Offering an intriguing mixture of food, drink and natural beauty, Hua Hin is once again emerging as a boutique destination for Bangkokians.
A plume of red dust shoots up into the air as my teenage Thai guide executes a well-practised burn-out on his mud-flecked quad bike. He feints right but then, turning on a five-cent piece, accelerates hard left, leaving me to make a clunky, wide-arching turn through thick scrub to follow him. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him looking over his shoulder at me, the hint of a smile visible through the haze thrown up in his wake.
We hammer on, along bumpy backroads and worn-out, unsealed surfaces. The greenery lining these paths is probably too sparse to be described as ‘jungle’ – still, the tightly clustered palms and unruly head-high ferns form an impressive canopy.
It’s late afternoon at Hua Hin Safari Park, a mere 5km from the city centre. We’ve already taken in some feats of derring-do involving Thai snake handlers, mahouts and their mounts and some surprisingly impressive stunts – even if you’re not particularly big on animal theme parks – involving life, limb and crocodiles. But right now, it’s all about the quad bikes. And keeping up with up with my cocky little pacesetter.
Once upon a time, Hua Hin was Thailand’s number one resort town. Admittedly, it had the advantage of being the first: when they began building railways out of Bangkok, the route to Hua Hin – 200km south of the capital, nestled on the west coast of the Gulf – was straight off the production line. Its original name, Samo Riang, means ‘rows of rocks’; for the jagged, misshapen lumps that form a dotted line along the city’s main beach.
For years, the Thai royal family has kept holiday residences in Hua Hin. Indeed, it remained popular with Thais throughout the rapid boom in tourism that drew foreign tourists and – and investment – to the islands further south and to the other side of the Gulf. As a result, Hua Hin was often pigeonholed as sleepy or unsophisticated. Of late, though, it has emerged as a boutique weekend getaway destination for those who don’t necessarily think over-developed beachfronts are the best Thailand has to offer.
Thai wine may not be widely appreciated in Bangkok’s best restaurants but a visit to Hua Hin Hills vineyard suggests this is more a matter of perception than a problem of objective quality. It helps that the land is so strikingly picturesque. The winery itself is a mere patch on the lush, rolling, green carpet. Rows of seasonal grapes extend out from the central sala where visitors fill the terrace for lunch: a cracking selection of fresh seafood and richer game servings, expertly paired with the Monsoon Valley wines produced here.
After lunch, I clamber into the back of a truck and rattle off for a tour of the grounds. We weave between the tangled vines, where a crew of elephants help with the heavy lifting, round a thick line of mango trees and past a greenhouse full of hydroponically grown vegetables. Having tasted the wine – and resoundingly approved – and then explored the gorgeous setting, it’s odd that Thai wine hasn’t been more successful in making its mark. A matter of time, perhaps.
The appeal of this neighbourhood is not limited to Hua Hin; it extends further south to the provincial pockets of Pranburi and Kui Buri. While central Hua Hin has rapidly adapted to accommodate those seeking a more sedate alternative to Bangkok without sacrificing the five-star comforts or vibrant after-dark street life, the outlying territories retain plenty of local charm, a broad swathe of farmland and fishing villages.
Pranburi is home to Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, one of the major local attractions. The uphill trek, which begins from a dusty carpark and a dishevelled market that ebbs and flows unpredictably, is broken into two parts, each taking about 20 minutes.
About halfway over the first rise, with the midday sun beating down, I meet a team of three of four Thai guys coming the opposite way, each carrying a bucket of freshly caught fish on their backs. They don’t appear to have broken a sweat.
“Not far. Not far,” the first replies; “It’s worth it,” the second adds.
The third just laughs, a shrill chuckle that hangs in the air even after they all disappear behind me.
The first descent ends at a wide beach, pockmarked with spindly palms, a rickety Thai restaurant assuming pride of place on a deserted beachfront. I pass a neat row of cottages where the sand turns to grass, presumably accommodation for locals who work in the park. The trail leads toward the second rise, past a monk camping on-site, hanging out his washing to dry next to his orange tent.
Another half-hour’s walk up the hill, steeper than the first, pays off when the path dips then widens then dips down again into the expanses of the Phraya Nakorn cave. Remarkable formations of grey-brown rock frame two vast connected clearings covered with smooth sand, except in parts where erosion has created openings overhead, allowing rain and sunlight to pour through and isolated patches of wild greenery to sprout below.
Not much from outside this buried cocoon penetrates the stillness, although a couple of persistent but friendly dogs seem happy to follow visitors – and the promise of food. Down here, the quiet is interrupted only by the echoing crunch of paws on sand.
Back on safari, the sun begins to wane but the heat in the air lingers. My quad bike bumps and bounces as I accelerate over thick ridges of dried mud, trying to prevent my guide from shooting too far out in front. We turn a corner and rapidly approach a four-way junction. By now, I’m wise to this guy’s moves. Determined not to be taking in once again by his four-wheeled trickery, I wait for him to commit left before steering to follow his lead.
But then, at the last minute, he spins back to complete an extravagant 360-degree circle around me and speed off in the direction we came. I’m left flat-footed and bewildered in the middle of the crossroads and can only watch as he races away in the lengthening shadows and disappears against the silhouette of Hua Hin’s majestic hills.
Away Hua Hin – Pranburi Boutique Resort (83 Moo 1, Baan Mai, Sam Roi Yot; 03-282-5080; awayresorts.com) overlooks a quiet beach south of Hua Hin and is one of the more charming smaller resorts in the area. There’s a selection of villas and stilted huts to choose from – these are low-key but still entirely comfortable and cosy. There’s also a glittering swimming pool (pictured below left) for a morning dip and an excellent on-site restaurant.
X2 Kui Buri (52 Moo 13, Ao Noi Sub-district; 03-260-1412; x2lobby.com) ratchets up the glamour with its range of uber-modern private villas (pictured above right). This place is seriously cool and, if you feel like splashing out, make sure you grab a place with your own pool. The resort is located on a vast plot of land and boasts a fascinating design. There are plenty of activities on offer within the resort and the staff are some of the friendliest you’ll meet. The local motorbike tour is a must.
Le Bayburi Pranburi (306-9 Beach Front Rd, Pak Nam Pran, Pranburi; 3263 0636; lebayburi.com) is equally lavish and design-driven, offering four private two-storey villas right on the beach. They’re perfect for groups looking to get out of Bangkok and explore this part of the world while relaxing in style. All the villas are beautifully refurbished with such sleek, striking interiors that you’ll be tempted to stay in and make the most of the poolside bar and barbeque.