Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Holiday in Hua Hin

Coming up to the third anniversary of my arrival in the Land of Smiles, I am beginning to repeat myself.  It was a holiday weekend, with people taking off work during the start of what is called "Buddhist Lent," and Nan and I considered our options, the goal being surf, sand and sun.  Ko Samet was our destination of choice, but the owners of our favorite spot had jacked up their prices, creating a "middle season" between low and high for July and adding a 400 baht a night surcharge for the "busy weekend."  Since we'd visited Pattaya recently, where our hotel had been under noisy construction, this time we headed south to Hua Hin to swim and eat.

It was my third trip to the popular but aging beach resort town on the northern end of the Malay Peninsula and the second time for the two of us together.  The railroad came here in 1921 and the station is a national landmark.  King Rama VII built a summer palace which he named Wang Klai Kang Won, "Far from Worries."  That sounded like a good idea.  This time we arrived without a room reservation and the paucity of tourists confirmed my hunch that a continuing State of Emergency and the beginning of the rainy season takes even Hua Hin off the holiday map.  We walked from the bus station down to the waterfront and first looked at Fulay Guest House on a pier over the sea which is recommended by Lonely Planet.  Their cheap room was a closet and the cute "Thai Room" was overpriced.  Not far away we discovered The Fat Cat Guest House owned by a Danish expat about my age and took a lovely recently refurbished room overlooking the water for less than 1000 baht a night.

Our home away from home was close to the seafood restaurants and a short walk to the rock-strewn beach in front of the dominating Hilton Hotel where visitors recline under umbrellas, take rides on one of the many ponies for rent, hunt for sea shells, or venture out to sea on a "banana boat" pulled by a crazy jet ski driver intent on tossing them off.  We dozed and read, sipped our refreshing drinks, paid too much for an al fresco lunch and waited for the clouds to relent and let the sun come out.  It never happened.  Nor did it rain beyond a brief evening shower.  The umbrellas were sparsely populated, mostly by Scandinavian tourists with big families, and competition was keen at each section.  Our chairs were free so long as we bought food.  The frequently passing beach vendors had an air of desperation.  Even wading in the water was not appealing because of the underwater boulders and the sharp shells.  Last year I got a nasty cut on my foot.  So we simply rested, far from our day to day worries.

Shopping was always an option.  I remembered the town's only mall, Market Village, which I'd visited on my first trip there because my guest house was close by.  So on our first afternoon, Nan and I took a songthaew (pickup truck bus) south and browsed through the many chain stores with a few tourists and hoards of students in uniform from the Catholic school next door.  We snacked on gelato atop a waffle, checked movie times at the cinema (unfortunately "Despicable Me" was not playing), and browsed for bargains; July is apparently the month for sales.  Nan found her nirvana at a two-for-one sale and I practiced patience while she selected the perfect outfits. 

If we couldn't enjoy sunny weather, we could at least eat, and the seafood cuisine in Hua Hin is justly famed.  On our first night we returned to The Moon Terrace, with its sign advertising "Where the Romantic Begins," and ordered a whole fish and several appetizers.  It wasn't the same; the original magic we recalled was not repeated.  Last year it rained and we couldn't sit outside on the pier, so we were given a candlelit table with rattan chairs inside.  It was just us and the fish by dim light and it was memorable.  From where we sat this time we could see several other restaurants on piers and the following evening we chose the one most crowded, Chao Lay.  It didn't disappoint.  The fried sea bass, squid in garlic and lemon sauce, baked scallops (called hoi like all members of the clam family) and the shrimp appetizers were incredible.  The restaurant was packed on a Saturday night and the customers were mostly Thai.

After dinner we aided our digestion by walking up to Hua Hin's Night Market and there found all the missing foreign tourists.  Food and clothing booths predominated and we were on a mission to find the perfect vacation tee shirts.  Nan wanted them to say Wang Klai Kang Won or some variant.  We found hers at a stall where customers oohed and aahed over the owner's cute baby.  My shirt was discovered not far away, but we rubbed shoulders and elbows all the way up to the end of the market and took in its delightful sounds and smells.  We ended the evening with a refreshing honey lemon drink and cheese cake at our favorite Vietnamese cafe. 

Hua Hin is a short three-hour bus trip (at a cost of about $5 each way) from the southern terminal near our apartment.  The island of Ko Samet is about the same, but the bus leaves from the eastern terminal an hour away.  Still, Samet has a nicer beach, more inviting surf and fewer (none?) Scandinavian, Danish or German restaurants.  I'm always on the lookout for a cheap and uncrowded beach destination where I might live out my final days undisturbed with a clear view of the sea.  Ko Lanta at the end of the slow season came close.  It's not quite the same, but my 9th floor window which overlooks the dramatic and cloud-entangled skyline of Bangkok provides hours of contemplative enjoyment. Nan's mom is buying more land in her northern village in the hope that it will tempt us to live there when our time and money run out in Bangkok.  Of course Nan must finish school first and then she'll probably find a better paying job in the city for a woman with a college degree in business and computers.  I kept busy in Hua Hin by reading two Lee Child mysteries, and now back home I'm pouring over Karen Armstrong's wonderful book The Case for God which I recently finished.  She has the knack for capturing the changing face of religion in words.  And she makes the human yearning for the transcendent seem so natural and shows with remarkable clarity where religious writers in the last two hundred years have gone off the rails by competing with science and focusing on propositional belief rather than discipline in compassion.  I've still got students to teach and many mysteries to explore, and so I'm not yet ready for that beachside d√©nouement. 


Anonymous said...

Great photos. An interesting piece. Thanks for this.

All the best, Boonsong

Janet Brown said...

I'm curious about Koh Si Chang (near Sriracha)--been there?
Beachside denouement is a lovely phrase.