Once known as Singora (“lion city”), Songkhla grew to prominence during the Srivijaya period (see pp350–51). It once had a reputation as a pirate base but gradually attracted Arab, Indian, Khmer, and Chinese traders. The cuisine and language of Songkhla reflect its multicultural heritage, and a subtle Portuguese influence is evident in the architecture of the houses along Nakhon Nok and Nakhon Nai roads. Today the city, built on the headland between the Gulf of Thailand and Thale Sap – the country’s largest lake – is a fishing port and an administrative and educational center.
Songkhla’s main beach, Hat Samila, which is presided over by the bronze Mermaid Statue, is pleasant to walk along and it has several good seafood restaurants. Farther south, at Khao Seng, is a Muslim fishing village where colorful korlae fishing boats can be seen. A local myth says that if you can move the Nai Bang’s Head boulder on the headland beside the village, you will inherit the gold buried underneath.
The beautiful, evocative building housing the Songkhla National Museum is an attraction in itself. It was built in 1878 in the Southern Thai Chinese style as the residence of deputy Songkhla governor Phraya Suntharanur aksa. A hidden grass courtyard flanks two spiraling staircases leading to the wooden paneled second story, where most exhibits are kept. Highlights include Bencharong pottery, earthenware jars recovered from the sea around Songkhla, 7th- to 9th-century Dvaravati plinths and Buddha images, and Ban Chiang pottery said to date from 3000 BC.
The Patrsee Museum in Wat Matchimawat (sometimes called Wat Klang), south of the National Museum, is no less important. Its 14-in (35-cm) stone image of Ganesh, the elephant god, is thought to date from the late 6th century, making it the earliest such image found in the peninsula. Chinese painted enamelware from the Qwing Ching dynasty, 15th-century U Thong wares, and 18th-century European plates all indicate the importance of Songkhla’s former maritime trade links.
The city’s other main temple, Wat Chai Mongkhon, has a Buddha relic from Sri Lanka buried beneath it.
Songkhla is an attractive city to walk around, taking in the topiary garden at Khao Noi and the view of Thale Sap from the peak of Khao Tung Kuan. Restaurants and live music bars can be found around Chaiya Road.