I made a long overdue return to Cha'am last weekend - a Thai beach resort I sometimes playfully refer to as ‘Hua Hin's ginger stepson'.
Although barely twenty miles apart, Hua Hin and Cha'am are polar opposites. One has developed into a proper international resort with high-rise 5-star hotels and pricey Thai restaurants, while Cha'am has continued to give the punters what they want for as long as I can remember - cheap guest-houses and loads of affordable beach activities.
Cha'am has never pretended to be anything else other than a no-nonsense destination for the cost-conscious weekend traveler or day-tripper.
Way back when
I've always had a soft spot for Cha'am. Back in the early 90's, I lived in Hua Hin for a while when it really was ‘just a fishing village'. Hua Hin's night-life back then consisted of three makeshift beer-bars constructed out of chipboard and each decorated with a set of twinkly rope-lights. Early evening plans would often begin with someone saying "so which of the three bars shall we do tonight?" Life was much simpler back then.
And then someone from our little clique of expats (all seven of us) broke the amazing news that an ambitious foreign entrepreneur had dared to open a go-go bar in neighboring Cha'am.
A go-go bar? In Cha'am? And will Elvis be there?
So that night, the not-so-magnificent seven clambered on to their hired mopeds and braved the dark and desolate Phetkasem highway to Cha'am in search of some ‘alternative' entertainment.
The go-go bar itself was a low-key affair and was never going to survive very long (I think it lasted six months in the end) but it did give us the chance to discover the delights of Cha'am. You didn't see many foreigners in Hua Hin. You didn't see any at all in this place!
Cha'am was a beach resort for working-class Thais - and it still is I guess. It's a place with something of a split personality. At the weekend, the soundtrack is the buzz of jet-skis and banana boats combined with the raucous laughter and whisky-drinking games coming from under worn-out beach umbrellas.
Come Monday morning, when the Cha'am massive are all back in their factories and tool-shops, you can have the beach all to yourself - even at 10.00 in the morning. And that's how Cha'am stays all through the week until the pick-up trucks laden with cooler boxes, guitars and ghetto blasters start rolling into town late on Friday afternoons.
Despite Cha'am being a relatively comfortable three-hour drive from Bangkok, the journey itself has never been anything to look forward to - mile after mile of grey, soulless highway with barely a tree or plantation to lift the spirits until you reach Petchburi.
Thankfully that's all in the past now with the opening of a ‘scenic route', which begins at Samut Songkhram and takes you all the way into Cha'am and beyond.
The scenic route, while never scoring highly on the wow factor scale, is still a damn sight more interesting than the laborious trek down the main highway. There are the salt sheds at Samut Songkhram and some interesting ‘pink colored lakes' (which I'm reliably informed is caused by an unharmful bacteria) There are some spooky-looking bird nesting towers that wouldn't look out of place on a horror movie set. There's the odd Thai temple to poke around (if you're that way inclined) and plenty of cute coffee shops with enough nic-nacs to guarantee at least thirty minutes of smartphone selfie Heaven.
You can also take a brief stop for lunch at Haat Phuktian (Phuktian Beach) which I'd describe as a much smaller scale version of Bang Saen (another beach resort popular with Thais on the road from Bangkok to Pattaya)
Haat Phuktian has all the seaside amenities that Thai weekenders love (the usual beach umbrellas and seafood vendors, etc) but is starting to look and feel a little bit confused. Several more upmarket hotels, restaurants and boutiques have opened, appearing strangely at odds with the shabby, ramshackle beach section.
Haat Phuktian doesn't seem to be able to make up its mind what it wants to be. But that shouldn't put you off the chance to stretch your legs and the opportunity to take some photos of the interesting statues - all dedicated to famous Thai literary characters - that are dotted around the area.
My wife and I were in Cha'am as part of a corporate jolly. Every year, my wife's company organizes a ‘Mayday Weekend' for employees from several departments and their families.
The Mayday Weekend schedule is more or less the same every year. Staff can either take the company buses or make their own way down from Bangkok, but generally everyone is checked into the hotel by mid-afternoon. Then there are team-building or ‘bonding' activities on the beach (tug ‘o' war, chairball - that sort of thing) then after a couple of hours rest at the hotel, there will be a buffet dinner in one of the hotel's function rooms.
Once the food has all been scoffed, the Saturday night entertainment can begin - a company talent show, a speech from the president, the ubiquitous karaoke and if we're really lucky, a cheeky dancing display from a few local coyote girls.
Sunday morning is usually a bleary-eyed buffet breakfast, eaten at a very leisurely pace and then staff are free to check out and make their way home to Bangkok. I suppose when you analyze things, the whole weekend - for the Thai company staff at least - is nothing more than a glorified overnight stay.
I'm never sure why it's called the Mayday Weekend because it usually happens in late July / early August but last year we all went to a resort in Chantaburi, the year before was a rustic bungalow complex deep in the forests of Kanchanaburi, but this year it was a hotel in Cha'am - and a very fine hotel it was too.
The company booked the 4-star Methavali Hotel, which lies at the far end of Cha'am's lengthy beach road. Judging by the number of foreign guests sunbathing around the swimming pool, it's clearly a hotel firmly established on Thailand's ‘package tour' radar. So the hotel was a curious mix of Western holidaymakers and Thai corporate staff on team-building weekends, with as you would expect, both groups largely keeping themselves to themselves.
The hotel rooms were spacious and comfortable enough but had only the most basic of furniture and fittings. Even things like the bedside lamp and flat-screen TV were hard-wired into large wooden blocks to avoid them being pilfered. There were virtually no items actually plugged into electrical wall-sockets.
I've chatted with hotel managers in the past, and several of them have confessed to me that when you open your doors to the Thai corporate weekend market, guests can often set their sights on taking home a souvenir or two from their stay. And we're obviously not talking about a hotel towel or a bathrobe.
But all in all, we enjoyed our few hours in Cha'am immensely. We hired a tandem bicycle with dodgy brakes to cycle the length of the beach road just before dusk (enjoyable) My wife bought a year's supply of dried seafood from a local street-stall but for the most part we just wandered around and soaked up the atmosphere.
I like Cha'am.