The former fishing village of Hua Hin in Prachuap Khiri Khan province owes its prestige to King Rama VI building Marukhathaiyawan Palace between here and Cha-am, a resort catering to raucous Thai sanuk that’s rapidly going upmarket. High society and Thailand’s first golf course followed. Overcrowding can be a problem on weekends, but the many world-class resorts have more tasteful architecture, while there’s less sleaze than in Pattaya or Phuket.
Hua Hin’s 5km of beaches have reasonable sand, but the water is often murky and there are many jellyfish, particularly in the monsoon season. Still, you can always ride its famous ponies.
Outside the busy Thanon Naretdamri lanes, where most of the restaurants beer bars and tailors are located, it becomes quieter north towards Cha-am or 4km south to Hat Khao Takiap, a hill with a standing Buddha and fine views. Enterprising locals offer rental deck chairs and cold drinks along the way.
Kaeng Krachan National Park
Petchaburi province (0 3245 9251). Open daily. Admission Thais B20; foreigners B200.
The broken-tooth mountain horizon behind Cha-am harbours this crucial animal habitat in Thailand’s vast western forest park complex. Tours and hikes are possible.
Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park
Kuiburi, Prachub Khiri Khan (0 3282 1568). Open daily. Admission Thais B20; foreigners B200.
Some 58 kilometers south of Hua Hin, this park’s 98 square kilometers are dominated by an undulating mountain range that hugs some of the area’s most pristine coastline. It’s all littered with an extensive network of caves (King Rama IV built a sala in one) and home to one of the most diverse bird populations in Asia.
Phra Ratchaniwet Marukhathaiyawan
Rama VI Army Camp, Cha-Am, Petchaburi (0 3250 8233). Open 8am-4pm Mon-Fri; 8am-5pm Sat, Sun. Admission Thais B30; foreigners B90.
Visitors swoon over these teak pavilions and a galleried theatre, connected by long open corridors, all built on stilts at the beach by King Rama VI in 1923. Now in an army camp, the palace has been restored and its artfully themed gardens contain other attractions reflecting aspects of his reign and 1920s Siamese culture, from literature, theatre and scouts to food, flowers and fashion. A magical place.
Thanon Phetchkasem, between Hua Hin Sois 38 & 40, Hua Hin (0 2712 6891, 0 3253 0312, www.plearnwan.com). Open 10am-10pm Mon-Thur; 10am-midnight Fri; 9am-midnight Sat; 9am-10pm Sun. Admission free.
Bangkokians adore this surreal new attraction, a ‘vintage village’ evoking old Hua Hin through recycled wood, retro everything and stores channelling bygone market culture, complete with temple fair-style sideshows on weekends. It’s basically about shopping, eating and photographing friends, with guest rooms on the upper level.
7 Thanon Naebkehat (0 3253 0574, 0 3251 1673, www.itsara-huahin.com). Open 11am-10pm daily. Price Mid-range. Cuisine Thai.
One of the better beach view restaurants set in a converted old wooden home. Succulently fresh seafood.
Brasserie de Paris
3 Thanon Naresdamri (0 3253 8999). Open noon-2pm, 6-10pm daily. Price Expensive. Cuisine French.
One of the several good European restaurants here, this French place is a good place to eat at the waterfront.
15 Thanon Naretdamri, near Soi 57 (0 3251 3436). Open 11am-10pm daily. Price Mid-range. Cuisine Thai seafood.
Hua Hin is famed for its seafood, and the best places to sample it are the restaurants clustered on fishing piers at the north end of Thanon Naresdamri, providing breezes and scenic views. All serve fresh fish, crab and gargantuan shrimp at reasonable prices. This is the pick of the bunch.
Jae Keao (Madame Green)
Moo Baan Takiab, Hua-Hin (0 3253 6899, 0 3253 6900). Open 9am-10pm daily. Price Mid-range. Cuisine Thai seafood.
Thais pack-out this famous, simple seafood restaurant. Its upper floor overlooks the beach.
51/6 Thanon Dechanuchit, Hua Hin. Open 6.15am-9pm daily. No credit cards. Price Budget. Cuisine Coffee/Thai.
Meet locals of note who breakfast in this institution of a Thai-style coffee house in a timber corner building. Arrayed around the edge (which stays open later) is a rotating cast of vendors who sell sublime dishes for pennies, from pork sate to seafood rice soup, which can be eaten inside.
Sang Vean Seafood
Thanon Mung Talae, Cha-am (0 32547 2280, 08 6096 4799). Open 10am-9pm daily. Price Budget. Cuisine Thai seafood.
Auntie Vean sells the most famous seafood in Cha-am from a simple, open-sided hall facing the beach near the Veranda, often visited by Princess Sirindhorn. Mountains of crab and delicacies for bargain prices mean that it’s always packed.
Pranburi (0 3261 8333, 0 2508 5335, www.aleenta.com). Price Expensive.
Visitors such as the Beckhams and hip hotel mavens gush about the remote, all-white villas.
33/15 Soi Mooban Huadon, Takiab, Hua Hin (0 3251 1879, www.anantasila.com). Price Luxury.
Hidden away from the crowds on Takiap Beach, a short walk from a traditional fishing village, is this luxurious hotel with arty touches and a rugged rocky backdrop to ocean views.
119 Thanon Phetchkasem, Hua Hin (0 3253 3544, www.baanbayan.com). Price Expensive.
Aristocrats have turned their old wooden beach house into this conservation award-winning resort half way to Takiab. Luxuriate in the authentically unfussy mansion or in spacious rooms built to the side.
13/4 Soi Kasemsamphan, Thanon Damnoen Kasem (0 3251 1538). Price Budget.
A cheaper, antiquey home-conversion with cosy rooms and artworks.
810/04 Thanon Petchkasem, Cha-am (0 8 6607 1431/0 3247 0678, www.casapapayathai.com). Price Mid-range.
Guesthouses don’t come much funkier than this orange Mexican adobe garden compound. Quirky, good value rooms with rooftops, a pool and beach access. Close to Sang Vean Seafood.
Sofitel Central Hua Hin
1 Thanon Damnoen Kasem (0 3251 2021-38, www.centralhotelsresorts.com). Price Luxury.
The former 1920s Railway Hotel retains its air of nobility with modern five-star comforts and colonialesque lounges framed by frangipanis and prime central beachfront. One of Asia’s storied grand hotels.
Veranda Resort & Spa
737/12 Thanon Mung Talay, Cha-am (0 3270 9000-099, www.verandaresortandspa.com). Price Luxury.
One of the sleek designer hotels that’s raising Cha-am’s profile. Elegantly modernist low-rise blocks with Thai timber touches flank a long, shape-shifting pool from the dramatic lobby to the expansive sands.
By road & rail
Frequent buses from the Southern Bus Terminal take 3hrs (B160), hired cars 2hrs, taxis B2,500. Rail is a historic (ie slow) way to arrive (12 daily, 5hrs, B44-B1,522). Most hotels arrange Bangkok airport transfers. Charter flights only land at the small Hua Hin Airport. Cha-am, Hua Hin and Pranburi are strung out. Local songtaews cost from B50, depending on the route.
TAT 500/51 Thanon Phetkasem, Cha-am (0 3247 1005-6).
Ayutthaya & Bang Pa-In A summer palace and ruined Siamese capital.
Ko Samet Beach massages, snorkelling and a mellow party scene.
Samut Prakarn Wrestle with crocodiles and bike round an ancient city.
Floating markets Estuarine attractions and a vast Buddhist theme park