What is the best place to go on holiday in Thailand? Where do you get hassled the least? Where can you find the best food, nicest scenery, prettiest girls? This month’s article is partly about tourism in Thailand and partly about changes Thailand has gone through in the last few years. Those among you who are looking for extensive travel information about the whole Kingdom will be disappointed. I limited myself to giving a brief recount of my recent stay in a popular Thai beach town, namely Hua Hin.
I’ve been to Hua Hin a number of times, I think five times in total, and I have to admit I quite like the place. It’s easy to get to and not too far from Bangkok. Nice A/C vans leaving from Victory Monument take you there in under three hours for the modest fare of 180 baht. Alternatively, buses leave from the Southern bus terminal, cost just a bit less and take an hour or so longer.
Apart from the first time when I ended up staying in a guesthouse, I always stay at the same middle class, Thai hotel with swimming pool where a nice, clean fan room with satellite TV, fridge, and hot water can still be had for 535 baht a night (about 15 US dollars). It’s located in the centre of town, and is only a ten minutes’ walk from the beach. It caters mainly to Thais, but more and more foreigners seem to be staying there lately. Not surprising given the modest room rate.
What is there to see or do in Hua Hin? Not a lot really. I usually limit my activities to walking or relaxing on the beach, having some seafood snacks and fresh coconuts, swimming in the hotel swimming pool and walking around town, both day and night. There are a few scenic spots where you can take nice pictures, such as Khao Takiab, i.e. a hill with Buddha statue some five kilometres to the south. You can get there by songthaew (shared taxi), motorbike taxi, tuk-tuk or just by walking along the beach. Other photo opportunities include the historic, renovated railway station and the luxurious Sofitel Central Hotel, formerly known as the Railway Hotel. I suppose there is golfing and fishing too, but I’m not really into that.
Apart from this, there is of course some shopping to be done. The daily night market in the centre of town attracts lots of people for handicraft shopping and wining and dining. The area around the Hilton Hotel is also popular, esp. with the people staying there. There is now also Market Village, a recently opened airy mall cum supermarket about two kilometres south of town, which seems to be popular with tourists staying in the nearby luxury hotels. It’s very similar to Bangkok shopping malls and not really spectacular, but I suppose it’s worth a visit if you run out of ideas about what to do. You are on holiday after all, which probably means lazing about all day and spending money.
Let’s not forget to mention the ubiquitous tailor shops. Nowadays, you can’t walk half a block without running into an Indian tailor trying to sell you his cheap combination of suit/2 trousers/2 shirts/2 ties and some other free crap for less than 100 dollars. If you go into the shop and start looking at nice fabrics though, you’ll soon find out that the suit you really want will cost about three times as much. Still a fairly good deal for people in need of cheap suits I suppose.
The Northern hill tribe people have found Hua Hin. Whereas on previous visits I hadn’t really noticed them, this time they were there en masse. The daily night market and the area around the Hilton hotel seemed to be their favourite targets. You couldn’t sit for more than five minutes at your table before some hill tribe woman showed up and tried to sell you one of those wooden frogs or other handicrafts. Be prepared to do some bargaining but don’t go overboard. The things they sell are not extremely expensive and they only try to scrape together a living after all. Fortunately these people are quite friendly and take rejections in good spirits.
Holidays in Hua Hin have become a bit more expensive over the years. The room rate at this particular hotel that I favour has just about doubled compared to first time I stayed there, which was four years ago. Luckily, it’s still rather cheap compared to other hotels or travel destinations. The food prices are still reasonable, although I have the impression that some of the seafood restaurant along the beach charge rather hefty prices for fresh fish, squid and shellfish. If you go to a place that charges by the weight of what you eat, you’d better keep an eye on those scales when choosing your dinner. It’s weird, but the cheapest tourist restaurants in Thailand for freshly grilled fish aren’t anywhere near the sea, but in soi Rambutri, the back street near Khao San Road, the ever-popular backpacker hangout in central Bangkok, where a big grilled red snapper can still be had for a mere 100 baht.
Hua Hin has always been popular with Thai tourists and has attracted many international travellers as well. I had the impression that quite a few of the western tourists I saw where there on some package deal which probably included Bangkok and Hua Hin. Is it worthwhile coming to Thailand and just visit Bangkok and Hua Hin on a package tour, as some people from the West seem to do? I don’t think so. Mind you, this is just my personal opinion, but I think that if people travel half the globe just to see a vibrant, but crowded and polluted city like Bangkok and a nice, but ordinary beach town like Hua Hin, they could just as well go to a Greek or Spanish island or to an exotic Caribbean destination. Thailand has a lot more to offer and people willing to travel a bit could end up seeing a lot more interesting places, such as Chiang Mai or Krabi, some of my personal favourites. Unless of course they don’t want to move their butts for a whole two weeks and just eat, drink, lie in the sun and get a nice lobster colour or skin cancer.
What else, except prices, has changed in Thailand over the last couple of years? The weather maybe. There seem to be more flash floods than ever and the rainy season has started unusually early this year. By the way, forget what the travel guides say about the best time to visit Thailand. There simply isn’t a bad time. It’s quite hot year round and when it rains, it’s usually just for a couple of hours.
For the rest, the troubles with the insurgents in the deep South are still a long way from being resolved. It seems to be getting worse actually, with a hit man killing a teacher in front of his classroom last month and a disturbing number of random killings of officials, vendors, teachers, policemen etc. Tourists shouldn’t really be put off by this violence, as it is limited to the deep South, an area far away from the tourist destinations and with hardly anything worthwhile to visit anyway.
Politics are quite different from a couple of years ago. Four years ago, the Thai Rak Thai party and Prime Minister Thaksin were still basking in the glow of their election victory and ruled the country with an iron, Thaksinomical fist. Now the country has been in political turmoil for more than six months, with upcoming elections in October. The difference seems to be that a big majority of the population is getting completely fed up with politics and even the King is desperate for the country to get out of the political quagmire it is in.
In a nutshell, I don’t think there is just one best place to go on holiday in Thailand. There are many different interesting locations in this wonderful country. The most beautiful scenery can probably found in the North, with its relaxing mountain views, or in the South, on and around some of the smaller islands around Krabi. The best food is easy. Thai food is cheap and delicious just about everywhere you go. You’ll probably get hassled most in the busy tourist venues such as Phuket and Samui. The prettiest girls? I wouldn’t have a clue.
PS: The hotel I stayed in was the Subhamitra Hotel on Amnuay Sin Road, very near Petchkasem Road and a large temple complex.
A map can be found on http://www.thaitambon.com/Maps/HuaHinMap1.htm .