Rubbing shoulders with royalty at the village that sleeps on
DON'T write off Thailand's beach resorts yet. Pattaya might have all the romance of a dilapidated Las Vegas whorehouse, Phuket has murdered even the notion of conservation with its explosion of skyscraper hotels, but Hua Hin retains its charm.
Royalty of the world has been entertained here for decades, and today it attracts the more sedate travellers.
On the surface, Hua Hin seems like the whimsical relic of Edwardiana. At the venerable Railway Hotel (Accor, the French management, calls it Sofitel, but nobody else does), Thailand's most famous topiary is exhibited. The long verandah and massive rooms are linked by silent corridors.
If it isn't exactly Thai, blame David Puttnam. He re-built part of the gardens to resemble Phnom Penh's Royal Hotel in The Killing Fields.
The beach winds down the coast to Malaysia, some 200 kilometers away, but the people of Hua Hin count only three kilometers of soft white sand as their own.
Only on the weekends do the crowds come. Otherwise, there are no gaggles of tourists or bargirls. In the mornings, Thai families play in the waves with a prim abandon.
By noon, the winds have calmed, and the striking fish market near the jetty has closed. But just south of the jetty is a street of seafood restaurants.
Few tourists find it. But one can sit along the Strand, sampling fresh oyster omelettes and prawns with fresh mushrooms. Chunky squid and octopus come sizzling to the table, with local asparagus, spinach, onions and aubergines.
Hua Hin takes an early afternoon siesta. But by four, the boys are on the beach playing takraw, a combination of football and volleyball.
The days comes to an end with the sparrows. Tens of thousands fly down with the sunset to sit on the trees by the shore.
In town, the central food market opens, and a whole street glows with fires under countless woks frying fish, beef and pork curries, with coconut milk and s'taw, the pungent stink-bean.
By midnight, the restaurants are empty, and by 3 am, the express bus to Bangkok pulls in from the south and only a noodle shop is open to greet the rare sleepy visitor.
The passive visitor stays at the Railway Hotel and lounges by the pool or the beach. He strolls to the markets and rents an old horse for a few baht.
The active visitor stays at the Royal Garden Village, which is Ye Complete Resort. Opened in l987, Royal Garden has it all. A sports centre, a golf course, a Chinese sailing junk, restaurants, mini-buses, fishing tours, a baby elephant.
It's all done in good taste, but somehow is anathema to the Royal spirit of Hua Hin.
For it was actually discovered by King Rama IV (yes, the Yul Brynner king), while on a hunting trip in the middle l860s. He built a palace in nearby Petchburi, where in l868, he brought visitors down to watch an eclipse, and contracted the malaria which caused his death.
But Hua Hin was re-discovered by European royalty in l911, during the Coronation of King Rama VI in Bangkok, attended by representatives of all Europe's royal families.
After the Coronation, they took off to the south with the King's brother and his Russian wife. ''There,'' wrote a royal historian, ''they found an ideal camp to go to the jungle to shoot game . . . tigers and pheasants. The sand on the beach was white as snow.'' The Russian princess built a villa - and so did the rest of the royalty. The Thai King already had a vast Summer Palace, called ''Far From Worries'', which still stands on the road to Bangkok.
The other Royal remnant is next to the charming official Railway Station. This is the Royal Railway Station, which could have come from the forest of Hansel and Gretel.
Today, those original Edwardian villas are still spread around the beach. Strolling among the tourists are princes and princelings who trace their ancestry back to King Rama IV.
Like others, they play golf, take trips to the temples of Petchburi and might take a drive south to Prachuab Khiri Kan. Here, by a charming bay, you sit and eat local pineapples and coconuts, looking at Burma, just 20 kilometres away.
Hua Hin's streets and markets are made for informal discovery, and the people have a regal friendliness. It has the elegance unprepossessing loveliness from the Thailand of a century ago.
The best way to Hua Hin is renting a car and taking the four-hour trip, with a stopover at Nakorn Pathom, the oldest chedi in the country. Route 35 goes direct to the resort.
Those less confident can go by bus. About 20 air-conditioned buses leave from the Southern Bus Terminal in Thonburi.
The wariest of all can feel safe in a train. A good dozen leave Hualompong Station in Bangkok. Or you can go to Kanchanburi (the bridge on the River Kwae), and be fortunate enough to get an old steam engine to Hua Hin.