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By Thailand’s Narrow Waist
Thailand's lower-central provinces of Phetburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan collectively form the narrow neck of land that connects Bangkok and the central plains with the peninsular south. At its narrowest point – just south of Prachuap Khiri Khan – the slender strip of Thai territory is a mere twelve kilometres wide, the distance from the Gulf of Siam to Dan Singkhon on the nearby Burmese border.
Because of its very narrowness, the Prachuap corridor has acquired an economic and strategic significance which tends to overshadow other aspects of the region. Through this coastal strip run all north-south communications between Bangkok, Had Yai, Malaysia and Singapore – for there are no comparable links in neighbouring Burma. Consequently, Prachuap Khiri Khan has become more a transit point than a destination. A hurried meal in a roadside restaurant or the flash of a railway signboard is all that most people ever see. This is a pity, for Prachuap, like its better known neighbours Hua Hin and Cha-am, is well worth a visit.
Three centuries ago, when the southern Burmese port of Mergui was part of Siam, Prachuap enjoyed great importance as the eastern terminus of the trans-peninsular trade route. Valuable silks, perfumed woods and rare porcelain filled its markets, as fortunes were made and lost in the trade between Ayutthaya and India. Today's reality is more prosaic – the mainstays of Prachuap's economy are fishing and pineapple farming, though tourism is gaining in importance, and offers a promising source of increased prosperity.
Prachuap may owe its position as provincial capital to its former importance, but this status is misleading. Sprawled by the warm waters of the Gulf, the town is pleasingly relaxed and relaxing, set well back from the busy north-south highway of Route 4. The northern end of town is dominated by Khao Chong Krajok, or "Mirror Tunnel Mountain", a limestone outcrop named after a hole through the side of the mountain which appears to reflect the sky. This is a good place to start any tour of Prachuap; a fine view of the eight kilometre stretch of Ao Prachuap, or "Prachuap Bay" may be had from the summit, and it is possible to enter the tunnel by a long metal ladder.
Ao Prachuap is spectacular, but does not offer a first class beach for swimming. Just around the southern headland, however – within easy striking distance of the town – lies a scenic stretch of pristine, white-sand beach by the waters of Ao Manao, or "Lime Bay". From here it is possible to swim out, or take a small boat, to several nearby deserted islands. Until 1990 this fine swimming area was closed to the public because of the proximity of a Thai air-force base; nowadays, however, Had Manao is open to visitors by day, adding greatly to the appeal of Prachuap as a seaside resort. There are several small restaurants serving tasty seafood along the beach, as well as fresh-water shower facilities.
If Prachuap Khiri Khan is known for one thing, it is the variety and quality of its seafood. Fishing remains the mainstay of the local economy, and because the resort is still relatively ‘untouristed', the prices are appreciably lower than those in Phuket and Pattaya, or even in neighbouring Hua Hin. At the top end of the market, Pan Pochana on Sarachip Road comes highly recommended, as does Sai Thong on Chai Taleh Road. There are many more seafood restaurants all over Prachuap, but perhaps the best deal to be had is at the night market in the very centre of town. Aficionados of Prachuap's seafood scene are especially enthusiastic about the haw mok hoy, or steamed fish curry in mussel shells, but just about everything is good and astoundingly fresh.
Prachuap does not yet boast any five star luxury accommodation, but the Had Thong, close by the bay in the centre of town, offers clean air-conditioned rooms with good sea views and a swimming pool at reasonable rates; alternatively, Prachuap municipality maintains simple, well-maintained accommodation at Thesaban Bungalows in the lee of Mirror Mountain.
Just over eighty kilometres north of Prachuap, past Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, lie the twin seaside resorts of Hua Hin and Cha-am. Much better known than Prachuap, they are also closer to Bangkok, and therefore more accessible to weekend visitors. Of the two the more southerly, Hua Hin, is also the more aristocratic. In 1868 King Mongkut began a tradition of royal association with the resort – at the time a tiny fishing village – when he travelled there to observe a total eclipse of the sun. In 1910 Prince Chula Chakrabongse, a brother of King Rama VI, visited Hua Hin on a hunting trip, and was so delighted with the location that he built a holiday villa there. In the early 1920s he was followed by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) himself, who ordered the construction of a teakwood palace called "Deer Park". Finally, in the late 1920s, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) set the final royal seal of approval on the place, when he built a palace called Klai Kangwon, or "Far from Worries", where he could escape from the travails of life in the capital.
In addition to the royal connection, Hua Hin was moulded by the arrival of the southern railway line in 1922. Prince Purachatra, then Director General of Siamese State Railways, ordered the construction of the splendid Hua Hin Railway Hotel, an elegant colonial-style structure with high ceilings, slowly-moving fans and sweeping teak stairways. Today this establishment, rejoicing in the less-than-alluring name of Hotel Sofitel Central Hua Hin, retains a place amongst the best hotels in town. Although leased to Sofitel/Central, ownership remains with the State Railways of Thailand; perhaps one day, in the interests of historical authenticity and tourist appeal, the name will revert to its original form. In the meantime, those who visit Hua Hin and stay in this fine old building may find themselves experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Not to worry, an explanation is easy to find – the Hua Hin Railway Hotel was used as a substitute for Phnom Penh's Hotel Le Phnom in the film The Killing Fields.
As if these connections were not enough to earn Hua Hin the title "Thailand's most aristocratic resort", the town is also home to the Royal Hua Hin Golf Course, the oldest in the kingdom. Established in 1924, it has since been followed by a number of top quality imitators, making Hua Hin and nearby Cha-am a major golfing destination.
Like Prachuap, Hua Hin is renowned for its seafood – the prices, though a bit steeper, still beat those at upmarket establishments in the capital and at Pattaya. So many restaurants exist that – with the exception of Saeng Thai, the oldest seafood establishment in town – it would be invidious to try and name individual establishments. Instead, the visitor should explore three areas of town before making a decision. The most reasonably priced seafood may be had at Chomsin Road and at the nearby Chatchai Night Market. More upmarket, medium-priced restaurants may be found along Damnoen Kasem Road in the vicinity of Phunsuk and Naretdamri Roads. Finally, next to Tha Thiap Reua Pramong, the main fishing pier, there are a number of more expensive restaurants including Saeng Thai. If possible, stay at least three days and try them all!
For daytime leisure activities, Hua Hin's main beach offers clean sand, thatched umbrellas and reclining chairs beside a stretch of pure water which invites swimming. A range of tasty snacks and refreshing drinks can be ordered and brought to your table, whilst there are pony rides for the children. Although the town is expanding fast, and there is a construction boom to the south of the bay, the waters remain relatively free of speeding water scooters, and the atmosphere is generally far more sophisticated than that of Pattaya across the bay. Besides the Sofitel Central, top class establishments in Hua Hin include the City Beach, Royal Garden Resort, and Golf Inn Hotels, as well as the new high-rise Meliá Hua Hin. More reasonably-priced accommodation may be found in abundance, whilst there are literally dozens of guest houses, especially along Naretdamri Road.
Finally, just twenty five kilometres to the north, across the frontier in Phetburi Province, lies Hua Hin's sister resort of Cha-am. Renowned for its long, casuarina-lined beach, water-sports facilities and – yet again – quality seafood, Cha-am is a favourite with weekenders, and especially young people, from Bangkok. Less interesting as a town than either Prachuap or Hua Hin, a visit to Maruekkathayawan Palace, designed by an Italian architect for King Rama VI in 1924, is nevertheless in order. The palace is made of teak, and is currently under renovation. When completed, this work should add considerably to the cultural appeal of Cha-am. Inland from the beach, at Wat Nerachararama, is an unusual six-armed Buddha statue, the six hands covering the body in a symbolic denial of the senses.
Top-of-the-range accommodation at Cha-am includes the Cha-am Methavalai Hotel, the Regent Cha-am Beach Resort, and – by the beach north of town – the swanky Dusit resort and Polo Club. As with Hua Hin, more reasonable accommodation is widely available, though it is advisable to book at weekends, when the resort is sometimes filled to capacity with visitors from Bangkok.
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media