Once divided by distance, courtly Pattaya and spicy Hua Hin have been united by a ferry.
For decades, Hua Hin and Pattaya were like two siblings stuck on opposite shores of a lake with no way of paddling across. The lake, in this case, is the Gulf of Thailand and the distance between the two towns, both major tourist destinations, is just 110km.
The land route between the towns — some 350km — travels to the head of the gulf, where it weaves through Bangkok’s highway macrame before descending the opposite coast.
Even on a good day, you’re in for four to five hours of heavy-duty traffic wrestling. Not surprisingly, both Thais and tourists have long wished that, Superman-like, they could just leap the gulf in one mighty bound. And now they can.
A viable ferry service at last connects the two resort cities.
Just south of Hua Hin in the shadow of Khao Takiap (Chopstick Mountain), I step aboard the Royal 1 ferry, a sleek Australian-built, high-speed catamaran that leaves Pattaya on the dot of 10 each morning, scoots across to Hua Hin and then returns, departing at 1pm.
The air-conditioned vessel has two passenger decks, with 346 allocated seats, including 44 upstairs in business class.
You can purchase a seat (passport ID is mandatory) for 1250 baht ($51.10) in economy or 1500 baht in business, and then settle back, perhaps drifting to sleep for a while. You wake to find the ferry easing into Pattaya’s Bali Hai pier.
“How far is near? Just two hours,” goes the Royal Passenger Line’s advertising motto. In fact, the journey is closer to two-and-a-half hours — still half the driving time, with far less stress. Hua Hin and Pattaya might be roughly similar in size and in distance from Bangkok, but are otherwise about as alike as chalk and cheese. Or in Thai culinary terms, as spicy tom yam gung and mild chicken curry.
Hua Hin’s genteel parentage can be traced back to royals, golf clubs and steam trains. In 1910, the brother of King Rama VI of Siam (as Thailand was known) came upon a quiet fishing hamlet while on a tiger hunt. He immediately recognised its beauty and potential. Within a decade, Hua Hin — around 200km south of the capital — was in vogue with the court and Bangkok society; even more so when the railway line from the capital opened. The elegant Railway Hotel (now the Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas), soon followed, as did the country’s first golf course. King Rama VII built a mid-town summer palace in 1928, calling it Klai Kang Won — “Far From Worries” — which is still used today by the royals. Because of its regal connections, Hua Hin has retained a sense of decorum. Instead of bar-hoppers and excitable backpackers, you’re much more likely to find golfers and long-term European retirees.
The Hua Hin/Cha-am region is home to 10 world-class golf courses, including Banyan, Black Mountain, Majestic Creek and Imperial Lakeview, and is frequently flagged as one of the world’s best places to retire.
Golf widows and widowers also have plenty of options here, including wide beaches generally free of deckchair slums and hooning watercraft. The best is Khao Takiap beach, south of town. Meanwhile, mid-town shopping opportunities are many, along with theme parks such as Black Mountain Water Park, with its slides, wave pool and wakeboard lake.
Thais seem to rarely pause long from eating and shopping, with both pursuits maxed out at night markets. Hua Hin has at least four, the most authentic being its original mid-town melee on Soi 72. Come dusk, the street closes to traffic and market stalls spring up, along with roaring woks, trestles and stools. Fuelled by fresh satay or pad thai plus a cold beer, you can score all the trinkets, Fake-Bans and excess baggage you’ve never needed.
The purpose-built Cicada Market and more upscale Seenspace beachfront mall-market do variations on the same theme.
Maruekhathaiyawan Palace — “the Wooden Palace” for short — built on the Cha-am waterfront in 1923, is now a beautifully restored treasure billed as “the largest golden teak palace in the world”. Don’t miss its breezy pavilions and walkways, and the seafront study of Rama VI, poet, playwright, Shakespeare translator and monarch.
Finally, for a memorable excursion, head 30km inland to Hua Hin Hills Vineyard, the home of Monsoon Valley Wines. Settle into the Sala Bistro’s views and its tasting menu of canapes. Next come “new latitude” wine offerings like chenin blanc, shiraz and viognier, and there goes your afternoon.
As opposed to courtly Hua Hin, Pattaya was once described as a town built on sex and war. In spite (or because) of this, Time magazine noted it is “arguably the birthplace of mass tourism in modern Asia, and still its undisputed capital”. Quite a change from the balmy, palmy, beachside village that American airmen on leave stumbled on close to 60 years ago.
Think Apocalypse Now, R&R leave and all the madness of the Vietnam War era. Then forget it. That was Pattaya’s honky-tonk coming out party. Today this booming city, 150km south of Bangkok, caters for anyone in a uniform that resembles shorts, beach shirt and sunburn. Add golfing gear to that list because, like its sibling across the waves, Pattaya offers quality golf courses within a half-hour drive.
You’ve arrived by the ferry, but on one road into town the welcome arch still declares, “Pattaya, the Extreme City”. You’ll still find industrially spiced nightlife along the garish Walking Street but elsewhere there is a growing sophistication in luxury resorts and quality dining that attracts Thai families, Western expats and retirees. The surrounding Chonburi province is home to theme parks such as Nong Nooch Tropical Gardens and the Sanctuary of Truth, an eccentric wooden temple honouring Eastern religions that is topped by a 100m spire.
A few days of shopping, cabarets, massage, good eating and beach-going (skip the messy main beach and head south to Jomtien) should see you well relaxed. And then, because Pattaya is the gateway to the eastern gulf and its islands, think Koh Samet, Rayong, Koh Chang and Koh Kood.
- Royal 1 ferry from Hua Hin to Pattaya: royalferrygroup.com.
- Mera Mare Hotel in beachfront Pattaya: meramarehotel.com.
- The Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas in beachfront Hua Hin: centarahotelsresorts.com.