I count myself among those hedonists of travel who seek out still-evocative and unique enclaves of sea, sky and earth, especially since I presently reside in the concrete zoo known as Bangkok, where gridlock is as much an accepted lifestyle as it is in Southern California. When my lungs are about to collapse, I hasten 150 miles southwest of Bangkok to the fishing community of Hua-Hin, the ultimate escape hatch in Thailand.
I say hasten not to be unduly apocalyptic but because the secret of this quiet seaside resort--despite 79 years of modesty and nonaggrandizement--is now definitely out of the bag. Sophisticated travelers who have sated themselves with Bangkok--such discriminating folk as film producer David Putnam ("Chariots of Fire") and the English director Roland Joffee ("The Killing Fields")--are exponentially bypassing the more publicized second-stop destinations in Thailand--over-crowded Pattaya, over-priced Phuket, over-praised Chiang Mai--for the immutable tranquillity of unspoiled Hua-Hin.
During any given week, the majority of tourists to be found blissed out on Hua-Hin's powdery beaches are primarily European--mostly French, German and English. Affluent Thai families pop down on weekends in their Mercedes sedans or Beamers. Inexplicably, the Americans have not yet landed. Most are more apt to be dutifully checking off the list of must-sees in Bangkok and are thus missing out on the meaning of pure relaxation.
In Thai hua means head and hin means stone , producing in tandem the somewhat ominous English inscription headstone . The actual translation is Stone Head, the local name for Takiab Hill, a dominating coastal escarpment angled into the Gulf of Thailand at the southern tip of what must certifiably be one of the planet's longest uninterrupted strands of beach.
If you station yourself on the peak of Takiab Hill, you can gaze with stunned serenity toward a distant, blurred point 39 miles to the north, where this incredible beach finally vanishes from sight somewhere beyond Phetchaburi. Getting up to the stony summit of this Gibraltar-like promontory is not for the irregular of heart. You have to leave the beach and climb up 100 steps--maybe 120, maybe 96 or 97--I was breathing so hard on the way up I lost count. Once on the ridge, your reward is an unforgettable vista of white sand--and the challenge of temple monkeys who jounce around you impatiently as they wait for you to feed them clusters of tiny bananas available from opportunistic vendors.
From this vantage point I found it easy on my first visit to conjure up a vision of Joseph Conrad sailing along this shoreline as master of the Otago, his first command, 100 years ago. I'm certain that what he saw then is what I'm seeing now: the straight line of the flat Thai shore joined to the unruffled gulf as though stapled, edge to edge, with a perfect, unmarked closeness; one leveled floor, half brown, half apple green, under the enormous dome of a sky streaked with lenticular clouds created by swift winds racing at high altitude above the Tanao Sri Range.
The miracle of Hua-Hin is that it has remained pristine despite the fact it was Thailand's first resort, with a pedigree reaching back to the first decade of this century when it became a royal playground.
Pattaya, on the eastern side of the gulf, has come full-blown in only the past 10 years and is currently struggling to overcome a negative-impact world press critical of chronic water shortages, polluted beaches and wall-to-wall bars, not to mention occasional lurid accounts of European tourists found dead of drug overdoses in steamy sub-soi hotels.
Phuket, located to the south on an island of the same name, is well on its way to overdevelopment--all in the past five years.
Chiang Mai, north of Bangkok, has sprouted a skyline and generated traffic congestion in the past two.
Yet Hua-Hin remains blessedly within its own time warp. The luxury hotels and beachfront condos that have recently been--or are presently being--built are judiciously spaced along that boundless stretch of beach; they appear not at all invasive. On the contrary, they provide the world-class amenities today's travelers demand, and in the case of Hua-Hin, these amenities have been made available with thought for the environment and the area's perpetual low-key charm.
How to account for this? As in other developing nations in Southeast Asia, Thailand suffers at the hands of opportunists, both Thai nationals and foreign businessmen, people compelled to chain-saw the last of the country's teak forests or to undermine its soil for salt. Outcries from environmentalists seem not to have halted this obsessive encroachment upon Thailand's natural beauty. Protest and debate there are, certainly. One top minister recently predicted that unless the predators were stopped, the country could become a desert in two decades. But there appears to be little positive action to arrest the dismantling process.