Thailand’s Hua Hin is a regal beach retreat where golf is all the go. Here are some tips for things to see and do.
1. ROYAL ROOTS: Hua Hin is often flagged as one of the world’s best places to retire. In fact, leisure has long been the operating principle of this town south of Bangkok on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. The brother of King Rama VI of Siam (as Thailand was then known) “discovered” what was a fishing hamlet back in 1910 while on a tiger hunt. Hua Hin was soon in vogue with Bangkok society, especially when the king built a huge wooden palace on the beachfront. In 1932 the next monarch, Rama VII, was playing golf here when informed that an alliance of officials and soldiers had demanded their country’s 700-year-old absolute monarchy be replaced with a constitutional one. According to legend the king said to his golfing partners, “I told you so,” and played on. Thus began Thailand’s start-stop journey to democracy.
2. BEACH HEADS: The rounded granite outcrops that jut from the beach shallows gave rise to the name Hua Hin, meaning rock or stone head. Being on the “sunrise side” of the gulf, the beaches are at their sparkling best in the morning. Wide and generally clean, they are mostly unencumbered by the massed ranks of rental loungers so prevalent on many Thai shores. While these waters are not as pristine as those on the Andaman coast, they are not churned by jet-skis and speedboats. Even more tranquil is Khao Takiab Beach, just south of Hua Hin, with its wide sands, shady trees and makeshift seafood restaurants.
3. LINKED IN: As home to 10 golf courses, Hua Hin and its adjacent Cha-am region could well be badged as the Golf Coast. Thailand’s first course, Royal Hua Hin, opened in the 1920s along with the Railway Hotel, both built to draw Thai society to the resort town. The region’s world-class courses now include Black Mountain, Banyan, Majestic Creek and Imperial Lakeview. Opt for a midweek game as the weekend influx from Bangkok can see the courses get busy. Hua Hin regularly hosts local and Asian tournaments such as the annual Centara World Masters Golf Championship, the largest of its kind in Asia, which draws 600 competitors, including many from Australia.
4. DREAM THEMES: Golf “orphans”, not to mention golf widows or widowers, are not a pretty sight after several days of abandonment. Hua Hin comes to the rescue with plenty of shopping opportunities, mall-based or free-range, and family distractions. Black Mountain golf complex has a water park with thrilling rides including a 17m tower, wave pool and slides, plus a state-of-the-art wakeboard park. Hua Hin’s other water park, Vana Nava Water Jungle, lays claim to the tallest man-made mountain-with-waterfall in Asia. For a more tranquil family day out and a taste of ersatz Europe-in-Asia, choose from nationally themed attractions such as Santorini Park, The Venezia Hua Hin and Swiss Sheep Farm.
5. STEP RIGHT UP: Thais seem to rarely pause from eating and shopping, with both activities merged and maximised at night markets. Hua Hin has several, the most authentic being its nocturnal mid-town melee on Soi 72. When dusk comes, the street is closed and market stalls spring up, as do trestles, stools and sizzling woks. Fuelled by satay, seafood or pad thai, plus cold beer, you can score all the T-shirts, trinkets, Fake-Bans and excess baggage-filler you’ve never needed. One block away, the covered Chatsila Market sells similar knick-knacks, as does the purpose-built, tourist-focused Cicada Market. Also explore the new Seenspace beachfront mall-market with contemporary restaurants and fashion boutiques.
6. PALATIAL SPLENDOUR: Rama VII, Thailand’s last absolute monarch, built his family summer palace in what is now the middle of Hua Hin, calling it Klai Kangwon, or Far From Worries. When the royals are not in residence it’s open to the public but you need a permit from the Royal Household Office. More accessible is the sprawling Maruekatayawan, aka Mrigadayavan, or The Wooden Palace, built by Rama VI in 1923. This restored treasure, located in a Thai Army reserve on the Cha-am waterfront, is billed as “the largest golden teak palace in the world”. Don’t miss touring its breezy pavilions and walkways. The writing room of Rama VI — who was a poet, playwright and Shakespeare translator — with its blue walls, wafting curtains and sea view would be the envy of any author.
7. GO WILD: Hua Hin sits near the top end of the long and lyrically named Prachuap Khiri Khan province, which offers plenty of non-urban attractions. Khao Sam Roi Yot (The Mountain with Three Hundred Peaks) National Park, 23km south of town, with its jungle trails, waterfalls and empty beaches, is also a sanctuary for deer, monkeys and many bird species. Its most popular destination is Phraya Nakhon Cave Temple, a large, open-air cavern King Rama V visited in 1890 (he signed the wall, as did Rama VII in 1926), where a delicate, temple-like pavilion rises in the middle of the sunlit cavern. Meanwhile, cyclists can enjoy a 5km bike track that runs from town down to Pranburi.
8. WINE AND WATS: For a memorable afternoon out of town, drive 30km inland to Hua Hin Hills Vineyard, home of Monsoon Valley Wines. Better still be driven there as, after a short tour of the vines, you can embed yourself in the Sala Bistro’s views and its tasting menu of canapes with matched “new latitude” wines such as chenin blanc, shiraz and viognier. Or there’s Phetchaburi, capital of the province of the same name, about half an hour north of Hua Hin. A low-key, authentically Thai town, it has so many Buddhist temples that some wag dubbed it a “22-wat town”. Most visitors try the funicular railway that ascends to an earlier royal summer retreat, Phra Nakhon Khiri, built by Rama IV (of The King and I fame) in 1860. No longer used by the royals, it is a wedding cake of a palace, but built on an agreeably human scale.
9. DISHED UP: Dining can range from a lipsmacking $10 feast of stir-fried prawns at a night market to a superb, albeit card-melting (with plus-plus surcharges) chef’s banquet at any of the five-star resorts. Between these extremes are town restaurants that cover the waterfront, from French and Italian to Japanese and, of course, Thai. For local fare, Baan Itsara, in a large, old-style beachside mansion, serves Isaan (northeast Thailand) dishes, and seafood. Try the sea bass, or prawns with basil sauce; the clams with chilli and basil are a favourite but flag your tolerance for chilli. (When in doubt, think low.) Meanwhile, if it’s time for some Western comfort food, chef Andreas Bonifacio’s cosy namesake, Andreas Italian & Grill Restaurant, with a mid-town rooftop terrace and musicians, will do the pasta-pizza-risotto-salad trick. It’s open from 6pm daily and offers a range of international and local wines. (Note that wines, even local ones, are never cheap in Thailand due to high government excises.)
10. OLD-WORLD STYLE: The coast from Cha-am in the north to Hua Hin and Pranburi in the south is flush with quality resort brands, including Anantara, Amari, Evason, Dusit, Marriott and Hilton, plus seaside boutiques such as Aleenta and Verandah. The prime mid-town beachfront positions were bagged at the historic get-go by the aristocratic Laksasubha Hua Hin and its princely neighbour, the Railway Hotel. The latter, built in 1923 and now known as the Centara Grand, has been sympathetically expanded but retains its original Italian-tropical elegance. Its 13ha of grounds are home to monumental topiary creatures (and armies of gardeners to tame the shapes) plus accommodation with breezy balconies, louvres galore and teak floors. In all, an analogue of more gracious times, plus Wi-Fi. A stay in the resort’s Villas annexe (pictured) — with its impeccable white cottages, most with private pools — is an even more rarefied treat.
John Borthwick was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
The 200km road journey south from Bangkok to Hua Hin takes about three hours.
JOHN BORTHWICK | September 17, 2016