Songkhla, on the way to Malaysia


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Asia » Thailand
May 27th 2017
Published: June 6th 2017
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I had a rough plan to get from Bangkok down to Malaysia. I was still hoping for a few more "new" mammals for my life-list because I was so close to 300, and I certainly hadn't added to it at Pang Sida!

I had looked at the dolphin boats which go offshore by the Bang Pakong River south of Bangkok because while they are looking for Irrawaddy dolphins (which I've already seen) they can also see finless porpoises (which I've never seen). However it is the wrong time of year so that was out.

Then I looked at Khanom which is a town on the Thai peninsula, south of Surat Thani. This town is known for its pink dolphins (not well-known, but still known). Their pink dolphins are Indopacific humpback dolphins. Supposedly they are "regularly seen" from a couple of piers there, but that information came from Lonely Planet so I didn't know how accurate it would be. The cost of a boat would be between 1000 and 2000 Baht, kind of expensive when by oneself. I figured I could go there, check out the piers for dolphins, and take a boat if necessary. Then I would continue on down to Songkhla where I wanted to visit the zoo, and then cross the border into Malaysia.

In the end I dropped Khanom and its dolphins from my plan. The more I read about Khanom the more complicated it seemed. Getting to Surat Thani is easy enough, and there are mini-vans from there to Khanom so that's all well and good. But Khanom isn't a proper town, more like a long straggling string of houses and businesses. There's no public transport and the distances are too long to be walking everywhere, and also quite importantly there is no budget accommodation there.

With the pink dolphins out, that meant I would just be spending two days on buses getting from Bangkok to Songkhla. That wasn't going to be fun: the Bangkok to Surat Thani leg alone is at least ten hours. I looked at Air Asia flights and found that I could cover the whole distance in one and a half hours for barely more than the cost of buses and food and accommodation along the way. It didn't take much to convince me of what to do.

While Songkhla does have an airport, the Air Asia flight
Common Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)Common Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)Common Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)

with a disturbingly low fence!
lands at Hat Yai. For some reason there were quite a lot of Chinese tourists on the flight. I'd already cleverly checked the options for getting from Hat Yai airport to Songkhla for as little money as possible. It's actually dead-easy. From the airport there's a blue songthaew (truck-taxi) for 15 Baht to the clock tower in Hat Yai's town centre, and from there I got a mini-van for 38 Baht to Songkhla which dropped me right at Soi Rong Mueang, which is the road with the cheapest guesthouses in Songkhla. The place I found there is called the Songkhla Guesthouse, directly enough, and has basic fan-rooms for 200 Baht.

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The next morning I went to the Songkhla Zoo which was a bit of a disappointment in general. I saw lots of grey-bellied squirrels wild around the zoo which was neat - they're not a new species for me or even new for the year-list, but I don't think I've ever seen them as a "wild zoo animal" before. What was a wild lifer was a butterfly lizard (Leiolepis), but I haven't looked up which species it was yet.

The Songkhla Zoo is one of the five zoos comprising the Zoological Park Organization Thailand. These are the top five zoos in the country, aiming for high standards in animal welfare, education and conservation. The other four zoos in the organisation are Dusit Zoo in Bangkok, Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Chonburi, Korat Zoo in Nakhon Ratchasima, and Chiang Mai Zoo in the northern city of Chiang Mai. I was looking forward to finally seeing the Songkhla Zoo, especially after liking what I saw at the Korat Zoo a week ago. Unfortunately the Songkhla Zoo does not live up to the conditions of the other four zoos.

The zoo is very large - about 360 acres - and is designed to be driven around rather than walked. Getting there is pretty easy without your own vehicle though. I took a songthaew from the market in town for 15 Baht, which took maybe twenty minutes and dropped me at a huge "Songkhla Zoo" archway at a side-road. This isn't actually the entrance to the zoo - that is another 1.5km along the side-road. I did this by motorbike-taxi for 30 Baht. When you reach the zoo's actual entrance there is still another kilometre before you reach the ticket booth. Entry is 150 Baht for a foreigner. So getting there is easy enough, but getting back is not so easy. There is no transport (motorbikes, taxis, etc) at the zoo end. I just walked back to the main road where the archway is, and from there you can get a songthaew back to town.

I had read that the zoo cannot be walked around because it is so big, but that isn't really true. Certainly if you had children or mobility issues then you would need transport, but anybody of average fitness can easily do so. It was fortunate for me that the day was cloudy, though, which made it slightly less hot than it would have been otherwise. I asked at the ticket booth if they had bicycles for rent as at the Korat Zoo, but they did not. The lady also said that there was "no bus". I knew there was some sort of shuttle that went around the zoo - I had been planning on riding it round to get the lay-out and then walk round the bits I needed to see on foot, and I saw the "bus stations" all around the zoo - but perhaps it only runs on weekends and holidays (my visit was on a Friday), or perhaps it has simply been abandoned as so much else at the zoo has been.

Although the zoo is huge, I got round the whole site on foot in four hours. This, no doubt, was helped by the fact that so much of the zoo is in disarray. Everywhere I went there were empty and abandoned enclosures, some blocked off with tarpaulins or shade-cloth and others just sitting there empty. Some cages were better off for being empty, but others seemed to have nothing wrong with them - they were just empty and overgrown, presumably because the inhabitants had died and replacements could not be made for whatever reason. At one point there were ten mostly-occupied parrot aviaries, and then beyond them another twenty-odd blocked off and empty. Further on I came across a disused path along which were at least another twenty aviaries, all abandoned (and judging from the leaf-fall and general state of the path, had been for at least a couple of years). There is a 3.6 acre Water Park (as in a fun park for kids), just near the entrance, which was closed even though fountains and everything were working. There was a large walk-through aviary which was closed, even though it was full of birds. The bird collection must have been fantastic a few years ago, now it is a remnant.

Looking at Tripadvisor reviews this seems to be a fairly common account too - over the last few years the standards have gone down and the numbers of empty enclosures have gone up.

There were still plenty of animals to be seen but the overall feel of the place was one of a downward spiral. Neglect would be too harsh a word to use, but there was a distinct listlessness and lack of enthusiasm about the place. There was construction work as well, with new enclosures being built or renovated here and there, but somehow this increased the appearance of the zoo being run-down rather than giving the impression of things being improved.

So, I don't know what has happened to the Songkhla Zoo. It obviously used to be very good indeed and now it is like a shadow. It has good parts - indeed, it has some very good parts - but it also has so much ruin scattered everywhere, like it is simply winding down to a inevitable closure. It reminded me in a way of the Melaka Zoo in Malaysia which went in the space of a few years from one of the best zoos in Asia to a shambolic mess through neglect and corruption. I know why it happened to Melaka Zoo but I don't think that it is the same cause as for Songkhla Zoo. Maybe it was just never in the right location for a zoo of this size. I really don't know. But it was quite a sad zoo visit.

Just as a side-note, I've only visited eleven animal collections on this trip but ten of them have been "new" ones for me, including Songkhla Zoo. The only non-new one was the Dusit Zoo in Bangkok. I'll probably be visiting several more non-new ones in Malaysia though, so that'll bring my average down.

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In the late afternoon after the zoo-visit I discovered that the area of my guesthouse - just by the market - has street stalls every Friday and Saturday. I wandered around trying various foods, and found a stall selling watches. When I had got back to Bangkok after Pang Sida I went looking for a new watch. It was relatively important to enable me to catch planes and buses on time, and to know what time it was when I woke up in the morning and when lunch-time was. I looked at lots of watch shops and stalls, and all of them were too expensive. Even the cheapest were around the 300 to 400 Baht mark. And I don't mean quality watches, I mean cheap watches that you could buy at K-Mart or The Warehouse for NZ$5. For comparison, 400 Baht is NZ$16. I sure as heck wasn't going to pay more for a watch in Thailand than I would in New Zealand! Here at the Songkhla market the stall I found had a wide selection for 100 Baht each, all exactly the same ones as I'd seen in Bangkok for several times the price. So now I have a watch again.

Tomorrow I would be going to Malaysia, which should entail a mini-van from Songkhla back to Hat Yai, and then a series of mini-vans or buses or something to Penang via the border towns of Dannok (on the Thai side) and Bukit Kayu Hitam (on the Malaysian side). This will be a new border-point for me, and will make the third one I've used crossing between these two countries.

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25th August 2018

Thoughts on Songkhla Zoo
Hi I read your file here several times before i went to Songkhla Zoo. Sounds as if your Sangatew was more expensive than mine, i paid 28 bath and locals drove me free up and down to the entrance. If you thought the zoo is run down, good you didnt do the aquarium. A friend told me it was closed last month. Still wonder wwhy you didnt like Songkhla zoo, animals in general had bigger enclosures. You can see some of my pics here: http://www.zoos.mono.net/25951/Enclosures (in general my homepage, was this year first time in Australia and Thailand). Dont know if you have heard but Duisit zoo closes in september 2018 and moves 40 km outside of the city. Nothing is built yet, but they talk about opening it next year (so in reality i guess earliest 2020 (?)) - but no plan has been drawn either...

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