For over a century, the pretty coastal district of Prachuap Khiri Khan on the Gulf of Thailand has been the destination of choice for Thai families escaping Bangkok’s bustle for a weekend by the sea. Long sandy beaches, fresh, juicy seafood dishes and green hills have helped make millions of happy memories here over the years.
The town of Hua Hin receives most of the international tourist traffic, as visitors flock there seeking the ‘sleepy fishing village’ vibe advertised in a hundred holiday brochures. With its restaurant piers and briny ambience, Hua Hin is charming, but there’s now a distinctly international feel to the town which bustles with tourists all week. So for more relaxed vibes, consider Cha-Am, just north of Hua Hin. It’s as equally laid-back as Hua Hin, and if you’re travelling from Bangkok, 30 minutes nearer – so you can enjoy half an hour longer on the beach.
So what’s Cha-Am Beach like? Well it is wide and sandy with large umbrellas and low-set seating where you can relax in the shade and snack on seafood. And unlike Hua Hin, where the best views are the preserve of big-name hotels, Cha-Am lies parallel to the beach so everyone has a sea view, whether they’re in tall hotels or small bungalows. The sea itself teems with life – so you can enjoy fine seafood dinners in the local restaurants – with tasty crabs, squid and shrimps as gigantic as a giant’s thumbs to feast upon.
The beach often hosts large events, the most famous being the Cha-Am International Kite Festival that takes place every March when strong winds ensure that even the largest and most eccentric of kites can soar into the skies. It’s a popular event with photographers seeking great shots.
Being low-key and laid back, especially on week-days, Cha-Am is the sort of place where tourists are soon on first-name terms with the locals – who are happy to chat. At the weekend, most visitors are young urbanites looking to spend the day on the beach, playing guitar, and chatting over drinks and under umbrellas. A popular thing to do is rent out two, three or four-seater tandems and cycle lazily up and down the beach road – stopping only to top up on snacks and drinks.
In fact, Cha-Am is so relaxed that the only major decision you’ll need to make here is where to have dinner – not a fraught process, as all the restaurants serve excellent seafood.
Most visitors enjoy this pleasant state of tranquillity that the town induces. But if indulgent relaxation isn’t your thing, then the region offers a range of diverting activities and the local taxi drivers are happy to arrange sightseeing trips. Hua Hin, with its nightlife and shopping is a short drive away but there are also other uniquely Thai attractions in the vicinity.
An afternoon in Maruekhathaiyawan Palace is time well spent. Known as the “Palace of Love and Hope”, this was a summer home for King Rama VI and built in 1923 as a venue where he could restore his health in the sea air. Designed by Italian architect, Ercole Manfredi, the charming palace is a perfect beachside retreat. Sixteen teak pavilions, open to the Gulf’s breezes are connected by lovely teak walkways and you can spend a leisurely afternoon exploring the halls and curved staircases.
Epicureans should head into the cool of the western hills to sample the fruits of Thailand’s burgeoning wine industry. There are many vineyards some 40-odd kilometres from Cha-Am and most offer tours and the chance to sample wines. At, larger wineries such as the Hua Hin Hills Vineyard, you can dine on award-winning Thai food, chosen to complement the wines made from the grapes that are growing abundantly all around.
If you’ve a spare evening, don’t miss the sunset wonder that takes place at Cha-Am’s little-known bat cave around 5 kilometres from town. Halfway up a limestone peak, the cave is home to an estimated 10 million bats and each evening they fly out en-mass to hunt. It’s like seeing special effects as little mammals stream from the cave like a rustling, grey ribbon of smoke for several minutes, emptying the nooks and crannies of the mountain. This has to be one of Thailand’s most memorable sights, yet remains little known except to Cha-Am locals.
Cha-Am is also convenient for Kaeng Krachan National Park, which is Thailand’s largest. The Park covers 2,478 sq. kms. and is home to wild elephants, but only the nearest parts of it can be explored by day-trippers.
In all, if you want a nearby seaside bolt-hole, with a relaxed vibe and fine food, Cha-Am is perfect. You’ll be following in the footsteps of three generations of Thai holidaymakers, who are known for taking their beach holidays very seriously.
Cha-Am can be easily reached by taking mini-buses from Victory Monument or the Southern Bus Terminal.
Marukathaiyawan Palace is 9 kilometres south of Cha-Am and open every day except Wednesday, from 08.30 to 16.30 hrs. Admission is 30 Baht. This is an official royal residence, so visitors are expected to dress respectfully.