Long before Phuket and Ko Samui were catapulted into stardom, Hua Hin (“Head Rock”) catered to the Thai upper crust. Following the example of King Rama VI, wealthy Thai families vacationed on this long, clean stretch of sand as local fishermen dried their squid hauls. Today, Europeans have joined in, and high-rise resorts tower above the waterfront. With neither a backpacker party scene nor an overwhelming sleaze factor, Hua Hin fits its niche as a “family friendly” resort town. The fishing village is gone, but a few traces of the regal turn-of-the-century get away remain amidst overpriced beachside pony rides and predator tailor shops.
Hua Hin is small, walkable, and generally straightforward, thanks to Petchkasem Highway and the train tracks that run north-south through town. Damnernkasem Road leads from the train station to the beach and forms the extends far beyond. To the north and running parallel to each other are Dechanchit Road and Chomsin Road, which lead from the beach to Petchkasem Hwy. Most hotels, restaurants, and bars cluster around Naresdamri Road, which branches off Damnernkasem Rd. close to the beach, passes by the Hilton, and then runs along the water up to the fishing pier.
Hua Hin’s major attraction is the Hua Hin Beach, which rolls along for kilometers in either direction from town. While more scenic beaches can be found farther south, Hua Hin’s is clean with soft white sand. The fishing pier, at the base of Chomsin Rd. dominates one area; the prettier part of the beach begins just south of the entrance to the Sofitel Hotel. Farther south, vendors wander the sand offering massages, food, and pony rides.
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While Hua Hin offers some of the region’s best seafood, the local catch is becoming harder to find amidst an explosion of Spanish, French, Italian, German, Austrian, Irish, and Mexican cuisine. The seafood restaurants on Naresdamri Rd., between the pier and Dechanuchit Rd., are all excellent, if not so budget friendly. Chatchai Market, between Srasong Rd. and Phetkasem Hwy., is the best place to sample a wide range of local foods including live seafood, pig’s heads, and a staggering array of colorful produce. It’s particularly lively in the morning, when Chinese doughnuts and sliced fruit make an excellent breakfast.
Though internationally distinct, Thai food is actually a collection of influences and spices from Asia, India, South America, and Europe. The Chinese brought the technique of frying to Southeast Asia, and many Thai dishes originated in India.
Traditional Thai food varies from region to region. Although it is a sea-based cuisine, with many of its ingredients (fish, vegetables, and herbs) taken directly from river regions and oceans, Thailand’s staple food, just like its Asian neighbors, is rice. “To eat” in Thai is literally “eat rice,” or kin khao. Even this staple has variations. Those in Central Thailand usually eat plain rice, whereas the Northern Thai specialty is sticky rice, or khao niaw, a glutinous grain, which is eaten with everything. A traditional Thai meal is composed of a harmony of spices, tastes, and textures. It always includes a fish plate, a vegetable dish, a curry with condiments, and soup.
By the time they leave the country, backpackers will inevitably have eaten their weight in pad thai, claimed to be Thailand’s national dish. Pan-fried noodles, garlic, bean sprouts, ground peanuts, eggs, dried red chili, and shallots are the defining ingredients in this common dish. Fried and veggie-stuffed spring rolls, or po pia thot, are similarly ubiquitous. Green curry, made of lemongrass, coriander root, garlic, green chilies, and galanga, is mixed with meat or fish for another standard meal. Those new to Thai food often become obsessed with som tam, a shredded salad from northeastern Thailand, which contains shredded raw papaya, diced long beans, dried shrimp, and toasted peanuts, combined with palm sugar, lemon juice, fish sauce, and hot chilies.
Not to be outdone by the wildlife and scenery, Thailand’s fruit is colorful, exotic, and occasionally dangerous. The durian (thurian) is a green, spiky fruit from an enormous tree, and has an extremely potent smell. Its custard-like consistency and high protein, mineral, and fat content makes for excellent milk shakes and ice cream. The custard apple’s (noina) bumpy, light-green skin makes it look like a hand grenade, and the grainy and the aroma of the creamy is similar to that of the guava. Guavas (farang) have a grainy white or pink flesh. The bumpy green jackfruit originated in India but is a common sight at the Thai marketplace. It is the largest edible tree-grown fruit in the world, growing up to 3 ft. in length and weighing up to 80 lbs. A close relative of the jackfruit is the breadfruit, which has an identity complex. A fruit when ripe, vegetable when mature, it usually just tastes like a potato. The most popular fruit in China, the lychee (lin jii) has been cultivated for over a millennium. Until 1950, it was only available as a nut, with dried fruit inside the shell; now, the juicy, delicate fruit can be eaten by biting through the squash-ball-sized shell. Beware: its seed is toxic. The longan (lamyai), is Thailand’s biggest fruit export, and has a brownish, pebbled rind. Another close relative is the Rambutan (ngo), with fiery red sea-urchin skin. Mangosteens’ (mang khut) dark red rinds protect sweet, pearl-white segments. The skin of the sapodilla (lamut) resembles a bald kiwifruit; inside, its brownish flesh is as sweet as molasses.
All these fruits are easily found in fruit shops, supermarkets, and marketplaces. Try them with chili pepper and salt. PlacePass recommends that travelers only eat fruit that they have peeled themselves, as pre-peeled fruit served by street vendors could have been exposed to harmful bacteria. Similarly, eating fruit that has been washed with tap water is discouraged.
One of the most familiar Thai ingredients, chili (prick), was actually not incorporated into Thai cuisine until Portuguese missionaries brought it over from South America in the 17th century. The Thais have been using it—and its 40 different varieties—ever since, in massive quantities. Lemongrass, with its thick white roots, is the integral ingredient in most curries, and is native to Thailand. Thais also use curry relatives galanga and ginger for flavoring, as well as basil, shallots, cilantro, dill, mint, cardamom, cumin, and turmeric. In addition to their culinary uses, all of these herbs have therapeutic applications, yielding gastronomic, respiratory, cardiac, antimicrobial, and diuretic benefits.
Most meals are served with drinking water, but Thais will often purchase purified bottled water as tap water in places like Bangkok is generally unsafe to drink. When asking for ice, make sure it is made with purified drinking water. Thai coffee (kaafae thom or kaafae thung), both Indian and Chinese teas, and iced lime juice with sugar (naam manao) are quite popular in Thailand. Thais drink most fruit juices with a little salt mixed in, so specify mai sai kleu (“without salt”) if this sounds unappealing. And don’t be surprised if your iced drink is handed to you in a plastic bag; unlike spill-prone plastic cups, the bag is perfect for that motorbike ride through the crowded Thai streets. Thai beer and rice whiskey are also widely consumed. Singha beer, whose original, bitter recipe was developed in 1934 by nobleman Phya Bhirom Bhakdi, is by far the most common. For the very brave, there is “white liquor” (lao khao), which is made from sticky rice and contains 35% alcohol. Liquors made from herbs, spices, roots, seeds, and fruits can be found throughout the country, often homemade, but be wary: some illegal concoctions have close to 95% alcohol.
Even this family resort town has its red light district, which spills out from Soi Bintaban. Farang who aren’t seeking prostitutes tend to haunt several popular bars on Naresdamri Rd. in the immediate vicinity of the Hilton. The most noteworthy is the Hua Hin Brewery, attached to the Hilton, where a wrecked ship juts out of the wall. The quality of the nightly live entertainment is such that it can be difficult to distinguish karaoke from scheduled performers. Nonetheless, it’s often the liveliest place in town. The other perennial option is to watch Commonwealth sports on a large television screen at one of several highly similar bars that tend to draw a small, British expat crowd.
Thai architecture encompasses a broad range of influences (including Burmese, Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan, and Khmer) and forms (including royal palaces, wooden houses, and its most common manifestation, religious structures). By the 20th century, increased contact with Europeans led to the steady decline of traditional Thai architecture. Western styles and materials like concrete were adopted, making Thailand’s modern architecture remarkably similar to that of modern Western cities. Some intrepid Thai architects do still study historical styles, utilizing modern materials for construction in traditional forms.
Buddhist wats are the finest examples of traditional Thai architecture. A compound with separate buildings, each with its own distinct purpose, the wat has a variety of social functions, including monastery, school, and gathering place for the community. The bot, or main chapel, which often faces east, is a tall, oblong building with a three-level, steeply sloped roof that houses the principal Buddha image and serves as the site of most ceremonies. Similar to the bot but often larger, the wihaan is more sparsely adorned and functions primarily as a worship hall, utilized for meetings, meditation, and sermons. The sala is an open, gazebo-like structure for meditation and preaching. Above some monastic compounds looms a tapered spire-like tower, called a chedi. Derived from the Indian stupa, the chedi serves as a reliquary for the possessions and cremated remains of high priests, members of royalty, and the Buddha. Another tower found in Thai architecture is the prang, which is more phallic than the bell shaped chedi.
Most are constructed of carved sandstone, later replaced by brick, and their various pieces held together by vegetable glue. In the heavily-forested north, however, wood is the major building material. While the most spectacular example of classical Thai religious architecture is Bangkok’s intricate and detailed Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Benchamabophit, built in 1899 in Bangkok’s Dusit district, is widely considered to be the most impressive example of modern Thai Buddhist architecture.
The earliest Thai dramatic forms are believed to be nang yai (shadow plays) and hun puppets, both performed at Ayutthaya. Nang yai and its smaller and more elaborate counterpart, nang talung, depict scenes from popular dramas using puppets made from the hides of water buffalo which are held against back-lit screens. The puppet masters often ad-lib their performances through songs and jokes.
The three main types of dramatic media in Thai culture are khon, lakhon. Khon, or masked dance drama, is based on Indian temple dances and rituals, and its stories come exclusively from the Indian epic, the Ramayana, known in Thai as the Ramakien, which recounts the adventures of the hero, Phra Ram, on his quest to recover his consort, Nang Sida, who was abducted by the wicked King Thotsakand of Longa. Over the centuries, this Indian tale has been adapted to Thai culture, with certain portions expanded and others reduced or dropped completely. Khon dramas were performed only by men until the mid-19th century, but are now performed by women as well. As in Greek drama, verses are recited by a chorus that sits next to a small band known as a piphat. Khon is performed with a great deal of stylized action, and the movements are suggested by motifs in the music. The only remaining venue for this art form is Bangkok’s National Theater, which holds performances several times a year.
The lakhon form of drama is less structured and stylized than khon. Masks are not used except in the case of animals or demons. Lakhon is also derived from the Ramakien but, unlike khon, also adds stories from Thai folk tales and Buddhist Jatakas. Lakhon chatri is a simple play performed at shrines for the benefit of gods. Lakhon nai, traditionally put on by an all-female cast, dramatizes romantic stories through graceful movements. Lakhon nok, once performed only by men, is characterized by a bawdy sense of humor and fast-paced music and movements.
In contrast to khon and lakhon, the likay style is comical and occasionally lewd. Likay is defined by loud, sharp music, improvisation, pantomime, lyrics sprinkled with sexual innuendos, and social satire. Often performed at festivals, the plots combine local references and political commentary.
Traditional Thai painting was restricted to religious subjects and confined to temples, palace interiors, and manuscript illustrations. Rather than being stand-alone artistic statements, classical Thai mural paintings were meant to complement and enhance the beauty of their surroundings as well as inspire faith and meditation in their beholders. Subjects were often taken from the Jataka stories or scenes from the Buddha’s life. Landscapes were usually flat backgrounds for detailed action, and the size and position of various figures were based on their social importance, as opposed to the Western idea of artistic perspective. The original palette of five colors—red, yellow, blue, white, and black—was first supplemented by Chinese pigments during the Bangkok period and then by chemical pigments from the West in the 1800s. Most of the traditional Thai mural paintings that are still in good condition today are from the Ayutthaya, Thonburi, and Bangkok periods. Recently, a greater number of Thai artists are being trained in the Western style, and their works have blends the two traditions.
Ancient Thai sculpture focused largely on the production of Buddha images, emphasizing the spirituality of the image rather than anatomical details. Rigid artistic rules ensured that a relatively uniform tradition passed from generation to generation. The giant seated Buddha at Wat Sri Chum is an example of the artistic achievement of the Sukhothai period.
Since southern Thailand lies along maritime trading routes, it developed unique styles of sculpture influenced by Indian and Khmer culture. Khmer artistic traditions, however, have exerted the greatest influence over the sculpture of the northeast. In Thailand, Khmer art is referred to as the Lopburi style, which consists of stone and bronze sculptures, mainly of Hindu gods, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Buddhist deities. Images of the Buddha often portrayed him seated on a coil of the famous seven-headed mythical serpent Muchalinda. Also significant are the distinctive Khmer lintels of northeastern temples featuring detailed carvings from Hindu stories.
Even before it became a cottage industry, weaving was an important part of rural life. A woman spent a great deal of time and energy handweaving the material for her wedding dress. Similarly, for the most important day in a man’s life, entrance to the monkhood, his mother prepared his saffron robes. The female head of the household also hand wove all of the shrouds to be used at the funerals of each family member. For centuries, village women in the northeast bred silkworms and worked at hand looms to produce bolts of traditional Thai silk. Cheaper fabrics imported from China and Japan however, severely weakened the industry in the second half of the 19th century. Revived by famous American expatriate Jim Thompson after World War II, the silk industry thrived off its distinctly Thai character in the international market. Today, the company founded by Thompson at Pak Thong Chai is still the largest hand-weaving facility in the world. Each region has its own special style and technique, and the most famous Thai silk is woven in the northeast. The mud-mee style of silk weaving, characterized by geometric and zoomorphic designs, is particularly popular.
The most enduring work of Thai literature is the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian epic, the Ramayana. Early versions of this lengthy document were lost when Ayutthaya was sacked in 1767. Of the three surviving versions, the most famous was written in 1798 by King Rama I. This version, written in conjunction with several courtiers who were close to the king, incorporates uniquely Thai and Buddhist and portrays the rites, traditions, and customs of the Ayutthaya state. Given early Thai literature’s focus on religion, poet Sunthon Phu (1786-1855) revolutionized the tradition with his portrayal of the emotions and adventures of common people in a common language that all classes could understand. His 30,000-line Phra Aphai Mani is arguably Thailand’s most famous literary work; it tells the story of the physical and emotional journey an exiled prince must complete before he can return victorious to his kingdom.
Modern Thai literature, shaped both by foreign influences and changing perceptions of the individual’s place in society, has increasingly sought to address personal and social problems. Former Prime Minister M.R. Kukrit Pramoj wrote prolifically. Among his most notable works are Si Phandin, describing court life between the reigns of King Rama V and Rama VII, and Phai Daeng, about the conflict between Communism and Buddhism. Seni Saowaphong, or Sakdichai Bamrungphong, often writes about class exploitation and the widening gulf between the rural and the urban. Similarly, the protagonist of the late Suwanee Sukhontha’s most famous novel, Khao Chu Kan, is a young doctor with a promising career lined up in a big city who leaves to work in a rural area where the peasants have little access to modern medicine. Krisna Asokesin also covers more personal topics, writing extensively about issues such as love and family life. All of the aforementioned authors have been awarded National Artist status in Thailand or Southeast Asian literary awards, which speaks to both the accessibility of their styles and the popularity of their subjects.
Thailand’s musical tradition combines elements of the Indian, Chinese, and Khmer traditions and boasts more than 50 kinds of musical instruments. During the Sukhothai period, Thais developed unique instruments with onomatopoetic names such as the ranaat ek (a bamboo xylophone), the phin (a small guitar), and the pii (a woodwind instrument like the clarinet). In the Ayutthaya period, music was an official part of court life as territorial expansion added musical instruments and styles from neighboring regions such as Myanmar, Malaysia, and Java. During this period, rules defining musical forms were introduced. Songs were composed in a form called phleng raung, a suite of melodies. Today, three orchestral types of music are appropriate to different occasions order Thai musical form: piphat is used at ceremonies and in the theater; kruang sai is used in performance at village festivals; and mahori often accompanies vocalists.
Thai music emphasizes variation in pitch and rhythm, with individual changes in tempo creating a dense layering effect. Also, instead of a five-note scale like that used in many other Asian countries, Thai music works on a seven-note scale. The music composed in this unique system has been passed down orally, but today, many fear that the institutional memory of traditional Thai music is fading. Many modern Thai musicians are therefore working to invent a system by which traditional Thai music can be translated into Western musical notation and thus recorded for future generations.
Contemporary Thai music takes many forms. Regional folk music, studied less frequently than classical music, is still common; one of the most popular styles is luk thung (country music), which, much like American country music, tells tales of woe in daily rural life. Luk thung has recently developed upbeat electronic versions. In the 1960s, Thai pop collided with folk to create the genre of protest songs, called plaeng peua chiwit, or “songs for life,” which focused primarily on criticizing the US military presence in Thailand. The Thai student band Caravan filled the musical vacuum of the 70s with pro-democracy songs that fused Western and Thai styles. Caravan inspired other bands to take up causes. The famous rock band in modern Thailand, Carabao, also sings about social issues, such as the AIDS crisis.
In the late 1980s, there was a movement to promote ethnic Thai pop music. Today, Thailand unusually is a music market where international labels play a minor role. Instead it is Thailand’s local giants like Grammy Entertainment that package attractive bubblegum pop and rock dara (stars) for mass consumption. One of the most successful contemporary Thai artists is Tata Young, a Britney Spears-esque, half-American pop singer.
While cinemas are common in large cities, about 2000 mobile film units travel from village to village in rural areas of Thailand, offering open-air screenings for large numbers of people. Most of the movies shown are either of the Chinese kung-fu or Hollywood variety. Thai films—traditionally low-budget productions packing a sensationalist punch—are less popular, though 2001 seems to have been a turning point for the industry, with Thai movies beginning to gain recognition on the international film circuit. Tropical Malady, by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, won the 2004 Jury Prize at Cannes. Co-directed by the Pang brothers from Hong Kong, Bangkok Dangerous is a dramatic thriller set to a frenetic techno beat—a change for Thai audiences, who usually favor upbeat comedies. Many film critics have enthusiastically noted the release of director Nonzee Nimibutr’s third film, Jan Dara (2001, Buddy Films), as possibly indicating a new stage of maturity for the Thai film industry. Based on a novel by journalist Pramoon Un-hathoop (who writes under the pen name of Utsana Pkleungtham), the movie only passed Thailand’s film censorship board after repeated screenings. Jan Dara ran into trouble with this official body because of the prevalence of sexual themes throughout: the protagonist is caught in a web of Oedipal lusts and primal urges. Prince Chatreechalerm Yukol’s 2001 film, Suriyothai, details the life of a young princess as a 16th-century battle for the throne of Thailand rages above her head. It also marked a transition for the Thai film industry to big budget, superstar-filled blockbusters.
Thailand has long inspired Hollywood stories (including the Thai-banned 1956 musical The King and I) and movie shoots (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, for example). The Thai government has begun to actively promote the shooting of foreign films in Thailand because of its economic benefits; however, all scripts have to be approved. Numerous Western productions are expected to film in Thailand annually. The potential environmental damage from the shooting of large commercial films and Western television shows (such as 2002’s Survivor) is becoming a concern to both the government and local NGOs. Indeed, an uproar arose after Danny Boyle’s 2000 film The Beach was shot on location on Ko Phi Phi Don, a small island accessible from Phuket. The island, once largely unnoticed, filled up with garbage, guesthouses, and tourists so quickly that the government considered closing it down for a year. So far, development has reigned unchecked on the island, which is part of a national park system. A slew of backpacker-friendly businesses and services have cropped up all over the island, irreversibly transforming its once-unspoiled landscape.
Muay Thai is a martial art that was originally used as a way to keep Thai soldiers battle-ready during the 15th and 16th centuries. The first boxer to win historic recognition was Nai Khanom Tom. Captured by the Burmese, he won his freedom after dispatching 10 Burmese soldiers one by one in a boxing challenge. Muay Thai reached the peak of its popularity in the first decade of the 18th century during the reign of Phra Chau Sua, who promoted it as a national sport. Due to an alarming number of injuries and deaths, though, Muay Thai was banned in the 1920s. It was reinstated in 1937, after undergoing a series of regulations that shaped the sport to its present form. Today these fights, full of ritual, music, and blood, are put on display throughout Thailand. Every blow imaginable, with the exception of head-butting, is legal. Fighters exchange blows for five three-minute rounds; the winner either knocks out his victim or takes the bout by points (most bouts are decided in the latter manner). Fights are packed with screaming fans, most of whom have money riding on the outcome. While many provinces have venues, most of the best fighting occurs in Bangkok’s Ratchadamnoen and Lumphini Boxing Stadiums.
Every year during the hot season, a strong wind lifts handmade kites high over Bangkok. Kite-fighting, which has been popular for over 700 years, is enjoyed by kings and schoolboys alike. In a more gruesome fight, crowds watch and bet on Siamese fighting fish. When let loose in a tank, these fish battle to the death in a flurry of fins and scales. The fish are so aggressive that they will often kill themselves trying to attack fish in nearby tanks. The fighting fish have been raised in Thailand since the Sukhothai period and breeders are constantly developing new varieties. Their international popularity is a great source of pride. Thais also embrace karaoke, beauty pageants (for every shape and size), comedy clubs, and, especially in the countryside, cockfighting.
To show respect, put your palms together at chest level, pointing your fingers away from you, and gently bow your head: this is the Thai traditional greeting, called a wai. More than just a way to say (hello) sawadee, however, the wai is a gesture of respect. The degree to which you should bend your waist while performing a wai is determined by your social status relative to the person you are greeting. Older people receive lower, and thus more respectful wais. Younger people or those of inferior social standing wai first. You should never perform a wai to a child; you will only embarrass yourself and make everyone around you uncomfortable. That said, the use of the wai by foreigners is generally appreciated by Thais and seen more as respectful than inappropriate. The wai is also directed towards inanimate objects, like spirit houses, because they are believed to bring prosperity, good luck, and protection to one’s family.
According to an ancient Hindu belief (now incorporated into Buddhism), the head is the most sacred part of the body, inhabited by the kwan, or the spiritual force of life. However tempting it may be in the event of a height difference, a pat on the head in Thailand is neither playful nor cute—it’s simply disrespectful. Conversely, the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Don’t point your feet—or cross your legs—toward an image of the Buddha or toward another person, especially if he or she is older. Shoes, which are considered to be even more unclean than feet, are unwelcome in temples and most private homes. Also considered “dirty” is the left hand, used only to clean oneself after bodily functions—so don’t eat with your left hand!
While Buddha images are available for sale in countless tourist shops, in the past there have been restrictions on taking them out of the country. In general, treat the image of the Buddha respectively: never take photographs with one, and keep the Buddha on a high shelf (definitely above foot level). And be warned: as respectful as Thais are of different cultures, Thailand does imprison foreigners for actions considered sacrilegious.
Women should never touch a monk or give him anything directly, as this will violate an important part of his vows. The way one dresses is also important: clothing should be modest, and men and women should wear long sleeves and pants or skirts when visiting a wat (Buddhist temple). Public displays of affection between lovers are frowned upon. Affectionate same-sex caresses or hugs are commonplace and rarely have sexual overtones.
Remember your national anthem? Thais certainly remember theirs. Visitors to Thailand are struck by how citizens respond so patriotically to their national anthem and the national flag. Whether they’re in the bus station, on the street, or in the market, Thai people stop what they’re doing when they hear the anthem. And they hear it often. In some smaller cities, traffic comes to a screeching halt. Thailand’s flag is raised each morning at 8am and lowered each evening at 6pm to the accompaniment of the national anthem. If you don’t stand still, old ladies will stare with disapproval, children will laugh and point, and you will never feel more like a farang. Respect Thailand’s national custom—be still and stand up anytime the anthem is played.
Thailand is known for its food, and much of Thai life revolves around eating. Customarily, when dining out with a group in Thailand, many dishes are ordered and food is served family-style, as opposed to one dish per person. The oldest or most successful person at the table pays for the meal. Taking a large portion from a communal dish is frowned upon. Most Thai meals are eaten with a spoon in the right hand and a fork in the left, to help guide the food onto the spoon. Chopsticks are only used with noodle dishes.