HUA HIN: Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing for anyone seeking to recapture the magic of a youthful adventure. It’s just never the same, and neither are you.
As a Thai t-shirt designer might say: “Same same, but different.”
Returning to a place 20 years on and expecting to relive that youthful wonder inevitably disappoints — especially when that place is Thailand, beloved by generations of first-time backpackers armed with their Lonely Planet guide, a book of travelers cheques (Millennials, you can Google that bit) and unplayable knock-off DVD’s purchased on the Khao San Road — Bangkok’s Champs Elysees of tat. Back then, you could pop in your Discman earphones and stroll along the beach in your oversize Bermuda shorts, munching on a 10-baht bowl of Pad Thai noodles without a care in the world.
Fast forward two decades and it is, of course, all so different. The old Discman doesn’t work anymore, the Bermudas don’t fit and that bowl of noodles now costs 90 baht.
And, in my case, there are three small people following me everywhere demanding constant entertainment and asking haughtily why there are no nuggets on the menu.
Thailand with kids can be a challenge. While the tourism offering in the country has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, many resorts are still geared toward couples or solo travelers. And if you have more than two children, accommodation can be expensive, as hotels often insist that you book two rooms.
Choosing the right destination with the right mix of entertainment for both the big and little people is the secret to making your Thai trip down memory lane as unforgettable as it was the first time.
The original — but now often-overlooked — resort of Hua Hin is one such place. It’s steeped in history, culture and amazing markets and has lots to entertain kids, from water-slide jungles to elephant parks.
Unlike some of the better-known island resorts, which can involve a lot of travel, you can reach Hua Hin in under three hours from Bangkok’s international airport and there are lots of easy travel options, from a bus which leaves every hour from the arrivals terminal to private transfers and public taxis.
We start our Hua Hin holiday with a few days in the colonial-style Centara Resort, which gives you a sense of what it would have been like to be a tourist in the 1920’s when the Thai royal family started to holiday here. The hotel has the kind of understated elegance that is becoming increasingly rare in the age of multinational hospitality groups, but there is still enough going on to keep the kids happy, from pool games to a session with a Muay Thai boxer.
The Centara is a five-minute stroll from one of Hua Hin’s main attractions, the buzzing Night Market, where you can feast on barbequed lobster — or snack on a bag of deep-fried crickets and grasshoppers, if your tastes are more eclectic. The market is a shoppers’ paradise — and not just if you’re looking for a fake designer T-Shirt or some novelty fish-shaped flip flops. The kids snap up two football kits, Tottenham and Ajax, which look like the real thing but probably aren’t, for just 200 baht (less than $7) each.
The other essential shopping experience in Hua Hin is the serene Cicada Market, which opens at the weekend. Here, you buy tokens that can be spent on a vast array of street food that smells divine and tastes just as good, based on the few generously proportioned dishes we ordered — most of which can be bought for less than $5. Make sure you eat before you browse, because the smell of the food here makes it difficult to focus on anything other than your belly.
After feasting on some delicious fried rice served in a decapitated pineapple, chicken satay, and the most delicately flavored Penang curry, it’s time to have a waddle around the market and see what’s on display.
There are a number of really good caricaturists at work and the kids are delighted with their depictions — both of which take just five minutes. Even though they are not wearing the football kits they bought the previous evening in the Night Market, the artist reproduces them perfectly, complete with sponsor logo, which is impressive, and at just $5, a bargain.
There is also some amazing fine art on display here and having arrived with no intention of buying, we somehow leave with a considerably lighter wallet and not one but three beautiful oil paintings by local artist Tumagon Pichai.
Having feasted on both the gastronomic and cultural delights of Hua Hin, we finish our stay at the Holiday Inn, which is the highlight for the kids, in large part because of the attached waterpark, but also because of the delicious breakfast buffet served on the seventh floor of what is the city’s tallest building,
The suite we stay in is cleverly designed, with an annex to the main bedroom that has bunk beds and is decorated like a playroom. Instead of room keys we are given wristbands that allow you to access both your room and the adjoining waterpark, which also has a high ropes course and keeps the children busy for our entire stay.
Our two weeks go by in the blink of an eye and all our worries about traveling in Thailand with young children are happily unrealized. The kids are mesmerized by everything they see, from the teeming markets to the coconut-fringed beaches.
For sure, Thailand is not as I remember it as a young single, independent traveler. Mass tourism has arrived here and everything is much, much more expensive. But the country's charm is undiminished, the food is just as delicious and the Thais we meet, even in the most tourist-weary places we visit, are just as friendly.
It's not like it was in the Nineties but where is?
Same same, but different.