The wild full moon parties and Thai bucket- fuelled nightlife of islands like Koh Samui and Koh Phangan have put Thailand firmly on the tourist (and backpacker’s) map. Last December, the Tourism Authority of Thailand invited me to a media trip to one of the country’s lesser known beach resort of Hua Hin. I couldn’t help but wonder what this so-called ‘royal retreat,’ would look and feel like.
Before heading to Hua Hin, we were invited to a six course dinner at Dusit Thani’s beautiful Benjarong restaurant, with its little lush tropical garden and Koi pond. Beautifully served in pots and ‘benjarongs’, the food was fit for a royal banquet.
Adding a good hour dedicated to Bangkok’s notorious traffic, the ride to Hua Hin took 3 hours. With exceptionally well-paved and clear signages (with roman alphabet) leading to whichever way you’re going, it is impossible to get lost around here.
While the beaches of Phuket and Samui enjoyed soaring popularity in the early 90s and have since undergone massive development; Hua Hin has been an established and favourite resort for over 70 years. In 1921, the director of the state railway, Prince Purachatra, built the Railway Hotel close to the beach. King Rama VII liked the place so much that he built a summer palace there. The palace was named Wang Klai Kang Won, Far from Worries and is now the full-time residence of the King of Thailand. For now, this oldest and most traditional of Thai resorts has managed to combine the attractions of a modern holiday destination with the charm and fascination of a still active fishing port.
The shore is unsurprisingly calmer and quieter than Thailand’s better-known beach destinations, earning it comparison to the sunny Mediterranean coastline of France, the Cote d’Azur.
On our first night in Hua Hin, we were taken to the Plearn Wan Eco Village, a faux vintage village built in 2009 to ‘recapture the real vintage spirit of Hua Hin’. Admission is free and stepping into the compound almost feels like walking through a circa 1960s movie set. Inside, you will find a two storey open lawn surrounded with chic wooden buildings containing numerous quirky shops selling mostly vintage and collectible goods made by local crafters.
The place is definitely unique and again shows Thailand’s dedication in tourism, but it is another version of a shopping plaza. If a traditional Asian street market is more your thing then Hua Hin has a ‘real’ night market at Petchkasem Road which closes at around 11pm.
we were taken to the Chao Lay Seafood Restaurant located in the fish market side of Hua Hin beach. The seafood was unsurprisingly fresh and the ambiance was great too. And the breeze! oh the weather was insanely nice we ended up talking and bs-ing for hours, eventhough we just knew eachother for less than 24 hours.
The next day, we headed west to Hua Hin’s very own vineyard, the Hua Hin Hills Winery, where locals and tourists alike can bask in the sun and have a relaxing sip of its award-winning Monsoon Valley Wine at the vineyard’s bistro and wine bar, The Sala. Being located within easy reach of the sea means the place is always blessed with a refreshing ocean breeze. Upon arriving, I was greeted with a view that could easily fool me into thinking I was in the South of France. In fact, a lone elephant trudging between the vines is the only clue that reveals Thailand as my actual location. Surprising perhaps, until you realize that Hua Hin Hills is actually built on a former elephant enclosure, where wild elephants were domesticated by the locals. Instead of taking the jeep ride around the vineyard—which was provided for all guests— I decided to go local and explore it on an elephant! Perhaps clichéd, but definitely a fun experience one should have while in Thailand.
After a long day at the winery, we were then escorted back to the ‘city’ and shown several spas that Hua Hin has. One of many that really caught my attention was The Barai spa at the Hyatt Regency. Surreal, would almost be an understatement as you walk into this spa facility, into a Moroccan style labyrinth—as opposed to building—that offers traditional spa treatments with a backdrop of the most eccentric architecture.
Red tall walls with star-shaped windows and topsy turvy hallways lead you magically to different rooms. Clever design and intricate details make the overall sense here one of self reflection and tranquility.
As my journey drew to a close, I came to realise how easily you can leave behind the hectic, chaotic, fast-paced world in a place like Hua Hin. Aside from its sumptuous spas; the real pampering that visitors experience here is the wonderful lack of garish bars and seedy hang outs that have taken over some Thailand destinations.
Hua Hin has retained its pedestrian pace and exudes all the elegance and charm of an old city that has been around for a hundred years. Definitely a retreat to South East Asia’s very own Riviera!
Published in Now! Jakarta, March 2013