HUA HIN: Off The Beaten Track
Hua Hin is probably the nearest mainland location to Bangkok with decent beaches and is also one of Thailand’s oldest tourist destinations. One of the previous Kings of Thailand (Rama V) built his summer palace there, a century ago, for vacations away from the nation’s capital. it also seems to be the place where the Euro tourist crowd go to work on their tans and enjoy their evenings at the restaurants along the beach front. There seems to be a larger number of the independent type of tourist there rather than the bussed in Chinese and Russian crowds. Having seen a good deal of Thailand over the years it’s my considered opinion that the surrounds of Hua Hin, including the wider province of Prachuap Khiri Khan, have the most diverse range of sightseeing attractions in the Kingdom. Aside from the great beaches there are some brilliant national parks to the south and some amazing temples, caves, and waterfalls directly to the west of the city. However, in keeping with the general theme of this website, many of the locations I describe are off the beaten track and will not be on the tour companies list of sites to visit.
Getting to Hua Hin, from Bangkok, is straight forward and the two modes of transport available are the train or minibus. A minibus normally takes about three hours but if you want a more relaxed but slower trip, then the train is a good option. Travel time from Hualumphong station to Hua Hin is approximately 4.5 hours and a second-class seat is currently around 350 THB. A full schedule of departure and arrival times can be found on: http://www.thairailways.com/
For convenience, the 8.05 departure from Hualumphong will put you in Hua Hin just before midday.
As far as accommodation goes there are plenty of choices available, budget and otherwise, and Wikitravel is an excellent reference source http://wikitravel.org/en/Hua_Hin However, when it comes to hotels, guesthouses, etc in Hua Hin the rule of thumb is the less expensive places are on the western side of the main highway through the town, with the more expensive being on the Eastern side and up against the beach. My choice of inexpensive accommodation in Hua Hin is the Subhamitra Hotel – http://www.subhamitrahotel.com/ – or the Euro Bakery & Guesthouse – http://www.euroguesthousehuahin.com/
The Subhamitra is an older Thai style hotel on the western side of the main road (on Hua Hin 74 street) through Hua Hin and only a 400 meter walk from the railway station, give or take. It’s in that side of town which is sandwiched up against the railway track and where the bars, restaurants and hotels seem to be a bit lower in price than the beach side area. Another benefit of staying at the Subhamitra is they can arrange a motorbike rental for you on the spot. For going off the beaten track, having your own transportation is an absolute if you want to get to those places the tour companies don’t, or won’t, go to. Having your own transportation also gives you the flexibility of setting your own schedule and itinerary. Motorbike rental rates at the Subhamitra Hotel are currently 250 – 300 THB per day, depending on the capacity of the bike you hire. Once you’ve got yourself sorted out with accommodation and a motorbike it’s then just a matter of whether you want to use what remains of the day for some sightseeing, or just chill out until the following morning when you’ll have a full day in front of you. Personally, I’ve found allowing yourself a full day for visiting the attractions on my list affords you the best sightseeing experience and photo opportunities.
Getting off the beaten track in Hua Hin – The Road to Pala-U Waterfall:
Pala-U Waterfall is a picturesque site, in thick jungle surrounds, approximately 65 kilometers due west of Hua Hin. It is a place which predominantly only locals go to for a picnic or a day’s outing and is well worth the effort of visiting. As mentioned it is in mountainous, jungle clad surroundings and only a few kilometers from the Thai/Burmese border. It is at the end of route # 3218 which has several amazing attractions along the way, also. To get onto route # 3218, from the Subhamitra, go right at the hotel exit, then straight until you hit the T-junction of the road (Prapokklao Road) which parallels the railway tracks. Turn right onto Prapokklao then follow it until you come to the major intersection (Kao Hin Fai Lek Road) which crosses the railway tracks. Turn left then follow for a short distance and veer right onto the start of route # 3218; there will be road markings telling you as much. Follow route # 3218 and don’t deviate. Approximately five kilometers from the rail tracks you’ll come to an underpass of the main highway, go under that and continue directly (road markers will indicate you are still on route # 3218).
At approximately 31 kilometers from the Subhamitra Hotel (or 30 – 40 minutes travel time) you will come to the intersection of route # 3218 and route # 3301. Within the first 8 kilometers along route # 3301 there are three very interesting temple caves to visit: Dao Cave, Lub Lae Cave, and Kai Lon Cave. During my first visit to Hua Hin in 2012 I was fortunate to have the guidance of a local expat, with twenty years’ experience in the area, to these sites which I would otherwise have no knowledge of. All three cave sites (temples) are on the left of route # 3301 and spaced 2 – 3 kilometers apart.
Dao (turtle) Cave:
Dao cave is part of a temple complex which is only 500 meters along route #3301. Enter the temple grounds and follow the signage to a parking area which is adjacent to the short cement stairway up to the cave entrance. The initial entry chamber is well lit with two large Buddha statues situated within. One is in an alcove directly in front and the other is situated along the left wall. Both are around three meters in height. The cave was well lit with evenly spaced fluorescent lights highlighting the more interesting features and formations. There is general direction to follow through a labyrinth of small chambers and passageways before eventually coming back to the first chamber. The cave is generally well lit throughout but it’s always advisable to carry your own torchlight as a back-up just in-case there’s a power outage. There are bats in many of the chambers and they can be seen hanging from the ceilings at various points.
Lub Lae Cave:
Lub Lae Cave is the second cave/temple site along route # 3301 (approx. 2 kilometers from the T-Junction of route #3218) and is probably the most rugged and least developed of the three. As with Dao Cave it is part of a local temple complex and gets its name from an unusual rock formation within, which looks like a sleeping lady. There is a short dirt track up to the cave entrance, at the rear of the temple, after which a cement stairway drops down into the depths of the cave. This cave is the deepest of the three and in many places is unlit so a personal flash light (torch) is a requirement for a safe traverse. There is a general route to follow of approximately 200 meters before exiting the cave at another point beyond the initial entry point. This cave also has the greatest number of resident bats within and as such has resident cave dwelling vipers (non-venomous) which feed on the bats.
Kai Lon Cave:
Kai Lon Cave is the third cave/temple along route # 3301 and probably the most remote and least visited of the three. Follow route # 3301 for approx. 4 kilometers until you see the turn off to Kai Lon Cave on the left. Follow the dirt track to the very end until you reach the temple and parking area. Kai Lon Cave gets few visitors due to its remoteness and the rather arduous ascent up to the entrance; there is a steep, uninterrupted run of 200 steps directly from the parking area. According to local information this was the temple where the late king of Thailand spent some time as a monk. Kai Lon Cave was given its name apparently by a local farmer who discovered it when searching for a missing chicken. The chicken fell through the hole in the cave roof, so the story goes. It has a large entry chamber with some impressive formations within. The large hole in the roof allows plenty of natural lighting to illuminate the many Buddha statues within, some of which are reported to be at least four hundred years old.
Wat Pa Ban Alai:
From the junction of route # 3218 and route # 3301 continue along # 3301 towards Pala-U Waterfall for approximately five kilometers and you will come to Wat Pa Ban Palai (on the right). The temple is in a remote and beautiful setting in the jungle and it has a very unique attraction compared to other Buddhist temples in Thailand. It has a mummified monk resting in peace in a specially built mausoleum at the highest point of the temple grounds. On my first visit to Hua Hin in 2012 I was fortunate enough to have local expat Jim Currie as my guide. Aside from knowing the location of Wa Pa Ban Walai, and its mummified monk, he also informed me he personally knew the monk while he was still alive. Flanking the air tight casket within the mausoleum are there are also glass display cabinets with the dead monk’s personal effects, photographs, and some historical information regarding his life’s work.
Continuing from Wat Pa Ban Walai the road enters an area which is devoid of human habitation. This is a wildlife sanctuary with dense jungle up to the roads edge. Care should be taken when driving along this stretch of road in the late afternoon or at sunset as wild elephants often emerge from their jungle habitat to feed at the edge. If you are on a motorbike you should stop at a good distance from them (at least 200 meters) as they are not tamed and can be hostile if provoked or they feel threatened. During the day time this isn’t an issue as the elephants will remain in the cool surrounds of the jungle avoiding the heat. You will eventually emerge from this no-man’s land of wild jungle to a small village where there is an information center about forest conservation and wild elephant management. This area, close to the Burmese border, is one of the most picturesque and undeveloped locations in Thailand. There are no large hotels or resorts anywhere in sight. The road to Pala-U is well marked with directional signage and as you continue you’ll begin to descend into a mountainous, heavy jungle terrain of amazing natural beauty. Due to fact there is so much dense jungle in this area, rainfall can occur at any time of the year. I was there in February, which is generally considered the dry season, and there were heavy afternoon thunderstorms. Wet weather gear is an advisable option, particularly if you’re on a motor bike.
Pala-U Waterfall is a picturesque site, in thick jungle surrounds, approximately 65 kilometers due west of Hua Hin. It is a place which predominantly only locals go to for a picnic or a day’s outing and is well worth the effort of visiting. As mentioned it is in mountainous, jungle clad surroundings and only a few kilometers from the Thai/Burmese border. There is a 200 THB entry fee to pay at a checkpoint before entering the park area. The waterfall is actually a number of small falls, or steps, in a stream which descends from the mountains beyond. There is a developed trail which follows the stream to the fifth level. After that the trail is mostly non-existent. Lots of fish can be seen in many of the pools. A word of WARNING: at the beginning of the trail there is a foot bridge which crosses the stream. In the late afternoon, a group of primates often gathers around this area, perhaps waiting for handouts from tourists. Be very careful as these are not monkeys, they are APES (smaller chimpanzees) and they can become hostile, or dangerous, if provoked.
Getting to Hua Hin: Take the train from Hualumphong train station, Bangkok.
Distance from Bangkok: approx. 250 kilometers
Train travel time: 4.5 hours
Recommended accommodation in Hua Hin: The Subhamitra Hotel
Motor bike rental: Available at the Subhamitra Hotel, daily rates approx. 250 – 300 THB
Pala-U Waterfall: Approximately 65 kilometers due west from Hua Hin, via route #3218
Wat Pa Ban Walai: Approximately 32 kilometers due west from Hua Hin, via route #3218
Dao Cave: Approximately 28 kilometers due west of Hua Hin, via route #3218 & route #3301
Lub Lae Cave: Approximately 30 kilometers due west from Hua Hin, via route #3218 & route #3301
Kai Lon Cave: Approximately 32 kilometers due west of Hua Hin, via route #3218 & #3301