In an attempt to tear ourselves away from our computer screens and to actually start talking to each other a bit more, my wife and I decided to have a long weekend away. It's always a big decision because neither of us feels that travelling in Thailand offers particularly good value for money, Frankly, we'd rather put the extra cash towards a holiday further afield. But with August being very much low season in Thailand and with both of us in need of a break, the time definitely felt right.
For Bangkokians looking for a few days away at a beach resort but not wishing to mess around with airport departure lounges or long train journeys, the choice generally comes down to either Pattaya or Hua Hin. Both resorts are easily reached in a few hours by car so it's a case of flip a coin, plonk an armful of clothes in the trunk and off you go. Having done Pattaya fairly recently, Hua Hin got the winning vote and we set off early doors to make the most of a four-day vacation.
After spending hours trawling through numerous booking and hotel review websites, we settled for three nights at the Resort de Paskani in Khao Takiab. It described itself as a quirky Greek-style boutique hotel located right on the beach. It sounded perfect. It can sometimes be tough to find good accommodation in the mid-price range. I'm far too old and grouchy for beach bungalows with torn mosquito nights and temperamental power supplies and I'm not always in the mood for a 5-star chain and the sterile experience of piped music in the lobby, clicking doormen and orchids on my pillow.
I'm pleased to report that the Resort de Paskani was superb in almost every way. It was refreshing to see that money was obviously being re-invested into the business. The garden plants looked cared for, the rooms and pool were spotlessly clean and the staff had clearly had something that resembled training. It all made a nice change from the typical scenario of someone opening a business, putting enticing photographs on a website - and then creaming off the profit and standing back as the whole venture goes rapidly downhill.
Oh, and there were no children there either. That alone is worth a star rating or two in my book. No one started bawling because Mommy hadn't put enough air in their swimming aid and no one dribbled snot and saliva because they'd got wet sand in their swimming shorts. There was just us and a few mature Thai couples, exchanging secret agent style nods at breakfast, and thankfully leaving it at that as far as communication and pleasantries were concerned.
Khao Takiab is actually a small, peaceful resort a few miles south of Hua Hin. Outside of the larger hotels, there are no restaurants or dining experiences to speak of and only a handful of bars open up in the evening to try and lure what few tourists there are. Back in the early 90's - when I lived in Hua Hin for several months - I saw the foundations and infrastructure of Khao Takiab take shape. Twenty years later, not a fat lot has been done. It's still just a typical Thai street lined with mom and pop shops, beauty salons and the odd guest house. In the middle of a hot, low-season afternoon, there was barely a soul around.
On our first afternoon, shortly after checking in, we walked the shoreline up to the Khao Takiab temple, or ‘monkey mountain' as it's often called. I've been up to the temple several times before accompanied by various friends and family members and also run the gauntlet of the scary, aggressive monkeys. The holidaymaker reviews on Trip Advisor document people's experiences and give you a flavor of what you might be in for.
"Nice temple but watch out for the monkeys", sits alongside "those bastard apes nicked my brand new camcorder".
I can certainly sympathize because I also learned the hard way. I once made the mistake of buying a large bunch of bananas from the kindly old nun who takes care of the souvenir shop at the foot of the mountain. I envisaged carrying the bananas up the hill and breaking them off the bunch one by one and making a few friends en route. It didn't work out that way at all. The largest, most fearsome monkey with the reddest arse, jumped me from behind and mugged me in broad daylight. Truth be told - I'm still traumatized.
Determined to avoid a repeat of the incident, we stayed on the beach and watched the monkeys from a safer distance. A local beach bar had set up half a dozen sun-loungers and umbrellas, available for 50 baht a day provided you order food and drink from the bar itself. I was surprised to discover that the whole operation was managed by a young man from Essex. Recognizing my accent, we got chatting about life back home and the recent riots in London and a few other major English cities. Eventually I asked him what people did for entertainment in Khao Takiab. He smirked and said "people either sleep or die". I guess he meant that if I was looking to dress up for dinner and a show, Khao Takiab was unlikely to tick any boxes.
That night we caught a songthaew to The Cicada Market, halfway between Khao Takiab and Hiua Hin. The Cicada has become one of the most popular attractions in the area for both tourists and locals alike. I rarely get excited at the thought of a local Thai market, but I have to say this one was well worth a visit. Plenty of trendy goods, fashionable clothes and artwork for sale and a quality open-air food court, dishing up Thai cuisine and international dishes to a curious mix of retired expats, families on vacation and well-heeled Thais, all enjoying a pleasant night out. In fact the market was so good, we went twice.
One of the biggest downsides though to holidaying in Hua Hin and its environs is the extortionate cost of public transportation. After a few hours spent browsing at the market, we approached a long line of songthaew drivers, all standing around chatting and smoking and clearly without any business, and asked them to take us the two kilometers back to our digs. Not one driver would entertain the idea for less than a hundred baht - a fare that would cost no more than half that in Bangkok.
Feeling tired and in no mood for long, protracted negotiations, we reluctantly jumped in the back of a vehicle and my wife proceeded to give the driver an earful for the entire five-minute journey. She banged on about being charged ‘a farang rate' but I could see the driver had heard it all before. Back in Bangkok, I had been on the official Khao Takiab website and the webmaster had laid it out clearly - bargaining fares with taxi drivers is futile. The drivers would rather refuse than accept a reduced rate. There's always going to be a gullible tourist along in ten minutes.
At breakfast the following day, I asked the Thai staff at the hotel how much they would pay to hire transportation, and I was reassured to hear that they would have had to pay the same. It was clear from their tone of voice that the locals felt they were getting ripped off just as much as the foreigners did.
It had been our intention to lock the car in the hotel parking lot for the entire holiday. I always feel that a good vacation should include as little driving as possible, but the following night, after our experience at the market, my wife was adamant that we take the car into Hua Hin instead of flagging down a vehicle by the roadside - and paying someone half a month's salary for the pleasure.
I hadn't been in Hua Hin for about four years, but it had changed very little. Walking around and doing the usual semi-circular route down the beach road, then left along the main tourist ‘walking street' past all the restaurants and then left again and back up to the main road and the night market, I was struck by how tired it all looked. Hua Hin - or at least the shopping areas - is an endless stream of tailors shops and optical retailers. I don't know if the good folk of Hua Hin have the worst eyesight compared to those in any other town in Thailand, but they've certainly got a lot of optician shops. I have never seen so many in one place.
We had a brief stroll around the night market but it was as dull and uninspiring as ever. There was the same woman making crepes with fifty different types of filling. There was the same guy selling pirated DVDs shot from the back of a movie theater. And there was the same vendor flogging key-chains and lighters that flash and bleep in twenty different colors. It's a market caught in a time warp. Add to that hundreds of slow-moving tourists all jostling for space on a humid evening. Hua Hin night market never fails to put me in an irritable frame of mind. Then it started to rain heavily. I began to wonder if there were worst places to be on a Saturday night but none sprang instantly to mind.
There were plenty of stray dogs though. Hua Hin has had a problem with stray dogs for as long as I can remember. Thinking back to the time I spent there in the early 90's. I wouldn't mind a dollar for every time I was chased back to my room in the early hours of the morning by a pack of barking, three-legged mutts or ridden a motorcycle and had them snapping at my heels. In those days almost every local resident carried a small pocket sling-shot so they could fire a handful of gravel at a moment's notice and scare the dogs away. I'd wager they still do.
We returned to Hua Hin the following morning in search of a livelier section of beach (compared to Khao Takiab) and somewhere where we could do some people-watching and maybe interact with the odd beach vendor. Things have changed big-time down the years on Hua Hin's main beach. In the past, anybody could set up a beach business with a few weather-beaten sun-loungers and tatty parasols and run backwards and forwards serving tourists with drinks, buckets of ice and plates of overpriced crabs legs, but nowadays it's the five-star hotels - the ones located on the beach itself - that have all the power. They've ordered the ragamuffin beach businesses to sling their hook and they've muscled in on the territory. The hotels have told all and sundry that if anyone's going to make money out of a stretch of beach, slap bang in front of the hotel, then it's going to be them - and them only.
We walked just a few hundred meters down the beach and were greeted by a Burmese chap in well-laundered white shorts and t-shirt - obviously a hotel employee entrusted with the task of managing the hotel's very own stretch of sand. He gestured towards a neat row of sun-loungers, all covered in brilliant white towels, and pointed to a sign that said "loungers 150 baht a day including one free drink" The last time I sunbathed on Hua Hin beach I distinctly remember paying ten baht but if that's inflation for you, then so be it.
"Are you looking for a couple of sun-loungers folks? It's 150 baht a day and that includes one free drink up to the value of 40 baht. You also get free use of the hotel toilet and showers"
I just can't resist a bargain. We threw our beach bags on to a couple of sun-beds and settled in for the morning. The Burmese guy went to fetch some menus so we could select our free drinks. I ordered a tonic water and my wife went for a small bottle of Sprite. When he returned with the drinks, he asked if we could settle up in advance - and handed me a bill for 320 baht. I reached for the drinks menu and saw that the only drink available ‘up to the value of 40 baht' was bottled drinking water. Any other drink - Sprite, Coke, tonic water, etc - was priced at 50-60 baht or more.
There was clearly something amiss. The hotel hadn't thought the system through carefully enough. No, let me qualify that - they hadn't thought it through at all. The sign that was pointed out to us needed to be changed so it read "150 baht a day including one free drink (provided that you choose bottled water)"
I passed up the opportunity to go and have a slanging match with the hotel manager and took it out on my wife instead. I mean, well, really.
Our long weekend over, we checked out of our boutique hotel, thanked the staff for such a wonderful stay, shook the hands and paws of the friends we'd made, and headed back to Bangkok. But not of course without a stop-off and slight detour to Cha'am.
Cha'am is another beach resort just off the Bangkok- Hua Hin highway and you couldn't find a greater contrast between two seaside towns. Cha'am is Hua Hin's ginger stepson. It's club-footed sister-in-law. They might be neighbors but Hua Hin is the happy guy who chats over the fence and lends you his garden tools, whereas Cha'am is the sinister bloke with the lazy eye and a secret cellar. But in fact there are two sides to Cha'am - weekend Cha'am and weekday Cha'am.
Weekend Cha'am is the unbearable din of jet-ski engines and tinny car stereos. But once the weekenders are safely back at work, a calm and tranquility descends on the resort and it becomes a virtual ghost town. Vendors outnumber beachgoers three to one, the tandem bicycles for hire are padlocked out of sight and restaurants and guest houses stand empty and forlorn. You can almost hear the sound of the waves. That's the Cha'am I always enjoy.