Thailand is renowned for its beaches and tropical islands with locations like Phuket, Pattaya, Krabi, and Ko Samui on many visitors’ lists. For the more inquisitive traveler, there are lesser-known, yet absolutely worth visiting coastal locations and islands that make repeat trips to the ‘Land of Smiles’ highly attractive.
Just 120 miles south of Bangkok on the west coast of the Gulf of Thailand is Hua Hin, a darling resort town for Bangkok Thais and more especially, the Thai Royal Family–hence the name ‘Royal Coast.’
This sleepy fishing town’s popularity can be traced back to the 1920s when the first railway line south from the capital established Hua Hin as a resort destination. Ultimately this train line permitted continuous travel from Bangkok through southern Thailand and into peninsular Malaysia, finally terminating in Singapore.
Members of the Thai Royal Family were some of the first to take the train ride to Hua Hin. The fresh sea air, long expanses of beach, clean ocean waters, and cooling coastal forests were immediate attractors. The colonial-style Railway Hotel was built to accommodate these esteemed visitors. The Royal Hua Hin Golf course was commissioned, Thailand’s first golf course. And in 1924 King Vajiravudh or Rama VI oversaw the construction of his summer palace on the northern outskirts of Hua Hin. The name of which in English translated to the Palace of Love and Hope.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) also established his summer residence here calling it Klai Kang Won Palace, meaning ‘Far from Worries.’ Such continued royal patronage has ensured this coastal strip remains a favorite vacation and weekend escape for affluent Thais. In the early 2000s northern Europeans also discovered this region, swapping their long cold winter months for a sunny beach holiday of low-cost luxury and famous Thai hospitality.
As the nearest international airports are in Bangkok, Hua Hin has not been overrun by mass tourism. Though it has all the infrastructure, amenities, and attractions visitors could want. The easy road trip between Bangkok and Hua Hin takes only 2.5 hours. Accommodation options are diverse from quaint family-run guesthouses and budget motels, through to plush beachside five-star international hotels and resorts.
Here are some of Hua Hin’s key attractions:
Hua Hin’s main beach stretches from the center of town south for four miles coming to the foot of Khao Takiab, or Monkey Mountain. The long and wide beach is ideal for families with its firm sand, gentle slope, and generally calm and year-round warm waters. Groupings of sunbeds with their own beach umbrellas are dotted along the foreshore, and pop-up Thai restaurants come bars ensure you will never go hungry or thirsty. They’ll even deliver. Sunbeds cost around $6.50 for the day or half that if you buy food or drinks from the operator. Given the length of the beach, you will never feel crowded or hemmed in. There is always an abundance of space to lay down your beach blanket and laze away your day.
Immediately south of Monkey Mountain is Khao Takiab Beach, Hua Hin’s second major beach that stretches a further five miles south. The foreshore at the northern end is occupied by small resorts and local restaurants. This section of the beach again offers an abundance of umbrellaed sunbeds. Walk south along the beach half a mile and you have it to yourself except for the occasional local fishermen. Casuarina trees line the shore and offer protection from the sun.
2. Royal Palace and Hua Hin Train Station
There are two opportunities to delve into Hua Hin’s royal history at the train station and King Rama VI’s Palace of Love and Hope (Maruekhathaiyawan Palace.)
A short distance from the center of town, Hua Hin’s railway station is undeniably attractive, and an Instagrammers dream. Dating back to the 1920s, the brightly painted wooden buildings are Thai in concept and design yet somehow manage to have a Victorian feel to them. Shades of yellow and red are the predominant colors. Still an operational station, it harks back to train travel of an earlier time. The Royal Waiting Room on the main platform immediately adjacent to the station building was used by Thai Royals when visiting their seaside summer residences. Often featured on postcards and t-shirts, the building is one of Hua Hin’s most recognizable landmarks.
Built in 1923, Maruekhathaiyawan Palace is different from many of the grand Thai royal palaces of the era. Situated on the beach and surrounded by lawns and gardens, the palace is built entirely of teak timber in three sections connected by long covered walkways. Initially abandoned after the death of Rama VI, the buildings have been lovingly restored and provide a window into royal life back then. The palace can be visited every day except Wednesday from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The ticket office closes at 4 p.m. Respectful attire is expected of all visitors.
3. Finger Wharf Restaurants
Hua Hin and fresh seafood go hand in hand, and one of the best places to sample the bounty from its waters are the seafood restaurants right in the middle of the historical center of Hua Hin. Old timber finger wharves that stretch out into the ocean have been converted into open-air seafood restaurants that always pull crowds. Enjoy fresh prawns, fish, crabs, squid, and flathead lobsters all cooked Thai style and best washed down with a cold beer, under the balmy night sky, with green lights of the local boats coloring the horizon.
4. Wild Elephant Spotting
Just 60 miles south of Hua Hin is one of the best locations in Thailand to see wild Asian elephants in their natural environment. Kui Buri National Park is home to around 320 elephants (as of 2016) and the most significant population of gaurs in Thailand, with an estimated 100 individuals. Native to South and Southeast Asia, the gaur is a species of wild cattle and the largest bovine species in existence. It’s been listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List since 1986. The park has a rich diversity of mammal and other fauna with a recorded 245 species of birds.
Open daily year-round, the best viewing time for the elephants and gaur is late afternoon. Arrive around 3 p.m. to join one of the safari viewing vehicles. These open-backed pickup style trucks carry up to eight people and drive slowly through the park to designated wildlife observation areas, while the keen-eyed guides keep a lookout for the ‘prey.’ The park is open till 6 p.m. with the last vehicle entry by 5 p.m. More than 90 percent of visitors report seeing these magnificent animals during their drive.
5. Wine Tasting
Just 45 minutes’ drive west of Hua Hin, at the foot of the mountains separating Thailand and Myanmar is the sprawling Monsoon Valley Vineyard. Owned by Thailand’s largest wine producer, Siam Winery, Monsoon Valley has a total of 270 acres planted with varietals such as colombard, chenin blanc, sangiovese, shiraz, and dornfelder.
Such production is possible due to developments in technology, viticultural advances, and the impacts of climate change–all combining to broaden the world’s suitable latitudes for grape growing. Monsoon Valley and other Thai vineyards are part of a new trend in viniculture called “New Latitudes.” Such export quality wine production can also be found in Vietnam and Bali as well as unlikely locations like Bolivia, Ecuador, Kenya, Namibia, India, and Sri Lanka.
Take a guided vineyard tour to learn how vines grow in this tropical climate, then drop into the Sala Bistro and tasting rooms. With expansive views over the vines, the Sala Bistro is worth a few hours of your time, sampling their international award-winning wines, or perhaps taking one of the food and wine pairing packages for a relaxed lunch.
Offering nine international standard courses within an hours’ drive of central Hua Hin, the Royal Coast is a golfer’s paradise, and perhaps the best year-round golfing location in Thailand. Arguably the most famous of all courses in Hua Hin is Black Mountain. After hosting several Asian PGA Tour events, Golf Digest magazine named it one of the 100 best golf courses outside the U.S. Another great course nearby, Banyan Golf Club, was awarded 2009 Best New Course in the Asia-Pacific region by the readers of Asian Golf Monthly and has consistently claimed ‘Top 3 in Asia’ awards.
For all Hua Hin’s courses, the warm, dry months of November to February see competition for tee times at their peak. During August and September, the annual Hua Hin Golf Festival offers some of the best golf packages and green fee deals available, and importantly, less congestion on the courses.
7. Authentic Thai Food
Thai cuisine is considered one of the best, as demonstrated with CNN Travel naming it the World Best Street Food. Then there are renowned Michelin star Thai restaurants like Namh in London and Bangkok. Or in the USA, Andy Rickers’ Pok Pok (Thai) restaurant empire.
Traveling within Thailand provides the opportunity to experience the four major Thai regional cuisines and their signature dishes. An alternative way to learn about and experience Thai food first hand is through quality food tours. Feast Thailand is a Hua Hin based operator offering a collection of tours guaranteed to introduce you to real Thai cuisine in all its variations and nuance. Highly recommended.
Hua Hin’s four-mile-long main beach, warm, shallow waters, and the most extended wind season in Asia make Hua Hin the perfect place to learn to kiteboard. October through May is the primary kiteboarding season, and with a good selection of IKO (International Kiteboarding Organization) certificated schools based here, you are spoiled for choice. If kiteboarding isn’t for you, then how about SUP–stand up paddleboarding?
9. Night Market
Hua Hin’s top three night markets are Cicada, Tamarind, and the Hua Hin Night Market. The latter operates seven nights a week year-round in the center of Hua Hin town. Cicada and Tamarind are side by side south of the town center and run weekend evenings only. Tamarind, the smaller of the three, is an open-air market operating Thursday to Sunday focused on tasty, inexpensive street food with an emphasis on Thai. There is usually live entertainment to add to the atmosphere.
In a garden-like environment, the sprawling Cicada Market (open Friday to Sunday) is at the top of most visitor lists, thanks to its mix of arts, crafts, entertainment, and the most stupendous central open-air food court. There are no knock-off handbags, clothing, or other cheap imitation goods here, just vendors selling unique crafts and fashion including recycled fashion accessories and knick-knacks. There is also an artists zone where local artisans create pieces large and small as you watch. Cruise the laneways of art and craft stalls then head to the food court for a dizzying selection of stands offering well-priced Thai curries, noodle dishes, fresh seafood, and more. Leave room for dessert as that section of the food court is very tempting.
10. Sam Roi Yot National Park
Sam Roi Yot National Park is easily accessed from Hua Hin with the northern entrance to the park just 39 miles south of the city. This coastal park covers 38 square miles and is naturally divided into two by the line of limestone mountains referred to in its name–Sam Roi Yot or ‘mountain of 300 peaks.’ The coastal side of the park includes mangrove marshlands, pretty beaches, and three accessible caves including the Sam Phraya Cave and its Royal Pavilion. For an bird’s eye view of the lowlands make the scramble up to Khao Daeng Peak viewpoint.
On the inland side of the mountains is the RAMSAR listed Thung Sam Roi Yot freshwater wetlands. This 11.5 square mile section of the National Park is a birdwatcher and photographer’s paradise. Around 355 bird species have been recorded in park, half of them migratory. Visit January and February to see waterbirds on their flight path between Asia and Australia–one of the best seasonal birdwatching locations in Thailand.
If your time in Hua Hin is short, you could combine Sam Roi Yot and Kui Buri National Parks into to a two-day one-night excursion from Hua Hin. But to do it justice, you need a couple of days to best experience Sam Roi Yot’s natural diversity and features. Nearby Dolphin Bay is a great place to base yourself.
The Royal Coast is well worth the 2.5-hour road trip from Bangkok. You too can discover and delve into this lesser-known Thai beach paradise. Whether you spend your time in a luxury beachside resort or a slow exploration of the greater region surrounding Hua Hin and the Royal Coast, the discoveries will keep coming.
Last Updated on July 2, 2020