Christmas in Thailand, Part 3: Songkhla
I haven’t been in Songkhla in a dozen or so years, so jumped at the chance to put it back in the itinerary. After successively postponing and/or canceling trips to Bhutan and Burma, I was left with a hole in my schedule, so this fits the bill nicely. It’s different. Normally when you think of southern Thailand, you think of tourist mega-resorts like upscale Phuket or backpacker havens Koh Samui, Pha Ngan or Tao. Then there are Koh Lanta, Krabi, Phi Phi, and countless others.
Or if you’re thinking about the dangerous and rebellious Thai Muslim ‘three southern provinces’, then you’re talking Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani, or some other places that’ve made big bad news in the last decade’s separation struggles. Then there are the boring provincial Thai cities of Nakhorn Sri Thamarat, Surat Thani, or others best known as transit points. Songkhla doesn’t fit any of these easy categories. It has tourist interest, but almost no one goes there, Thais included.
For one thing Songkhla’s difficult—but scenic—position between sea and inland lake have kept organic growth slow, and access
cumbersome. For another, its beaches have pine trees, not palms, and its most frequent visitors are likely Muslims from Malaysia, picnicking on the beach fully clothed. Songkhla likes to advertise itself as Thailand’s original southern resort city, but that must date to a time when Marseilles was France’s and Acapulco Mexico’s.
There are plenty of Western foreigners here, but they’re not tourists; they’re offshore oil workers. That’s Songkhla’s claim to wealth and fame, that and fishing and rubber plantations. Those workers all need entertainment, of course, so this is your last chance for whoring and drinking before the fundamentalist Muslim south, more fundamentalist than its Malay-national cousins across the border, I reckon.
Sometimes you have to overstate a case just to make a point, I guess. The Thai southern separatists are more about politics than religion, anyway, I think, ethnic Malays who find themselves on the wrong side of the line that divides countries. There are many Thai-speaking Siamese on the other side, too, including many who reject the term ‘Thai’ for their ethnicity, ‘Siamese’ preferred. It’s complicated.
Songkhla itself is not so complicated, though, just bizniz and fun as usual, with only a few references to Malay language to remind one that danger is not far away. There are Muslims scattered over most all parts of Thailand, and for the most part coexistence is peaceful. And until recently, at least, with increasing fundamentalist sentiment, about the only distinction from other Thais was their refusal to eat pork, otherwise drinking and whoring with the rest. That has changed lately, at least somewhat.
But Songkhla hasn’t changed much, not from the first time I was here fifteen years ago, or the second time twelve years ago. That second time I fell in love and left precipitously rather than face the fact that the object of my affection was a special order for one of the local oil-field helicopter pilots. She needed money for her grandmother’s hospital bill. By the time I knew what was happening, it was too late. She was an Isaan girl, and I’m sure long gone by now, but he may still be here. You never know.
That little anecdote largely defines the situation here, foreigners with money all out of proportion to the locals’ meager earnings,
though earned locally, many of them Scots with experience in the North Sea, Saudi A, or even Nigeria. Fortunately I’ve done a stint as an oil-field roughneck, so I know the drill and the lingo. Most are pretty nice guys, too, albeit with usually only a tenuous relationship with the locals.
So I gravitate to the bar with Nirvana on the play list, playing straight off of YouTube on a full-size screen, atmosphere more than making up for whatever the system lacks in fidelity. This is the Corner Bar, and Tom is the owner. He might as well be the King of Scotland, as far as I’m concerned. These guys are not stingy. For every drink I’ve bought, I think I’ve gotten at least two more free, often not even knowing who the generous donor is.
I could get used to this, if I can get used to alcohol at all. I’ve been out of practice for years. There’s only one rule: “No politics,” and that’s probably wise, since there are US oil-field workers here, too. I doubt they voted for Obama. But after two nights of drinking, I’m in a daze. I really prefer an almost tee-total existence, like the last five years, but I also prefer some social intercourse, so you can’t have it both ways. I’m teetering between a lost weekend and the dark night of my soul, uncertain as to how all of this plays out, while saving something for Christmas, at least, which should be interesting. It is, but I’ve had too much alcohol. These bloody Scots can drink me under the table. .
I should go see some more of the south while I’ve got the chance. Still it might be worth checking Songkhla out again, in a different season. If there’s a dry season, then I don’t know when it is. Floods were big in the news until recently, and even now it’s cloudy and rainy much of the day… and hot. Any amount of exertion will yield an equivalent amount of water in the form of sweat, to the point that you might as well wash the item, since you’ll have to wait for it to dry regardless.
I do this two or three times a day, every day. It gets old. Thank God for air conditioning. Songkhla isn’t perfect, but Thailand is something of a safe haven for me, and that’s nice in many ways. I just have to define the terms. I’ll be back.