on the Lake is an absolute must if you visit Songkhla. We made a sunrise and a sunset trip, both wonderful experiences. You can charter boats from a small pier close to the Traffic Center Police Station. In 2019 we paid 500THB for a trip of about one hour. You can get close to the Tinsulanonda bridges but also near the mouth of the lake. The boat is small but big enough for four people. It has no roof so you might want to check the weather before you go.
The Thaksin Folklore Museum
This wonderful museum (Thai: พิพิธภัณฑ์คติชนวิทยา สถาบันทักษิณคดีศึกษา) is located on Koh Yor, an island in the Songkhla Lake, that became a Peninsula after the construction of the Tinsulanonda Bridge. The museum also houses the Institute of Southern Thai Studies. It has the largest collection of artifacts, related to the culture and history of Southern Thailand. Exhibits include silverware, weapons, agricultural utensils, shadow puppets, a traditional “korlae” fishing boat, and much more. There are also lovely displays depicting local life and economic activities such as tin mining and tapping of rubber trees.
I enjoyed visiting this museum very much. Besides the museum, it has a gift shop, gardens, and some nice viewpoints over the lake and the peninsula. If you are interested in the culture and history of the south you can visit the Institute of Southern Thai Studies. The Thaksin Folklore Museum is open every day from 0830 until 1700, except on Monday. The entrance fee is 50THB for Thai nationals and 100THB for overseas visitors. To get there you have to charter a vehicle from town unless you have your own transportation.
The Songkhla Walking Street
Like many cities and towns in Thailand nowadays, Songkhla also has a weekly Walking Street. These street markets have become immensely popular in the past decade. Songkhla’s Walking Street is not an exception. On Friday and Saturday late afternoon Chana road, along the last remaining stretch of the old city wall local people sell a dazzling variety of food, snacks, and local products. I particularly enjoyed the shadow puppet performance as well as the traditional Manohra dancers. The market starts at around 5 PM and ends at 10 PM. If you are there on those days, don’t miss it.
Cycling in Songkhla
Songkhla is ideal for cycling. There are several shops in the Old Town that rent out bicycles of good quality. I got mine at the Poople bike shop on Nakorn Nai Road 130. I think I paid 200THB for the whole day, about 7USD. Songkhla doesn’t have a lot of traffic so you are quite safe pedaling around the Old Town, along the beach, and in the area around Tang Kuan Hil. I made several bike rides in and around the city. If you have enough time it is worth taking the ferry to Singora and cycle around Khao Daeng hill. This takes at least half a day I would say and should best be done in the early morning. There is not much shade and it can become very hot and unpleasant later in the day.
The bicycle ride around Khao Daeng
Forts of Singora
I didn’t check the total distance but I think it is probably not more than 30km. Ride to the place where the ferry departs across the mouth of the Songkhla Lake and board the ferry to the Singhanakorn side. You will get off at the foot of Khao Daeng. From there you will turn right to fort no.8 which is only a couple of hundred meters away from the ferry boat landing. Park the bike, visit the fort, and then continue in the direction of the intersection of road 408. On the left side are four ruined forts. Visit these and then take the road to Wat Khao Noi.
On your left side, you will find the sign that leads to a kind of visitor center of Khao Daeng. A bit further you will find the staircase to the top of Khao Daeng. Park the bike and hike up to the two chedis. Return to the bike and pedal to Wat Khao Noi, where you can visit the Chedi Khao Noi. From Chedi Khao Noi you can actually walk to Fort no.9. It is only a couple of 100 meters.
Muslim villages, graveyards, and temples
From Wat Khao Noi head for the mosque named Masjid Jabalrod Rohmah. Follow the road that will take you along Songkhla Lake. You are now heading back to the ferry boat landing. On the left side, you will pass a number of interesting temples of which some have ancient structures, respectively Wat Pha Boek, Wat Siriwannawas, Wat Bo Sup, and Wat Suwannakhiri.
You will also pass the Chinese-style graves of the Na Songkhla family. It is a pleasant ride back to the ferry boat landing where you board the ferry back to Songkhla. I hope you enjoyed the ride.
References for this article
I have visited Songkhla a total of seven times, once in 1991 and six times since April 2018. Much of my information I found in the museums of Songkhla and on Wikipedia. Besides that I found some information in these articles and books:
Graham H. Dalrymple and Christopher M. Joll, The Muslim Sultans of Singora in the 17th Century, Journal of the Siam Society, 2021
Pimpraphai Bisalputra and Jeffery Sng, The Hokkien Rayas of Songkhla, Journal of the Siam Society, 2020
H. Terpstra, De factorij der Oostindische Compagnie te Patani, Series: Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Brill, Leiden, 1938 (this book is in Dutch language)