A bit of a beachside dump saved by its proximity to Bangkok, Cha-Am is a popular destination with Thai weekenders (and a scattering of foreigners). Fans argue its key charm lies in what it lacks, namely an over-developed tourist infrastructure and hordes of Western visitors. It also, however, lacks a decent beach -- something we'd suggest is handy to have for a beachside destination.
So if you've ever wondered what the locals do to get away from the daily grind of serving you drinks and trying to coax you into their tuk tuks, here's one of the answers -- the wage-slaves of Thailand save their baht and descend on Cha-am Beach once a year on weekends and holidays. They come in large, garishly colourful buses, throbbing with Thai pop music, and filled with vacationers who have been drinking and dancing since the moment they boarded. They can't afford to waste a minute, since some tours only budget half a day of actual beach time before everybody pours themselves back on the bus and heads home. From Saturday late morning to Sunday mid afternoon, Cha-am boasts a festive crowd bent on eating as much of the very good seafood that they can and washing it down with iced beer and whiskey -- all in deckchairs along the casuarina-shaded beach.
Popular especially with groups of students and families, you'll struggle to find a deck setting for just two people but there's plenty of space for everyone -- don't be surprised if you're invited to join a larger group anyway. The off-grey beach is crappy and in parts, especially to the northern end, quite littered -- be sure to wear some kind of footwear at this end. The waters, busy with jetskis, banana boats and other noisy paraphernalia, are murky and, when we visited, were a greeny icky shade of grey -- it wasn't at all tempting for a swim (others were far less picky). So we joined the rest of the crowd and set up camp in a shaded deckchair, had a few cold drinks and some crab -- all in the name of research mind you -- and it wasn't totally unpleasant. We'd suggest heading to the far southern reaches of the deckchair area to have a slightly quieter time.
Families ex-Bangkok like it for its proximity and fairly safe and calm waters, and it certainly has more of a low-key feeling than heaving Hua Hin 20 minutes further to the south, with its more trendy wannabe high-society vibe. There's precious little in the way of nightlife that we found in Cha-am save a few bars on Soi Bus Stop, again an attraction point for families. Right at the northern end of the beach is a small fishing village, featuring a harbour full of fishing boats, seafood restaurants, and Thai fishermen lazing around in hammocks, waiting for the tide to come in. It's well worth a look, so time a visit so you can have lunch too, as the seafood is excellent.
If you're looking for excitement, entertainment and a wide array of dining options, Cha-am ain't the place. Head to Hua Hin for that. Cha-am's food is simple Thai plus a mad array of seafood -- English menus are not as common as elsewhere. While many will be content to do all their eating on the beach, a concentration of shopfront eateries is clustered around Soi Bus Stop and also along the length of Naranthip running back towards the train station.
The beach is divided in two (North and South Cha-am) by Naranthip Road, which runs all the way from the train station till it bisects the beach road, Ruamjit Road. If anything, the northern strip is slightly more developed but you'll find guesthouses catering to Thais and foreigners in both directions.
Note that many focused on Thais have no English signposting but are often the cheapest (and crappiest) bet -- just look for streetside signs indicating prices like 300/400 or 400/500 (the lower price for fan-cooled, higher for air-con).
In the unlikely situation that you need to be hospitalised, the best medical care is in Bangkok and Hua Hin, otherwise Cha-am hospital is about two kilometres away on the east side of Sri Sakul Thai Road. Take Naranthip Road from the beach and then your last right before Petchakasem Road. It offers 24-hour emergency care.
There are several tourist police substations along Cha-am beach, the largest at the base of Naranthip Road. The main police station is on the north side of Naranthip Road, between Petchakasem Road and the train station. There is a post office on the beach road, south of The Methavali (open Mon-Fri 08:30-16:30, Sat 09:00-12:00, closed Sundays and holidays). The main post office is on the north side of Naranthip Road, between Petchakasem Road and the train station.
Internet cafes along the beach road are mostly slow and pricey but many hotels and guesthouses offer free WiFi.