Songkhla: Hidden Tunnels and Green Adventures

by Ee Lin Wan, Jun 2, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Songkhla province

Songkhla has always remained a black hole for travelers -- overshadowed by Hat Yai in the south and Koh Samui in the north. For those who want a more natural, historical and cultural trip, however, Songkhla holds much promise. It is now regaining popularity among tourists looking for a quieter and more green-oriented holiday. Although it is the capital of the Southern States, and as important in the administration sense as Chiang Mai in the North and Bangkok in Central Thailand,

Ko Yo, an island located in the inland sea known simply as the Great Songkhla Lake is a good place to start. It is linked to two separate parts of mainland Songkhla by Tinsulanond Bridge. As part of Thailand's One Village, One Product Program, Ko Yo Island now boosts of a thriving cotton-weaving industry. Visitors can observe the local weavers clacking away at the hand-operated wooden looms. There is also a folklore museum on Ko Yo, the largest museum in South Thailand. The museum is one of international standard, with many unique artifacts from different historical eras in Thailand. The buildings are built as Thai-styled pavilion houses, and the exhibits are divided into different categories: the Shadow Play Garden, Ancient Beads Garden, Traditional Medicine Garden and Bamboo Culture Garden. At the Fishing Village area, there are coconut-shells carved into various human shapes depicting the Southern Thailand legends.

Apart from the cotton-weaving industry, Ko Yo is famed for its excellent seafood restaurants, as it is a fishing village for the past 100 years. Sea bass and prawns are popular, especially cooked the Tom Yam way. Chinese-style cooking is also available for patrons who prefer a non-spicy meal. Stalls selling local tit-bits are located next to the seafood restaurants. Freshly roasted cashew nuts are particularly popular (it is glazed with different flavors ranging from honey and sesame seeds to curry powder). Other delicious Ko Yo snacks sold here include dried anchovies, squids, durian cakes and fish paste. The prices here are a lot more reasonable compared to what you?ll find in the Hat Yai markets.

Many of these legends are connected to the sea, as Southern Thailand is surrounded by both the Andaman Sea and South China Sea. The Great Songkhla Lake, which surrounds Ko Yo, the Thailand's largest freshwater lake, flows into the Gulf of Thailand.

The Great Lake and its surrounding area is also a popular spot for migratory birds fleeing the harsh winter in Russia and North China. The famed Khu Khut Water Bird Park is located half an hour north of Songkhla, along a thin strip of land which separates the lake from the sea. It is a 520 square kilometer sanctuary on the Thale Sap. These wetlands are a habitat for some 200 resident and migrant bird species, and the area as whole is an attractive spot whether or not ornithology is your interest. Birds which can be spotted all year long are the herons, purple moorhens, water-hens and black-winged stilts. The more exotic birds migrating here include the whistling teals and cotton teaks. The most popular months for the birds to migrate here is from October to January annually. Travelers can charter boats from the Fishery Department for the special bird watching tours, which also include an optional trip to a Fishing Village. The cost for the boat is 200 Baht per hour, and each boat seats up to four passengers.

Another increasingly popular attraction in Songkhla is a series of tunnels known as Piyamitir. These tunnels are similar to the network dug in Vietnam by the Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnam War some 30 years ago. The Piyamitir in Songkhla is located in the Khao Nam Khang National Park in the province of Na Thawi. The Piyamitir represents the connection between Malaysia and Thailand, for these tunnels were once shelter for the Malaysian Communists who migrated to Thailand after World War Two.

Unhappy with the lack of acknowledge for the role the communists played in fighting against the Japanese, the communists guerillas tried to fight against the interim administration. Today, the former communists work as tourist guide for travelers who wish to visit the Piyamitir tunnels. Loi, our tour guide recounts her experience,? We were part of the group who fought for our country. All of us were university students in Malaya when World War Two first broke up. We protected our country people from some Japanese brutalities during the war, but when the British came back, they attacked us continuously together with the Malay government. After holding up for a long while, we could not stand the continuous onslaught anymore, and begin digging these tunnels."

The tunnels took two years to complete, and for many years after the war, the communists hid here. The Piyamitir is a testimony of the endurance of the communists -- some parts are so rocky that it's hard to imagine how they manage to dig through it using basic tools. The 1000-plus meter tunnel is divided into organized sections: bedrooms, kitchens, meeting rooms, emergency rooms and a shooting-practice area. In all, the complex consists of 100 underground rooms, with more than 200 people living inside during the worse of the attack by the British and Malaysian government. Immediately outside the main entrance of the tunnels, there is a basketball court, a wedding room and rooms for the top communist comrades. At the main meeting hall, there are pictures of Stalin, Lenin, Karl Marx and Mao Zedong. The entrance of the tunnel was renovated when the idea of making it a tourist attraction took hold.

Originally, the tunnels had only three entrances, this was later renovated to make up a total of 16 entrances, and three floors of underground complexes. It is said that this is the most perfect and longest tunnel of its kind in Thailand. What really make a visit memorable, though, are the first-hand accounts of the guides who endured such privations fighting for their beliefs.

After such adventurous experiences, travelers would enjoy a more city atmosphere in the main town of Songkhla. One of Songkhla city?s most recognizable symbols is a 35-years-old, cute, cuddly and made entirely out of bronze mermaid. Loved and abhorred, the mermaid was sculpted in 1966 by a famous Thai artist. The mermaid legend is included in the Royal Thai scribe, and it tells of a local fisherman who fell in love with a mermaid in Songkhla. When the love struck man lunged at the object of his passion, the mermaid dashed into the depths of Samila Beach, never to be seen again. The statue of this famous maiden is certainly popular with shutter-bugs and their models readily wait for their turn to be photographed with the enchanting beauty. You will also see many prayer ornaments placed around the mermaid statue, for Thais believe the mermaid is capable of granting wishes.

On Saiburi Road nearer to town, travelers will see Wat Matchimawat which is set in its own extensive compound. The temple is eye-catching in its lavish ornamentation -- notable are the figures carved on the doors and window shutters -- but it is the interior of the main hall that is truly enchanting, with all four walls covered with colorful murals of traditional scenes drawn from the Jataka tales of the Buddha's previous lives and lively cameos of daily life in 19th-century Songkhla. Directly west of the Wat Matchimawat are the parallel streets of Nakon Nai and Nakhon Nawk which in their mix of Chinese, Portuguese and Malay architectural styles give the most vivid impression of how Songkhla must have appeared a century ago. Many original Chinese and Malay settlers still live here, and some settlers here are of Portuguese descent.

Away to the south, about half an hour?s walk away, the quintessential local fishing scene is even more pronounced at Khao Saen, a Muslim village set against a rocky headland. Drawn up on the beach here are brightly painted and ornamented fishing boats (known as Kolae) traditional to the region, the symbolism and ritual elements of the designs contrasting with the hard-nosed business of the bustling late afternoon fish market. The rocky mountainous area nearby is where the legend of Nine Hundred Thousand Treasure originated. This legend told about Raeng, a merchant who brought his treasure to take part in the restoration of Phra Thart Nakhon Si Thammarat. However, he could not arrive in Nakhon Si Thammarat (another four hours north) in time. So, he buried all of the treasure under a big rock at the edge of the cliff and vowed to give it to anyone who could remove that rock which named after him.

Apart from all the tourist places, another interesting "to-do" is to simply walk around town and the beaches. A walk-a-bout trip around Songkhla is not complete without treating yourself to the "coconut ice cream" and "Yam Ma Muang" (Spicy Mango Salad), each costing 10 Baht. Have fun!