A go-to spot in the old town is Blue Smile, a Canadian/Thai-run cafe that doubles as an art gallery with seating beside the lane or up on a rooftop terrace where you can watch the sunset over Songkhla Lake. The North American influence can be tasted by way of a root beer float or gravy fries (poutine), or you could keep it simple with a pizza, pasta or cheesecake brownie. Welcoming staffers also serve quality espresso and Thai craft beers.
Walk a little further north up Nakhon Nok and you’ll come to Cafe Der See, another fine option for a relaxing meal with the bonus of a lakefront terrace. Here you’ll also find fresh coffee along with Thai-style steaks, spaghetti and simple Thai rice plates that drew quite a few locals on lunch break when we passed through. Directly across the lane is Kopitiam Songkhla, a classic Chinese-Thai cafe serving bitter Robusta brew and complimentary jasmine tea to marble-topped roundtables.
Some of the best food in the old town is stuffed along Nang Ngam Road, starting across from the far southern end with Southern Thai curry and rice by Gajib. She wakes early to cook a small but delicious spread of dishes including yum mamuang (spicy green mango salad) and gaeng som pla sai, a sour orange curry with a whole local fish and more than enough heat to make the nose run. You’ll also find tasty tord man pla (fish cakes) and sun-dried beef. English is not spoken but you can simply point to whatever looks good and indulge at a couple of tables set inside the humble shop.
Wander north up Nang Ngam from Gajib and you’ll pass a Thai iced tea joint adjacent to a street cart where a woman grills sai grok neua (beef sausage) in the late afternoons. Continue up the lane and you’ll pass Betong, a small kitchen cooking up pad Thai and mango sticky rice. A few steps further north leads you to Paradise Pizzeria and a good-looking Southern Thai food menu at Phuket Restaurant. Over on Nakhon Nai, Jing Tao Ahaan Jay does Chinese-Thai style vegetarian curries and stir-fries at low prices.
Keep rolling north on Nakhon Nai and you’ll reach the fresh market area in the vicinity of the police station and Subsin Department Store. By day this is a great place to peep piles of fresh fruit and fish. At dusk, street vendors emerge to whip up som tam, grilled chicken, noodle soups, curries for takeaway, chicken rice, satay and plenty more in a miniature night market. A more proper “walking street” market overtakes Nakhon Nok on the second Sunday of every month.
Locals and travellers flock to Samila Beach for a relaxing meal at one of several large seafood restaurants with tables set out on the sand and under pavilions, with nearly identical menus, prices and ambiance. We ended up at The Beach Restaurant for an excellent bowl of gaeng som pla kaphang (sour orange curry with sea bass) that was way too big for a solo diner. Huge portions of squid, saltwater crab, horseshoe crab and all sorts of fish and shellfish are served grilled, steamed, stir-fried, boiled in soups or sizzled with curry paste, and stiff competition results in very reasonable prices for big portions.
Songkhla’s main nightlife strip is found on Soi Sri Suda, which caters both to Thais and a few Westerners who mainly work in shipping and natural resource prospecting in the area. While some pubs have a seedy scene, places like Sabai Bar and Sport Bar are worth a look for a drink and a TV soccer match along with a conversation with some of those expats. To find it, head east from the clock tower on Platha Road and take the first left.
Blue Smile Cafe: Corner of Nakhon Nok and Yala Rds; open Thu–Tue 12:00–23:00; T: (061) 230 5147.
Cafe der See: Nakhon Nok Rd (across the street from Baan Nakhon Nai Museum); open Thu–Tue 10:00–20:00; T: (074) 898 595.
Jing Tao Ahaan Jay: Nakhon Nai Rd (just south of Yala Rd; look for the yellow signs); open for breakfast and lunch.
Khao Gaeng Gajib: Narathiwat Rd (directly across from the south end of Nang Ngam Rd; look for the food display out front); open 06:00–12:00.
The Beach Restaurant: Rachadamnern Rd (at Haad Samila); open daily 10:00–22:00.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.