Heading south from Phattalung, the obvious next stop is Hat Yai, the transport hub of the far south. A sprawling city—the largest in southern Thailand—Hat Yai is far from close to my heart, so I skip it and head to Songkhla.
While Hat Yai is better known (and more visited), Songkhla is the provincial capital, and far more to my liking. The town traces its roots back to the 12th century and relics of the past still cram its Old City. Thanks to two islands they thought looked like lions, seafaring Indian traders dubbed the original town Singora—clearly, they were trading in hallucinogens. Chinese, Malay and Siamese traders, perhaps with a better idea of what lions look like, went with Songkhla. The name stuck.
These are not lions. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
A couple of hours from Phattalung, my obliging van driver drops me at my guesthouse, Holland House. Owned by a Dutch expat (it has since changed ownership), it is about as close to backpacker digs as one can get in town. I see another foreigner sitting at a table street side. He waves and says “Hey stranger” as if he knows me. I walk into reception, wracking my memory for his face. I come up blank.
Holland House is a simple joint. A few sticks of furniture and bathrooms that could do with sandblasting, but it is cheap and friendly. Once I’ve dumped my bag and cleaned up, I head back down, planning to wander Songkhla’s Old City. My new friend though, is lying in wait, and buttonholes me.
A great town for walking. Photo: David Luekens.
He insists we’ve met before and feigns offence when I say I have no recollection of our meeting. I’m towards the end of a month-long trip through the South, mostly spent in less–touristed towns. I’m sure I’d have remembered him, but I don’t. He says he can’t remember where it was we met, but he is sure we have. He doesn’t remember my name. It is an odd exchange.
I go to leave and he volunteers to join me—he has no plans, he says—my plans it seems, don’t matter. We walk off together.
Songkhla’s Old Town occupies part of the west of the city, sidling against Songkhla Lake. An amalgam of temples, trading houses, museums, wooden buildings and street art, of Thailand’s “old towns”, Songkhla is one of the best. I wander aimlessly, down main roads, up alleys, along the way peeking my head into shopfronts. There are plenty of smiles, and at one stage an older woman invites me into her house, proudly pointing to a beautiful desk and chair.
No shortage of eating opportunities. Photo: David Luekens.
My new friend meanwhile, doesn’t shut up. He natters incessantly about where he has been, where he plans to go, about how he is a slow traveller and so on. He seems oblivious to our surroundings. I deliberately slow down, lingering everywhere, hoping he’ll get bored and move on, but I can’t shake him. I’m not hungry, but I sit down to eat—he joins me.
Eating as slowly as possible, I explain to him that after lunch I’ve got some work to do, which I’d prefer to do alone. He asks what I do, and while I don’t mention Travelfish, I say I’m a travel writer. As when you first meet a fireman, the questions come thick and fast. I instantly regret telling him what I do.
No shortage of smiles in Songkhla. Photo: David Luekens.
His questions get particular—how much do I earn, who do I write for, do I get free stays, etcetera. I answer some, but am evasive on others. I order more food hoping he’ll leave. He orders more too.
This isn’t the first day in Songkhla I had in mind.
Finishing up, I tell him I need to go look at hotels. I hadn’t planned to do hotels, but I want to shake him loose. He says he’ll join me, and I say I’d prefer he doesn’t. As when he first waved at me, he feigns offence, then acts like I’m joking. I say I’m not, that I’ll be talking to hoteliers and looking at rooms and it is easier to do alone.
Give me something to cool a temper please. Photo: David Luekens.
He says he’ll come just for the first one, and I say I’d prefer he doesn’t. Then, rather incredibly, he says something which remains scorched into my memory all these years later:
“You can’t stop me from walking in the same direction as you.”
Whatever dude. I pay my bill and leave the cafe, with him following me, chattering as if we haven’t just had the exchange we have. His tone though, has changed.
“It sounds like what you’re doing is more of a hobby than a job,” he says.
I keep walking, ignoring him, I cross the road to a business hotel that I have no interest in inspecting. He doesn’t follow me in, but ten minutes later when I walk out, he’s standing there, and follows me down the road.
With age come beauty. Photo: David Luekens.
“It is a hobby, right? I’ve never seen your name in a travel magazine and I read them all. You’re a hobbyist, not a writer.”
Into another hotel I go, and he’s waiting for me when I leave. Sighing, I tell him I’d prefer he did his own thing. If he wants to have a drink at the beach tonight I’m happy to meet up then, but I’d appreciate it if he left me alone while I work.
He’s annoyed now, and pointing his finger at me, he tells me again I’m a hobbyist then walks off. He means it as an insult, but I’m baffled as to why. What does he care?
Time for an offering. Photo: David Luekens.
Later I find an alley between two shopfronts that leads to a small park area by the lake’s edge. The sun is setting and there is a gaggle of food vendors. I grab a simple one-plate dish and a cold beer and enjoy them sitting by the water.
I don’t bother with the beach.
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