Hua Hin: from Royal resort town to Scandinavian getaway.

img_6404

Just three hours south of Bangkok, Hua Hin has been the resort residence of Thai royalty for decades.  With the arrival of the Hilton in the 90s, Hua Hin began to attract mass tourism from Europe and China, and with it, the inevitable  building boom dedicated to bringing in package tours. Condos, high-rise hotels and swank shopping malls have transformed this once sleepy fishing village; Hua Hin is in very real danger of losing its original charm. One hold-out – The Centara Grand Beach resort, complete with topiary and staff in pith helmets and jodhpurs, is a high-end and cultured nod to the past.

img_6293

The broad white beach is still a major draw, but the historic area around the fishing pier is slated for demolition. Apparently, the plan is to take out that whole area, and put in a boardwalk with upgraded shops and restaurants. Needless to say, this is not sitting well with the locals.

img_6303

 

Naresdamri’s seafront is filled with piers like this, offering waterfront seafood restaurants

img_6305

An example of the original shopfronts that are in danger of disappearing

img_6318

We walked out to the end of the main fishing pier (which will remain intact). This young boy sat in a lineup of fishing rods, carefully baiting his hook.

Fishing on the pier

Buckets of beautiful, white squid being cleaned, right on the dock.

Cleaning fish on the Hua Hin pier.

Fishing boats grounded by low tide.

img_6335

Hua Hin is a love it or hate it kind of place, and our first impressions were not that great. At first glance, it is a bit of an overgrown, tacky town, with sleazy commerce front and centre.  Beautiful young Thai women and much older white men are a common sight. Sex tourism is a huge thing in Thailand, and while I don’t want to start a debate about the ethics of men exploiting women’s dire economic states, I find it stomach-turning.  A number of blocks in the centre core come alive at night; it is not so much a stroll as a scene.  Even Stephen and I were solicited, which really does prove there is something for everyone here. We laughed, they laughed back.

Massage parlours line the streets – one needs to be a little careful about choosing. The girls tend to sit outside and call out, “hello, massage.” Prices run about the same – $10-$15 an hour – but the credentials bear checking out first. Chances are if the girls are in heels and hot pants, there may be a happy ending. Legit parlours will look like the one below:

img_6329

Slowly, though, Hua Hin began to grow on us. We discovered our favourite places to eat, and spent hours wandering the streets, and let it all wash over us.  Hua Hin is a popular destination for Scandinavian tourists, but we also heard German and Dutch being spoken everywhere. Canadians and Americans – we are in very low numbers here.

We met up yesterday with our friends from Nanaimo, Chris and Sue. They have lived in Thailand in the past, and come each year to a small town just south of here. Chris met up with us at our hotel and brought us treats from the market – small “cakes” with sweet and savoury fillings. As he took us on a tour of the town, we passed the lady who makes them.

img_6372

Our Thai food education continued as we made our way through the market. Tamarind is very popular – this is what they look like.

img_6370

The fish simply cannot get any fresher – everything that is sold in the market comes right from the waters of Hua Hin. The prawns are massive, the lobsters are tiny, crab comes in a variety of sizes and colours, and the squid are glistening and pure white. There is almost no fish smell going through that part of the market – the products are that fresh.

img_6364

Some of the staples of Thai cooking – lemongrass, lemon leaves and a particular type of ginger.

img_6363

We grabbed a Songthaew ( a collectivo-style truck with bench seats – one just stands at the side of the road and waves them down) to Chris and Sue’s place about half hour from Hua Hin. After a roadside lunch of papaya salad, we headed up to Monkey Mountain. There is a temple there and a giant Buddha, as well as staggering views of the town and bay, but as the name suggests, the big attraction are the hundreds of monkeys. Our first sighting was this fellow perched on a boat as we approached the hill.

img_6389

It was such an incongruous sight, much like seeing a giraffe bellied-up to the bar. Like any other wild animal sighting, it was exciting until we discovered there were more where he came from. Many, many more…

Monkey Mountain

There are hundreds of these monkeys, and tourists are warned not to feed them, and not to carry food around, as they will surely come and snatch it from you.  All of this was fun from a distance, but as we made our way down the hill, Chris observed,”Well, we’re walking right through the monkeys.” And indeed we did, without mishap – the big males, the mothers carrying their babies, the young ones – they all scampered past us

After such a wonderful day, we ended on a high note – dinner at a weekend market with new friends.    It is Festival of the Lanterns, and the entrance to the park was festooned with lit-up fabric horses.

img_6409

The Cicada market is a collection of food stalls and handicrafts, ringed by tables on one side and entertainment at the stage at the back. You make the round of the stalls, much like a giant buffet table, decide what dish most appeals and then circle back and order.

img_6411

I ordered a huge salad with pomelos, shrimp, noodles, vegetables – spicy at first, but then simply delectably flavourful. That is the joy of Thai cooking – fresh food, not too much meat or fish, lots of veggies, lovely noodles, exquisite spicing – so nuanced, so healthy – I could eat like this for the rest of my life, and I probably should. This was one of the curries.

img_6412

After dinner, we checked out the crafts – all of them a cut above the usual market fare, and at incredible prices. Oh, such temptation – but what do I buy that I can carry for the next three months?  Thanks Chris and Sue, for such a thoroughly enjoyable day and for all your insider tips to being in Thailand.

Chris, Sue and friends at Cicada Market

One last note…our unseasonable weather.  We’ve been told weeks will go by without a drop of rain and this year everything has changed. There has been so much rain in the south (site of Thailand’s famous beaches), that roads and railway tracks have been washed out, so access to the beaches and the islands is gone for the immediate future. We’ve had rain in Hua Hin every day, but today it has been non-stop and torrential. We’re heading north tomorrow to Kanchanaburi, where The Bridge on the River Kwai is situated. Next time I post, it should be in sunshine.