Welcome to Thailand – Hua Hin
Heading to Hua Hin, in Southern Thailand…
After traveling in English speaking countries, it can be a bit of culture shock to find yourself in a huge airport in Bangkok, where you don’t understand most of the conversations around you! But never fear, Thailand is exotic but also very tourist friendly, and many people speak at least some English, especially those in tourist-related jobs.
The kind young clerk at the money exchange wrote me a note to show at restaurants about my mushroom allergy. (It’s a good idea to get at least some Thai baht at the airport so you have some local currency for taxi or bus, although wait for an ATM or bank in town to get the bulk of your money, as the exchange rate in the airport doesn’t work in your favor).
The food court in the airport is cheap and amazing…
…and you are even asked to provide input in your native language in the restroom.
I arrived at the Bangkok airport at 2am, and waited in the downstairs lobby near the bus ticket counter to purchase my fare when they opened at 7am for Hua Hin, 5 hours south, to stay for a few days before my upcoming 10-day meditation retreat. The bus was nice, clean, comfortable and air-conditioned, and cost 300 baht, about $9. Yes, Thailand is definitely cheaper than the other countries I’ve been in. The hard part was whether to stay awake to check out the new scenery or sleep, as I’d been up for what felt like days.
When I got off the bus, a friendly young girl offered to take me by her taxi to find a room, since I hadn’t booked ahead. I was a little surprised (okay, a lot surprised) when we passed by several parked cars, and she pointed out her scooter. When she noticed my hesitation, she said, “Don’t worry, I go really really slow.” So I hopped on, my huge pack on my back, my small pack (with my laptop!) at her feet, my hand on her shoulder, and the other holding my hat. And I prayed!
Thai traffic is legendary for being crazy, and I held my breath as she wove in and out of the huge trucks and buses, and smaller tuk tuks, as well as other scooters with up to several people, animals, and various commodities balanced precariously upon them.
I succeeded in scoring a cheap hotel, only $14, but you get what you pay for. It was dark and dingy, had no hot water or AC (temps’s in the 90’s) and turned out to have a pumping, thumping night club across the street, with roosters that started crowing when the nightclub closed, dogs barking, ants crawling on the walls, and a sink with a broken pipe that drained right onto the floor!
Since I couldn’t sleep, I spent my time on line searching for a different hotel, which thankfully I found, only a 6 minute walk away. A splurge for me, luxury for the price of a Red Roof Inn back home, and I figured it was money well spent since I would be going to a no frills meditation retreat with a cement bed and wooden pillow soon, for 10 days, $6 a day including room and board. It balances out.
Funny thing is, there’s a $500 a night Hilton a block down the road from the $14 a night dive where I stayed, and both share the same beach, for a slightly different price point.
Hua Hin is a beach resort town, lively and bustling, noisy and colorful.
The beach is lovely, and I spent a lot of time just walking the long shoreline, enjoying the feel of warm sand beneath my feet. You sometimes find unexpected treasures there…
…and it buzzes with activities besides sun-bathing – jet skis and rafts and horse back riding, and I saw dozens of kite boarders at one point!
Restaurants line the beach, and you can get an ice cold beer or fresh young coconut to drink for a buck or two, as well as lovely, affordable food with a beautiful view. Nice to be able to go to a restaurant bare foot!
The food here is amazing, and if you don’t like Thai food (who doesn’t like Thai food?!) there are plenty of other options within a block from the beach – German, Italian, Greek, French. But come on, really, when in Rome…
You are constantly approached by people hawking their wares – cotton elephant pants, woven bracelets, colorful tops – and it can get a bit annoying, but you just have to say no, thank you, a few times (they’re persistent), and if you do want to buy something, learn to haggle. Just remember you have to fit all of that stuff you buy in your suitcase! My backpack is small, which severely limits my shopping, and that certainly helps with my travel budget.
You can also enjoy a nice massage on the beach, an hour for around $12, cheaper if you go into town. And further down the beach, you can see where the colorful fishing boats hang out.
There’s also the seedy side, but that’s part of the adventure.
In town, it’s fun to just wander around the streets lined with shops, crammed with everything imaginable from plastic toys to colorful clothes to live chickens. And besides the regular stores, there are a multitude of food carts selling things like satay, fish, and fresh pineapple and mango. I’d been told it’s safe to eat the street food, so I did. It was super cheap, delicious, and I had no problems with tummy troubles.
One night, I saw across the busy street from my hotel a narrow side street with what looked like locals enjoying dinner outside on plastic chairs.
Upon investigating, I found tons of great street food. I ordered a fish I saw roasting on a grill, after asking a couple of European ladies if their dinner was good, and only found out later that the fish, served with noodles, sauces, herbs like mint and Thai basil, and lettuce leaves, which you wrap everything up into, was actually dinner for two. Oh, well, I did my best to eat it all! And at 170 baht, about $5, it was a bargain ($2.50 each for two).
I wandered a couple of blocks, just to check out the neighborhood, and stumbled on the night market. What a cacophony of sounds, color, lights, and smells! I was stuffed, but those coconut ice cream cones looked awfully good.
It was fun just looking at all of the vendors who come set up their booths every night, selling everything from Thai-style shirts and pants, silk scarves and jewelry, to food, to beautiful flower soaps, hand carved and painted (about $3 before bargaining).
Open air bars spilled music into the street, a young Thai guy singing old American pop songs from the 70’s, and you could get a foot massage right there on the street for a couple of bucks. It was magical! I even ran into the nice Swedish family I’d met on the bus, who’d kindly watched my bags while I went to the restroom. Imagine being in a strange town in a foreign country, and running into somebody you know!
There’s one sure way to get indoctrinated into a new culture – go get your hair cut. The hotel staff recommended a place a 20 minute walk away, and it turned out to be in a huge shopping mall, with all of the usual world-wide chain stores, but with an Asian twist, like carts selling fresh pineapple that the woman carved and put into a little baggie for you. It was fun talking to the young guy who trimmed my frazzled hair, he told me about where he’s from, where he’s been (he lived in San Francisco for a while), and he gave me some great travel tips.
On my way back to my hotel, school had just let out…
…and I discovered what Thai school children eat for after school snacks. Street vendors lined the road and cute kids in uniforms lined up for all kinds of colorful foods that I didn’t have a clue what they were. Nobody seemed to notice me taking pics with my iPhone, they were all too busy deciding which delicacy to purchase. The few who did notice were all smiles. In fact, Thailand is known to be the land of smiles 🙂
Pictures of the king and queen are everywhere, and so are tangles of black cables. No one has been able to explain to me the Thai wiring system, and I’m not sure I want to know!
Temples and shrines are everywhere as well, and are both beautiful and artistic.
And the graffiti is artistic here too!
All too soon, it was time to purchase my train ticket (do this ahead, as the trains, buses and planes fill up).
You never know who you’re going to meet at the train station – this darling young girl asked if she could give me a survey for her school, and read the questions in English, recording my answers, about where I’m from and why I came to Thailand, and she asked to have her picture taken with me. The Thai people are some of the nicest and happiest people I’ve met anywhere. Come check it out!