In The Footsteps Of The King Of Siam

17th October 2014

Hua Hin might not sound as familiar or as dreamy as other well-known resorts on Thailand’s beautiful shores, but for locals it’s considered the smartest beachside escape.

Set on the mainland, overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, it’s just a couple of hours drive from Bangkok and is well-known as the home of the King’s summer residence. The fact that a handful of high-end resorts like Chiva Som and Aleenta attract a clientele ranging from Kate Moss to the Beckhams doesn’t hurt Hua Hin’s image either.

Having visited a few years ago, as a couple, and having fond memories of the then low-key beachside town, Rowena Carr-Allinson and husband decided to return with toddler in tow to check its family-friendly credentials and see if it had retained its charm…

to the beach and beyond…

It’s clear that the biggest draw to Hua Hin for families is the beach. Walk-able from the town centre, most access the sand via the tiny lanes off the main Petchakasem Road or near the rickety wooden fishing piers past the landmark Hilton hotel. There’s no doubt Hua Hin’s wide beach is a good bet for those in search of R’n’R, but there’s entertainment too, like renting a jet-ski or speeding around on an inflatable banana, as well as plenty of kite-surfing schools.

Head a bit further away from town and have the beach to yourself: it stretches on forever. Just seven kilometres to the south is Khao Takiab beach, also known as Chopstick Hill and Monkey Mountain, the latter nickname due to the cheeky macaques that inhabit the hill. To get there, hop in a ‘tuk tuk’ or a ‘songthaew’ bus. These pick-up-truck type buses are cheap as chips and great for getting around, once you’ve cracked the routes. And after you’ve become immune to the no-baby-seat policies (quite fast), it’s fun for the smaller travellers too. Those with older kids who want to discover underwater wildlife should head to the tiny secluded islands of Koh Singto (Lion Island) and Koh Tao (Turtle Island) a few hundred meters away from the shore. They are both perfect for snorkelling.

To the north of Hua Hin, our favourite find was Cha Am’s beach. A good choice, for kids and adults alike, it’s quieter and lined with kilometres of parasols huddled under the pine trees, offering much needed shade. Popular with young locals and families, one can use sunbeds or deckchairs for the cost of a coke. Grab some food from the myriad of vendors ambling around with trays of fresh prawns, crab or curries, or just order a drink that will come, with a straw, in its own ‘ice-bucket’ (literally).

When the novelty of the beach wears off, those with intrepid offspring can book day trips such as a cruise to the Sam Roi Yod National Park to meet more monkeys. But, if you’re serious about conservation, a day trip to the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT - Wildlife Rescue Centre is the real deal.

Not a zoo by any means, but rather a serious operation run by dedicated volunteers, and the WFFT’s founder, Edwin Wiek, who set up the rescue centre to help elephants, bears and other beasties in dire straits. Most of the animals here come from homes where they were pets or from the tourist industry used as photo props or performers. Although our two-year-old didn’t catch all the subtleties, we did, and older children would be fascinated to hear these animals’ tales and to find out how to care for them. Booking a full day experience includes a tour ‘meeting’ 350 odd creatures, from elephants to bears, gibbons, parrots and even a lone otter, lunch with staff and long-term volunteers as well as an elephant walk and bathing session.

Also well worth a visit are the Hua Hin Vineyards where the local (rather nice!) white wine comes from. The vineyard’s rolling hills are beautiful and serene. To keep the kids happy, you can visit the vineyards by jeep, or on elephant back.

At the weekends, the town’s Cicada market is very festive, with twinkling lamps strung overhead, a huge food space with white chairs and tables and everything from art galleries to original arts and crafts for sale in a really friendly atmosphere. The Thai ‘lady-boy’ cabaret act (we caught the rehearsal) was also a hit with the toddler, as he seemed to be with them. Fun and entertainment can come from the most surprising places.

Even odder, but also a hit, was the Venezia shopping mall: a bizarre replica of Venice complete with canal and gondolas. The shopping wasn’t the attraction, nor, in the blistering heat, was the dire petting zoo, but the kids’ fun zone with its rides and soft play area went down well, as did the small train we rode around the complex, while listening to a little Jessie J. Surreal. Even better were the ride-on animals: large cuddly lions, pandas and elephants, each a fabulous cross between soft toy and motorised scooter. Kids, large and small were all smiles. Our best – and possibly weirdest – find, no doubt.

street food at the night market

fresh food & street stalls

Stalls offering great, affordable Thai food on every street corner meant our two-year-old son soon became a fan of stir fried rice, sweet corn-in-a-cup and deep-fried squid, amongst other delights. Although the idea of eating street food might be daunting we never once had a problem, quite convinced by the freshness of the ingredients. To alleviate any lingering fears and learn more about the goodies on sale, we also took a fantastic tour of the Cha Am market with one of the Anantara Hotel’s chefs. Part of a half-day cooking lesson, whilst the youngest member of the family hung out at the kids’ club, we wandered through the aisles taking in the exotic fragrances. The tour was fascinating, definitely educational and filled with surprises, from the mysterious root vegetables to the mounds of spice, the pink ‘aged’ eggs (not recommended), live blue crabs and the dried fish strip snacks, not to mention the ultra sweet coffee made with concentrated milk. A little more clued up about our menus, we made our very own Tom Kha Gai, Satay Gai and Pad Thai – while junior enjoyed a plate of egg fried noodles.

For more tempting aromas and street-style food, Hua Hin’s night market is a must. Our early evening visits were set around our toddler-friendly routine: a quick meal in one of the many restaurants, followed by a stroll through the stalls admiring the many souvenirs for sale – from the tackiest tuk-tuks to hand stitched purses, DVD copies and fake branded T-shirts.

sleep soundly

Right in town, in a brand new boutique setting, the Amari Hotel smartly combines family friendly with hip décor, making it a great choice. The rooms are beautiful, and thoughtfully laid out, including baby baths, and welcome packs with cookie vouchers. The resort also has a handful of restaurants, including the much more kid-friendly than it sounds Reef Deli & Wine Lounge that comes with teeny tiny cutlery and high chairs. There’s also the romantic Shoreline Beach Club beachside grill, ideal for when you’ve booked a sitter. Set by the sea, it’s surprisingly affordable for a hotel restaurant, and serves up delectable tiger prawns, fantastic potato salad and rather funky ‘DIY’ Margheritas. The hotel’s kids club is also a gem, with a good helping of toys, computers and staff on hand to entertain the over threes in beautiful surroundings. The beach and pool are all you’d expect and more too…

Prefer a little more traditional Thai style? The Anantara, just out of town, is a beautiful resort with pagodas aplenty in typical dark woods, zen fishponds, oodles of exotic blooms and a great family-friendly pool and a talking parrot… •

6 top Thailand travel tips

1. Travel: It’s a long trip: pack plenty of in-flight entertainment: stickers, snacks and yes, the ipad too...

2. Activities: Plan, plan, plan and don’t leave anything up to chance.

3. Beach: Check the seasons to avoid choppy waters, eroded beaches and jellyfish

4. Budget: Include kids activities and babysitting fees for some ‘me’ time.

5. Packing: Take less than you think you need, you will bring more back!

6. Hotel: Pick yours then check others nearby that offer day passes.

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