Hidden Thailand

Don't miss Bang Pa-in Palace in Ayutthaya, the country's version of Versailles.

So what else is there to see in Thailand after you've toured all the temples, seen all manner of reverence for the Buddha, marveled at the distinct Thai architecture, carted home choice handicrafts from Chatuchak and tasted all those strange but wondrous street food?

Well, there's still Hua Hin some 200 km south of Bangkok, that's conveniently accessible by public transport. Hua Hin means "stone head" in Thai, after the big rocks jutting out of the surrounding waters of this laidback town.

Hua Hin used to be a sleepy fishing village but may now be considered a tasteful blend of Tagaytay and Boracay for its twin attractions of world-class wine from its hilly vineyards, and a six-mile beach of beige sand studded with classy resorts.

This resort town has also become the favourite getaway of Thai royals who have a summer home here.

In fact, this town is closely associated with royalty, starting with King Rama VII who discovered it in the early 1920s, and decided that the tranquil fishing village was perfect for a royal resort.

In 1928, the king built Klai Kangwon (Far From Worries) Palace that remains the official royal residence, though it is also open to the public for visits. Just be sure to be appropriately dressed-nothing too casual or backpack grungy.

With trains, buses and public pick-up vehicles connecting this beachside town to Bangkok, Hua Hin has become a popular destination for both locals and tourists.

But the town maintains an active fishing fleet. In fact, tourists who have had too heavy a meal at night can stroll down to the small jetty just past the Hilton Hotel where they can watch local fishers bring in their catch of fish, crabs and prawns. Or, they can look out over the Gulf of Thailand to Hua Hin's horizon for a glimpse of the neon green lights that Thai fishing boats use to lure the squid.

Like most small towns in Asia, the ambience in Hua Hin is more relaxed and family-oriented, and one can stroll down the beach or around its shopping districts without worrying about touts.

Here are the top 12 things you can do at Hua Hin, and nearby sites:

1. Check out the postcard-pretty Hua Hin Railway Station. Finished in 1911, the station brought affluent Thais to this town, many of whom, after noting the windy hills and the sunny beaches, decided to build summer homes here.

Built in gingerbread style during the reign of Rama VI, this red and white wooden building is one of the oldest rail station in Thailand and used to be a royal pavilion. Check out the Royal Waiting Room built to welcome the king and his entourage. It stands adjacent to the station and has become the favourite backdrop among trigger-happy tourists.

Have a drink and linger at the nearby coffee shop where you can check out the small quaint souvenirs and watch gaily-painted trains go by. There's also a bell just outside the shop, an old-fashioned touch that recalls the rapidly disappearing romance of travel.

2. If you're into golf, make a quick detour to the Royal Hua Hin Golf Course just behind the railway station, to the west. Improve your scores in this first ever golf course in Thailand.

3. Visit Cicada, also known as the artists' market, and indeed there are a number of art galleries here featuring paintings and street sculptures, as well as stalls selling hand-painted curiosities. On certain nights, there are live plays and stage shows to entertain shoppers in this art-inspired flea market. On the night we were there, the play was apparently about Thailand's transgenders, judging from the tarps and posters announcing the show and the colorful cast of characters rehearsing onstage.

Open on weekends, this artists' market offers street food, live entertainment and handcrafted souvenirs that you might not find in big city markets.

4. Still, there's no need to miss the night market in Bangkok; they have one here too although not as extensive. There are stacks of clothing, local weaves, fancy jewelry, accessories and novelties, and surprisingly, really fresh seafood like huge lobsters trying to claw at you. Of course, haggling is expected, so best to have an idea first of how much stuff costs in malls and department stores before venturing into this labyrinthine retail mecca. I remember buying an embroidered raw silk scarf for B100 (about P130) in a downtown mall in Bangkok, only to see a Caucasian woman trying to haggle down the B150 quoted her for a similar item.

5. Stroll down the beach in the early morning, and watch the locals fill up the begging bowls of passing Buddhist monks, definitely a touching Thai tradition. Dig your toes into the soft sand, dip your feet in the gentle foam and feel the stress from city living recede with the waves. Consider yourself blessed and blissed out with this simple wake-upper.

6. Or, take a leisurely horse ride along the shoreline, all the way to the Giant Standing Buddha figure mounted on a rocky promontory at the other end. Feel like royalty as your magnificent mount canters along the beach and pretend like you're that near-naked model galloping off to a white castle in a whisky ad.

7. Pamper yourself with a spa in one of the better hotels in the area, where the rates are competitive and the ambience divine. At the Wora Bura resort hotel where we stayed, the promo for an hour's massage and a facial was just a little over B1,000. Alas, since this is still a small town, people probably retire early so most spas call it a day by 9 or 10 p.m. The night market or a spa? More of life's tough choices, it seems.

8. Drink to life and its many pleasures. Taste vintage wines at the Hua Hin Hills vineyard, known for its Monsoon Valley wines made from a variety of grapes, from White Shiraz to Colombard to Black Muscat.

The vineyard is about 40 km away from Hua Hin town, but there are day tour packages that include transport, a lunch on-site and a guided tour of the area-even atop an elephant if you're prepared to pay.

There's wine-tasting, a gift shop where you can shop for just about anything made from wine (including a tonic), a visitor centre where you can check out the implements of wine-making, and a short tour of the lush vineyardsn surrounded by mountains where the climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean. Then it's back to the visitor centre for more spirited toasts.

If you've got kids with you, they might want to design their own wine bottles while you're getting soused. A paint kit and a blank bottle are offered for a minimal price.

8. But before you drink and make merry, be sure to sample the inventive cuisine at The Sala, the on-site fine dining restaurant with a fantastic view of the vineyard, and where appetizers, mains and desserts are inspired by the grapes and wines produced here. If your timing is right, the resto might have guest chefs who offer wonderful food-wine pairings.

9. For a memorable dinner and a touch of local colour, try the seaside restaurants in the area where the soothing sound of waves provide a comforting background hum to conversation. Additionally, the dimly-lighted dining spots are the perfect excuse to go star-watching. Another bonus: You just might encounter a kabayan as live music is a given in these places. The food isn't bad either-usually familiar Thai dishes given a contemporary twist, and priced much less than in the surrounding hotels.

10. Enjoy the hacienda lifestyle at an upscale hotel. Well, after all, if this is a town for royalty, why not play at being one if only for a night? We did just that at the Wora Bura resort hotel, where a wading pool runs throughout the tropical gardens and where the bluest sea beckons from the airy lattice-wrapped balcony of one's room.

11. If you can spare the time, visit Wat Nivet Thammaprawat Temple, where you have to ride an improvised cable car strung across the Chao Phraya River opposite the Bang Pa-in Palace near Ayutthaya. This is the only neo-gothic monastery in Thailand and worth a peek if only to check out the monks and novices who go about their chores with the less than celestial, but quite reassuring, stance of ordinary mortals. And this holds true even for that elderly and cheerful monk in the stained-glass church who bestows his blessings on the faithful with a swish of his water-soaked straw wand. His hearty laugh recalls that of Cardinal Sin, except that his shoulder and torso are embroidered with intricate tattoos that he gladly bares for curious visitors.

12. Lastly, don't miss Bang Pa-in Palace in Ayutthaya, the old royal capital of Thailand where you'd definitely marvel at the country's version of Versailles, down to the elaborate chateau (or is that a gazebo?) on a lake, the gilt-edged furnishings in the throne room and several horse-drawn carriages on display. Take a leisurely stroll around the manicured park and have a field day shooting the extremely photogenic grounds, including the brightly-painted lookout tower.