Hua Hin, about three hours south of Bangkok, hardly looks like a 21st-century getaway. The country's oldest resort rose to fame in the 1920s, a decade after British engineers punched a railway through deep jungle, eliminating the long elephant rides from Bangkok suffered by the royal family on their beach outings. (Commoners went by canal and oxcart.) For the ensuing half-century, Hua Hin was the place to sun and be seen by upscale Asians and resident expats. But the onset of group travel sent beachgoers to a succession of swank, new beach resorts, leaving Thais largely alone for the past few decades in their unheralded but tranquil retreat a quick dash from the congested capital.
The royal connection is a common refrain around Hua Hin, illustrated by ubiquitous billboards depicting the Queen and King. His image is everywhere: on posters by the market, holding his camera in front of the photo shop, promoting swimming safety with an inflatable life belt. These are not only signs of local admiration, but firm reminders that this is the King's beach, unblemished, as a consequence, by the blight of jet skis and girlie bars. The King couldn't save the skyline, marred by a scattering of concrete towers—the detritus of a short-lived condo boom derailed by the Asian financial crisis. But Hua Hin's golden beachfront is lined by 1960s-era wooden cottages where Thai families still gather to watch the waves from worn porches.
It wouldn't be far off to accuse Hua Hin of being boring, blissfully so, in fact. That is the appeal to workaholics like Wayne Chan, Taiwan-based Greater China president of Agilent Technologies, who visits annually with his wife. "Every day, we do the same thing. We wake, play golf, have lunch, a massage and then, in the evening, walk in the night market. It's always the same."
But will it change? "Ten years ago, this was a nice weekend retreat," says Joy Menzies, a British woman who has lived in Thailand for 10 years. "Quiet, peaceful, the place nobody outside Thailand really knew about." That's no longer true, and Menzies is part of the reason. She's general manager of the Chiva-Som, an opulent spa and health center that serves stars like Hugh Grant and Naomi Campbell. Clients pony up $500 or more per day for facials, aquatic therapy, papaya foot wraps and a full menu of East-meets-West massages.
Already, Chiva-Som's splash on the international spa scene is sending ripples of change through the sleepy getaway. Hyatt Regency recently became the newest resort to stake a claim upon Hua Hin's regal beach. Up and down the sand, hotels are being re-branded as fashionable spas. But there are no beach parties, no raves. And don't expect any soon, since the King has taken up permanent residence in his town palace Klai Kangwon. The name means "far from worries." That has long been Hua Hin's mantra, more than ever now that royalty is back on the beach.