Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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August/September 2003


Ceremoniously located on the Gulf of Thailand, a quaint town fit for kings has retained its laid-back allure

by Jennifer Gampell

Spend a weekend in Hua Hin and you'll wish the Thai royal family maintained residences in more seaside resorts. The much-loved Thai monarch, King Bumiphol Adulyedej, now lives almost full-time in his summer palace Klai Kangworn ("Far From Worry") on the northern end of town. His unseen presence casts an aura of gentility over a place that might otherwise have become yet another Pattaya-esque burgh. Tuk-tuks in Hua Hin have mufflers, sidewalks are trash- and tout-free, jet skis are strictly verboten and the inevitable girlie bars are relegated to a couple of tiny backstreets.

Thailand is relatively safe anyhow, but Hua Hin is especially so. Besides the quartet of military gunships that anchor offshore whenever the king is in residence, the town and its environs teem with assorted policemen and military types. Palace guards whistle you away from the royal beachfront if you stray too close on your walk. Venture off the manicured footpaths at Khao Hin Lek Fai, a viewpoint overlooking the unprepossessing town, and you'll bump into a pair of soldiers in camouflage. In the current climate of global insecurity, local hoteliers are quietly marketing Hua Hin's normally high vigilance levels as an added bonus.

Swathed in its invisible royal mantle, Hua Hin has been attracting Thai blue bloods since the early 1900s when only royalty and the crème de la crème of capital society could afford to spend weekends at the seaside. (Even at the height of the recent SARS scare when foreign tourists were as rare in Thailand as the disease itself, many resorts were packed out with families of Thais and resident expats.) The completion of the 230-kilometer Bangkok-Hua Hin segment of the international railroad line from Siam to Singapore in 1911 catalyzed the influx. That same year, its name was changed from Lam Hin ("stone cape") to Hua Hin ("stone head") which refers to the large rock outcroppings scattered along the five-kilometer beach.

The gaily painted colonial-Thai train station probably looks better now than it did 90 years ago, but a four-hour journey in a moldering rail carriage no longer holds much allure for today's car-addicted Thai weekender. Depending on traffic conditions, Hua Hin is anywhere from 2-3 hours from Bangkok. Bringing your own vehicle is a plus since public transportation (the aforementioned tuk-tuks) stops around 8 or 9 P.M. Some hotels on the outskirts of town run shuttles to the central areas but you're probably on your own for getting back.

Hua Hin's first royal resident was Prince Nares, one of King Chulalongkorn's 77 children, who built his home in 1911. (The long and winding Naresdamri Road is named after him.) Soon after, aristocrats and scions of today's largest Thai banking and business families bought property overlooking the beach and constructed gracious wooden summer homes on stilts. The colonial-Thai style of the period featured living spaces above an open-air ground floor, elaborately fretted shutters and gables, Victorian-inspired gazebos, and white-painted wood with pastel green or blue accents.

Sadly for those of us who appreciate charming old buildings, little remains of Hua Hin's architectural past. Most of the original two-storey beachfront residences have ceded their places to ugly new concrete dwellings or tall Miami Vice-style condos. A few pastel-colored specimens survive--in varying states of repair--along the beach parallel to Naebkehart Road at the southern end of the palace. A laid-back Thai architect from Chiang Mai has transformed the ground floor of one intact 1940s house into an airy sea view café called Baan Khrai Wang ("House Near the Palace") serving drinks and snacks.

As of May, Hua Hin's most characterful neighborhood--a 150 year-old waterfront fishing village near the main pier--was heading for oblivion. Redolent of a bygone Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, this 500-meter stretch of Naresdamri is lined with simple Thai-style wood houses and popular seafood restaurants at the end of rickety piers. A refurbished two-storey bar and eatery on the landward side shows how trendy the street could be if only the local government weren't intent on demolishing the seaward half of it. Hoping to emulate the success of her Temple Club in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam-based interior designer Stella So recently opened Monsoon, Hua Hin's sole haven of hip. The Hong Kong native relies on hanging silk lanterns, recreated antique Burmese and Chinese furniture and smooth lounge sounds to create the urbane Sino-Vietnamese ambiance.

If and when the seafood restaurants at the fishing village disappear, less scenic but equally tasty aquatic dining options are available at the night market located a few blocks up from the pier. Opting for the one with the biggest crowd of locals, I dined al fresco at Moo Seafood. A few kilometers outside Hua Hin on Takiab beach, the newly opened Supatra -by-the-Sea serves seafood in the upmarket style of Supatra River House, its sister restaurant in Bangkok.

Hotel-wise, the major properties within the city limits include Hilton, Hyatt Regency, Anantara, and Sofitel. Oh, and of course Chiva Som. That internationally renowned swanky sanctuary of health consciousness expects its guests to work on getting spiritually and physically fitter, whereas the other venues encourage rampant indolence.

Normally a bright-lights-big-city kinda gal, I couldn't help succumbing to the understated colonial charms of the five-star Sofitel (officially, the Sofitel Central Hua Hin Resort), Thailand's oldest resort hotel. The Siamese railroad commissioned an Italian architect to design a 14-room Hua-Hin Railway Hotel, which opened in 1923. After 80 years' worth of renovations and several major expansions (two new wings added in 1989 and 1998 integrate seamlessly with the original property) the 207-room hotel and grounds ooze Edwardian graciousness.

The period décor in the high-ceilinged rooms exactly matched my fantasy of how a pre-war seaside resort in Brighton or Southport should look: spacious bathrooms with curved marble sinks and old-style fixtures, framed wall paintings, escritoires, thick curtains. With their individual private balconies or garden terraces, even the smaller rooms seemed spacious.

The original metal-and-glass portico still hangs above the airy former lobby which today is a café-cum-museum. (It played the part of a Phnom Penh hotel in The Killing Fields.) One side of the wall-less space looks out onto a garden and topiary menagerie, the other faces seaward. Sipping afternoon tea and gazing over the gently sloping lawns and lush palms and frangipanis (and even a petanque pitch), I lost all sense of place and time. A Thai botanical marker nailed onto a tree provided the only clue to my whereabouts.

On the opposite end of town from Sofitel, the Anantara Resort & Spa is a seriously designed Thai-style village garnished with fantasy elements. The former Royal Garden Village was completely revamped in 2001 by the same Bill Bensley-Lek Bunnag team that put The Regent Chiang Mai on the international style map. At Anantara, the duo added 38 new "Lagoon" rooms arrayed around an eponymous man-made body of water. Similar in acreage to the Sofitel, Anantara's 197 rooms are divided into 12 accommodation "clusters" set amid dense and manicured tropical gardens. From the outside, the Anantara group's signature Mandara Spa has an Egyptian or possibly Mayan feel to it, but the treatments are haute class Thai.

Before heading off to JW Marriott in Phuket, Chef David Benninghouse created a sophisticated Italian menu for Baan Thalia, the hotel's sole homage to minimalism (apart from the Thai elephants marching across a photo of the Parthenon). Frankly, Hua Hin is not a place I'd expect to find--or adore--a wheatberry risotto with mushroom and red-wine sauce or a snow fish and braised endive with sambucca, dill fettuccini and grilled peppers.

Besides dining and relaxing en famille, people come to Hua Hin for golf. Of the six courses within a 23-kilometer range, the 18-hole Royal Hua Hin Golf Course--the oldest in Thailand--is a sentimental favorite. (People in the know say the caddies are some of the best around.) Opened in 1924, the tree-covered course slopes gently up from behind the train station to the base of limestone hills.

Not being a golfer or having kids, I frankly got a bit stir crazy after four days of total self-indulgence. But then again I'm far too hyper to handle so much relaxation in a small Thai town whose excitement levels are set permanently on "Low."

Copyright 2003 Jennifer Gampell