About ten years were shaved from my life navigating Bangkok's intimidating toll ways as Mercs zapped past our rented Toyota at warped speed. The start of our grand Thelma and Louise style Bangkok to Phuket road trip (sans driving off a cliff) was looking a bit grim. Things got progressively worse (perhaps progress not being the best choice of words) as New Year's traffic slowed us, along with the other five million cars, to a toddler's crawl. Five hours later, veins popping, teeth grinding and lyrics to every eighties pop and rock anthem re-memorised, we arrived, grumpy, in Hua Hin.
It was cold. 19 degrees Celsius to be exact.
Mumbling about writing a scathing letter to TAT for excluding this fact in its brochures, we went off in search of scarves, sweaters and blankets - not an easy feat in a town where temperatures barely ever dropped this low. Our pretty swimsuits remained packed in our suitcases for the duration of the trip.
It wasn't the most auspicious start to the holidays and after pouring ourselves a fortifying gin and tonic on our balcony overlooking the (cold) waves, we decided then and there to stay put and that we weren't moving for the rest of the trip. The thought of getting back onto those congested roads, along with the new-found realisation that we were both navigational Muppets, left us self-grounded. Phuket? Phuck it.
So, what to do in Hua Hin for a full week with no friends, no plans and the overly-anticipated New Year's Eve looming?
Our friend's house we were staying at was in Khao Tao, a good ten or so kilometres from town, so the first order of the day was, of course, to go in search of a local bar. After an exhaustive exploration, we found, 200 metres down the (frigid) beach, a spanking new beachside boutique hotel and restaurant called Blue Sky which was serving up stunning pastas, steaks, seafood and decent by-the-glass plonk. Things were shaping up. We immediately ingratiated ourselves with the enthusiastic owner and his group of friends and, over a few more glasses of red wine (as Baltic winds swept our hair into instant dreadlocks) spent time Googling things to do in a seaside town too cold to swim in.
So, over the next few days we took a few forays in and around town to chomp down on delectably fresh seafood at Chao Lay (ชาวเล) Tham Sai (ถ้ำไทร) and the unappetisingly named Jim Daeng (จิ๋มแดง) restaurants. We were rewarded with shrimps the size of babies' fists, octopuses virtually pulsing on our plates, and a series of bright-eyed fish.
We also discovered some of Hua Hin's finest noodles and local fare at Debo on Soi 37, before spending a delightful evening at Khao Takieb's Cicada Weekend Market, similar to Chiang Mai's famed NAP fair but with more food and music. Thankfully, some enterprising Bangkokians had arrived there with trucks full of scarves and shawls, so we were able to remove from our shoulders the table-cloths, cunningly - if not fashionably - utilised to ward off the cold and replace them with a couple of "100 percent Kashmir" scarves at 180 baht a pop. Bands crooned, iPhones snapped selfies, artists looked contemplative in front of sculptures, crafts and knick-knacks were sold, Bin 2s peddled at 280 baht a glass and the trendy and fabulous of Bangkok strutted their latest winter(ish) wares.
And then it was New Year's Eve and we had absolutely no idea where we were going to go. Thankfully we discovered the marvellous Cool Breeze Spanish restaurant overlooking the rickety wooden houses in old Hua Hin and gorged ourselves on rich-flavoured tapas and a big bold Rioja before heading to the rooftop of the Hilton with its sweeping views of the beach. Insinuating ourselves with a couple from Norway who had booked their panoramic table a deux three months ago, we managed to wrangle an invite to join them and in return we helped them out with their champagne as they celebrated a recent win of 24 million baht in the Norwegian lottery! As bubbles tickled their way down our throats we watched the extraordinary and endless fireworks display - truly fantastic, probably thanks to HM the King being in residence.
As we made our way home through the miasma of pink-lit back soi near the Hilton, tripping over vomiting old men and young ladies teetering on six-inch platforms, we decided to start our 2014 on a classy note with a stop at Burger King.
Day trips were actually the highlight of our time in Hua Hin. We drove down to the Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park, a vast wetland filled with all sorts of bird species as well as cheeky monkeys and other exotic creatures - most of which carried iPads. We took a boat ride which wended its way through mangroves and towering mountains and dipped our prettily painted toes into the sea before squealing like candy-less little girls, feeling satisfied that we had fulfilled our oceanic obligations.
A few afternoons were spent being cultural as we visited the exquisite seaside Mrigadayavan Palace, built by Rama VI with its casual, breezy teak buildings joined together by lovely walkways and surrounded by sculptured British-inspired gardens. Naturally, the highlight of this destination was the massive gilded Buddha sculpture in the car park…emblazoned with my surname! Not entirely sure how that got there, but I proudly took credit for it in spite of my rudely unimpressed friend.
We stopped off at the charming old Railway Station and its adjoining Royal Waiting Room before heading off to visit the sadly insipid and uninspired Art Village (think a slight upgrade on the Night Bazaar's basement art, plus a few interactive features and workshops) before stopping for a coffee at the utterly adorable Plearn Wan, a cutesy community space replicating old world Hua Hin with traditional food stalls, little shops filled with retro goodies and a Kodak moment at every turn.
One of the highlights was our visit to Siam Winery's Hua Hin Hills vineyard, a drive which should have taken 30 minutes but ended up in a 40 kilometre detour (navigational Muppets strike again). We eventually arrived at this stunning vineyard, thirsty and starving. The wine was perfectly quaffable, and there were excellent pairing choices with tapas and more filling dishes. A small bar offering wine tastings beseeched us to enter, but since I was driving, I made an executive decision that neither of us would be drinking.
Now for the absolute highlight. We had been hearing from locals that King-spotting was a regular perk of living in Hua Hin (I wonder if someone has developed an app yet?) and as we walked to our parked car, following our two glasses of paired wines, a group of policemen who had been enjoying the wine bar rushed by like Chicken Little, screaming, "The King is coming, The King is coming!" Naturally, we followed them in convoy and waited along with hundreds of other people - shopkeepers, tourists, school children - for HM to drive pass on his way to visit a dairy farm. Sadly, while we were adjusting our iPads for optimum filming, The King sped past unseen. While I am sure that he must have waved at us, and while we weren't even sure what car he was in, it seemed like a fitting ending to our visit to the royal holiday town of Hua Hin.
Hua Hin can be congested; it is overcrowded with condos; it has far too many snooty Bangkokians for my blood and the sea can be alarmingly cold. But dig a bit deeper, explore a tad further afield and you will find so much to do in this royal seaside town.