Where the King and I went on holiday

Andrew Eames visits a Thai seaside town where you will see few foreign tourists but might catch a glimpse of royalty

MANY, MANY years ago, before the first package tourists were ever delivered, the coming of the railway to Thailand lured the aristocracy out of Bangkok for the first-ever Thai weekend breaks. The ruling royal family, the Chakri dynasty, discovered the seaside town of Hua Hin, 230km to the south, and beach tourism was born.

Since then Thailand's tourist landscape has changed beyond recognition, with the likes of Phuket and Ko Samui - just ignored palm-fringed strands 30 years ago - soaking up the Schmidts and the Joneses seeking a change from the Med. Hua Hin, how- ever, remains essentially the same, and the Bangkok crowd and King Bhumibol and family are still regular visitors.

This is not a sanitised resort for foreigners, but a proper Thai seaside town with real shopping and a lively night-market that pays little attention to overseas tourists. Forget limousines to the airport, international cuisine and cultural evenings; this is a slice of Old Siam and very likeable it is, too.

Hua Hin has the most stylish railway station in Thailand, all gleaming mahogany and tiled floors; a long beach, a colonial-style hotel, a fishing industry, and a nest of seafood restaurants that stride on stilts into the surf, serving the sort of spicy soup that will blow a hole in the roof of your mouth.

This remains the resort where the locals go, and that doesn't necessarily mean Thais. On the beach I met Peter and Janet Merchant, British teachers working in Bangkok, regular visitors to Hua Hin because it's a "real town with real people".

"The King is here," confided Andrew Ritchie, lying by the pool in the Royal Garden Village. Mr Ritchie, also an expatriate Brit, was working in China for an oil company, and something of an expert on rest and recreation in South-east Asia. How he knew the King's movements I didn't discover, but he was open about the source of the tip-off that brought him to Hua Hin. "The cousin of friends of ours had her heart attack here. She recommends it highly."

Downtown Hua Hin has changed little over the years, but on the southern shore is a new establishment that hopes to continue what the Chakri dynasty began. The Chiva-Som, Asia's first ultra-luxurious herbal health spa, has started to bring in the international jetset. "Wealth without health is meaningless," begins the Chiva-Som blurb. "Do royals drop by?" I asked Barbie, the exotic marketing director, as we padded across polished floors to inspect rooms dripping with orchids, gold and marble. Barbie smiled fetchingly, but left the answer to the rustling of the palms by the pool.

Golf buggies stood at key points around the resort, ready for those guests who had been too overwhelmed by good living to be able to walk between their room and their loofah scrub. I examined the ultimate pampering day package (manicure, pedicure, facial and eye treatments, choice of massages). At 6,000 baht (pounds l00), it was probably a good price by international standards, but I decided to create an ultimate pampering day of my own. I started on the beach the following morning, arriving just as the litter-picking crew were passing through; perhaps King Bhumibol was due. They couldn't do anything about the sea, however: the water was not up to normal Thai resort standards. Cha-Am, more of a package holiday resort 10km to the north, is much cleaner - so I was informed by Terry Rollings, a lorry driver from Northampton. Cha-Am, however, doesn't have much else, said Terry. "It's a bit boring. We come here for a bit of life."

I settled myself into one of the tented villages of umbrellas, and out popped a Thai auntie with a menu. The only other creature in her web was a piebald horse, presumably parked under the canopy to give him some relief from the steepening sun. "400 baht an hour," said the auntie, seeing me eyeing the horse. And then, "massage 200 baht an hour", when I didn't show interest in riding off into the sunset.

A snooze, several lime juices and a seafood fried rice (total bill BT120) later, I decided it would be nice to have a massage, but I didn't fancy sand in the Vaseline, so I wandered inshore to Hua Hin Thai massage on Naresdamri Road (BT250 for an hour). Noi spoke no English, so we communicated in grunts, with her watching my face for expressions of pain - and me trying hard not to show any.

Afterwards, tottering on indiarubber legs between hedges fashioned crazily into animals, I headed for the Sofitel Central for tea. The Sofitel was built in 1928; in what they call the Museum Tea corner I sipped Darjeeling and nibbled smoked-salmon sandwiches. I read the complimentary newspapers while listening to Handel's Water Music, accompanied by the singing of mynah birds from casuarina trees.

The afternoon sun passed its zenith. As the shadows began to re-appear I rented myself a scooter (BT200) and hoisted my knees into the breeze, vaguely hoping I'd bump into something royal. I came across a set of grand gates, but I gathered from the attitudes of the machine-guns present that His Majesty wasn't receiving passing hacks, especially those without a motorcade.

So I puttered north to a royal pad I could visit, Marukathayawan, King Raffia VI's former beach palace. Built, as the gatekeeper put it, "many last years ago", and now a historic monument, the palace is a series of raised pier-like teak galleries set in a coconut grove. The staff indicated that I could walk anywhere, but I was not to take photos of the bathroom equipment.

By the time darkness fell I was back in town, and embarking on what is always the most pleasurable adventure of the day - finding something to eat. I took the lift up the side of the Melia to the White Lotus restaurant, but only to watch the surf etching ghostly lines on the beach way down below. The night market was hotting up but the "spicy sea bugs egg salad" and the "steamed cotton fish with chilli paste in coconut milk" seemed a touch ambitious for my palate. I settled for a table at the tip of the Chao Lay, one of those restaurants that marched into the surf. A soup brimming with fresh fish, crab, squid, prawns, shellfish and chillies cost BT120 and lit me up like a lighthouse. Drinking beer was ineffective against such internal combustion, so I clutched it to my forehead instead.

This pampering day finished, Thai-style, in the kickboxing stadium. The sight of 10-year-olds knocking the stuffing out of each other wasn't my idea of a good time, but it barely took the shine off my culturally enriching self-indulgence. My only regret was not catching a glimpse of the royals, but then I did have a close encounter with the dynasty's bidet at Marukathayawan. But I wasn't tempted to take its photograph.

FACT FILE

Hua Hin

Getting there

Andrew Eames's trip was partially supported by Kuoni Travel. Frequent buses connect Hua Hin to Bangkok. You can also take the scenic train journey, which takes four hours.

Where to stay

Kuoni (tel: 01306 740500) offers five nights in the very elegant Royal Garden Village, Hua Hin, from pounds 548 per person, including return flights and transfers with Thai International. The Hotel Sofitel (tel: 0066 32 512036) is an elegant post-colonial establishment, which featured in the film The Killing Fields. Prices from 3,600 baht for a double room .

Further information

Tourist office of Thailand (tel: 0839 300800; calls cost 50p per minute).

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