Thais love it. Foreigners love it. And even those who claim to have already enough of beach destinations still fall for it. We are referring to Hua Hin, one of Thailand’s most popular seaside resorts, located some 280 kilometers south of Bangkok.
There’s just something about Hua Hin that immediately gets to you, something that calms the spirit and soothes the soul—probably the same something that inspired King Rama VII of Thailand to call it “Klai Klang Won (Far from Worries)” and build a summer place there in the early 1920s.
Perhaps it is in the traditional Asian idyllic charm, the totally laidback character, or the completely friendly Thai feel. But even today, as an established international beach destination with full facilities for all kinds of tourists, Hua Hin has retained the characteristics that make it perfect for a quiet and relaxing breakaway.
In fact, Hua Hin—and by extension Cha-Am—has always been considered a unique place for special interest groups (as those in the travel trade call them) such as families, spa-goers, and golfers. Its “royal seal of approval” has made it a de facto destination of choice among Thailand’s high society, but its allure has also not escaped the attention of the new breed of young professionals from Bangkok who frequent the place during weekends; and foreign visitors with money to spend, who enjoy the luxuries and comforts of plush five-star hotels, who can afford to play at world-class golf courses, who like to get pampered and spoiled at some of the world’s best spas, and who delight in sumptuous dining and fine wines. In short, those who can celebrate the good life.
Without being snobbish, the small fishing village called Samor Riang in 1834—which became Laem Hin (Stone Cape), and then Hua Hin (Stone Head) in 1911, the same year the railroad from Bangkok was completed—has indeed become the jewel in the crown of Thai beach resorts.
The first to recognize the beauty and potential of Hua Hin was Prince Nares, who was minister of public works during the time of King Rama V. He built a residence on the southern end of Lam Hin Village. Soon other members of the royal family followed suit, and by 1916 many of them had built a complex of houses over the scenic group of rocks at the northern end of the village.
With the completion of the southern railway line connecting Siam to British Malaya, the fishing village inevitably rose up to its present tourism fortunes. Initially it was the State Railway of Thailand that organized food and accommodation for those who had to travel longer than three days by train. Hua Hin became a common stop-off point for travelers, and with a number of them looking for a break from train travel, very basic, even uncomfortable by today’s standards, accommodations were built near the train station.
Eventually in 1922, to provide travelers with more comfort and convenience, the State Railway decided to build the Western-style Railway Hotel (the forerunner of today’s Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin, one of Asia’s legendary hotels). An Italian architect designed the building as a luxurious two-story European-style hotel made of brick and wood. At about the same time, a road maintenance engineer, A.O. Robins, was commissioned to build a golf course opposite the railway station—the original nine-hole, 3,000-yard Royal Hua Hin Golf Course—and tennis courts, to welcome the first hotel guests on October 26, 1922. When the hotel formally opened in January 1923, it was described as “the most luxurious and modern hotel in the region.” From there the rest, as they say, is history.
The destination continued to grow in popularity and today, more than 100 years later, Hua Hin still holds a special place in the hearts of travelers. While the “tourist belt” has enlarged—now extending to neighbouring Cha-Am and further south to Pranburi—Hua Hin has been able to maintain its positive vibes; its reputation for combining the convenience of a modern holiday destination with the fascinating charm of a fishing community. It still has an active fishing port, and over at the Khao Takiap village of today, a moderately sized community still thrives by the same age-old trade.
Today’s Hua Hin is a major tourism destination by any standards. The extensive five-mile long main beach is now lined with hotels, resorts, and other tourist facilities such as seafood restaurant which are outdoing one another in architectural style, ambiance, facilities, and services. Outstanding hotels are now the norm (see our mini guide in the following pages), and there’s so much to choose by way of accommodation to fit a traveler’s requirement for a perfect stay.
Hua Hin is also a world-renowned spa and wellness center, and spa-goers from all corners of the world come to sample the wide array of treatments and pampering services on offer. The city also plays host to the highest density of world-class golf courses anywhere in the kingdom, and names such as Banyan Golf Club, Black Mountain, The Imperial Lakeview Golf Resort & Spa, and Milford Golf Course are just a few among the many that offer packages and tours in this veritable golfing paradise.
There is a big vineyard on the outskirts (Hua Hin Hills Vineyard) and many other man-made attractions have beefed up the natural wonders, such as the Plearn Wan, a re-creation of old Hua Hin and a top tourist draw; the Hua Hin Floating Market; the Cicada, a more classy version of the Hua Hin Night Bazaar; and the recently-opened Camel Republic in Cha-Am.
Nighlife is tame compared to Bangkok, Pattaya, or even Patong, but lively. Practically all of the major hotels have a live band to entertain those in search of musical entertainment. Dining and wining, as well, are geared toward a high-end gourmet level, and there are all kinds of cuisine available for all kinds of food lovers. By the way, if you’re curious about where the Thais go for great daytime street food, try going to Hua Hin 51, just a few walks toward the beach.
Despite its fast-track tourism growth, the town has been able to retain its more traditional charms, and keep its very strong local feel. Also, it has thus far avoided the over-commercialization that has struck other popular Thai tourist destinations, although concerns are beginning to mount as many tourists today say that Hua Hin has become a very expensive destination. There are those who are afraid that Hua Hin is almost bursting at the seams, especially with the development in the real estate sector. Indeed, you don’t have to dig deep to see that the real property sector is enjoying a heyday. Not only residential properties, condominiums, beach villas are mushrooming left and right. Shopping malls and complexes are sprouting as well, and there are rumors of a new Central Mall and Big C coming up, while The Venezia—a shopping center that emulates Venice and its canals—has become a popular tourist attraction.
But there seems to be no real trouble in paradise yet. Most hotels and resorts in Hua Hin seem to be taking the green approach in their operations, thanks to rising environmental awareness even among guests; and so far the government is having what it calls the Environment Watch. There seems to be a consensus in both the public and private sectors that Hua Hin should remain the serene, peaceful, relaxing place it is, with a pace of life slower than elsewhere in the kingdom. It is probably safe to say that thus far, the destination has been trying hard to avoid much of the same mistakes that its counterparts elsewhere in the kingdom have been committing.
Alongside Hua Hin, Cha-Am—regarded by many travelers as part of a complete Hua Hin area holiday—is following on the footsteps of its more internationally popular neighbor. In fact, with Hua Hin sometimes too crowded and busy on weekends or during events such as the annual Hua Hin Jazz Festival or the Hua Hin Vintage Car Parade, Cha-Am provides a perfect alternative for those who want to be a bit away from the hustle and bustle but still be near the action.
Pranburi, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly popular for its quietness, for having some of Thailand’s last unspoiled beaches, and for its convenience to the stunning Sam Roi Yod National Park, with its mangrove forest where a river flows into the sea. Locates just 30 kilometers from Hua Hin, Pranburi is seeing the development of a number of mid-range and upscale hotels and resorts.
What visitors to Hua Hin and the surrounding areas see at the moment is a destination that is growing in its ability to meet its capacity in a very progressive way. And the area seems set to fulfill its promise: a destination that is ready not only to welcome even the most discerning holidaymakers in the world, but also to enhance their amazing experience of Thailand. See it for yourself.