sign in a cave in Laos

19 August 2008

Phattalung & Songkla (Star)

Saturday September 20, 2003
More than a seaside to Songkla

Story & Pictures by LIZ PRICE

IT was a tough decision each night. Should I have a local delicacy, such as a plate of fresh spicy noodles with seafood, or should I buy lots of snack items and make a picnic out of it? The food on display at the market stalls was enough to tempt the most discerning of gourmets.

I was in Phattalung in southern Thailand, ostensibly on a caving trip but it was starting to turn into an eating binge. Oh well, what the heck. Might as well indulge and combine my two passions in life.

I had arranged to meet my non-caving friend in Hat Yai, not having told him I would be dragging him around a few spelaeological sites. I took the bus up to Hat Yai from KL, and upon arrival, was soon ensconced in a comfortable cheap hotel, costing all of 150 baht (RM14) a night.

And then we immediately headed for one of my favourite eating-places, a small shop selling authentic Thai food, not often patronised by foreigners. A plateful of delicious spicy food costs less than RM3. Most Malaysians when visiting Hat Yai tend to go to expensive seafood restaurants catering for tourists, or to one of the many halal shops in the city centre.

The food in these places is generally expensive and toned down for the Malaysian palate, so you don’t get the kick of authentic Thai cooking.

Phattalung Province is south Thailand's major rice growing area.

Big Sea meets Little Sea

The following day we made a day trip to Songkla. This seaside town is the capital of Songkla Province, not Hat Yai as many people think. We took a bus — big buses and minivans frequently ply this route. We spent the day wandering, sitting and looking. The town has a pleasant feel as it is quieter and less busy than Hat Yai, and has retained its charm with old buildings and temples.

The National Museum has to be one of the most attractive museum buildings in Thailand. It is housed in a 100-year-old building of southern Sino-Portuguese architecture, painted red and white with a curved roofline. The museum contains exhibits from all national art style periods as well as Thai and Chinese ceramics and furniture. Outside the museum is a stretch of the old city wall dating from the 17th century.

Songkla lies on a peninsula between the Gulf of Thailand and a large inland sea. This inland sea, Thaleh Sap, is a huge brackish lake stretching up to Phattalung about 90km away, where it merges with the Thaleh Noi (Little Sea). There are two wildlife sanctuaries on this inland sea, and these are important wetland areas and a haven for waterbirds.

Another attraction of Songkla is the seafood, particularly along Hat Samila, a white stretch of beach lined with casuarina trees. At one end of the beach is a bronze statue of a mermaid, similar to that found in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The inhabitants of Songkla are a colourful mix of Thais, Chinese and Malays, and this is reflected in the architecture in the old part of town. Wat Klang is a 17th century Sino-Thai temple. Songkla is also southern Thailand’s education centre, and this is seen in the number of universities and colleges.

Eh, what ferry?

We then headed north to Phattalung, about 1½ hours by bus from Hat Yai. Phattalung Province is south Thailand’s major rice growing area and it has prospered. The eastern portion of the province is washed by the inland sea Thaleh Noi. Phattalung town is small and very few foreign tourists stay here, as they are normally dashing to or from the more popular beach areas and islands and Hat Yai. As a result, we found the locals very friendly.

You can tell by the number of gold dealers on one road that there is a large Chinese population.

But there is also still a strong Muslim influence, so there is no problem in finding halal food.

Its eastern portion is washed by the inland sea Thaleh Noi.

Phattalung is famous for the original nang thalung or shadow play (wayang kulit); in fact the name probably comes from Phattalung, as nang means untanned leather. The town lies between two picturesque limestone hills, which in English are called Punctured Chest Mountain and Broken Head Mountain. The Punctured Chest Mountain does have a cave tunnel through its upper peak. Of course, I had to investigate both these hills in my search for caves.

Wat Khuhasawan at the edge of town is a cave temple, the main chamber houses a reclining Buddha and numerous smaller seated Buddhas. Steps lead down further in to the cave, so I went to investigate whilst my friend stayed behind. We then climbed many steps to the top of the mountain where we had an excellent view over the town and surrounding plains, and the nearby Punctured Chest Mountain. We could see right across the inland sea and decided that the next day we would go out there and do a boat trip across the sea.

This proved to be a bit of a non-event. We took a songthaew (taxi van) out to Lam Pam, on the banks of the inland sea, and found the place deserted. We wandered around in vain looking for the supposedly regular ferry across the inland sea. There was no sign of this, just a few fishermen out in small boats.

Finally we asked at the only shop open and was told there is no longer a boat service.

Scenic walk to caves

So we walked back along the river, which was rather pleasant, and went to Wat Wang, Phattalung’s oldest temple, at more than 100 years old. It is a small but interesting place.

We then went back into town sharing a songthaew with a few baskets of dried fish and vegetables. This, of course, got my taste buds going, so when we reached town I dived into the mini-mart and bought some snacks and drinks. Thai supermarkets in rural areas are very civilised as they invariably have a stone table and chairs outside, so I could sit here and refuel before tackling the next set of caves.

Firstly, we had to take photos of the cave tunnel which pierces the high peak. The best view was from the middle of someone’s farm, and the owner was more than happy for us to plough through the vegetable and banana plants to get our shots. We then trekked down the road following the signs to Tham Malai, or Malai Cave. Despite the blazing heat, this was a scenic walk, as the road ran alongside the canal and railway line, with brilliant green padi fields stretching to the foot of the hill on the other side.

When we reached Tham Malai, we found a lot of construction work in progress, with a new road being built up the hill, and flights of steps being laid in the main cave. I managed to explore four caves in this small hill. Again, there were good views over the surrounding plains with the limestone towers sticking out prominently.

On the top of the hill are some Chinese shrines and a chedi (stupa), but this complex was locked. Some of the caves are archaeological sites, where votive tablets from the eighth to 15th centuries have been found.

Coconut omelette, anyone?

Having exhausted ourselves walking and climbing, we ambled back into town to enjoy the local food in the market. First item on the menu was a fresh fruit juice which cost less than RM1. Then I had to sample the khao yam which is dry rice mixed with coconut, peanuts, lime leaves and shrimps. Yum, delicious. This was followed by snacks from different stalls, including a coconut omelette. Although this sounds odd, the slightly salty tang of the fresh coconut really complimented the egg.

We then went to one of the many internet cafes to catch up with our e-mail, then prepared for the journey back to KL. W

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