Thailand’s oldest beach resort, HUA HIN used to be little more than an overgrown fishing village with one exceptionally grand hotel, but the arrival of mass tourism, high-rise hotels and farang-managed hostess bars has made a serious dent in its once idiosyncratic charm. With the far superior beaches of Ko Samui, Krabi and Ko Samet so close at hand, there’s little to draw the dedicated sunseeker here. The town’s most distinctive attractions are its squid-pier restaurants and guesthouses on Thanon Naretdamri, characterful spots to stay or enjoy fine seafood, while at the other end of the scale the former Railway Hotel (now the Centara Grand) provides all the atmosphere you can afford. In addition, the town makes a convenient base for day-trips to Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park to the south and Pala-u Falls in Kaeng Krachan National Park to the west. If none of that appeals, you might consider stopping by for Hua Hin’s well-respected jazz festival in August or for the rather more unusual elephant polo tournament, held every September.
The royal family were Hua Hin’s main visitors at the start of the twentieth century, but the place became more widely popular in the 1920s, when the opening of the Bangkok–Malaysia rail line made short excursions to the beach much more viable. The Victorian-style Railway Hotel was opened in 1922, originally as a necessary overnight stop on the three-day journey to Malaysia. At the same time Rama VI commissioned the nine-hole Royal Hua Hin Golf Course (now 18 holes) to the west of the station, and in 1926 Rama VII had his own summer palace, Klai Klangwon (“Far from Worries”), erected at the northern end of the beach. It was here, ironically, that Rama VII was staying in 1932 when the coup was launched in Bangkok against the system of absolute monarchy. The current king has made many visits here too, which means that the navy is on constant guard duty in the resort and the police are also on their best behaviour; consequently both Thais and expats consider Hua Hin an especially safe place to live and do business – hence the number of farang-oriented real-estate agencies in the area.
About fifteen minutes’ walk south down the beach from the Centara Grand, or 2km by road down Thanon Phetkasem, there’s a little knot of accommodation on Soi 67. Here, facing each other across the short, narrow soi about 100m back from the beach, are a dozen little guesthouses, mainly Scandinavian–Thai run, which share a swimming pool; none comprises more than twenty rooms and most charge about B900. They’re very popular with older European couples, many of whom return for several months every winter, so booking is essential.
A popular day-trip from Hua Hin is 63km west to the fifteen-tiered Pala-u Waterfall, situated close to the Burmese border and within Kaeng Krachan National Park. Though the falls themselves are hardly exceptional, the route there takes you through a lush, hilly landscape and past innumerable pineapple plantations. There’s no public transport to the falls, but every tour operator features them in its programme. To get there under your own steam, follow the signs from the west end of Thanon Chomsin along Highway 3218. Once inside the park you’ll see hundreds of butterflies and may also catch sight of monitor lizards and six species of hornbills. A slippery and occasionally steep path follows the river through the fairly dense jungle up to the falls, passing the (numbered) tiers en route to the remote fifteenth level, though most people opt to stop at the third level, which has the first pool of any decent depth (full of fish but not that clear) and is a half-hour walk from the car park.
Hua Hin also offers excursions to Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, Phetchaburi and Amphawa floating market, not to mention the old summer palace of Phra Ratchaniwet Marukhathaiyawan just to the north. In addition, a number of activities are available, such as cycling and kiteboarding.