The space in between Bangkok and Phuket (or southern Thailand’s many other beach-based options) seem largely bypassed by holidaying tourists, harried by time’s constraints. Fortunately, without the pressure of itinerary, we were able to take the slow road, making a few stops on our way overland.
There’s a real simple pleasure in hop-on/hop-off travel I reckon. By this I don’t mean the buses that promise you 32 sights for one ticket price, although the concept is similar. I mean making your way between two points, jumping off the main trunk line along the way with little little stress, little pressure, little expectation; nothing but time to let drift through sand-covered fingers and languid, sun-drenched days.
With about a week to cover the 700+ Kms between Bangkok and Phuket, we decided to make three stops, at Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan, and Chumphon, spending two nights at each. All were riffs on a similar theme, but each was interesting and unique enough to warrant individual meanders.
Our first stop was Hua Hin, a former fishing village that became popular with Thai elites after the rail arrived and the royal family built vacation homes there in the early 1920s. Within weekending distance from Bangkok, Hua Hin today is v popular with frazzled urban dwellers, but also, creating an interesting mix, northern European retirees (there are Swedish and Danish eateries amongst its varied offerings). We were there early in the week, so there was nary a weekender about; it was pleasingly quiet.
We arrived to quite the scene: the end of a clearly heavy pre-rainy season downpour. It had surface-flooded the streets, making some impassable, and meant we had to manoeuvre around a little. It extended what should have been a short wander, and we must have arrived looking like quite the sight. Especially as we were staying five star.
Yes, there’s no getting around the fact that, as a belated birthday surprise for the much better half, I had booked us in for two nights of early twentieth century glamour at the Centara Grand. The first resort built at Hua Hin, it maintains the finish of its original incarnation, rather immaculately maintained. It’s all dark panelled wood mixed with white trims in colonial era style, set among extensive grounds; the kind of place where you want to spend time sitting in different spots in order to enjoy all the angles.
We didn’t completely neglect the town, though, wandering in for dinner each night and a look around. I often find these overly resorty, touristy places uncomfortably artificial and just a bit too plastic. It might be because the city caters to foreign as well as local visitors; it might be because we were not there on a chaotic weekend. It’s more than likely at least partly because we were really just basking in the warm glow of our luxurious digs, transferring these feelings onto its surrounds. For whatever reason, instead of discomfort, here I was charmed.
As I have come to learn, once you head out of rat-racing Bangkok, the country heats up and the pace slows down. This is charmingly relaxed pace, small town Thailand. Take your shoes off and stroll around a little. We spent two days relaxing, swimming, eating (lots), a fancy spa treatment for the birthday boy, and what turned into a rather long wander along the rather fine and joyously empty beach.
The next day we jumped back on the local train and headed further south, to the bay town of Prachuap Khiri Khan. With hills and both ends, a few dotted islands, a pier jutting out of its centre, and filled with fishing boats, it is achingly pretty. It’s the kind of wistful scene that elicits genuine ohhs and ahhs when you turn the corner and lay eyes on it for the first time; you instantly de-stress a little.
PKK is Hua Hin’s even more laid-back cousin, only just starting to be discovered by Bangkokites willing to drive just that further bit further south. Again it gets busier on the weekend; we were outta there by then.
As with elsewhere, there is much to do and see in the surrounding countryside, best explored by grabbing a scooter and seeing where your wheels take you. We were happy instead to just hang about on the waterfront, the beach, the beach in the next bay over, and take in the spectacular views from the monkey-overrun temple on top of the northern hill. When the scene is that pretty, sometimes you’re happy just to sit and be in the postcard for a bit.
It was also full moon time, so the usual night market had been embellished to more of a festival type affair. People watching while trying a few market delights – perfectly tangy pork & vermicelli sausage, numbingly running nose-worthy spicy papaya salad, ditto the tart green mango salad, and sticky rice, kidney beans & coconut cream steamed in bamboo – was a perfect way to end a blissful couple of days.
Chumphon, three hours further south, was our final stop. Inland this time, so lacking that instant waterfront appeal, the city acts mostly as a transit point for travellers heading to the east coast islands. Arriving later than expected, due to a delayed train, we really only had a single day to explore.
No mind, we got in, dumped our bags, and quickly hit the town to find some dinner. None of the places I’d highlighted for our attention looked particular worthy; not enough to overcome the attena-pricking intrigue caused by a very popular local place we’d passed. We decided to chance it. Mercifully they had a menu in English, and the simple translations completely undersold the food that arrived: pure and simply a trip highlight. Click through for the full description; it’s worth it, promise!
There is, in fact, quite a lot to see and do in the surrounds of Chumphon, such as national parks, caves, temples, waterfalls and so on. With a fairly late start the next morning – blame the hostel room that in actual fact felt like a lazingly spacious and cool hotel suite – we settled on a relaxing afternoon exploring the northern coast/beaches. Off on our scooters we went.
While it’d be misleading to call the beaches and bays we came across of the ‘tropical paradise’ variety – don’t pin all your holiday hopes here, people…oi vey the tidal detritus, i.e. plastic! – it was a lovely way to while away an afternoon, pottering around the lush green countryside with nothing but the hot breeze against your face, making you retreat into the feels of childhood summers; short on responsibility, long on time.
Our week our southward meandering was a largely unplanned, on-the-fly delight. At many moments throughout, it felt like being somewhere gloriously Pacific. And, in our minds anyway, that’s always a good place to be. Am I right?