The king and I

If it's good enough for the king of Thailand, it's good enough for the rest of us, writes Diana Noonan.

I may have eaten a beetle. A light brown, oval beetle with liquorice black eyes and pretty stripes running the length of its abdomen. If I have, I will have ingested only a sensation but still, it's enough to make you wary of sampling anything in a Thai market.

I'm in Hua Hin, an hour or so south of Bangkok where the Gulf of Thailand sea is as warm as a bath you've gone to sleep in. Some people claim there are jellyfish in the water here but the closest I've come to spotting anything like that is a waterlogged cellophane cigarette packet and a semi-submerged plastic bag - not what we're used to in New Zealand, I know, but this is Asia, and the heat and 6km of white-sand beaches with overhanging coconut palms does have a way of compensating for almost anything.

Temperatures in Hua Hin hover around the 29degC mark but this morning, despite the heat, and at the invitation of the King of Thailand whose residence is just down the road, I went running in the palace gardens. It was His Majesty's predecessor, King Prajadhipok, who first made Hua Hin famous when, in the 1920s, he chose it as his preferred holiday destination. The current king is held in such high regard by the locals that myriad garish billboards bearing his photo line the streets. Sadly, at 84, and apparently with more ailments than you can poke a stick at, His Majesty is not expected to return to Hua Hin from the Bangkok hospital where he's resided for the past three years.

But I wasn't alone in the royal gardens. The shady grounds, complete with winding trails and a large lake (which, if I mistook the mechanical aerators for paddleboats, might also double as the town's settling pond), is guarded by a fleet of armed soldiers. Providing you're prepared to swap photo ID for a body tag, which you clip to your clothing, this pleasant park is yours from 5am-7am and again in the evening. In the cool of the morning the grounds are a hive of jogging, walking, and those graceful Thai exercises that look so relaxing but which you know are actually darned hard to execute. Note: if you're a woman, don't turn up in anything more revealing than three-quarter pants and a T-shirt or you won't be admitted to the grounds, although, given what the royal roosters and their harem were up to in the undergrowth this morning, I think the king has more to be concerned about than his subjects' modesty.

Hua Hin is a breeze to reach. Buses run on the hour from Bangkok, and the town is also on the main trunk line so you can pop up from somewhere delicious, like Penang, on an air-conditioned sleeper. I arrived from the north, having taken a night train from Chiang Mai as far as Bangkok, and then changed. I like night trains. Apart from sounding exotic enough to have come straight out of an Agatha Christie mystery, they are also a deeply comforting way to travel. Rumbling and rocking along in the dark, cocooned in a comfy bunk, and with occasional mysterious stops in the middle of nowhere, I reckon it's the nearest thing to being back in a pram.

When I did wake, a couple of hours out of Bangkok, it was already light and someone was padding along the length of the carriage selling breakfast curry. Outside, a bright orange sun was rising over lime green fields of rice that stretched all the way to the horizon, and along the tops of muddy dykes marched men and women carrying hoes and sickles and wearing those bamboo hats the shape of lightshades. Sometimes they stopped and waded into a paddy to pull up a weed or mend a breach in a dyke. White herons and egrets were everywhere, and ibis, with beaks as brown and shiny as polished teak, were up to no good among the crops. There were long-eared water buffalo, too, and as we rumbled further south, strange knobbly hills, like something out of a set for South Pacific, suddenly rose out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly.

Somewhere along the way, the train stopped briefly at Lopburi, a town laden with monkeys. There were so many that they fought each other for sitting spaces on fences, and chased their babies along the telephone wires with great clumps of yellow fruit clenched between their teeth. I was half afraid they would leap aboard and demand food so it was a relief to find that the Hua Hin railway station was not only like something out of Legoland, but also completely monkeyless.

In fact, Hua Hin Station, with it's perfectly painted buildings, topiaries and flower baskets, is a model railway station in every sense of the word. It has to be. After all, the king's royal carriage has pulled in on more than a few occasions and there is always the hope it might do so again. There is even a personal royal waiting room on the platform. Similar in some respects to a Thai temple, and lined with red carpet, it stands a short distance from the public waiting room, locked and awaiting His Majesty's next visit.

• Arriving in Hua Hin by train, it's entirely possible to navigate your way with ease to wherever it is you're staying. Even the geographically challenged will have no need to rotate their street map. That's because Hua Hin is neatly sandwiched, in a linear fashion, between the railway line and the sea. As well as the golf courses and driving ranges, foot massages, fish-spas, cut-price cosmetic and dental surgeries, cheap opticians' outlets and beach hawkers, Hua Hin is as authentic as any other town you'll find in Thailand. If it wasn't, I might never have encountered the beetle paste, as purple as a Thai peanut boiled in its shell, which I inadvertently tasted at Chatchai Market.

Chatchai is the local fresh produce hall in the middle of town. It opens at 6am and runs through until midday, by which stage the street vendors have set up outside to provide you with lunch. The beetle paste is just one of a whole range of spicy, colourful condiments that you'll find heaped into mounds on the counters of the Chatchai stalls. Thank goodness for the sticky rice and mango that I also discovered there. It was so overwhelmingly delicious that it pretty much compensated for the earlier experience.

Even if you're staying in one of the many mid- to budget-range guesthouses a few streets back from the beach, a visit to the Hilton is a must. Without as much as being asked to buy a cocktail, you can sit in the lobby in the evening and listen to gentle live music played on traditional Thai instruments.

Evening is also a good time to eat from one of the dozens of street vendors' carts. Try pad Thai, wing-bean salad (yum tua pu), or spicy pak boong fai deng - stir-fried morning glory (weed-conscious gardeners will never look at convolvulus in quite the same way again). For a few more baht, you'll find a slightly more upmarket restaurant overlooking the sea. Order anything that mentions basil. It's a Thai speciality you'll want to sample more than once. Complement it with a crispy green mango salad and wash the lot down with a glass of refreshing lemon-nam - iced lemon syrup with soda water.

Perhaps the best thing about eating out by the water at night is the flotilla of battleships festooned in fairy lights and anchored a short distance offshore. The story goes that when democracy was rearing its ugly head, and His Majesty's predecessor was being ''encouraged'' to accept a less authoritarian role than he had previously enjoyed, a battleship was sent down from Bangkok as a persuasive reminder that power was soon to be in the hands of his people. The then king having acquiesced, nothing untoward occurred, and the ships now anchored in the gulf are simply stationed as a reassurance to the present king that when the royal family is in residence, their protection is assured. It's been a friendly visit and I'd have to say that, during my time here, I almost feel as though I've rubbed shoulders with royalty.

 

 


At a glance

When to go

Head to Hua Hin between November and April when the heat is likely to be less intense.

Where to eat

Vegetarian delights await you at the tiny Buddhist-run cafe on the southeast corner of Sra-song Rd and Soy (street) 72, directly opposite the Krung Thai Bank. Be sure to try the marinated boiled egg and tofu stew.

Baan-Itsara, beside the water at 7 Naeb Kehat Rd, specialises in seafood. Their Thai basil and mussel main is a must.

The Mekong, on Soy Paetchakasem, is a Vietnamese and Thai restaurant. Be sure to ask for yum tua pu (wing-bean salad).

Where to stay

Mid-range to budget guest houses are so plentiful that you can almost guarantee a bed without booking. For something truly up-market go no further than the Asara Hotel Resort at the north end of town. It's a peaceful beach-side oasis of tropical vegetation, cool pools, private villas, and cool suites. If you're thinking of a longer-term stay, Google Palm Pavilion rental condos. Right next to the Asara, the self-service condos in this high-rise apartment block beside the sea come with infinity pools, attractive grounds, and glorious views along the beach.