A royal resort along the Gulf of Thailand, Hua Hin offers to the traveler more than beaches.
by SeenThat on August 17, 2008
LuxuryStarbucks Thailand is positioned in the market quite differently than in the USA. Starbucks USA offers slightly expensive coffee but not excessively so. A Tall Americano does not compare in price to an average American meal. However, in Thailand, the parallel Short Americano costs two times as a regular meal at a food stall - the most popular meals in the country. Thus, this chain is defined here as an upmarket one; one of the most obvious consequences is that the coffee is served in china cups instead of the wasteful paper cups used in the US. LocationPetchakasem is the main north to south road in Hua Hin; in fact this is part of the highway leading to Bangkok and is known also as Hua Hin Road. The stretch between Soi 70 and 76 delimits downtown Hua Hin; "soi" is the name given in Thailand to streets branching from main avenues, usually they are numbered. The location at Soi 73 means Starbucks enjoys a superb location, though it is not near the beach. SetupThe store occupies a two floors building on the main avenue and features glass walls giving it an aquarium-like look. The counter is right by the entrance, along a narrow corridor leading to the seating area, from the last a staircase leads to the second floor, where more tables and the toilets are. Plenty of coaches are tastefully scattered around the slightly curved lines of the outer glass wall giving the place a soft and relaxing feeling.MenuStarbucks' menus are pretty much the same everywhere. It would be more useful at this point to give references on how it compares to the chain's American menus and to the local markets.Hot drinks appear in three sizes: short, tall and grande. An Americano costs 65, 80 and 95 baht respectively, while a cappuccino is slightly more expensive at 75, 90 and 105 baht. For comparison, a regular Thai coffee costs just 10, and a dollar was worth slightly over 33 baht at the time this article was written. I had an Americano; its quality was good and equal to the served in the US.Cold drinks are sold as tall, grande and venti. Iced coffee costs 75, 90 and 105 baht, a Caramel Frapuccino 115, 130 and 145, while the most expensive drink is the venti Green Tea Frappucino at 175 baht.On the pastries front, a butter croissant costs 35 baht and a chocolate one 45; here they are heated with an oven.ToiletsReporting on a shop's toilets may be considered a touch of bad taste while speaking of coffee. However, most Thai coffee shops and restaurants lack toilets, even large chains usually lacks them; thus reporting on these rare, but necessary spots, is important. Starbucks toilets here were large and more sumptuous than the shop, featuring fancy lamps and mirrors.Wi-Fi and Electricity SocketsThailand has been conquered by Wi-Fi technology; street signs in Bangkok advertise 64000 hot spots there, but - in a touch typical of the Thais - the small details do not always function. Most Western-style coffee shops are connected, and that includes Starbucks. The branch in Hua Hin is not different in that aspect. Having arrived after a long trip, my first stop in town was at Starbucks, I needed a coffee before beginning what I knew would be a long and busy day. It seemed also as the perfect opportunity for recharging one of my gadgets that got tired along the way. After placing my coffee at a little table by a comfortable looking coach, I took the gadget out of my backpack and approached the only electricity socket in the customers area of the shop. It didn't work. The shiny shop was not made of gold after all.The Wi-Fi service in Starbucks is provided by KSC. A single hour prepaid package costs 150 baht, roughly ten times the price of an hour at a Thai internet kiosk; a daily unlimited account costs also 150 baht. However, for 500 baht unlimited monthly access is gained; thus the last option is the only worthy one. Cards can be purchased at Starbucks.SouvenirsStarbucks Hua Hin cups are for sale; they feature the company's logo, the name of the location and some graphics. If buying one, the first coffee is on the house; if bringing it during future visits, a discount on the coffee is given.
"Subway has been your neighborhood sandwich shop since 2508" reads the Thai text of the Subway leaflet I got in Hua Hin. That was the first hint my experience would be slightly different.Justifying the SandwichIn the light of my other writings - where I often emphasize local food as an important part of the travel experience and of the local culture - I must explain my unusual stop at a Thai branch of an international food chain like Subway. The Thai staple food is rice, and despite the wonderful dishes of this cuisine, from time to time the eternal pilgrim wants to eat bread. LocationSubway Hua Hin enjoys a superb location in the downtown area, on the main road connecting the highway with the beach. The Sofitel and Hilton hotels are around the corner, the beach is a block away eastwards. Petchkasem Road (also known as Hua Hin Avenue) is also one block away, but westwards.The Sailom Pavilion hosts several shops - including other major fast food joints - in a pleasant environment that includes a beautiful Chinese-style garden with water streams, bridges and sculptures. Subway is on its inner yard, so that the noise from the street does not reach it. Enclosed by glass walls, the small shop offers conditioned air with a clear look at the beautiful inner yard of the Sailom Pavilion.The Thai TouchSome aspects of the local culture manage to infiltrate even the most isolated foreign bastions; here they appeared in the form of missing toilets (more on that in the Starbucks entry of this journal), a single napkin alloted to each customer and a label proclaiming "stick sugar."MenuThe menu was bilingual, though biased toward English; Thai translations appeared in parentheses or in small letters below the English text. Subway Thailand offers sandwiches in two sizes - 6-inch and footlong - and in a variety of breads, including, white Italian, wheat, Parmesan, oregano, honey oat and sesame. The main sandwiches featured were the Italian BMT, the Roasted Chicken Breast, the Subway Club and the Tuna one; several others were available.The most striking characteristic was the lack of any distinctive Thai touch to the sandwiches. I couldn't find curries or items like shredded pork among the ingredients; not a single chili was in sight. The menu was utterly sanitized and unlocalized.PricingThe sandwiches prices ranged from 79 baht for the Veggie Delite 6-inch (less than $2.5 at the time of my visit) up to 209 baht for the Footlong Hot Subs. Deli style versions were available for less than 100 baht. For comparison, a parallel Thai dish at a local restaurant catering for locals, would cost 40 baht or less; meaning that Subway Thailand is an upmarket chain.For an extra 39 baht, chips (or a cookie) and a drink could be added. At this branch coffee was available for 25 baht. Several extras, like transforming the sandwhich into a salad, were available as well.MealBeing in a piggy mood, I chose the ham sandwich. I was asked to choose the size and type of the bread and after the main ingredients were placed inside I was allowed to choose the cheese and vegetables. Four cheeses were available, but these are always a problematic issue in Thailand, their quality is low and their flavor undefined. On the veggies front the situation was better, a wide variety was offered, including black olives, pickled cucumbers and tomatoes - none of them a popular ingredient in Thailand. Finally, in remembrance of recent trips I chose the Southwest sauce. Despite it being a regular sandwich, I was offered to transform it into a hot one; however, microwaving bread transforms it into a chewy affair and I declined. The sandwich was good, the bread was as fresh as the vegetables were and provided an illusion of being back across the ocean, at least if ignoring the background Thai music. Instead of choosing the meal option, I accompanied the sandwich with a coffee, which was prepared with a small espresso machine and was of unusual quality for a fast food joint.
A 4x4 Type of DowntownDowntown Hua Hin is tiny. Parts of it are a network of irregular narrow alleys, but its outer side is defined by typically Thai large blocks; it measures just four blocks on each side, meaning the area is best explored by foot. Its eastern side is flanked by the beach, parallel to it, highway 4 divides it in two; two blocks westward the town ends. Beyond this area, Hua Hin is a dilapidated, north to south, strip of resorts and summer houses.SignsMost of the street signs in Thailand are on sturdy metal poles painted in blue with white letters announcing the location; they seem to have been designed to survive epic disasters and the odd colliding tuk-tuk. Emphasizing its uniqueness, Hua Hin features red poles with red letters on white signs at their top.Hat Hua HinThe word for beach in Thai is "hat," thus this beach is named Hat Hua Hin, creating thus a remarkable alliteration of three lettered words.Probably this is the best beach in Thailand, much better than the more famous Phuket and Samui. However, it is officially defined only as the second best beach; that may be the result of Buddhist practices: to show humility, the royal palace was not placed on the best spot in the country (or when the classification was carried out, care was taken not to put Hua Hin first).However, several kilometers of bright white, fine sand and a row of spaciously placed rocks form one of the most beautiful landscapes in Thailand and for sure the most attractive beach.Beyond swimming, sunbathing and snorkeling, the beach offers horses for rent. Unluckily, Hua Hin is one of the Thai beaches facing eastwards. That means the sunsets are not remarkable and those of us willing to get pictures with colorful skies must wake up very early. More worrying is the fact that the beach is practically covered with surveillance cameras, which allow the caring and unconditionally loving authorities to keep track of our latest scars, marks and weight. Do the peepers make albums with the pictures they take?Railway StationThe railway station in Hua Hin was brought in 1968 from Nakhon Pathom, where it served as a royal pavilion in Sanamchan Palace. Built of teakwood in classical Thai lines, the place is worth a visit even if not planning to take the train. Rather small, it features a triangular recurring theme on its red tiled roof and is painted in red on the borders and yellow on the walls. Its irregular lines and size make it look as a toy house. It is located on the southwestern corner of downtown, on Liab Tang Rod Fai Road.Night MarketLocated on the western side of Dechanuchit Road and perpendicular to the beach, the Night Market is the perfect place for having a Thai dinner and meeting the locals. The main culinary attraction of the area is seafood; roasted squids are a local specialty. If favoring more traditional options, many inexpensive restaurants are near the fishing harbor on Naresdamri Road.Sofitel Central Hua HinModern Hua Hin was born when the state railway director built the Railway Hotel near the the beach, on the southern side of the modern Damnoenkasem Road. Built in classical Thai style, it was later renamed Sofitel and may seem familiar even to a first time visitor since it featured as the Hotel Phnom Penh in the "The Killing Fields" film.AlleysNear the waterfront is an intricate network of narrow alleys housing guesthouses, restaurants, bars discotheques and karaoke bars. Even courses of Thai cooking, Thai massage and Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) are offered here. Several piers with houses atop them stretch from the alleys into the sea.Market VillageFurther south, on Soi 88, is the Market Village, un upmarket shopping mall featuring Thai and Western restaurants, cinemas and many shops.Special EventsHua Hin is known in for hosting the Thailand's International Kite Festival between March and May every year and a Jazz Festival every June. Every December, the Hua Hin Vintage Car Rally Hoteliers, the Vintage Car Club of Thailand, and the Tourism Authority of Thailand sponsor a race of vintage cars starting at Bangkok's Sofitel Central and ending in at the Sofitel Central Hua Hin.
A small town, Hua Hin soon becomes a suffocating reality, maybe due to the ubiquitous surveillance cameras on the beach. A few attractions in its surroundings would help the visitor willing to stay a few more days in the area.Horse RidingOn the Hua Hin Beach, horses can be rented from jockeys walking them around. A fifteen minutes ride costs 200 baht, half an hour costs 300 baht and a whole hour is offered for 600 baht. They can be used for exploring some attractions surrounding Hua Hin.Khao TakiapIts name meaning Chopsticks Mountain this hill is a few kilometers south of Hua Hin, it can be reached with the green taxi-truck from downtown, or just by walking along the beach. There is a road leading to the hilltop, where a temple can be visited and the landscape enjoyed. The hill is home to many monkeys, at its base is the Giant Golden Buddha Statue. There are many seafood restaurants in the area, providing thus a suitable end for a vigorous morning walk.Khao Hin Lek FaiThis is the hill just west of downtown Hua Hin, it is known also as Khao Radar due to the antenna on its top, where also are observation areas, a flower garden and a statue of King Rama VII. It offers good views of downtown Hua Hin and the beach.Khao TaoThe Turtle Hill is thirteen kilometers south of Hua Hin; a temple, caves, Buddha statues, a fishing village and a lake are a prelude to the main attractions of the area: two beaches called Hat Sai Noi and Hat Sai Yai ("hat" means beach, "noi" means small, and "yai" big). It can be reached by taxi, or simply with a rented bike.Namtok Pa La-u Located not far from the Burmese border, the Pa La-u Waterfall is around sixty kilometers west of Hua Hin. Tour operators in Hua Hin and Cha-Am offer day trips there. The trip is recommended for weekdays, since the area gets crowded during the weekends.Cha AmCha Am is a scaled down version of Hua Hin, offering the visitor a relaxing beach and little else. Located twenty-five kilometers north of Hua Hin, both towns are part of the same metropolitan area. The town houses also the American Webster University and has a large community of European retirees. Many temples complete the picture; the only remarkable one is the Phra Pit-thawan Wat Neran Chararam due to its unusual statue of the six armed Phra Pit-thawan .Cha-Am can be reached from Hua Hin with any north bound bus, with taxi-trucks and from Bangkok with all the buses reaching Hua Hin. This resort is quieter than Hua Hin and lacks a nightlife scene, being thus more suitable for family trips. As in Hua Hin, many resorts and restaurants cater for the visitors; on its beach are horses, banana boats and jetskis, but more sophisticated water sports cannot be found there.
Even before the first sight, Hua Hin is intimidating. Among the Thai beach resorts it is unique because it began as a resort for Thais, specifically for Thai royalty. Even now it caters mainly to rich Thais. "Would the eternal pilgrim be able to afford drinking water there?" I kept asking myself for eons. During my first trips in Southern Thailand, the sumptuous Klai Kangwon Palace, one of the main landmarks while crossing Hua Hin while traveling from Bangkok southwards on Highway 4, created the impression that the place was designed for royal budgets. In the end, visiting it was inevitable.Location and ClimateHua Hin is in the Malay Peninsula, almost 200km south of Bangkok and 25km south of Cha-Am, another popular beach resort. Such a location means it enjoys a tropical climate, hot and humid, with three seasons. The "hot and dry" season lasts from March to May, the "hot and rainy" season begins in June and ends in October, and the "cold (this is the overstament of the millennium) and dry" one runs from November to February.HistoryHua Hin's history goes all the way back to 1834AC, when migrating farmers from Phetchaburi settled there. The place became known as Ban Samoe Rieng (Rock Rows Village) or Ban Laem Hin (Stones Point Village). Faithful to its rural origins, even now it houses only about fifty thousand people.For almost a century the place was of no consequence, until the state railway director built the Railway Hotel close to the beach in 1923; built in classical Thai style, it is called now the Sofitel Central Hua Hin.Being the railways director a prince, the connection of the place with the royalty was done and soon, in 1928, the king built there a summer palace, naming it Klai Kangwon (Far from Worries); this is the official royal summer palace, and apparently the preferred residence of the king. The nearby beach was renamed Hua Hin, or Head Stone, and became the first beach resort in Thailand, much before Phuket and Samui.Soon, an 18-hole golf course was added, and a plethora of Bangkok's rich and famous summer houses occupied a long strip of beach, practically reaching Cha-Am.ShoppingHua Hin is not a shopping location. However, it offers Khommaphat printed cotton, which is often used for Thai pillows, bags and fans. The presence of the rich and famous means colored gemstones (mainly sapphires and rubies, which are popular in Thailand), premium silk and other upmarket products are available.Reaching Hua HinAirDespite being close to Bangkok, Hua Hin features an airport, from where private charter flights can be booked.RailwayInexorably linked to Hua Hin's birth, the railway is still important; frequent trains from Hualampong Station in Bangkok reach the town. All the trains heading southwards reach it; the trip longs about four hours depending on the train class. A first class, air conditioned sleeper ticket costs 922 baht, while a third class fan one costs 234 baht.RoadHighway 4, also known as Petchkasem Highway, is the main road connecting Bangkok with southern Thailand; it passes through Hua Hin. If traveling by car, take the Thonburi-Paktho Road, and after Samut Songkhram, turn left onto the highway.BusBuses to Hua Hin depart from Bangkok's southern bus terminal, which has been recently moved further away into Thonburi - Bangkok's twin city across the Chao Praya River. Bus number four reaches the terminal from the Victory Monument in Bangkok; the trip costs a staggering thirty baht, as compared to the regular seven baht bus fare; to that, the transport to the Victory Monument should be added. From the bus terminal regular and VIP buses are available during the day and night, roughly every thirty minutes. The trip longs about three hours.In Hua Hin there are two terminals. The direct buses from Bangkok stop on Petchakasem Road (the highway 4 stretch within Hua Hin) at the very heart of the downtown area. Other buses continuing to other destinations stop at a new terminal near the Market Village and Soi 96. Direct connections to Chiang Mai (in northern Thailand) and Khorat (northeastern Thailand) exist.
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