Monday, February 18, 2008

Don't Step on the Clouds

There is a Thai song about Hua Hin and the farang who go looking there for clams, which also happens to be a naughty term in Thai for a portion of the female anatomy. Every time Pim sang a few verses, she would giggle, but I never got the full sense of it. Certainly the beach town 200 kilometers south of Bangkok is full of farang, mostly of the Scandinavian and northern European variety. I saw menus in Danish and Dutch, and restaurants dedicated to Swedish and German food (why on earth would anyone want to come to Thailand to eat their national cuisine?). Many of these visitors need to seriously lose some weight; the beach was awash with cellulite. (Now that might be, as my mother would say, the pot calling the kettle black. But I was wearing sun block.

Hua Hin, or "stone head," was named for the boulders that cluster on the beach by the Hilton hotel which dominates the headlands at the center of the town. Now they are almost hidden by the beach chairs and umbrellas which line the shoreline. It was established in the early 1920s when the railroad was extended south from Bangkok and a large luxury hotel was built (now the Sofitel Central Hua Hin Resort). We arrived by train, and the carefully restored train station is an architectural gem. When King Rama VII chose to build his summer palace, Klai Kang Won ("far from all sorrows") just north of the city, Hua Hin's reputation was cinched. Today, jet skis race offshore and horses carry tourists down the beach while children make sand castles and their parents roast in the sun. Unfortunately, the skies were mostly cloudy and the sun in retirement during our weekend in Hua Hin.

So we set off in search of royalty. Since there were no naval destroyers off the coast protecting the no-entry zone shown on the map, we knew the King and Queen were not in residence. First we tried walking up the beach. On the way there we met a man who told us only fields could be seen behind the palace walls. And that if we tried to get in, "they will shoot you." We discovered that there was, in fact, no beach in front of the royal compound, just waves pounding against a stone wall. Behind Pim you can see not one but two guard booths. Later we rented a motorbike and drove on the highway past Klai Kongwon. You can see green lawns, trees, and a small lake, but no house. There were guards at regular intervals along the wall carrying guns. They did not look friendly. Thais take their King's safety seriously.

Traveling around Hua Hin by motorbike turned out to be an excellent plan. We went south to Khao Takiap ("Chopstick" or "Monkey" mountain), a pointy peak at the end of Hua Hin's long strip of white sand. On one side of the hill is a large wat surrounded by monkeys. We climbed the steep steps, taking care to dodge the monkey shit. In the temple at the top sat a monk with a tattoo smoking a cigarette who was (I think) telling a woman's fortune. Outside, I rang the temple's many gongs and we walked down the hill to find a rather new Chinese temple facing the south seas and a large statue of Kwan Yin in the midst of a number of giant Buddhist effigies (and this strange sign). Another monk was sitting inside a small open hall talking on his cell phone. Down below waves from the Gulf of Thailand crashed on the rocks. On the other side of Khao Takiap was a giant standing Buddha and a large number of cats and dogs among the monkeys. Here sat yet another monk waiting to tell someone's fortune.

Below the towering Buddha, we had a sumptuous seafood lunch at a restaurant on the sand: grilled giant shrimp and barbecued crab. The following day we enjoyed giant clams, ate a whole broiled fish (brought to our table on its charcoal brazier) and had some delicious scallops at a restaurant on one of the many old piers north of the Hilton. Saturday evening we picked a central place that featured music, toe-tapping pop song covers sung by two women and a man playing keyboards and guitar. Pim had a squid salad and I opted for a cheeseburger and fries for old times' sake. It wasn't the disco we had in mind where we could dance (one couple tried), but it was festive in a cheesy sort of way.

The Thipurai Beach Hotel where we slept comfortably was on Soi 67 of Petchkasem Road, a little ghetto of reasonably-priced guest houses that were clearly in favor with European visitors, and just south of the posh Marriott, one of many upscale "resorts" (a label that obviously justified steep prices) in Hua Hin. A stone's throw away, across Petchkasem, was Market Village, a large mall (Hua Hin's first, opened in 2006) that featured all the familiar brand names (Levis sold for over 2,000 baht, more expensive than in the U.S.), and chain eateries. On our first night, when rain threatened, we went bowling (after two games we were one point apart, in her favor). Afterwards we had a delicious table-cooked meal of meat and mushrooms at MK. While the stores were clearly aimed at wealthy tourists, the multiplex cinema played only Thai films. The mix of shoppers included many natives as well as farang visitors.

The surf near our hotel was gentle and warm, but the water, not all that far from Bangkok, was a bright, murky green, quite unike the clear, blue Pudsa Bay on Koh Samet where we swam in November. The sand was crowded with beached European whales and the Thai vendors that make their living from them. Am I being unfair? Since coming to Thailand to live six months ago, I've become a bit of a connoisseur of beaches. Phuket and Pattaya were both over-developed disappointments. Koh Samet is small and delightful, but the winner and still champ is Koh Samui, a nice mix of natural beauty and development, which I visited during my trip a year ago. The field, however, is far from exhausted. I've yet to see Krabi and its nearby islands, Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, and I have not been to visit Koh Chang on the eastern coast.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

but the winner and still champ is Koh Samui, a nice mix of natural beauty and development, which I visited during my trip a year ago

I first visited Samui about 15 years ago and in my opinion, there is nothing natural about the development of that, once beautiful island.