On Assignment in Hua Hin
“There’s not much there.” I looked on in surprise as a coworker wrinkled his nose at the memory of a trip to Hua Hin some years ago. That harsh pronouncement didn’t bode well for my own upcoming assignment during the middle of Thailand’s monsoon season – we had similar tastes in travel and the resort town roughly 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Bangkok wasn’t exactly on my wish list.
Although the romantic-sounding words “Hua Hin” roll smoothly off the tongue, their meaning in Thai is far more prosaic. Literally “Stone Head”, the name describes the rocks at the northern end of a four-kilometer (2.4-mile) beach on the Gulf of Thailand. It isn’t the most beautiful stretch of sand in the country, but it does have a longstanding connection to royalty. It all began at the turn of the 20th century when Prince Chakrabongse erected the first beach villa outside what was then a humble fishing village. When the railway from Bangkok opened in 1911, other royals followed suit, building their own bungalows along the powdery white-sand beach. Prince Prajadhipok – the future King Rama VII – commissioned a summer palace named Klai Kangwon, or “Far from Worries”. The estate is still used by the Thai royal family today.
Hua Hin remains a popular weekend destination for Bangkokians, and as I discover for myself, its reputation has gone far beyond the borders of Thailand or even Southeast Asia. European and Australian travelers are drawn to the place for its comfortable, laid-back environment without the seediness of Pattaya; I end up meeting a British family that spends their annual summer holidays in Hua Hin, staying up to a month at an internationally branded resort.
My base is Let’s Sea, a gorgeous beachfront restaurant backed by two rows of recently renovated villa-like lodgings that frame a long central pool. I’d known about the intimate 40-room hotel from Monocle, and it seems like the right place to forget your worries and indulge in creature comforts you might not otherwise find at home. Still, work is work, and with just one afternoon and a full day to visit and shoot a variety of places around town, my schedule leaves precious little time to take a dip in the hotel pool.
One of my first stops is The Chocolate Factory. Its homey, high-ceilinged interior is instantly inviting and bathed in natural light – and permeated with the aroma of melted chocolate. The smell alone draws me to some of the edible souvenirs on display, as well as a scaled-down replica of a Thai royal barge, intricately carved in chocolate, in the corner of a busy workshop behind a plate-glass screen.
Farther up the coast is Seenspace, another Hua Hin locale featured in Monocle by virtue of its design credentials and its emphasis on local brands and makers. The brainchild of prominent Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag, this open-air Brutalist complex is a far cry from your typical suburban mall. It’s lunchtime so I pop into the industrial-looking bar and eatery, Der, for some Isan fare that brings back memories of an earlier work trip to Buriram. My chosen dishes are minced beef brisket larb in a raw egg yolk sauce with fresh vegetables, and papaya salad featuring grilled prawn and pork-stuffed squid – paired with a startlingly blue parcel of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf.
Back at Let’s Sea, after a long walk down the main drag (past Klai Kangwon Palace) and a much-needed shower, I meet up with its soft-spoken co-founder and CEO, Srayut Ekahitanonda, for drinks on the beachfront terrace. His story is an interesting one. Not content with being the youngest director of sales in the entire Four Seasons group, he decided to strike out on his own and open a restaurant and hotel in the place where he spent many childhood holidays with his family. The sky begins to darken over the Gulf of Thailand as we talk and sip on passionfruit mojitos. Khun Srayut motions to the platter of DIY picnic fare, miang, set out on our small table. “My late mother used to make this whenever we came to Hua Hin on vacation,” he says wistfully. He then teaches me how to fold fresh kale leaves into a cup, before filling them with carefully diced shallot, ginger, and lime, then small prawns, roasted peanuts, and chopped bird’s-eye chilies. Spoonfuls of a sweet brown sauce ladled over the top bind all the flavors and textures together.
Khun Srayut eventually asks me to call him “A” (pronounced “ah”), and reveals that he is in his early forties, though I have a hard time believing it since he still looks so young. We eventually shuffle over to the adjoining restaurant for a mix of Western comfort food and home-style Thai specialties: an indulgent clam and crab chowder served in a generously sized bread bowl, locally caught squid that has been dried for one day before frying, and a lip-smacking Southern Thai–style coconut curry with crab and noodles.
After breakfast the next morning, I’m picked up for a half-day tour of the rural rehabilitation center run by Wildlife Friends Foundation, which shelters more than 600 rescued animals including gibbons, Asiatic black and sun bears, and Asian elephants. A volunteer explains that elephants’ bodies are not built for carrying humans or other heavy loads on their backs; she tells my group about the cruel traditional practice of phajaan, a process aimed at “breaking the spirit” of pachyderms captured from the wild. Phajaan involves confinement as well as psychological and physical abuse (using whips and bullhooks) to make the elephants submissive to humans. It’s reason enough to steer clear of any elephant rides or circus shows in the future.
Upon returning to town, I reluctantly change out of my shorts and T-shirt to check out a recently opened hotel bar. Crowning the Holiday Inn, Vana Nava Sky feels as though it has been transplanted straight from Bangkok. The polished interiors almost feel too formal for Hua Hin, and the outdoor glass-floored observation deck 27 stories above the ground seems gimmicky and wholly unnecessary. But then again the panoramic views are second to none, as is the signature house-infused chrysanthemum and saffron gin, yielding notes of thyme and holy basil. When I tell Khun A about the whole experience, he isn’t exactly impressed. “The sky bar could be anywhere – it doesn’t belong in Hua Hin. Yes, you can get a view of the lights after sunset but you can’t see the ocean at all. Hua Hin is really about the sea, the ocean breezes, a walk on the beach in the moonlight.”
And what would a trip to Thailand be without trying the street food? Dinner beckons at Tamarind Market, an easy 10-minute walk from Let’s Sea. The clean, spruced-up venue is a boon for overseas visitors who cannot read or speak Thai: prices and names are clearly written out in English at each booth. It’s just the place to sample hoy tod – fried mussel pancake – followed by a plate of charcoal-grilled pork neck in a sweet-spicy sauce and a side of white rice; fried baby octopi served with a zesty lime and chili dressing, and for dessert, several small scoops of coconut ice cream atop a base of nipa palm fruit, nata de coco, sticky rice, and fresh coconut shavings, all presented in a coconut shell. I may or may not have gained two kilos after that meal.
The food crawl continues the morning of my departure, when Khun A invites me to join him for an early breakfast in the oldest part of town. Perched on low wooden stools at a small café spilling out onto the street, we drink tea and coffee while chowing down on a trifecta of local delights from nearby stalls: skewered pork and a parcel of sticky rice; pa thong ko, or Thai-style Chinese crullers served with condensed milk; and flaky, piping hot banana fritters battered in rice flour.
By now I’ve decided that I will eventually return to Hua Hin someday – not so much for the beach, but mostly to eat. ◊