3. Hua Hin: the King's Retreat
22/11/02: Leave Bangkok for Hua Hin with J and H; wait around in station for some hours; sit on train for some more hours; arrive at destination at gone 20.00; find hotel – nice room but no windows or hot water; go for tea on pier; storm (shelter in bar); early night.
The stretch of coast that runs south from Bangkok to Surat Thani is not utilised to any great degree by general persons travelling in Thailand, as became all the more apparent as we made what would be a week-long trip towards Surat Thani Province.
Our first stop – Hua Hin – was supposed to be reachable in just over four hours by train, but the likelihood of this being the case looked less with each stop we were forced to make at what seemed like every level-crossing we came across. Ultimately, it would take nearer seven, the Thai police being partially to blame for this considerable delay to our schedule.
It must have been around 18.30 when what appeared to be another routine crossing evolved into something more. Hanging from the ever open door of my carriage, I saw policemen approaching, employing their substantial torches to tease out detail from beneath our train’s bulk. I cannot recall from where I got the idea, but I confidently presumed that they were on the look-out for some drug fiend clinging to the under-carriage, desperate but brave. Maybe not, I never knew and didn’t care much, such was my physical discomfort. The seats on our train were covered in red leather and our bare legs stuck to the material keenly. Windows were kept open, but the ponderous pace of the train meant this made little difference. On top of that there was the constant drone of the hawkers to contend with: Thai peddlers pushing their polystyrene packed egg-fried-rice in everyone’s general direction. I did not dare touch their produce, although I was curious; I figured it might be too tailored to the Thai palate, to which I was not yet fully accustomed.
The peculiarity of being shacked up in these minimal hulks aside, it was actually a rather enjoyable trip, passing through the countryside and trying to get a handle on how, physically, this subtropical landscape might pan out. Leaving the immediate vicinity of Bangkok itself, I was given a demonstration of a poverty that had previously been hidden from view. Wooden shanty style habitations backed out directly onto train tracks, and, at the precise juncture where our track divided into two, we even passed two people sat down at a table, talking about I don’t know what. The scene suited a game of chess.
Also, the abundance of litter was quite a shock because up until that point I had been very impressed by the precise lack of it. All was explained as the journey progressed and our Thai friends casually despatched of their empty polystyrene egg-fried-rice cartons out of the window. This flagrant ejection seemed to be confined to the railways, for I saw no evidence of such wanton disposal beyond its perimeter. Nor did I see anything too wowing to the eye, although as night fell one could occasionally make out the mysterious silhouette far and beyond, hinting at a landscape made up of more than just palms and tall grasses.
We reached Hua Hin at approximately 21.00, and had I been alone I would have been concerned as to the viability of finding a place to stay at this late an hour. J and H were not so perturbed, so I simply disembarked and enjoyed my first real taste of fresh Thai air. It did not take long to find a hostel with rooms to spare, although the location wasn’t ideal: bars of ill repute surrounded it.
By 21.45, we found ourselves on the end of a small jetty ordering the local seafood, fried rice and a couple of beers. The meal was delectable – it really was – but before we could finish we were ambushed by an approaching thunderstorm, obliging us to hastily transfer the contents of our table to another that provided some protection. By the time the bill was settled the storm was in full throw, so we beat a hasty retreat into a nearby Austrian-themed bar, miniature cowbells and roughly sketched alpine vistas adorning the walls. We did not stay there long, tired as we were. Besides, the atmosphere sagged heavily.
23/11/02: J and H leave Hua Hin and we leave our guesthouse, decamping to the All Nations. Stroll about town, check out filthy beach. Evening: go for expensive pizza, realise that we’re hanging in the posh part of town so go to the pier for drinks and watch storms passing out to sea. Get back to hotel to find it hosts quite a scene by night – play pool and get very drunk.
Hua Hin – or should that be “Berlin-on-Sea”. There are divisions or hairy Germans everywhere: Jerry has certainly got a stronghold on this town (I haven’t mentioned the war). As a holiday resort it hasn’t much to offer, but as a place to recover from the impact of Bangkok it serves a particular purpose. With a Hilton hotel hovering over a high street hosting mostly restaurants and European fashion boutiques, it presides over the gulf of Thailand like some sort of Aryan retirement home.
Relief from this distinctly Bavarian order can be found in the smaller bars and the many restaurants dotted along the seafront. Here you can eat the best sea bass you might ever taste, although it comes at a price of 200 odd baht (not much in English terms, but relative to Thailand as a whole it’s steep).
Other than that, all you can do is sit back and drink the beer. This place must be hell in high-season. Unless, of course, you are retired, rich, European and like moustaches.
Last night’s storm conveyed to J and H that Hau Hin was not the place to currently be. It appeared the rainy season had the south of Thailand firmly in its grasp, so after breakfast off they popped back up north somewhere. My companion and I booked into the All Nations, a guesthouse that was to be our home for the next three nights, and bedded in to await S’s arrival.
I am travelling very light on the advice of a friend – the same friend who, "regaled me with tales pertaining to the islands off Thailand’s east coast,’ and, ‘vehemently recommended I get out of Bangkok.’ His opinion is that most people who embark on their travels will over-pack, and he can testify to his own experience.
After completing a ‘tour of duty’ similar to my (intended) own, he arrived in Australia only to discover unworn clothes that had almost rotted away within the bowels of his oversized rucksack. Why was this? He reasoned thus: carrying around soiled cloth is neither desirable nor practical, and so he had exorcised his dirty cargo on a fairly regular basis. On retrieving his laundered clothes, they would then be returned to the top of the pecking order – a reorganisation of his mobile wardrobe being deemed too troublesome under such peripatetic circumstances – consigning the clothes at the bottom to their festering plight.
My consort figured, therefore, that little more than a week’s worth of attire is sufficient. So in my 25 litre bag I have packed the following accoutrements:
1 pair of dark grey Levis cords
1 pair of light brown Levis cords
1 pair of home-cut denim shorts
1 long sleeved shirt
1 vintage short sleeved shirt, bought from a charity shop in Hounslow circa 1996
1 vintage Fred Perry polo shirt with left breast pocket, bought from a charity shop in Hounslow circa 1997
1 second hand white ribbed T-shirt
1 white V-neck T-shirt
1 yellow V-neck Wrangler T-shirt, bought cheap in Clarks Village, Somerset, and my current favourite
1 pair of new, cream Converse All Star Chuck Taylor high-top trainers, which I will never fully take to
1 pair of cheap desert boots, which I will wear as long as it isn’t raining
1 Ron Hill anorak that my uncle handed down to me in 1989
1 black Marks and Sparks polyester-and-cotton-mix jumper, bought from a charity shop in Hounslow circa 1998
7 pairs of underpants
9 pairs of socks
1 ‘quick-drying’ towel
1 Walkman and a few cassettes
1 pair of portable speakers, which will be deliberately left behind in a hotel room, due to their cumbersome nature
The truth is I have probably under packed a little, especially where T-shirts and shorts are concerned, but cramming all this into my bag requires quite some effort. Indeed, when people see me in transit they tend to assume that I’m only out here for a couple of weeks, so diminutive is my rucksack.
However, I am planning on buying along the way – if I can find a T-shirt that fits and doesn’t allude to marijuana use, booze or the presence of landmines on its person. I’ve had to deal with two loads of laundry so far, so I’m hoping something will show up soon.
24/11/02: My companion wanted to sunbath but I didn’t, so I ordered coffee and read the paper (Plymouth Argyle 4 Stockport County 1). Went to fish restaurant, a bar, back to All Nations, played pool with ‘the lads’, got drunk. A good day.
Hua Hin is an odd and not particularly arresting locale, but I ended up liking it simply as a space to relax and observe the many storms passing by out to sea. It was all very peaceful, which is maybe why the King of Thailand likes to holiday there – it is his favourite haunt, apparently.
The German contingent made me feel like an outsider, which I actually quite liked, and although the town was not particularly pretty in itself, the clean air and quiet streets were enough to see me through. Indeed, the lack of people was the perfect antidote to what I had suffered in Bangkok, and it was nice to feel in control of my personal space again. By day, I took pleasure in hanging around in the bar of our hostel, reading the Bangkok Post, drinking coffee and watching the labourers lay the jade coloured paving slabs that were delivered every morning to the side of the road. The availability of decent fish was a boon to my stomach and there was a simple air of safety about the place.
Yet something was up. The huge water-tank in the communal bathroom really gave me the creeps, perambulating around town put me on edge, and I spent too much of my time holed up in my room reading whilst my companion lazed around on the beach.
Funnily enough, the tome that currently had my attention was a novel entitled Are You Experienced by Mr William Sutcliffe, a (possibly) semi-autobiographical account of being dragged around India because the protagonist’s object of affection demanded it. Tinged with no small degree of cynicism towards one’s fellow travellers, I could relate a little to the subject at hand, if not the simplistic prose in which Mr Sutcliffe chose to execute his novella. (I myself was thoroughly obsessed with Ian Svenonius at the time – or more specifically his alter ego David Candy, who had waxed lyrical about everything from Futurism to the refreshments on offer in Sao Paulo’s juice bars on his album Play Power. Up against this delightful level of knowing pretension, Mr Sutcliffe didn’t stand a chance.) But there were very few actual travellers holidaying in Hua Hin: just middle-aged, European tourists. This was no bad thing but did perhaps hint at why J and H had been so keen to leave almost immediately as they arrived – bad weather isn’t that much of a big deal, after all.
So was this what travelling was really supposed to be about: playing at being retired and hanging out in bars? Those islands that everybody talked about would more than likely provide me with answers, but at this point they couldn’t be further from my mind. Strange vibes…
25/11/02: Go to the nearest Internet café and write some stuff about the trip’s panning out. S arrives, so help him book into the All Nations – he has the roof terrace with an even bigger and more frightening water-tank than ours. Once he’s had a nap, we take him out for dinner, stroll around town and then back to All Nations for a nightcap, whereupon S retreats to bed completely exhausted.
26/11/02: Went back to the hotel whence we stayed on our first night in Hua Hin for a spot of breakfast, because we’d been impressed the first time around. Pick up laundry and check my emails. Later, go to Cindy’s for drinks, the ‘Friendly Bar’ (possibly an invented name) and then back to All Nations. Not as heavy a night as this itinerary suggests.
S arrived on Monday 25 November – 11 days after me and my colleague, but it seemed like an age. We did our best to show S a good time, but he was playing catch-up. On leaving the airport he had ridden a taxi straight to the train station and caught the first available charter to Hua Hin, albeit with a lot less fuss than we had endured. Understandably, S opted for some very early nights over the next two, but stayed up long enough on the second to plan with us what was to be our next move, proceeding a short way south to the town of Prachuap Khiri Kahn.