On the cusp of a creative transformation, this heritage-rich town in Thailand’s far south offers more than a few reasons to linger.
Photographs by Chris Schalkx
Sunrise in Songkhla. The lingering syllables of a mosque’s call to prayer bounce between the rooftops of the city’s compact Old Town. Formica tables unfold on the sidewalk; motorbikes are kick-started with a roar. Breakfasters fuel up with big bowls of silky rice porridge and steamed Chinese buns from a glass cabinet. Across the street, one of Songkhla’s last remaining rickshaw drivers flashes me a toothless smile.
Though I’ve lived in Thailand for the better part of a decade, this small coastal city in the country’s deep south only appeared on my radar a few years ago, when the who’s who of Bangkok’s creative scene started visiting on long weekends. They’d share pictures of age-old Chinese godowns and new-wave cafés with weathered walls and coconut lattes. They’d rave about the great food, the historic architecture, and the views over Songkhla Lake, a scenic lagoon fed by the Gulf of Thailand. Clearly, I had to go and see what all the fuss was about.
And so, one drizzly January morning, I find myself sipping sweet tea at Hub Seng (152 Nang Ngam Rd.), a classic teahouse on Songkhla Old Town’s main street where 80-year-old owner Ms. Yupin still makes fresh kaya (coconut custard) from scratch every day. Overlooking the scene of Chinese row houses festooned with red lanterns and wall-size street art, it’s hard not to draw a comparison with Phuket’s Old Town. But Songkhla’s historic quarter is much more off the tourist trail and, both in distance and atmosphere, much closer to multicultural George Town in Penang, just across the Malaysian border.
The buildings around me date back to the early 1800s, when immigrants from Fujian and Guangdong settled along the shores of Songkhla Lake and mingled with the Thai and Muslim communities that already inhabited the area. All left their mark on the three streets that now define the designated Old Town district: I spot Chinese shrines standing just a few blocks away from gold-domed mosques and shimmering Thai temples. The restaurants here dish up a cross-border buffet of Thai noodles, steamed bao, and roti canai. Likewise, architectural styles range from Chinese homes with distinctively curved roofs to beautifully renovated Sino-European godowns with gingerbread trims. Some have been empty for so long, they’ve been consumed by trees. Others have been replaced by funky ’70s-style buildings hideously painted in Barbie pink and lime green.
Over the last decade or so, another group of settlers arrived: big-city returnees, exposed to cultural preservation initiatives from Rome to China, full of new ideas and visions for Songkhla’s future. “There’s so much to explore and preserve here,” says Aey Pakorn Rujiravilai, who grew up playing in the Old Town’s narrow alleyways but left to study in New York and Beijing, then found work in Bangkok’s music industry. Nine years ago, he returned to his roots and took over a 1930s wooden house on Nang Ngam Road. Though it was run-down and rat-infested, “I could feel it was a place filled with good spirit,” Rujiravilai recalls. He teamed up with a renowned photographer from Bangkok and turned the building into A.E.Y. Space, a lofty gallery-cum–artists’ retreat focused on sharing perspectives from Songkhla’s rich history.
Since then, Rujiravilai and his gallery have been at the forefront of a local renaissance. He has consulted on preservation projects for investors and government agencies including the Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC), which will open an outpost here in 2022. He also launched Apothecary of Singora, renovating a decrepit Chinese apothecary into a café and made-in-Songkhla concept store selling items like hand-woven tote bags and herbal inhalers. Another project saw him go door to door collecting old photos to stitch together stories of Songkhla’s past.
The Old Town now offers a delightful balancing act between old traditions and new ideas. Taking a page from Penang’s playbook, the city government commissioned Thai and international artists to create street art on the crumbling walls, now popular selfie backdrops for local tourists. Placards in Thai, English, and Chinese provide historical context to heritage buildings, noteworthy noodle stalls, and second-generation ice cream parlors purveying coconut ice cream with raw egg yolk — a surprisingly toothsome Songkhla specialty. Scattered around are the quirky cafés, boutiques, and art galleries that have mushroomed over the past few years. Nakornnaijai, a branch of the Samui-based espresso bar Sasatorn Coffee, is particularly worth seeking out for its single-origin brews made from northern Thai beans.
A recent newcomer is Studio 55, overlooking the lake where boats in primary colors congregate in a tangle of masts and fishnets. “Some ten years ago, this street was lined with karaoke bars — you wouldn’t want to visit after dark,” owner Perat “Tok” Anantapan tells me over lattes. Like Rujiravilai, he too was born here, moved to the city, and returned to his hometown in 2012 to open his first café. “A lot of my friends came back from Bangkok or abroad and started their business here,” he says. “We all saw the same potential, we had the same mindset.” Studio 55, his latest project, started out as a pandemic-induced secret supper club when Anantapan was forced to return home from a culinary course in Rome. Now, the whitewashed space is home to a coffee shop and dining room where chefs from around Thailand collaborate on pop-up dinners.
Behind the coal-black facade just next door, I find another fine addition to the scene. Opened by Songkhla-born, Bangkok-based entrepreneur Pok Thaitun, Titan Project Space is a “memory museum” and tea room inspired by the diary of Thaitun’s grandmother, whose family moved here from Guangdong in the late 1800s. Its exhibitions give insight into the everyday lives of Chinese settlers over the past century through historical photos and multimedia art installations. Built from metal and clay, it’s also one of the newer buildings on the block, though its modern take on traditional Chinese design still pays homage to the original structure that collapsed during renovation.
That night, Rujiravilai brings me to Tae Hiang Aew (85 Nang Ngam Rd.), a perennially packed Chinese restaurant with weathered terrazzo floors and fluorescent lighting. Particularly charming it is not, but the food more than makes up for that: we had peppery stir-fried sea bass, soup with salted plums, and chunks of fermented tofu piled with shallots and chilies — a uniquely local dish with a hint of sharp feta cheese. “This might just be your last meal here,” Rujiravilai says. “Without a next generation willing to take over, this place will close when the owners retire. So will many others.”
This brought me back to a moment earlier that day, when I pointed out a meticulously restored heritage house and Rujiravilai sighed that it would be turned into a Café Amazon (a generic Starbucks-like Thai coffee chain). Wealthy Bangkokians have apparently snapped up lakeside homes and property prices have skyrocketed over the past few years. It’s a glum reminder that no corner of the kingdom is safe from the ever-beating drum of time and globalization. Luckily, there are passionate entrepreneurs like Rujiravilai and Thaitun and Anantapan to help Songkhla Old Town move forward in a sustainable way. I leave knowing that the place is in good hands.
Whether arriving by plane or train, access to Songkhla is via nearby Hat Yai, the largest city in southern Thailand, whose airport is connected to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Pattaya by Thai AirAsia.
Where to Stay
Quaint and quirky, Baan Nai Nakhon Boutique Hotel (doubles from US$48) offers six individually decorated rooms in a century-old building just a few doors down from A.E.Y. Space on Nang Ngam Road.
This article originally appeared in the June/August 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Songkhla Steps Up”).