An evening out in Hua Hin, the classiest beach town in Thailand

by Philip Cunningham

HUA HIN, Thailand — Like any town in Thailand, Hua Hin has its share of stray dogs, especially near the temple grounds. In this proud provincial town of sandy beaches, sea breezes and clean streets, however, even the stray mutts look healthier.

The legacy of King Rama IV appears in the design of Hua Hin’s train station.

Remarkably diverse and cosmopolitan for a compact town of some 40,000 people, Hua Hin is located in the province of Prajuab Kirikan, on a hilly peninsula shared with its taciturn neighbor, Myanmar.

The town has enjoyed the reputation of being a classy beach town since the 1920s, when King Rama VI left his mark with a gingerbread-house railway station and a German-inspired royal residence. Even today, the cultural link with Germany is strong, thanks to endless busloads of German sun-worshippers, who can order from German menus at guesthouses run by Germans and market-savvy Thais.

Hua Hin is blessed with a rare climate in Thailand. Thanks to the rain-absorbing Myamarese hills, it gets the monsoon winds without the precipitation. As a result, evenings are often cool and dry here, though it might be raining to the north and the south. Why else would anyone want to build a summer palace in a kingdom of endless summer?

The sumptuous official residence of the current monarch, Chitralada Palace in Bangkok, may be surrounded by a moat and guarded fences, but not much can be done to keep the city’s notorious pollution at bay.

As a result, King Rama IX Bumiphol, in the interests of reducing his hectic schedule and restoring his health, is spending more and more time at Hua Hin. A new, improved version of historic Klai Kangwon Palace is his summer palace.

Sitting on a bench next to the rear entrance of Hua Hin temple on Poolsuk Road, I watch the denizens of the night walk by. Across the street, at the candle-lit, open-air Rockestra Cafe, a Thai band with an awesome lead guitarist plays tunes ranging from Santana to the Cranberries.

A 130-kg tourist of northern European extraction ambles by, followed by a sun-reddened couple speaking German. Four Thai men, dressed in women’s clothes and sporting elegant beehive hairdos, walk by, attracting little attention. They are on their way to work, to put on the evening’s show of lip-sync and dance at the cabaret down the road.

I decide to get as far from the tourist enclave as my feet can reasonably take me, and end up on the end of a long, guarded pier sticking out into the dark waters of the bay.

At the end of the narrow causeway are anchored several sea-worn wooden vessels, each teeming with long-haired men wearing cowboy hats, baggy indigo trousers and shiny black rubber boots.

It takes only a few moments of faltering conversation to realize the fishermen congregating on the dock within view of the twinkling lights of the King’s palace are not Thai but Myanmarese.

An ice truck delivers cakes of ice to the wharf where it is ground into chips and chunks for preserving fish, and loaded on board by the fishermen.

Myanmarese fishermen are tolerated at sea but not permitted onshore. Their fleeting minutes on this narrow pier as they load ice and horse around will be the only time they’ll spend on terra firma until they round the Malay peninsula at Singapore to head back home across the Andaman Sea.

A fetid canal serves as an unofficial boundary between tourist town and fisherman town, and I cross the bridge to head back to the hotel enclave, past seafood wholesalers and Thai restaurants.

Obscuring the lazy, misshaped moon a short distance ahead is Hua Hin’s first high-rise hotel, the Spanish-operated Melia. It’s an expensive expatriate island, though the sprawling sea-side swimming pool is worth a look, perchance a furtive swim. Comfortable and more economical lodging near the beach can be found at Fresh Inn and Fulay Inn.

The beach is deserted now, as it is well past midnight and the tide is high. The green lights of squid boats bob up and down along the coast all night long; their catch is unloaded at the two gritty workingman piers that bookend the leisurely tourist beaches.

By the time the pink-skinned foreigners are up and about, enjoying bacon, toast and eggs over a copy of the Bangkok Post, bracing themselves for another day in the sun, the nocturnal fishermen are getting ready for bed, their catch already en route to restaurants here and in Bangkok.