On Wednesday, Thailand's revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, turns 80. To say that the Thais worship the man is an understatement. His picture hangs in almost every house, restaurant, bar, caf, office and shop in the country. He enjoys the kind of popularity that British royalty can only dream about.
So, where is King Bhumibol likely to hold his birthday celebrations? He'll probably spend some time in Hua Hin. "Our King loves to come to Hua Hin. In fact, he almost lives here these days," says Narongchai "Andy" Suparat, the guest activity manager at the Six Senses Hideaway Resort who is taking me on a tour of the town. We are standing on a hill overlooking both Hua Hin and the ocean. "I think he must like the climate and the peace and quiet. Everyone in the town is incredibly proud he has chosen us."
Yet, King Bhumibol (inset) isn't the first Thai monarch to choose Hua Hin as his preferred getaway. Located about 160 miles south of Bangkok and set along a gorgeous sweeping beach looking out at the Gulf of Thailand, Hua Hin has been drawing royalty for almost a hundred years. "In the 1920s King Rama VII had a railway line built here from Bangkok," says Andy. "He even constructed a massive palace."
The royal court, associated hangers-on and Bangkok's elite followed Rama VII south. With dozens of grand villas being built, along with attractions such as Thailand's first golf course and one of Asia's most famous luxury stopovers the still surviving Railway Station Hotel the great and the good of Thailand descended on Hua Hin in their droves. They, much like the present monarch, are still coming, but these days a whole other industry has been built around Hua Hin's attractions upmarket, international tourism.
Outside of Phuket and Bangkok, Hua Hin has the biggest collection of top-rated hotels in Thailand. Sheratons, Marriotts, Hyatts, Anantaras and Six Senses sit alongside what the cognoscenti regard as Thailand's cutest and best-preserved resort town. "We've managed to keep many of the 1920s buildings," says Andy as we take in Hua Hin's antique, wooden railway station, rows of frangipani-adorned white-clapboard villas and the distinctive town centre. "Most other Thai resort towns have just built new structures," says Andy, "but we wanted to maintain a more relaxed and traditional atmosphere."
After a stroll past the run of Hua Hin's original wooden fishermen's piers on the shoreline and through the tangle of backstreets, Andy and I arrive at the corner of Naebkehardt and Dechanuchit roads and one of the resort town's most famous noodle shops, Jeak Peak. "This place has been here for 62 years," says Andy, as massive bowls of seafood noodle soup and plates of pork satay are brought to our table. It's hard to know where to start yet we still manage to clear the lot, finishing with bright-tasting, iced lime sodas the perfect palate cleanser and an easy drink with which to watch the world go by.
One of Hua Hin's draws for today's international guests is its spas. The original headline- grabber was the five-star celebrity detox resort, Chiva-Som. Currently in the ascendant is the Six Senses Earth Spa, my next stop to experience the kind of indulgence for which this town is famed.
"I'm going to do a series of shamanistic massages and movements to help release some of the old, negative energy that is in your system," says self-styled holistic consultant, Roger Moore, as he begins to pound my prone body. Notions of indulgence seem far-fetched such is the ferocity of Roger's treatment. But I'm not worried Roger's client list is stuffed full of famously litigious celebrities clients so I know I'm safe.
"How do you feel?" says Roger, as the pounding finishes. Relieved is the first thing that comes to mind, yet it is with renewed vigour that I depart from the spa and head to the far more relaxed environs of my private pool in my private villa.
It doesn't take long for the combined soporific effects of Roger's treatment, the heat, a staggering passion-fruit parfait, and a long, lazy dip to induce the desired effect. I'm beginning to understand why Thailand's monarch digs Hua Hin so much. I mean if somebody like me can get treated like a king what happens to the real thing?
How to get there
Return flights to Bangkok with Etihad Airways cost from 490 through April at DialAFlight (020-7463 8900; dialaflight.com). Six Senses Hideaway at Hua Hin offers pool villas from 259 per night (020-8780 3571; sixsenses.com).
For a monthly e-newsletter about Thailand, contact the Tourist Authority of Thailand (0870-900 2007; tourismthailand .co.uk). Andrew Spooner is the author of Footprint Books' Thailand Handbook, price 14.99 (footprintbooks.com)
Further reading For opposing views of Thai royalty read 'The Revolutionary King', by William Stevenson, Robinson Publishing (9.99), or 'The King Never Smiles' by Paul Handley, Yale University Press (22.50)