Hua Hin

Hua Hin

Mainstream tourist hotspot

Hua Hin: a vast white-sand beach, thriving art scene, tacky tourist sites, early 20th century architecture, seedy bars, scenic hills and golf courses, hastily developed streets, aggressive touts, inflated prices, family-friendly resorts and lots of European retirees. Love it or hate it, the town has a character all its own.

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Often cited as Thailand’s oldest beach destination, Hua Hin first appeared on the map in the early 1900s with the opening of the Thai-Malaysia railway. With its detailed woodcarvings, gabled roofs and royal sitting room, the original train station has survived as a tribute to those early days. The town’s first resort, now owned by Centara but originally the Royal Siamese Railway, looks and feels much as it did when it opened in 1923.

The 1920s also saw the Thai royal family take a fancy to Hua Hin with the construction of Wang Klai Kangwon ("Far From Worries Palace") as a getaway from the heat of Bangkok some 200 kilometres to the north. It didn’t keep the worries at bay for long though, and King Rama VII was in residence when a 1932 coup marked the end of the country’s absolute monarchy, forcing him to take exile in Europe.

That didn’t stop the current Thai king from making the palace his main residence, a fact that locals take much pride in. Arrive on King Bhumibol’s December 5 birthday to be swept up in throngs of teary eyed Thais chanting "Long live the King!" While Klai Kangwon is usually off limits to anyone without royal ties, the similarly elegant (but harder to pronounce) Phrarachanivet Mrigadayavan palace is open to all up in Cha-am, Hua Hin’s lower-key neighbour to the north.

Now home to 70,000 people, many of whom are foreigners, Hua Hin has seen unceasing development since the landmark Hilton popped up in the early 1990s. The skyline now resembles Pattaya with a crescent of high-rise condominiums and hotels tracing the coastline. Traffic jams are common on weekends and holidays, when crowds of Bangkokians join the ever-present foreign tourists and retirees who call those condos home.

Today, central Hua Hin is a multi-layered mess of oversized billboards, tailor shops and fast-food joints thrown beside a few temples, markets and historic buildings. A tangle of sleazy bars, ramshackle guesthouses and travel offices have filled the narrow lanes of what, 30 years ago, could have been preserved as an old town near the fishing pier. On Soi Poonsuk, the rhythmic sound of Buddhist monks chanting at Wat Hua Hin often blurs into a chorus of female voices shouting, "Welcome mister massaaaaaaage!?"

Though Hua Hin does have its faults, we wouldn’t write it off. Several stately old houses remain perched along the sea to the immediate south and north of downtown, many of them reborn in recent times as classy hotels and restaurants. In the far south of town, the area around Wat Khao Takiab -- a hilltop temple with great sea views and lots of monkeys -- has become a relaxing village where long-stay foreigners take their place among the local fruit stands and noodle shops.

Just north of downtown you’ll find the stylish bars, cafes and boutique hotels that define Naeb Kehardt Road’s youthful and artistic vibe -- Hua Hin’s saving grace in our opinion. An eclectic mix of eats can be found all over town, with fresh seafood on a seaside terrace always a popular choice. An intriguing art village is worth a trip west, while music lovers might check out a fairly large annual jazz festival held in June.

Venture into the surrounding region to hit viewpoints, vineyards, fishing villages, mangroves and no fewer than a dozen golf courses, some of which are hailed among Asia’s finest. Throw in a lively night market, boat trips and plenty of other tourist-driven activities, and you certainly won’t get bored. And that’s all before mentioning the spectacular peaks, caves, waterfalls and wildlife in Kaeng Krachan and Khao Sam Roi Yot national parks, both reachable as day trips from Hua Hin.

Almost an afterthought is Hua Hin beach itself, a vast stretch of powdery sand that stretches for the entire length of the city. The water tends to be shallow and murky, and the beach is one of Thailand’s worst when it comes to hawkers and gouged food prices. In 2014, the junta attempted to clear the beach of illegal structures and restore some semblance of order. Whether or not this has any lasting impact remains to be seen.

On the topic of accommodation, while Hua Hin is a less popular stop among independent travellers and backpackers, there’s nevertheless a solid array of inexpensive guesthouses and hostels to choose from. You’ll also find plenty of upscale resorts, midrange hotels and some notably good boutique spots that will do the trick for a few days of romance.

While we’d be inclined to hit any number of Thai islands or coastal towns before Hua Hin, it certainly makes an easy and comfortable holiday with an immense selection of food, bars, attractions and tours to choose from. If you’ve only a few days and want to escape Bangkok, this is a reasonable choice. Those seeking a less touristy destination in this general vicinity of Thailand might consider Phetburi, Sam Roi Yot or Ban Krut instead.

Orientation
Hua Hin sprawls amid a tightly packed area from north to south, with the entire city clustered around Phetkasem Road. Also known as Route 4, this busy thoroughfare runs parallel to the beach, just beyond view of the sea thanks to all of the buildings.

With the exception of the maze of lanes near the old fishing pier and Hilton in the centre of town, nearly all of the side streets, which typically shoot to the east or west off Phetkasem, are clearly marked with a number -- "Soi Hua Hin 30" or "Soi Hua Hin 74", for example. Soi 1 is located all the way to the north of town, just south of the deserted airport, while the highest numbered sois are located far to the south.

Most of the action is clustered into downtown Hua Hin, which to us consists of everything east of the train station, west of the beach and the old fishing pier, south of Soi 53 and north of Soi 80. A clock tower marks the exact centre of town at the corner of Naeb Kehardt and Phetkasem, near Wat Hua Hin, Chatchai day market and where the night market sets up along Soi 72, alternately known as Soi Dechanuchit (some side roads have both a lettered and numbered name).

The clock tower is also close to a large tourism office on Phetkasem and both the regular and tourist police stations on Soi 61 (aka Damnern Kasem Road), which shoots straight from the train station to the beach. This is also where you’ll find the post office along with loads of Western restaurants, travel offices and guesthouses.

Due north of Damnern Kasem and east of Phetkasem is where you’ll find the busiest tourist area clustered into several narrow lanes, the best known of which are Poonsuk, Dechanuchit, Pindabat and Nares Damri. The latter runs close to the ocean and hosts several rundown guesthouses and restaurants perched on stilts over the surf. The old fishing pier -- now a not-so-well-taken-care-of walkway over the sea -- begins from the north end of Nares Damri.

An exception to the numbered streets rule is Sa Song Road, running parallel to Phetkasem a stone’s throw to the west but still part of downtown. Sa Song serves as a local commercial and transport hub; this is the most common place to catch a bus to Bangkok. Another exception is Naeb Kehardt Road, which shoots northeast from Dechanuchit and quiets down before reaching a cluster of nightspots, restaurants and hotels on and around Soi 51 -- our favourite street in Hua Hin.

Head south along Phetkasem and you’ll pass San Paulo Hospital at Soi 86, a large shopping centre called Hua Hin Market Village (home to a large grocery store, movie theatres and bowling alley), a couple of gourmet supermarkets and Bangkok Hospital at Soi 94, which is the best option in Hua Hin for medical care. Across Phetkasem from Market Village is Soi 67, a stumpy street that’s stacked with quality flashpacker guesthouses near the beach and a 15-minute walk from Nares Damri.

Continue south for another several kilometres and you’ll hit the main bus station at Soi 96/1, followed by a fork where Phetkasem cuts briefly inland and Khao Takiab Road continues straight south along the coast. You can follow this all the way to the viewpoint at Wat Khao Takiab. This area also hosts several cheap seafood eateries and a handful of interesting but often overlooked places to stay.

Centrally located Chomsin Road (Soi 70) cuts west from downtown and takes you straight to Khao Hin Lek Fai Viewpoint. A few kilometres before that, a right (north) will put you on Route 3218, the way to Hua Hin Art Village and, eventually, Hua Hin Hills Vineyard and Pala-U Waterfall in the southern reaches of Kaeng Krachan National Park. At the crossroads between these two roads is where you’ll find the Hua Hin immigration office.

From Hua Hin, Phetkasem Road continues north to Cha-am and Phetburi, and south to Pranburi, Sam Roi Yot and Prachuap Khiri Khan, the provincial capital of the same-named province of which Hua Hin is a part. 


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