Low-key and uncrowded, fronted by a five-kilometre beach, the town of Hua Hin is surrounded by three of Thailand’s most diverse national parks. Its central location on Thailand’s gulf coast means easy access to plenty out-of-town beaches, too. Fresh seafood comes cheap and Bangkok is just a three-hour, 200-kilometre drive away.
So why doesn’t Hua Hin get more of Thailand’s 32 million annual visitors? It’s popular with Thais and northern Europeans, in particular, do visit. But you’ll find most foreign holidaymakers in Phuket, Koh Samui, Pattaya and the north.
Whatever the reason, for my wife Vivien and I, this is part of Hua Hin’s attraction. It keeps the costs down and the crowds reasonable, so we can enjoy all the “Royal Coast” offers. We still have all the international hotels, championship level golf courses, modern infrastructure and other amenities visitors coming to Thailand look for—just at a less frantic pace.
We’ve been exploring the region since arriving in 2015 and thought it was time to share our top 10 experiences with you. These are places or activities that when friends or family come to stay we just have to do. So, whether you’re on holiday or scouting Hua Hin as a potential retirement haven, here’s my top 10 of things to do…
1. Explore Cicada Market
An arts and food market in the Khao Takiab region of Hua Hin. It only operates Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from 6 p.m.
Imagine an enormous, sprawling parkland with tall, broad, mature trees. Overhead lanterns and bunting is strung throughout, creating a carnival atmosphere. In the centre, a paved open-air food court sprawls out around a couple of the giant trees. Steam rises from hawker stalls (30 or more perhaps) each offering their own particular Thai food speciality with prices averaging between $3 and $4 a plate and, for the most part, prepared in front of you.
Surrounding the central food court are pathways lined with market stalls, all offering unique craft and art-oriented goods. No cheap Chinese imports here or ‘knock-off’ brand products. Add to that an area where local painters display their canvases—some big enough to dominate a wall.
Plus, at the back of the Cicada ‘parkland’ is a grassed amphitheatre with local bands providing the tunes and keeping the atmosphere happening.
Hungry for more? Immediately next door to Cicada is Tamarind Market focused on its food court complete with food trucks and Thai food stalls. A different but still very appealing atmosphere to Cicada with everything from Italian Pizza and Ribs to every conceivable Thai delicacy. Local musicians add to the atmosphere.
2. Wine and Dine at Monsoon Valley Vineyard
Some 45 minutes’ drive west of Hua Hin is one of the most picturesque Vineyards I’ve seen in a very long time. One of three vineyards across Thailand operated by Siam Wineries. Hua Hin’s Monsoon Valley Vineyard is the largest of the three with over 500 acres under cultivation.
These vineyards are leading a trend in winemaking called ‘New Latitude wines’—wines grown and produced outside the traditional latitudes of 30 and 50 degrees in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Going against this ‘norm’, export quality wines are now being produced in commercial volumes in Vietnam, Thailand, and India with Thailand leading the way.
Sitting in prime position atop the hill overlooking the vineyard is the main ‘Sala’. This large Thai-inspired open-air pavilion houses the tasting rooms, wine bar, bistro and shop. There is also an educational exhibit on viticulture and oenology.
Visitors can take guided vineyard tours in safari-style Land Rovers. For the more independent, there are mountain bikes or you can just stroll by foot amongst the vines.
We highly recommend stopping for a meal at the bistro, especially combined with a wine-tasting package. Makes for a fantastic long lunch overlooking the vines. Be sure to try the cheesecake!
3. Shop Like a Local
One way we save on our food budget is by taking a lesson from resident Thais and do our fruit, vegetable and seafood shopping at the local ‘Fresh’ markets.
In the centre of town is the nearly 100-year-old Chatcahi market. Undercover and dominating all the space between Soi (streets) 70 and 72, it operates from 5 a.m. until late morning seven days of the week. Wander through the various sections of fresh seafood and butchery. Garden-fresh vegetables of all varieties stacked high on tables, tropical and exotic fruits, pickled and dried foods. Spices and curry pastes, fresh noodles and an astounding variety of rice, along with ready to eat Thai sweets and savoury items. All awaiting your shopping bag. And don’t forget the fresh cut flowers.
As these markets are the primary source of food staples for Thai households, products are priced accordingly. Sure, the pungent aromas in the dried seafood section can be a little overpowering. The slabs of pork shoulder sitting uncovered and unrefrigerated on the chopping blocks awaiting the next customer are not what we are used to. Motor scooters laden with enormous buckets of shaved ice pushing their way through the crowded, narrow walkways. All entertaining, perhaps a little confronting and noisy but without doubt the best place to shop for fresh, local (and inexpensive) produce.
4. Live Like a King
Hua Hin was, historically, a fishing village with no real claim to fame. It was in the 1920’s when a railway line south from Bangkok was built that this region and Hua Hin, in particular, started to receive visitors.
Interest from the Thai Royal Family cemented the region’s path. Initially, two princes and then King Rama VII built properties here. Rama VII’s palace on the Cha-Am end of Hua Hin was called “Palace of Love & Hope“ and described how he felt at his beachside residence. Abandoned after his death, this palace has been restored and is now open to visitors.
Additionally, a visit to Hua Hin’s historic railway station also demonstrates how the Royal presence was reflected and respected—particularly in the Royal Waiting room immediately adjacent to the main platform.
In modern times the now deceased King Rama IX built his own palace close to the centre of Hua Hin. Despite his passing, the Palace is still used by remaining Royal family members. The palace’s name when translated means “Far from Worries”. Another example of how the Royals see Hua Hin – a great place to escape.
5. Sample the Local Cuisine
Back in Australia, we had favourite Thai restaurants in our neighbourhood. Now we have access to Thai food in every variety from street stalls through to quality upmarket restaurants. We’ve learnt about the different regional cuisines of Thailand and grown to appreciate the distinct differences they offer. The fantastic barbecued meats and spicy green papaya salads from the northeast (Issan), the herb and spice infused sausages or glorious Khao Soi from the Chiang Mai region, coconut milk-based soups, curries and noodle dishes of the central area and the fiery curries of the southern region.
In Hua Hin’s old town is a restaurant, Orchids, that serves Thai food of superior quality with great consistency, so it’s a must visit whenever we have visitors.
If visitors want to develop their understanding of Thai food, there are a few quality Cooking Schools here in Hua Hin that we would recommend. Another option for foodies is Feast Thailand which provided food tours that guarantee, in a very practical way, to develop your taste and understanding of Thai food. Run by an Australian couple, with fantastic Thai staff, these tours are a must.
6. Take in the Great Outdoors
Hua Hin is a beach town with three, long, sandy beaches (Cha-am, Hua Hin & Khao Takiab) to choose from. There is something for everyone here.
Learn kite surfing, stand-up paddle boarding or try jet skiing on Hua Hin’s main beach. Learn how to sail in Laser Class sailboat off Cha-am. Or just beachcomb on Khao Takiab—our favourite beach.
With eight international standard Golf courses around Hua Hin, golf is a big drawcard for many. Tennis is more our game, though admittedly as spectators rather than participants. In Hua Hin, the True Arena sports facility is developing its name as a centre of excellence for tennis. Tournaments for up and coming professional players, both ladies and men, happen across the year and for us locals, admission is free. It’s great to sit just a few rows from the court and watch players go at it with all their skill and guile hoping to win the tournament, take the precious prize money and most importantly improve their international ranking—perhaps breaking the Top 100 for the first time.
7. Wander the Night Market
Every evening, 365 days of the year, two long street blocks in the middle of Hua Hin change from busy motorbike and vehicle filled streets to a continuous walking street. Stalls offer all the usual goods seen in markets right across Thailand—so lots of inexpensive souvenirs and ‘knock-off’ handbags and ‘brand’ clothing.
While that’s a lot of fun, the food stalls and restaurants dotted along this street are the main attraction here. Fresh local seafood stacked high on ice, on display and waiting your selection.
Local prawns, squid and fish, along with lobster and giant scampi with their long skinny claws. Choose what you fancy and it will be cooked and served on your street-side table in a matter of minutes.
8, 9 and 10. Delight in Natural Wonders
Surrounded by three visit-worthy National Parks, Hua Hin is blessed with natural wonders. We have visited and explored each of these three parks on several occasions and every visit offers new and different experiences.
Kaeng Krachan National Park to Hua Hin’s North West, is Thailand’s largest national park. Just under 3000 square kilometres, it stretches all the way to the Myanmar border. The Pala-U waterfalls on the southern end of the park is a great day trip from Hua Hin and if you’re travelling into the park early morning or late afternoon, you may be lucky enough to encounter some of the wild elephants that call the park home.
Across the limestone peaks is the inland section of the park. Visitors will find an extensive marshland which hosts hundreds of species of migratory birds who make the park home for the first few months of each year.
Kui Buri National Park is the best place to see elephants in the wild. You can see elephants in many areas across Thailand and typically, they’re domesticated. But Kui Buri, just over an hour’s drive south of Hua Hin, is where you will see them in their natural habitat.
In 1999 vast grass prairies were created on 4,700 acres of land within the park’s boundaries to keep the wild elephants out of neighbouring farmlands. Over the last 18 years, the wildlife population has increased to over 200 native elephants and 150 gaurs (the world’s largest wild cattle species).
Tours typically start mid-afternoon when the wildlife start getting active again after the heat of the day. You take a circular route stopping at several locations where elephants, if about, can be easily seen. Overall you can spend three to four hours travelling through the park. Everyone we know who has done this tour has had multiple sightings of elephants…so a 100% success rate!