Forget Pattaya, grab a brew and a massage in tranquil Hua Hin
I was sorely mistaken.
Freezing in the wintry concrete jungle of Seoul, I thought this season would be the perfect time for a getaway to Thailand. With its cheap flights, food and lodging, Thailand is a frequent destination for Koreans and expats alike. The two big hotspots are Bangkok, the capital, and Pattaya, the beach resort with a seedy underbelly.
While I’d planned for a couple of days in Bangkok, where I flew in, I felt Pattaya wasn’t for me. So upon the recommendation of an acquaintance, my travel buddy booked us a stay in Hua Hin.
That was the response I generally got when I told people of my plans. Hua Hin seems to be rarely on tourists’ “must see” list. Truth be told, there really isn’t much to see here. No, there isn’t the breathtaking aquamarine water of Ko Samet, one of Thailand’s nicest beaches, nor the spectacle of Pattaya’s go-go bars or infamous ping-pong shows.
The point of Hua Hin, as I learned, is to relax. For tourists looking for some tranquility, Hua Hin is the place. There’s a reason why this town was once a resort of the Thai monarchs. It’s a blessed, slow-paced oasis.
Even so, when my friend and I hopped off our bus from Bangkok in the center of Hua Hin, we were surprised to find the obligatory Starbucks and McDonald’s ― as well as more than a few sunburned Caucasian faces.
Few, however, were speaking English: Hua Hin has a large, active Scandinavian population. If you wander through the night market along Thanon Dechanuchit, be careful as you leaf through the used books: Unless you look closely, you might take home a book in Danish or Norwegian.
The best way to sink quickly into the serenity of Hua Hin is to get a Thai massage. A walk through many cities in Southeast Asia yields plenty of massage parlors, and there are many to be found in Hua Hin. With prices in the touristy areas ranging from around 200 baht ($6.30, 5,950 won) to 300 baht per hour, they’re quite an affordable luxury.
In the cool, silent confines of this air-conditioned sanctuary, the pillow-soft hands of the masseuse are surprisingly strong. Sensitive customers may be unfamiliar with the strain of the pulling and kneading. A Thai masseuse may fold your body into a pretzel-like contortion, but the end result is often a sensation approaching nirvana.
Because of our late-night arrival, we planned to beeline toward our lodging, but the indistinct name of Guest House Hua Hin (032-515-568 or 968) threw a wrench into our plans. Due to the language barrier, when we asked locals about its location, they just pointed us toward the soi, or alley, of guest houses along Thanon Naretdamri. But with the help of some incredibly gracious Thais and their cell phones, we flagged down a saamlaw, or a truckbed taxi (about 150 baht), to our actual destination, quite far south of downtown.
The sheer silence that shrouds Guest House Hua Hin, located at Soi Kleng Talay, Takiab Road, made the sleepy downtown seem like the pulsing chaos of Bangkok. For those looking to really turn their trip to Hua Hin into a retreat, a stay in the quieter outskirts can prove ideal.
While the man holding down the fort at our guest house initially had a bit of trouble tracking down our reservation (he’d spelled my friend’s name phonetically), his friendly nature and ready smiles were enough of an apology. After checking out our spotless room, we headed out for a late dinner.
Just walking down the dirt road was a calming experience; the light sea breeze rumpled my hair and the salty scent of the ocean put me at ease. We eventually stumbled upon a restaurant and bar called Ban Dontree (032-535-450). The live music for the night was a Thai fellow who sang and played the guitar. He even included a couple of greetings and tunes in English for our sake. The best was his rendition of “Achy Breaky Heart,” which he pronounced as “ay-chee breaky heart.”
The combination of the soothing music, the spicy food and a cold beer was fitting for Hua Hin’s casual atmosphere.
The beach was our big agenda item the next day. On the recommendation of a local friend and our Lonely Planet book, we decided to check out the beach behind the Hotel Sofitel Central (032-512-021, 032-511-014).
Although this is hardly the kosher way of getting to the sand, we decided to just walk right onto the hotel grounds, borrow a towel as if we were guests and head straight onto the beach. It worked like a charm.
But getting back onto the hotel grounds can prove a bit trickier, as the walkway from the beach has a sign and a guard posted to keep trespassers out. However, it’s pretty easy to circumvent the guard by saying, “Oh, I’m meeting my friend,” or just having your stolen trademark yellow Sofitel towel in plain view.
Once on the beach, chances are some Thai men will offer pony rides, which are a main regional attraction. Like nearly everything in Thailand, prices are negotiable. My friend and I settled on getting one hour on a pony for 300 baht each. I’d never been on a horse before, so I carried myself awkwardly at best, but our guides stayed by us to ensure our safety.
Afterwards, we relaxed at Paleo Bar, a beachfront joint that remains charming despite its worn umbrellas and half-broken plastic chairs.
With a warbling bar singer who was so bad he was good, it was the perfect place to enjoy a couple of beers, the sun and the surf. I felt at home as I dug my toes into the sand and became reacquainted with warmth.
A two-night stay in Hua Hin wasn’t nearly long enough. Sure, Bangkok, where I spent the remainder of my holiday, was great. But I’ll take a pony ride and a beer on the beach over crowds, neon lights and traffic any day.
How to get there:
Flights: Most flights to Thailand from Incheon International Airport (ICN) are bound for Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK).
Train: This is a comfortable way to travel to Hua Hin from Bangkok. Hualamphong, Sam Sen and Thonburi’s Bangkok Noi stations all serve Hua Hin. For exact times, check at stations a day in advance. Both the first-class (about 200 baht, $6.30, 5,950 won) and second-class (about 100 baht) trains are recommended. If you opt for third class (about 50 baht), you’re in for a long, bumpy ride. Hua Hin’s train station is one of the most charming in Thailand.
Bus: For those wishing to take the bus, expect a ride of about three and a half to four hours. First-class buses (about 200 baht) offer a brisk ride. Second-class buses (about 160 baht) travel at a snail’s crawl, stop frequently and you are not guaranteed a seat ― or a cushion that is actually attached to the seat.
Where to stay: Lodging in the far south of town is generally quieter. Guest House Hua Hin is quiet and clean. Watch out for mosquitos, but you should be fine if you leave a mosquito coil burning in your room. Soi Kleng Talay, Takiab Road, +66 (032) 515-568 or 968, www.guesthousehuahin.com
The Rock Hua Hin is a luxury resort in the same area. Expect all the amenities of a modern hotel. 4/44 Moo Baan, Takiab Road, (032) 537-100, www.therockhuahin.com
There are many luxury resorts downtown. The Hotel Sofitel Central has a sprawling, plantation-like feel. 1 Damnernkasem Road, (032) 512-021, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hilton Hua Hin has a more enclosed, modern feel. 33 Naresdamri Road, (032) 538-999, www.hilton.com
By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [email@example.com]