Hua Hin’s Heritage Sites Hark back to its Royal Rise
Visitors arriving at Hua Hin by train debark at a crimson-and-cream sala. Now flanked by mu ping vendors, narrow lanes choked with noisy motorbikes, and an army of tuk tuk drivers awaiting tourists freshly rattled from the rickety ride from Bangkok, this small symbol of early 20th-century Thai architecture has withstood the winds of change. The train station proffers a rapidly fading picture of the village formerly known as Samor Rieng, or “anchor row,” an allusion to the fishing boats once moored in the bay like a naval brigade.
In 1911, with the southern train line to Malaysia still being built, a station opened in freshly renamed Hua Hin (meaning “stone head”). Its iconic royal waiting room was moved from Sanam Chan Palace in Nakhon Pathom to Hua Hin station, adding to the air of grandeur. Around that time, Prince Nares ordered the creation of a royal residence called Saen Samran. Soon the area became a hotbed for high-class construction, as Bangkok’s bigwigs began to build bungalows along the beach, and Hua Hin became Thailand’s first true resort town.
Credit the Royal Siamese Railways (RSR) for seeing greater potential for development in Hua Hin’s soft white sands and gentle rolling hills. In the 1920s, the RSR directed an Italian architect cryptically known as A. Rigazzi to build the Railway Hotel while a Scotsman named O.A. Robins would create a world-class golf course. Two stories of brick and wood, with only 14 rooms, a lounge, a bar, a billiards room, and a restaurant, the Railway Hotel was designed according to the latest European trends. It was a pricy project, costing over 120,000 baht (an astronomical figure in the 1920s), and it was a place reserved for the elite alone, but still its construction prophesied a future for tourism in Hua Hin, domestic and foreign alike.
Decades later, the Railway Hotel was featured in Hollywood hit “The Killing Fields,” a story of the Khmer Rouge coup of Phnom Penh in 1975. In 1986, the State Railway of Thailand granted the Central Group of Hotels and Accor the rights to the property, beginning a period of careful restoration that would reshape the resort for the modern age. It first morphed into a luxurious Sofitel. In 2014, the resort rebranded again. Now Centara Grand Hua Hin, the property remains as regal as ever, with colonial rooms speaking to its long and rich history.
While the train station and former Railway Hotel stand conspicuous among contemporary towers, design hotels, and fast-emerging shopping centres, two royal residences on the outskirts of town offer a more singular look back into Hua Hin’s royal roots.
Klai Kangwon Royal Palace, HM the King’s summer residence, was completed during the reign of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) in 1933. Meaning “far from worries,” this landmark property shows clear European influence, as do most Thai palaces of that era. For instance, the main residence, called Phra Tamnak Piem Suk, would not be out of place on the Mediterranean coast, with its Roman colonnade, flat tiled Spanish roof, and elegant gardens.
In neighbouring Cha-Am stands Mrigadayavan Palace. Built in 1923, the palace was designed primarily by King Rama VI, who used golden teakwood from his no longer á la mode Chao Samran Palace to finish the project. Featuring a long covered walkway extending to the sea and breezy living and drawing rooms, the palace often inspired the literary monarch during his seaside retreats, and it also features some of the finest natural acoustics in the land. Today, the palace plays host to outdoor theatre and likay performances. But even when there isn’t a show, visitors can stroll through the grounds, experiencing the less glossy yesteryear of Hua Hin, before the sleepy village transformed into a bustling beach destination.