|Hua Hin station|
Hua Hin station is a little red and white wooden toytown affair (an old royal pavillion transported from elsewhere and rebuilt) but in my sleep deprived state I couldn’t really appreciate it – all I wanted to do was to find the guesthouse and hope that our plea for an early check-in would be met. It was, and after a quick shower we flopped into bed to sleep until lunch time. The Palada was just on the southern edge of the cental area – quiet, but only 10 minutes walk from the restaurants near the Hilton and along Poonsuk Road. We took a couple of days to check out the town, to see whether we thought it was somewhere we could settle for a couple of months and, if so, in which bit (since it’s all strung out along the coast).
Hua Hin is not a particularly quaint town – the crowded row of wooden squid piers near the centre (now occupied by restaurants and guesthouses) have a certain ramshackle charm but there is little of any architectural merit. The busy Petchkasem Road (aka Pesky Road) runs parallel to the shore and bisects the centre, separating the area containing the beach, upmarket hotels, tourist shops, property agents and chain restaurants from that containing the market, cheap guesthouses, and shops catering more to residents. Independent restataurants of all cuisines and price brackets, and Thai food stalls, are liberally sprinkled across both halves. The railway line forms the old town’s western boundary, but suburbia now spreads beyond it. Close to the town centre the beach is rocky, but the clean white sand stretches southwards in a gentle curve, ending at a bumpy headland adorned with a golden Buddha. South and north of the centre the coast is lined with hotels, resorts and apartment blocks. Because Hua Hin is only 3 hours from Bangkok it’s a popular location for wealthy Bangkokians to have a weekend bolt-hole, and many are available for holiday lets. I had read that the destruction of the Andaman coast resorts in the 2004 tsunami resulted in a building boom in unaffected resorts such as Hua Hin but, following reconstruction, the return of many tourists to Phuket etc has left an over supply which we thought would be to our advantage. Overall it was obvious that Hua Hin was not jaw-droppingly beautiful, not brimming with character, but acceptable and functional given that we planned to be self-catering and would be reliant on public transport, primarily songthaews, the converted pick-up trucks that ply set routes and stop on demand. Navigation around the town was easy – a handful of named north-south roads are crossed by east-west sois (lanes) which are numbered from north to south, odd numbers east of Pesky Rd, even numbers to the west, so you know that numbers below 51/68 are to the north of the centre, above 65/80 are to the south
|Hua Hin beach, looking south|
As part of our reccy we took the green songthaew down Pesky Rd to Khao Takiab, the southern extension of Hua Hin where a new crop of condo developments s sprouting, despite the supposed surplus. The area of Khao Takiab south of the headland felt sterile and remote – I half expected to see tumbleweed blowing down the road. When we later returned to visit the beach there we found an attractive bay, but the condo blocks were set quite a way back. North of the headland the apartment buildings were by the beach, with a row of restaurants, bars etc on the main road behind – but it was still a long way from Hua Hin centre and any semblance of a real Thai settlement. We also went to check out an apartment complex in the town centre that we had seen advertised – this had the opposite problem, being next to the railway line in a scruffy block with no decent restaurants, quite far from the beach.
Having eliminated quite a few possibilities, and defined our list of requirements (an astonishing number of ‘condos’ had no kitchen!) we were able to zero in on an apartment at the Mykonos development as one worth viewing, and we took it without bothering to look further. Located on Pesky Rd opposite Soi 94 (and therefore on a ouple of songthaew routes) it was about a 20 minute walk south of the town centre, and less than 10 minutes to the Market Village shopping mall which contained a large Tesco Lotus. The pool was nice (fringed by frangipani trees), the road noise muted, the furniture comfortable, the kitchen adequately equipped, and the beach just behind the neighbouring block. And there were plenty of restaurants within a few minutes walk – perfect. It was on the market for 35k baht per month, but since it was low season and prospective tenants in short supply, our offer of 54k for a two-month let was accepted. Not exactly cheap, but it worked out to less per night than we were paying in the guesthouse (although electricity and water would be charged on top) – we moved in 3 days later
|View from the apartment|
Of course, once we were installed we did find a few essentials lacking – a decent deep frying pan/wok, a microwavable dish, a couple of utensils. Evidently the owners didn’t cook much – but I think that is the norm in Thailand, as eating at typical Thai restaurants (which are simple open-sided affairs similar to the Indonesian warungs) is very cheap. A trip to Makro on the northern edge of town supplied our equipment needs, plus some food supplies – bags of frozen fish and seafood and a 2kg block of cheddar cheese (which we portioned and froze), all much cheaper than Tesco in Market Village.
Although there were restaurants near the flat we ate out very infrequently – just an occasional lunch in Market Village, Soi 94 or the town centre (or on the beach, until the army instigated a clampdown on illegal beach trading and closed most of them down). It was good to have a break from restaurant food, and after our sojourn in Chapora we were dab hands at cooking on 2 rings and a microwave, even rustling up cakes, deconstructed fish pies, and ‘pizzathas’, using a frozen paratha as the base and cooking it in a frying pan, with a foil lid to melt the cheese.
Unlike our flat in Goa this one had no drinking water filter, so we ended up shopping almost daily, hauling back bottles of water and beer in our rucksacks. Luckily the cheapest water was at a small supermarket just across the road, but most of the rest of our provisions came from Tesco.
Hua Hin has a large European expat and long stay tourist population, mostly retired men who wander around accompanied by young Thai women, with whom they have relationships of varying degrees of permanence – some wives, some regular girlfriends who stay with them for several months of the year, some the previous night’s bar encounter. Hua Hin does not have the in-your-face sex trade of some Thai resorts, primarily because the king lives there for much of the time so everybody, including the police and other authorities, is on their best behaviour. Even so, a night time stroll down certain streets will take you past bars teeming with high-heeled, mini-skirted Thai girls ready to offer customers conversation and more. In addition to the sexpats there are retired couples, drawn by climate, low costs and Hua Hin’s 7 golf courses, and a sprinkling of working people and their families. Nationalities vary, with Brits, Scandanavians and Germanic citizens predominating, but English is the lingua franca. I’m ashamed to say that I learned not one word of Thai. I did buy a book but it wasn’t very good, and the written language is confusing – apart from the characters being unfamilar, some are very similar to each other and their complex forms are often simplified in inconsistent ways in hand written signs. Also there is no break between words, just as much unbroken squiggle as will fit on the line. I always struggle with tonal languages, but spoken Thai also seems to skate over some syllables and, especially when spoken by women, sometime sounded unpleasantly high pitched and whiny to my ears. I just didn’t take to it.
All Hua Hin’s expats probably shop in Tesco, which carries some groceries specifically for the farang market, but it is by no means a farang-only store. The range of goods on sales was superficially similar to Tesco in the UK, including the blue and white packaged value brand (labelled in English and Thai) but it also sold fridges, washing machines etc, and the fish section was far larger and more prominent, with trays of prawns in varying sizes for you to pick out your own. A whole aisle was devoted to instant noodles in an assortment of flavours, and alongside the potato crisps you could find crispy squid and other fishy treats. The display on the deli meat section was even more alarmingly pink than in the UK, and the prepackaged fresh meat choices included pigs’ intestines and lumps of congealed chicken blood. Frozen foods were expensive and very limited in scope, so it was well worth paying the £1.50 for a round trip on the songthaew to Makro to stock up. We had to time our Tesco visits carefully if we wanted beer or a winebox (more expensive than in the UK, but we rationed ourselves to one glass with dinner) as the alcohol section was cordened off untill 11am and again between 2pm and 5pm, and it remains closed all day on certain Buddhist holidays.
Tesco also had a good selection of electric fans. Paying for electricity quickly brings home how much is consumed by air conditioning, so paying £5 for a rather ugly green table fan was worthwhile even though we would only have it for 2 months. It meant that we could manage without the A/C most of the time, usually only putting it on in the living room/kitchen when we were cooking and eating dinner, and for a while in the bedroom before retiring.
We sometimes went to the market, walking into town along the beach and catching a songthaew back. The market was a large and rather dingy covered space with a permanently wet floor and different sections devoted to vegtables, fish, dried fish (yes, there are enough different kinds of dried fish, prawns and squid in Thailand to warrant a whole section!), meat and household goods. There was also ‘egg corner’ where all kinds of eggs (I recognised quail and duck, but there were others) were sold loose. Surprisingly, there was little fruit – just a couple of stalls with not much choice (the tasteless dragon fruit and golden guavas being a waste of anybody’s time) and for some reason the more worthwhile mangoes and watermelons were sold from stalls selling snacks, on the far side of the dried fish vendors. We quickly realised that apart from peppers, mangoes and watermelons Tesco had a better selection of fruit and veg, and it was often cheaper (at least for us – there were few marked prices, so as white farang we were probably charged more – a short-sighted strategy on the vendors’ part).
|Dried fish stall in the market|
While Tesco was aimed as much at Thais as at Europeans, there were shops designed specifically to assuage the gastronomic longings of the latter. Villa Market, a kind of Hua Hin Waitrose, carried all the ingredients that you could need to recreate most western recipes, including things like quorn mince (very expensive, but could be stretched to x3 with mung beans). Before Market Village was built it must have been a sanity-saver for many expats. Late in our stay (perhaps fortunately!) we discovered a French deli called Mirabelle across the railway tracks on on Soi 94 which sold a mouth watering array of reasonably priced cheese, pates, quiches, patisserie and cooked dishes for reheating at home, and served breakfasts and lunchtime baguettes and galettes, washed down with complimentary Breton cider. All seriously good. Soi 94 was also home to a simple Indian restaurant at which we satisfied our curry cravings a couple of times.
|Wat Huay Mongkol|
There were excursions that we could have taken from Hua Hin, but we were quite lazy (or stingy) in that respect. Part of the reason for our stay was to reduce our expenditure for a while, so we restricted ourselves to trips that could be made by public transport, such as to the Wat Huay Mongkol temple out to the west, the main feature of which is a giant statue of a seated monk. It wasn’t what you could call a must-see attraction. Normally our days were taken up with the routines of normal life (shopping, cooking, cleaning and visits to the laundrette), walks on the beach, swims in the pool, reading and surfing (the internet variety). Although it was the start of the rainy season, July and August in Hua Hin is drier than most of the rest of Thailand (part of the reason we chose it) – there were some heavy downpours but most days were a mix of sunshine and cloud. I actually preferred the cloud as it took tne edge off the swealtering, humid heat. The TV had only a few channels in English, but Al was able to use the fast internet to download enough films, books and TV series to keep us going for several months. With a good internet connection and some free offers from family history sites (who must have been wondering where I had gone) I resumed my genealogy research, discovering few facts that prompted me to plan a novel based on the lives of one particular branch of my family tree – cue lots of background research into late 18th century Germany, the Napoleonic wars, and Regency London. I also re-learned how to play mahjong, having not played for decades – I discovered that a goup of expat ladies played in a nearby restaurant every Wednesday afternoon and they were kind enough to welcome me to their sessions. I enjoyed their company very much.
Our initial 2 month visa expired in mid August, so we had to visit an immigration office to apply for a 30 day extension – fortunately Hua Hin has its own, obviating the need for a trip to Bangkok. In the past this would have been a mere formality, but the clampdown on long stayers made us just a little nervous, given that we had paid the lease up to 2nd September. Not wanting to provide any excuse for a refusal, we obtained new photos (a quick comparison with our passports would have exposed our existing stock as more than the stipulated 3 months old) and assembled evidence of our address and solvency. It wasn’t necessary – with no previous Thai visas in our passports our applications were processed (and our 1900 baht each accepted!) without query.
Our onward plans had been left flexible, but our options were constrained by the need for an Indian visa so that Al could get his dental implants completed in Goa. For some reason several Indian embassies in the region will only issue tourist visas to residents of that country – it would be impossible for us to get them in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Jakarta, and Pnomh Penh and Hanoi were uncertain. Initially we had thought of going to Bangkok to get them, and then a flight to Delhi, Mumbai or Calcutta, but we would have 3 weeks left on our extended visas after we left the apartment and we didn’t eally want to spend that long in Bangkok. Besides, September would still be a little early to arrive in India as the monsoon would still be going strong in Goa. The discovery that Air Asia had a service from Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu made us decide instead to head south by train, spend a couple of weeks on Ko Samui or Ko Phagnan, then fly from Surat Thani to Kuala Lumpur. We would spend a month in Nepal enjoying cooler weather, get an Indian visa there, and then go to India.
Mindful of the need to ensure that we got back our 20k baht security deposit from the agent before we left Hua Hin, we booked a couple of nights in a guesthouse near the railway station. Run by a young Dutch/Thai couple it went by the slightly ludicrous name of Say Cheese, but it was cheap and pleasant. I quite enjoyed being right in the centre of town for a change but rather than my imagined last dinner of seafood on the piers, we found ourselves lunching at Mirabelle and buying a selection of cheese and bread for in-room consumption that evening washed down with a bottle of South African white, with the expectation that it would be the last decent cheese that we would see for some time.
Our departure from Hua Hin did not go as smoothly as our stay. Firstly we couldn’t get any cash – every ATM we tried declined our usual card, even the Bangkok Bank that we normally used. Eventually we resorted to using a card which we knew would cost us £4.50 (in addition to the £3-4 that Thai ATMs charge!), and cursed our normal provider for blocking our cards. It was only later that I realised that a slide in the value of sterling (thanks to jitters about the upcoming Scottish independece referendum) meant that our usual withdrawal amount in baht now exceeded our UK bank’s limit – duh! All the faffing about checking account balances, to ensure we hadn’t been skimmed, meant that we had to rush to the station for our 11:29 train to Surat Thani. We needn’t have troubled ourselves – our train was already posted as running an hour late, and that later expanded to 1:20. Pretty poor considering that it was only coming from Bangkok, 3 hours up the line. And when the train did arive, the A/C wasn’t working so we had a very sweaty journey. We were back to the trials of travelling life with a bump!