Looking for an easy seaside escape from Bangkok? Do like the locals and strike out for this low-key resort town on the Gulf of Thailand.
Morning: Once a tranquil fishing village, Hua Hin shot to fame as Thailandâ€™s original beach destination nearly a century ago thanks to the arrival of the railroad and the vacationing royal family from Bangkok, a three-hour train ride away. The town remains a choice weekend refuge for denizens of the Thai capital, and its laid-back charm draws holidaymakers from as far afield as Europe. That character is all the more apparent if youâ€™ve checked in to Letâ€™s Sea Hua Hin Al Fresco Resort (66-32/536-888; doubles from US$180), a recently renovated eco-chic property of just 40 suites flanking a 120-meter pool on the southern third of Hua Hin Beach.
Begin your explorations at the breezy, beachside Mrigadayavan Palace, built in 1923 as the summer residence of King Rama VI about 12 kilometers north of town. Italian architect Ercole Manfredi based the design on the kingâ€™s own sketches, creating 16 interconnected teak buildings raised on pillars, adorned with shuttered windows and intricate fretwork. Ongoing renovations have closed off much of the interior, although the grounds alone are well worth a visit.
Afternoon: Back in town, brutalist beachfront mall SeenspaceÂ is the brainchild of preeminent Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag. Pop into Der, which dishes up specialties from the northeastern Isan region amid a stark, minimalistic setting. A must-try is papaya salad with grilled prawn and pork-stuffed squid, best enjoyed with blue sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf. After lunch, walk over to Seek 35, whose three themed outlets spotlight local creations: think Hua Hinâ€“inspired perfume from Reunrom and handmade pastel-hued backpacks by Something Simple. Thai designers are also championed at Tost & Found, which beckons with a curated selection of apparel and homewares.
Donâ€™t miss the showroom of Khomapastr (66-32/511-250) on Petchkasem Road, a 15-minute drive to the south, for its beautiful hand-printed cotton products. The high-end brand was founded in Hua Hin by Thai royalty back in 1948; it stocks resort-chic wearables and colorful gift items ranging from triangular Thai pillows to purses, tote bags, and tissue box covers. Directly opposite, the local branch of Khao Yai dining favorite The Chocolate Factory (66/92-467-8884) occupies an airy, inviting space bathed in natural light. Browse the edible souvenirs at the artisanal chocolate shop, and if youâ€™re feeling peckish, linger over desserts like the dark chocolate dome.
Evening: At sunset, take in the view from the glass-floored observation deck at Vana Nava Sky (66-32/809-999), the rooftop bar and restaurant crowning the 27-story Holiday Inn. Acclaimed Bangkok-based designer Ashley Sutton gave the venue its splashy look, while its cocktails were developed by master mixologist Joseph Boroski. The standout? Thyme is Summer, a refreshing blend of house-infused chrysanthemum and saffron gin, double-shaken with fresh lime, egg white, plus homemade holy basil and thyme syrup.
Hop into a taxi and make a beeline for the art-focused Cicada Market (open evenings on Fridays to Sundays) to wander the handicraft stalls and see exhibitions by local artists. Dinner awaits at Tamarind Market (open evenings on Thursdays to Sundays) across the road; charcoal-grilled pork neck, ocean-fresh jumbo prawns, and traditional desserts are just a few of its culinary offerings.
Morning: After breakfast, embark on a half-day guided tour with Wildlife Friends Foundation (66-32/458-135). The NGOâ€™s rehabilitation center hosts more than 600 animals such as gibbons, Asiatic black bears, and elephants. Youâ€™ll learn about phajaan, the process of â€śbreaking the spiritâ€ť wild pachyderms must endure at a young age to be trained for the tourism industry, and that elephants are not built for carrying humans on their backs. A buffet lunch is included; hotel transfers can be tacked on for a fee.
Afternoon: Bliss out at Hyatt Regency Hua Hinâ€™s 1.8-hectare spa complex, The Barai (66-32/511-234), by Thai design icon Lek Bunnag. Of the two 90-minute specialty treatments, one combines Thai and Swedish massage with aromatherapy, while the other uses sweet basil and kaffir lime herbal compressions, crystals, and hot-oil massage. Make sure to book ahead.
Evening: Tide permitting, stroll back down the beach to Letâ€™s Sea for sundowners and dinner. Spread between three open-air pavilions, the beachfront bar and restaurant offer creative cocktails alongside an array of international flavors and elevated home-style Thai cooking. Locally caught seafood is used to great effect in the indulgent crab and clam chowder, fried day-dried squid, and blue crab meat in a southern Thaiâ€“style coconut curry. Savor the rustic-chic surrounds and the ocean breezeâ€”it doesnâ€™t get much more Hua Hin than this.
When to Go
While Hua Hin is a year-round destination, and remains much drier than Phuket or Koh Samui even during the monsoon, conditions tend to be more pleasant from late October or early November to April; this is the best time for outdoor pursuits like kite-surfing. The local beaches are at their most beautiful in February and March, when the sea becomes crystal-clear and the sand is lighter in color.
This article originally appeared in theÂ October/November 2018Â print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śHua Hin Highsâ€ť).