Hua Hin is more than you might think – it’s a pretty town with a history of its own. Liza Linklater is looking for the town’s roots by checking into the oldest hotel there.
“There you are in the back row,” my friend points out to me. We are in the Museum Tea and Coffee Corner of the Hotel Sofitel Central Hua-Hin, in Hua Hin, Thailand looking up at a 1983 photograph of the crew and cast from the film The Killing Fields.
Both the former Railway Hotel and I have come a long way since then. One of the main differences between the two of us being that the hotel has had several magnificent face-lifts and additions over the years. In fact, the final renovation was completed on the original, historical Railway wing at the end of July 2001.
This stunning hotel brings back many personal memories of living in Thailand in the early 1980s and staying in the original, rather rundown, but absolutely charming colonial-style structure. While Thailand was never colonized it still boasts several old wooden European-inspired buildings.
As one of the locations used during the filming of The Killing Fields, the Museum tea and coffee corner was actually the original lobby lounge at that time. I remember the all night filming sessions around the old pool and along the broad, open air verandas with the likes of the then little known actors John Malkevich, Sam Waterston of Law and Order fame and several others.
A few days before arriving in Hua Hin this time, I had visited Hotel Le Royal (now of the Raffles chain) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It’s now another meticulously restored hotel; but in the early ’70s it was known as “Hotel Le Phnom” and in the film, the old Railway Hotel in Hua Hin was cast as its double.
(The previous five paragraphs were edited out of the published article for the lack of space but I think it adds more color to the piece.)
Built in the early ’20s by the Thai State Railway, and designed by the Italian architect A. Rigazzi, the 14-guestroom Railway Hotel became Thailand’s first western-style beach resort. Hua Hin is located about 190 kilometres southwest of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand and all visitors arrived by train in those days. Today, the four-lane highway transports most visitors, although trains still arrive, and planes (Bangkok Airways) have 40-minute flights from Bangkok and one-hour flights from Ko Samui once a day.
Thailand’s first beach resort, Hua Hin (meaning “Stone Head”), is still an active fishing “village” that has grown considerably and is home to some 65,000 inhabitants today. While it attracts tourists to its beaches each year it still maintains its quiet seaside ambiance.
Long before the arrival of the tourist age, Hua Hin attracted the Royal family, the aristocracy and Bangkok’s wealthy elite. The area continues to provide a summertime sanctuary for the present-day Royal family. King Rama VII had built a summer palace here in the 1920s. In 1929, a Spanish-style ocean hideaway was inaugurated and named “Klai Kangwon” (“Far From All Worries”).
Likewise, upon entering the grounds of the magical topiary garden of the Sofitel, all concerns of the outside or inner world start to drift away. These marvelous topiaries are shaped into elephants, squirrels, rabbits and birds.
In 1986, when private business was allowed to take over the Railway Hotel from the State Railway Authority of Thailand (which still owns the land), the preservation of the old building and the topiary gardens was an important condition in the contract. This has definitely been adhered to by its owners. Several features of this elegant hotel have been modified, and new wings added, but it certainly has not lost its essential charm and heritage.
The initial restoration was granted to Thailand’s Central Group of Hotels, and ACCOR, the global network of Hotels & Restaurants from France. The hotel was re-opened in 1988 under the name Hotel Sofitel Central Hua-Hin. The Central Group owns the hotel but it is managed by the ACCOR Group. After subsequent additions, the hotel now includes a total of 248 rooms and bungalows. Its clientele attracts those with an admiration for historic architecture and a tranquil past.
The 41 Thai-village style bungalows of the Central Hua Hin Village (in another wing from the main hotel) are set in lush tropical gardens overlooking the shore. The bungalows are the only individual free-standing villas in Hua Hin that are located right by the sea, yet in the centre of town.
The Hua Hin area still retains the charm of a peaceful, bygone era, with its serene surroundings, picturesque scenery and uncrowded attractions. The Edwardian-style architecture of the hotel is similar in appearance to the little-visited, recently restored, and truly magnificent Maruk Khatayawan Palace, the summer palace of “love and hope” built by King Rama VI in 1923/24. It is one of the largest teak palaces in the country. Located only 19 km north of Hua Hin, this is one site that definitely shouldn’t be missed.
There are six world-class golf courses within a 20-minute drive and the oldest is only three minutes away. In the ’20s the Royal Hua-Hin Golf Course was the first international golf course built in the Kingdom.
The old Hua Hin Railway Hotel constructed nearly 80 years ago, had much to do with the beginnings of the hotel and tourism industry in Thailand, both of which are legendary throughout the world. As a result of this, while there are several other excellent hotels in the Hua Hin area, try to spend time at the Sofitel in this 16-hectare, beautifully landscaped setting and transport yourself back to Old Siam and enjoy the old world charm of yesteryear.
» Bangkok Airways flies to Hua Hin daily (40 minutes, B3,300 return)
» Several trains stop at Hua Hin’s centrally located Railway Station on their way south (about 4 hours, prices vary)
» For details check with the State Railway at Hualamphong Station (02) 223-3762, 225-6964, 224-7788).
» Government and private buses leave the Southern Terminal in Thonburi every 30 minutes all day long (3 hours, B128 one-way).