Nobody wants to hear about your holiday in Bangkok. We’ve all been to the night markets, sampled the street food and brought home a flatscreen TV. Nobody cares about what you did in Pattaya either – we’ve seen a ping-pong ball ejected from the same orifice and it was 100 Baht cheaper. As for your Facebook pictures of Koh Samui and Chiang Mai: Beach. Beach. Beach. Yawn.
Tell someone you’ve been to Hua Hin, however, and you’ll have all their attention. The coastal town barely three hours from the capital is perhaps Thailand’s best-kept, longest-kept secret. Hua Hin has been a getaway for Thailand’s rich and famous for almost a century. And it was discovered by the most rich and famous Thai of them all – the king himself.
Back in the 1890s, on a trip along the coast, Rama VII found the low-key fishing village an ideal escape from the political machinations of the capital. He built a palace, named it Wang Klai Kang Won (Far from Worries) and began heading there every summer, elephant retinue and all. Where a king goes, hangers-on must go too. By 1919, when rail connectivity was established, nobility and aristocrats began settling in. Bungalows were built, a railway hotel opened, a golf course set
up, and the sleepy town woke up to very posh company.
Today, Hua Hin is where tony Thais go to unwind. It’s where Bangkok-banker types sink their bonuses into ocean-view condos. It’s where moneyed Westerners retire in the sun. And because the royal family still vacations here, it’s also where sleazy Thai nightlife is kept at bay. No girlie bars, no budget backpackers, no drunken boys getting Hangover kicks.
Instead, you can tour the nation’s only vineyard from atop an elephant. The crisp
sunshine makes it impossible to take a bad photo, and at night, you can walk along 5km of beach with only illuminated fishing boats on the horizon for company. No one’s hurrying to the clubs; they’re having long dinners at French, Italian, German and Scandinavian restaurants. The world flies in for great (and inexpensive) golf, championship-level kite-surfing, jazz fests and vintage car rallies. And the markets are full of stuff you actually want to buy. It’s a Thailand wholly unlike the Thailand your friends have become accustomed to. It’s about time, as I found out as a guest of the spanking new Amari Hua Hin hotel.
The king’s palace
Princely pleasures: The Palace of Love and Hope is one royal residence open to the public
Sadly, Rama VII’s Far From Worries mansion is still in use and receives visitors only by invitation. But Maruekhathaiyawan (Palace of Love and Hope), 20 minutes away, is open to the public. Rama VI’s palace was built in 1923 and will take your breath away. Three two-storied wooden pavilions face out to sea, halls are linked throughout the palace and you can stand on the verandahs and feel like a king, if only for the afternoon.
SURF’s UP! Hua Hin’s calm wind makes it ideal for kiteboarding, to watch or participate.
The sea is safe for swimming, but why wade through water then you can glide over it? Kiteboarding combines kitesurfing and waterboarding, and several schools provide lessons and equipment. The season is from January to May, with brisk winds and slightly choppy water. The Professional Kiteboard Riders Association has made Thailand the launching point for its World Tour Season since 2011, so you can see the experts do it. Jetskiing, fishing and sailing are popular too.
The train station
One-way ticket: The historic Hua Hin railway station lets you arrive in style
This is where it all began. The picture perfect railway station is still in use (you can actually arrive in style by train), and the platforms have hand-painted tile floors and deep red lattice awnings. Check out the royal waiting room that once received members of the king’s family. Or pick up cute railway souvenirs from the little cafe next door.
The floating market
WHERE DID YOU BUY THIS FROM? Hua Hin’s floating market does away with tourist tat for unusual souvenirs
Allow Hua Hin to cheat a bit. This isn’t the kind of place where you can buy brinjals from a canoe in the morning. This version puts shops and walkways around an artificial lake so you have a view of the water as you peek into the little boutiques. They all sell unique stuff – enamel earrings, handmade notebooks and umbrellas with a katana hilt. Just outside is a Dutch-style windmill where you can feed goats and carp.
SO MUCH TO DO: Hua Hin has vintage car rallies and the country’s only vineyard is close by. Why bother with Pattaya, then?
Great winds off the Gulf of Thailand guarantee a lot of action in the sky around March-April. That’s when Hua Hin hosts kite festivals. Every year since 2002, the town has hosted a three-day jazz festival over the first weekend in June. A golf festival and a championship for … wait for it… elephant polo comes around in September. And December, when there’s little chance of rain, is when the vintage cars come out for a rally.
Yes, the Thais make wine. The Hua Hin Hills vineyard produces the Monsoon Valley label on land where elephants were once domesticated. Elephant-back is the best way to see the vines.
The breeze is gentle, the animals trundle along calmly and you can pretend you’re in the Mediterranean. End with shiraz, chenin blanc, muscat and sangiovese over a meal at the vinery’s Sala Wine Bar and Bistro.
(The writer’s trip was sponsored by Amari Watergate and Amari Hua Hin)
“Hua Hin, a seaside resort, should be favoured with a visit. The sea is 10 minutes quiet walk from the railway station. Here, in addition to sea bathing, one may shoot leopards, deer, hares and doves, but except for the latter, guides and permits must be obtained.” – From a 1924 travel guidebook to Thailand (then Siam)
Check in: The Amari
The newest sister of the chain that also runs Bangkok’s Amari Watergate hotel, the Amari Hua Hin is a great base from which to explore the town. Thoughtful little touches are everywhere – local residents as guides; a spa that focuses on your requirements, not set Swedish-Balinese-Thai therapies; and restaurants that serve inexpensive versions of street food. Visit www.amari.com/huahin to book
Visa: Indians can get a visa on arrival at Bangkok airport, but the lines are usually very long. It’s best to apply in advance of your trip. It’s easier to get the visa done through a travel agent
Currency: Thailand uses the Baht. One Baht is approximately Rs 1.83
Getting there: There are flights to Thailand from several Indian cities, and via several carriers, including budget airlines like Indigo
Getting around: Buses connect Bangkok to Hua Hin, and it’s a three-hour ride. You can also book a taxi for the journey
Hua Hin is not as pocket-friendly as Bangkok and Pattaya since the Thai royals and aristocrats holiday there. You could pay 20 per cent extra for everything
From HT Brunch, March 24
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