In 1922, Thai monarch King Rama VII instructed his architect to build a palace in an unassuming fishing village just three hours south of Bangkok. Today, that sleepy village is now a bustling and developed beachside town, and still the place where Thai royals and other society folk choose to relax and get away from the capital. This makes Hua Hin the Hamptons – or the Versailles, if you will – of the land of smiles.
Yes, development has changed the atmosphere of the town, and does continue to liven up the fishing village vibe. But the underlying current is still true to its seaside heritage, and the town boasts many hidden charms: fantastic pierside seafood restaurants, heritage sites, clean – but not breathtaking – beaches, surrounding natural beauty and less ‘tack’ than other mainland resort towns such as Pattaya. Sure, there are touches of classic Thai tourism traps, but overall, Hua Hin is one of the best places to go for a quiet, relaxed, beachside break – particularly if you’re already in neighbouring Bangkok.
What to see
Hua Hin railway station An easy way to get from Bangkok to Hua Hin is by train. In fact, it was the development of the train network in the ’20s that made the town the tourist spot it is today, and the journey is made all the better by the final destination. Hua Hin railway station is one of Thailand’s oldest, and the unique wooden structure adjacent to it, ‘the Royal waiting room’, is one of the area’s most beautiful buildings. The trip from Bangkok on the train is slow, however, and will take around four to five hours (versus three by car). A ticket will cost from approximately Dhs35 (www.thailandtrainticket.com).
Khao Takiab (Chopstick Mountain) Four kilometres south of Hua Hin sits this picturesque hill, known for its great observation areas that look across the whole town. At the base of the hill is a giant Golden Buddha statue, which seems to magically glimmer, even at night. Walking up the narrow stairs to the hilltop is quite a feat, but well worth it if you’re a keen photographer. What you will take away with you, however, is the experience of jostling with hundreds of monkeys, who are cheeky and brash (www.khaotakiab.com).
The Palaces There are two notable palaces in Hua Hin – Klai Kang Won Palace (meaning ‘far from worries’), which is still an active summer home for the current monarchs and so off limits, and Maruekatayawan Palace, the building designed by King Rama VII in 1922. It’s a key example of classic raised Thai architecture and claims to be the longest golden teak palace in the world. The wooden beach-facing pavilions and the gardens are fantastic – when we visited they were almost eerily peaceful. Entry will cost you Dhs4 (www.thailand-huahin.com/huahin-maruekatayawan-palace.htm).
What to eat
Hua Hin Hills Vineyard This grape-producing spot is set on breathtaking grounds. It’s unique in that there are hardly any vineyards in Asia, let alone Hua Hin – the tropical Asian climate isn’t normally conducive to grape-growing, yet the Monsoon Valley grape is refined and fresh. The vineyard is about 30 to 40 minutes from Hua Hin, but you can definitely spend the day there thanks to tastings, tours, elephant rides (it seems as though the elephants are well-treated) and more. The food served at the lunch-only pavilion-style restaurant is also the best we tried during our time in Hua Hin, and seasonal packages offering half-day tours, tastings and meals are available, often for less than Dhs300 (huahinhillsvineyard.com, +66 0 81 701 0222).
Where to shop
The Cicada Market During our trip we meandered through Hua Hin’s main night market most nights, and while the shabby-chic blues bars and great street food won us over, the shopping didn’t. We were disheartened by the market scene – that is, until we found the Cicada Market. Standing for ‘Community of Identity Culture Art and Dynamic Activities’ this lively hub is not only host to live music and home to fresh and fast street food (we braved it and were fine), but also houses galleries with affordable art, local fashion designers and much more. We left with a large canvas, four or five graphic T-shirts and plenty of cute hand-drawn greetings cards (www.cicadamarket.com, +66 0 81 880 4004).
Need to know
Getting there Gulf Air flies to Bangkok via Bahrain from about Dhs2,200 return including taxes (www.gulfair.com, 04 271 3222).
Where to stay Hua Hin’s USP is that it’s where the locals go, so we were determined to sidestep the behemoth chains to stay in a Thai-owned, Thai-run hotel. We opted for the friendly Rest Detail Hotel: with only 56 rooms, and located a little way out of town, it’s a tranquil and quirky option. We stayed in a Rest Horizon Room, which was clean and chic inside – all whites and blues – and featured a private balcony with a bubbling Jacuzzi that overlooked the Gulf of Thailand.
This really is the kind of place that you can head to simply relax, donning the provided fisherman pants and ignoring the rest of Hua Hin: eat, read your book, lounge by the pool or walk along the beach. Staff are very friendly and genuinely attentive (we got the feeling no question was scoffed at), the spa has a boutique vibe, the massages are great and the seafood is excellent. We developed a particular penchant for the unusual seafood green curry pizza (which tastes better than it sounds).
If you want a backpacker-style party break, the Rest Detail isn’t for you – well, neither is Hua Hin – as the hotel is about a 10-minute drive out of town, but if it’s peace and quiet you’re after, it’s pin-drop quiet at night and has a tourist-tack-free beach.
If you’re considering a visit, book now for February or March – the hotel organises the Hua Hin Ballooning Festival from February 12-March 6, which sees the Hua Hin Hills vineyard taken over by colourful balloons (www.huahinballooningfestival.com) Rooms start at about Dhs500 per night, including breakfast and dinner (www.restdetailhotel.com, +66 0 32 547 733).