Tuesday 31 August 2010

Cha-Am -- a charming seaside town

Where the hell is Cha-Am? is a reasonable question. You see I’d been travelling to Thailand for about 20 years before I ever even heard the name much less visited the place.

To break the suspense, it’s about 130 km south west of Bangkok; about 30 km north of Hua Hin. Got it now?

In fact no one is quite sure where Cha-Am finishes and Hua Hin starts. They sort of blur into one, sharing the same local attractions between them. But Hua Hin is the bigger of the two, having started way back with the Royal summer resort connection and the fabled railway since 1911.

‘Hua Hin seemed to get the high end, and Cha-Am the cheap end of the market,’ says Khun Panit, manager of the Veranda resort in Cha-Am, ‘but that’s all changing now.’ He talks of how the Dusit, the Sofitel were already in Hua Hin 10 years ago when he first arrived, then came the Hyatt, the Hilton, now the InterCon ‘and the new brand names are still coming.’

He points out that the trend in Cha-Am is now towards the more upscale market ‘with a lot of boutique resorts like Alila moving in’.

Ironically the Veranda calls itself Veranda Hua Hin Cha-Am. ‘We push it to the border,’ laughs the amiable hotelier. ‘Customers overseas know where Hua Hin is. But in fact Cha-Am has better beaches.' The Courtyard by Marriott similarly bills itself as ‘Hua Hin at Cha-Am Beach’.

The beach in fact is a long beautiful stretch that goes on endlessly, with deckchairs and umbrellas, and blue wooden fishing boats sitting high and dry at the high water mark.  Strolling along the beach front road, fishing nets and paraphernalia are strung out, and there’s a rather pungent smell of fish in the air. A sure sign of the freshest seafood, ironically ...

A popular strip of restaurants is a magnet, especially for Bangkokians at the weekend. While the Horny Gecko restaurant does a roaring trade (more to farangs with its more polished appearance – it has walls and a roof for instance), those in the know head to Sung Wean, an authentic seafood restaurant right in the sand. Hundreds of tables are plonked on the beach, shaded by seemingly thousands of red, blue and green beach umbrellas. This is fine when it’s sunny, and just a little humorous when the monsoon rains come sweeping in … and torrents of leaking water force diners to stand on their seats, shielding their main courses from the drips.

But the food … steamed fish, grilled prawns, steamed green-lipped mussels (a whole dish for only 80 baht). Oh, to die for! And mains cost between 100-250 baht only. ‘The portions are massive and incredible value for money,’ enthuses Panit. ‘There’s a waiting list every weekend.’

Same for Platoo restaurant, in the vicinity of Marriott. A barn of a place facing the beach, but with real walls and a thatched roof and everything. Great seafood at the same prices. But bigger. Think tour buses, and staff calling through orders on wireless radios. Not as charming but the food is mouthwatering.

And at the northern end, hundreds of umbrella-covered deckchairs. Beyond the beach and the boats, the breakwater keeps the ocean at bay, providing a charming safe haven where kids fly kites and ponies wait for pint-sized passengers.

If you haven’t heard of Cha-Am before – or even if you have – you’re going to be hearing a lot more of it from now, jing jing.

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