Royal gold banners, interspersed with blue, greet us on the road into town. Gilt-edged photos of a bespectacled youthful-venerable visage topped by a slick of dark hair are reverently displayed outside shops and on street corners. Surely the dark-windowed sports cars rolling in from the highway are here to celebrate the concert of a lifetime this weekend? Or at least a triumphal procession?
Sure enough, come evening, feather boas and floor-sweeping jewelled gowns flash on the arms of white-tie jackets, across a black-and-white flower mosaic floor. Martinis and cigarette holders are brandished to match flapper fringes and fedoras.
Because the cult of the King is alive and well in Thailand. No, not Elvis. This is the true monarch of Thailand, and his following predates the advent of rock and roll. But the seaside town of Hua Hin, 25km from Bangkok, has a special love for the 1920s. And the swish and swing of that decade is relived before every new year by the local who’s who.
It was in 1921 that Prince Purachatra, a royal relation (an honour many in Thai bureaucracy could claim) and director of the state railways, built the Railway Hotel here. Today the Sofitel, it remains the starting point of the very popular vintage car rally held here each December, culminating in a 1920s-themed party in the evening after the parade of classic cars along the promenade. This is the month of the king’s birthday too—hence the flags in his lucky colour, golden yellow for the Monday-born (the queen’s is blue, for Friday).
The patrons are mostly the elite and the illustrious of Thailand, down from Bangkok to relax in the resort town that pleased King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, enough that he had built a new summer palace on the beachfront here by the end of the decade. Klai Kang Won, or ‘far from worries’, it was called. Where the King goes, his entourage follows and wannabes throng, for prestige is found in proximity. So the fishing town of Hua Hin in Prachuap Khiri Khan province was soon transformed into the favourite holiday destination for the movers and shakers from the big city who could afford a second home.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time that a Thai monarch had sought the peace of the Gulf of Thailand in summer. Prajadhipok’s predecessor King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, had moved his summer palace—piece by golden teakwood piece—from swampy Chao Samran to Hua Hin’s neighbour Cha-Am, a cooler and drier site with a good supply of fresh water in Phetchaburi province. Here it was reassembled with nary a nail in the early 1920s. Set right on the sea, this airy royal holiday home was rebuilt by Italian architect Ercole Manfredi by 1924. Though King Vajiravudh lived to enjoy it for only a couple of years, the ‘deer palace’ Mrigadayavan (the Thai seem to prefer Marukhathaiyawan)—named after the hog deer that made their home here first, a site that reminded the king of the Buddha’s first sermon—remains a well-beloved tourist attraction, a short drive out of Hua Hin.
This sheer forest of teak pillars, marching down to the waves in separate colonnades for the princes and princesses, suggests a serenity almost at odds with the popularity of Hua Hin’s scene. But if the iconic Sofitel became the inspiration for a royal resort in Hua Hin, the Mrigadayavan has in a twist of history provided the aesthetic for the town’s newest luxury resort: the InterContinental Hua Hin, situated near the far end of the beach, secluded from the busier central strip. Debuting last December, the resort is now the premier place to relax by the sea in Hua Hin. Louvred shutters and shaded verandas echo the palace’s architectural devices, and stylised floral-patterned screens recall the flowers in the Deer Palace’s parks. Palms line the way to the private beach. The frangipani blooms red and white around the property—the flower once called ‘lantom’ denoted great sorrow and was excluded from Thai homes until Princess Sirindhorn renamed it ‘leelawadee’, or ‘beautiful woman’, making it so popular that the fragile tree that gardeners couldn’t even give away is now priced at thousands of baht. Tucked away to one side, is the InterContinental’s equivalent of a presidential suite: the luxurious restored two-storey Thai home called La Residence, which first opened its twin bedrooms, sprawling drawing room, impressive dining room, spacious balcony and infinity pool-enhanced beachfront garden to Rafael Nadal.
Back in the main circulation space, between the palms is a progress of pools, lit by underwater stars to extend inland the night-time phosphorescence of the waves so prized by fishermen. Loungers stretch under canopies to either side, some even sitting in the water so that you can simply flip over to cool off when you’re well baked and sated with the free nibbles and drinks issuing from the flanking restaurant. Three jacuzzi pools are set into the swimming pool area, with water treatments at different temperatures, saving you the trouble of hauling yourself back to the spa in the front building.
On the other hand, it might be worth the walk back, since the spa’s staff are superlative. This notoriously nervous writer fell asleep on the massage bed for the first time ever, giving the lie to numerous earlier complaints of ‘you don’t seem to relax very well, madam’—and no, it was skill, not exhaustion, that gets the credit. Between spa and sea, your day and evening should go swimmingly.
From above, the length of the resort is shaped like a fish swimming down to the sea. Downstream, the beach is separated from the pool area by a sunken firepit, a lovely spot to assemble over dessert in the breezy evenings. Along the spine, the fish’s fins house the 119 rooms that are a celebration of spaciousness, each with either a sea view or a private pool. Upstream, past the tail, shaded and sunken eating enclosures front the signature Italian and Thai restaurants, which do sumptuous breakfast duty of a morning. In the evening, the Lee La bar is opened up, opposite the delightful live jazz ensemble. The food is excellent, the cocktails sparkle and, living like a movie star (or tennis star) here, you might never leave the fishtail—which would be a mistake.
Your first foray should be under cover of night, possibly well after dinner is digested. You’ll want room for the seafood skewers and pancakes briskly selling out of the stalls at the near end of the Hua Hin Night Market. This is where you’ll find the souvenirs for the extended family, the jealous co-jobbers and favoured friends. A woven palm-leaf locust the size of an arm or a leg, but costing mere coins, keeps an old Thai lady in business and survives the careful flight back to turn from fresh green to sturdy brown over the months, one surprisingly long-lived cricket. Beer cans fashioned into tuktuks and motorcycles should cheer up cubicles around you, while children would shriek for the articulated wooden frog chefs swinging their legs off a shelf with insouciance. For all the other difficult customers, there are smart T-shirts and exquisite soap flowers aplenty.
Come morning, after your breakfast starter of congee with all the smelly, crunchy, savoury toppings, choose from some half a dozen curries (the eggplant is excellent, by the way, with the basil-scented chicken mince) and rice for a spicy-sweet start to the day. There are, of course, the sweet rolls, cold cuts and salads for those of more tender tum. Non-morning persons must at least get a smear of tender coconut jams on a wholewheat slice and a deep-pink dragonfruit smoothie—looks enough like beetroot to ward off pesky conversation-makers who can’t respect a hangover, while tasting close enough to heaven to remind you to be light on your feet for the day.
Because you’ll want to follow the lights you saw last night to Khao Takiab, the local ‘monkey mountain’. You’ll want to keep your hat on, bags zipped and bottles tucked out of sight as you buy fruit to feed them; but first stop by for blessings and a fortune telling from the sailor’s patron Buddha, a tall golden tree of a deity looking out to sea from the base of the hill. (Word to the wise: if marriage appears on the sticks, you could do worse to impress the in-laws than booking the resort as venue, for both glamour and privacy.) If you’re lucky and the sea is clement, the hotel can arrange a boat to bring you to his feet. If it looks choppy, you could ask for a day out with chef instead, visiting the local markets for fresh produce—more to gawk at the ‘century’ eggs and unlaid eggs, poke at new seasonings and strangely familiar-but-not vegetables and nibble brightly coloured kueh than to be much help in his choosing. But do pay attention! You’ll be cooking your lunch under expert guidance soon—one of the many customised ‘Insider Experiences’ the resort offers. So you may be too full for the spa or the watersports—the kiteboarding in particular is excellent—this afternoon.
Instead, hire a tuktuk to go gawk at the ornate royal waiting room at the beautifully preserved and shamefully clean little railway station. On the way back, get your own ‘phoren’ shopping done at the Market Village, a misnomer of a mall with local designer brands and international staples from Tesco to Speedo, and then stop by the textile store Khomapastr for a local treat of block-printed cotton—their old-fashioned gold prints are produced under royal writ, but the more contemporary kitchen textiles and bags are perhaps more covetable. This isn’t glitzy Bangkok, but that shouldn’t stop you from filling your suitcase with tchotchkes. If buyer’s remorse strikes, you can always check for the next alms ceremony on the beach, when monks come to receive their day’s dinner, granting expiation and blessing you presumably with worldly detachment.
It’s worth booking a whole day out for an excursion to Wat Huay Mongkol, a temple to a local monk and worker of miracles. The gigantic figure with his imposing wrinkles and piercing swirled eyes is a photo op not to be missed and, for a few rupees in an honesty box, you get real gold leaf to lay on smaller renditions of him. You can’t miss the many-headed elephants either—locals believe this pair of airavats grants any wish made while you duck under their belly, and many try to get extra insurance by throwing coins into their narrow mouths. Conveniently, this is en route to the surprisingly successful Hua Hin Vineyards, a picturesque place to have a casual lunch and a nice wine tasting.
The other scenic vice to indulge in here is golf—there’s no less than seven courses in the area. After all, it’s not every day that you can boast of taking time after close of business to fly down from Bangkok by private jet to play a few holes! Yes, that 30-minute Cessna sea-crossing is the only commercial flight operated out of Hua Hin airport, which mostly serves as parking space for the royal jet—just another of those treats for the InterContinental’s guests.
There are flights to Bangkok from all major Indian cities, of course (with return fares starting from about Rs 14,000 ex-Delhi, Rs 12,500 ex-Mumbai and Rs 8,500 ex-Kolkata). From Bangkok airport, you can ask the InterContinental Resort for a transfer by road or sky. The half-hour private flight crosses the Gulf of Thailand by Cessna, carrying up to eight passengers. The limousine transfer takes just two-and-a-half hours down quite scenic roads and is restful enough for a quick nap if you arrived by red-eye.
The InterContinental Hua Hin Resort is the newest luxury property in town, with a gorgeous spa facility, fine dining Italian (Felicita) and Thai (Pirom) restaurants besides another multi-cuisine one, three bars (one in the pool, one over it on the ‘roof’, and one with live jazz and single malts near the lobby) and 24-hour butler service for all room categories. Rooms have a huge tub right up front in a flexibly closed or open bathroom, and most have balconies with day beds; those that don’t, get a private pool and deck behind the main pool area, which is vast indeed. The 42-inch LCD TVs take de rigueur in-room entertainment to super size, supplemented by iPod docks. The décor evokes old-fashioned luxuries with wooden fretwork, louvred shutters, marble counters, architectural artwork, kind lighting and space to play in.
Facilities: The media centre and library has Apple laptops for your use as well as a selection of books and DVDs, and is a generally gracious place, with cookies and tea service; poolside guests get free drinks and snacks from time to time to keep their strength up for sunbathing. If you find yourself getting too lazy, there are daily martial arts and aqua aerobics and other such energetic entertainments, and classes as varied as batik painting, Thai dancing and fruit carving. Daily yoga sessions are free for all in the lawn, after the morning merit-making ceremony on the beach, where monks come to receive alms. The usual suspects of banquet halls, gift shop, kids’ club and fitness centre are neatly tucked into the territory too.
Rooms: One hundred and nineteen rooms plus La Residence Royale, a two-storey three-bedroom house. The rooms include grand deluxe rooms; premier rooms; pool terrace rooms; deluxe suites; premier suites; and pool villas. Tariff 6,500-21,500 baht (low season), 7,500-22,500 baht (high season), 14,500-44,500 baht (peak season). See ihg.com.
What to see & do:
Night Market Setting up on a stretch of two consecutive streets from about 6pm, it’s small and atmospheric, and stall owners are surprisingly polite in the bargain. Restaurants here also spill their tables and grills out on to the streets in the evening, along with the hawker-style food stalls that set up just for a few hours. Despite the name, it all starts to wind up by 11pm or midnight at most.
Chatchai Market & Market Village The main fresh market is actually cheek by jowl with the streets that become the Night Market. It’s a covered wet market like many back home, but lots cleaner and fun to visit if only to stop and stare at curious eats. For proper shopping, Market Village is the town’s big mall.
Khomapastr This old-fashioned Thai blockprinting house quite close to Market Village has been here since 1949, when they first began printing cotton in the old-fashioned gold-accented patterns called pha kiao, with royal patronage. Cushions and traditional floor mattresses with headrests in these, as well as more contemporary prints for household linens or dressmaking and cute bags are the best buys here. A tour of the factory, which still has its old wooden blocks, can be arranged on request. khomapastr.com.
Beach The main white-sand Hua Hin beach runs from the Sofitel down south to the Khao Takiab headland. The bulk of local eateries (lots of seafood, of course) are at the downtown end. Khao Takiab’s is the quieter end, and if you’re heading beyond it, better bring a picnic lunch along. The other main strip is at Cha-Am, to the north of Hua Hin.
Watersports Hua Hin played proud host to the kiteboarding world cup last year, and it’s the sea sport of choice. The season is mainly March-April, when the seas are calm. Of course, there is kayaking, banana boat rides, parasailing and waterskiing too. For less strenuous, more contemplative pursuits, there is fishing, both sea (try Mermaid Cruises, huahincruises.com; they do boat tours to nearby islands as well) and freshwater (at the Hua Hin Fishing Lodge, huahinfishing.com).