Friday 9 January 2015

Asia Summer Series: Hua Hin, Thailand (Part 1)

To mid-January this year, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles about Asian destinations. This week's focus is on Hua Hin, a Thai beach town with royal connections...

I’m wading into the Gulf of Thailand when I realise that there’s something surprising about the water - it’s as warm as the contents of a bathtub.

Even back home in Australia on a summer’s day, sea water will usually feel cool at first contact; but here in the tropics, it evidently never gets a chance to cool down.

So I’m soon bobbing in the clear, warm liquid, looking along the shoreline to the point where it meets the horizon. Ranged along it are small groups of sunbathers at rest along the beach, a long stretch of sand interrupted by the odd rocky outcrop.

After my swim I make my way back to my room at the graceful Sofitel Centara Grand, a low-lying collection of accommodation wings in the coastal city of Hua Hin, 200km south of Bangkok.

Soon I’m seated at the cafe in the oldest section of the resort hotel, which opened in 1923. 

Open to the air on each side, it’s not just a place to sit and sip tea in the tropical breeze. The cafe also functions as a small museum devoted to the hotel, with a variety of old artefacts dotted about its interior.

One of them, a polished timber letterbox embellished with painted lettering in both Thai and English, hints at the days when vacationers sent handwritten letters to the folks back home, rather than posting a pic to Facebook.

“So what’s special about Hua Hin?” I wonder as I sip a cup of Earl Grey and look out over the swimming pool below.

Maybe it’s the lack of the energetic party atmosphere that’s often associated with Thai beach resorts, particularly those islands on which backpackers eat, drink and socialise at a frenzied pace.

By contrast, this hotel and Hua Hin itself possess a calmer atmosphere, and it’s clearly a destination for those looking to relax rather than party.

As I walk through the hotel’s gardens on my way to explore the town, past elaborate topiary in the shape of animals, I reach a shrine dedicated to the King of Thailand, featuring a full-length photographic portrait with flags standing to each side.

This royal connection has been a key factor in the Hua Hin's recent history.

When the hotel opened as the Railway Hotel in the 1920s, it attracted Bangkok’s well-to-do to what had previously been an unexceptional fishing village.

Impressed with the new seaside resort and the contrast it provided with the busy capital, King Prajadhipok ordered the construction of a palace here, aptly named Wang Klai Kang Won (“Far from Worries”).

The current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has kept up the tradition of frequent visits to this summer palace, and there are side benefits for the locals.

Twice a day, the king allows visitors to walk in the palace grounds as exercise; as I’d entered Hua Hin by road the previous day I’d seen numerous people doing just that, walking in brisk circuits through the gardens.

There’s also a shop near the palace, Golden Place, which sells organic fruit and vegetables which have been grown on the king’s farms.

If Hua Hin is regal, it’s also relaxed, something I notice as I walk along Thanon Damnoen Kasem away from the waterfront, toward the railway that the hotel was once named after.

It’s mid-morning and the street has yet to fully wake, but there are people wandering here and there, looking into shops or sitting outside restaurants.

Then I arrive at the railway station...

[Next: The royal waiting room, monkeys on the links, and a palace linked to a musical...]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

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