I felt like it would be unacceptable to come to Thailand and not experience the fabulous beaches I’ve seen in everyone’s vacation photos. Unfortunately, the majority of those spots (like Koh Samui, Phuket, etc.) meant an expensive plane ticket and inflated accommodation prices, so we just couldn’t justify it. Instead, we opted to visit Hua Hin – a seaside resort town that is popular as a weekend getaway for residents of Bangkok, including the King. If it’s good enough for the King, it’s good enough for us, right?
We wanted to take the train, but unfortunately, it was sold out? (Though in hindsight, that may not have been true – the Thai websites were confusing and not always available in English.) The same website offered us tickets for a minivan, which was cheaper and faster than the train (less than $11 for both of us), so I assumed there had to be a catch, right? I envisioned a 12 seater van with about 20 sweaty people in it and I’d have to hold a chicken on my lap.
The departure point was nowhere near other public transit (which is a strange choice, but whatever) so we took Uber from the hotel. Our Uber driver decided we didn’t know what we were talking about and took us to a different destination. (To be fair, half the time we don’t know what we were talking about, though this time we did have a voucher with a different address, which we did try to show him.) He insisted the southern bus station had recently moved and thought he was doing us a favour. It sounded plasuible, but after 45 minutes of checking with various attendants, we were fairly confident we weren’t in the right place. Yet we also couldn’t deny there were buses and vans to Hua Hin departing from where we were.
The German tried calling the “if you have any problems, call this number” listed on the voucher. I heard him say a few times, “We can’t find the departure point…” and apparantly they just kept answering “45 minutes”… so we abandoned the voucher and bought tickets for another van which was leaving from where we were standing at that moment. We had to buy an additional seat for our luggage, but all said and done it was less than $20, so not the most expensive mistake we’ve made this trip.
The van was certainly a tight squeeze, but I didn’t have to share my seat with a chicken and it had air conditioning, so it was already working out better than I expected!
What would’ve been a 4 hour train ride was 2.5 hours by van, thanks to our driver, Speed Racer. At no point did I feel a need to screem out loud, so I guess that’s saying something, and no one was barfing so it was better than the Zanzibar ferry experience.
Hua Hin Beach
The resort we chose wound up being lovely, though Hua Hin beach wasn’t exactly the “Thailand beach paradise” I had pictured… there wasn’t much of a beach, and the water was more brown than blue. Still, the pools at the hotel were lovely, it was very affordable, and it was nice to be in a smaller town.
Massage is very popular in Thailand, and it’s not uncommon for locals to go multiple times per week to relax. You see tons of storefronts offering massage services, and they are always very full in the evenings. (And yes, these are legitmate massage parlours, though there are certainly places in Bangkok that also offer additional “services”.)
I’ve had a lot of massages, but never Thai style. It’s very different… they don’t use any oil and it’s much more physical. They give you these loose-fitting pajamas to wear, as they climb all over the table (and you) as part of the experience. In the movies, Thai-style massage is where the girls are walking on people’s backs. While they don’t do that anymore, there is a lot of facilitated streching, and even back cracking. They bend you into all sorts of different positions, then use their elbows, knees, feet and hands to massage you. If you like deep tissue massage like I do, it’s fantastic. But if you’re looking for a more relaxing, light massage, this isn’t the one.
You can get a 90 minute massage for less than $15, so I figured I should get as many as possible!
Elephants, Gibbons, and Otters – oh my!
I really wanted to have some kind of wildlife experience while we were here, but the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to the abusive practices of elephant tourism, or take photos with tigers or monkeys who had been sedated and stolen from their mothers. So I was thrilled to learn about the Wildlife Friends Foundation, which is located not too far from Hua Hin.
This sanctuary rehabilitates animals that have been abused, and whenever possible, releases them back to the wild. They also do a lot of educational outreach, and try working with the Thai goverment to advocate for animals. You can visit the sanctuary for a day, or volunteer for a week or longer… if we didn’t already have flights to Vietnam, I would certainly still be there!
My day started with a tour of some of the habitats, where we got to hear the stories of how each animal came to be there. Suffice to say, these aren’t happy stories… if a non-domesticated animal (like a monkey or bear or elephant) is being used for tourist activities, it has certainly suffered some major abuse. (Details on how elephants are broken for the trekking industry are here if you’re interested.) If you like animals at all, you should never support these industries – these practices will only stop when demand goes away.
WFFT has had great success releasing gibbons to the wild. Most gibbons that wind up there have previously been kept as pets, usually in tiny boxes or cages. To rehabilitate them, they start them in small cages, where they are often kept solo to adjust. Then they move on to larger cages, possibly with other gibbons or in sight of them, so they can re-learn how to be a gibbon. They eventually go to a cage-free island habitat before releasing them to the wild. This helps them transition from being pets to wild animals again.
They recently rescued a pair of 2 month old gibbons who are ridiculously adorable… I could have watched them all day:
They have everything from monkeys to bears to porcupines. All of them were illegally taken from the wild to be used for entertainment or as exotic pets. I missed the story about how these otters came to be there as I was overwhelmed by their adorable squeaky sounds:
The highlight of the day was my time with the elephants. I had the chance to see how happy they are here, to feed some of them, and to walk and bathe one. It’s an indescribable feeling to be walking down an open road with a 4 ton elephant following behind you, completely free of any fences, chains, or ropes. It was really magical.
Elephants used in the trekking industry rarely have the opportunity to get into water. We had a chance to help bathe an elephant (which they are accustomed to from their former lives):
At WFFT, all the elephants have access to ponds, though they can be unsure about hot to react to this luxury. The staff try and encourage them by tossing fruit into the water. This guy obviously loves going for a swim, based on his entry technique:
All in all, it was a really amazing day and I got back to the hotel smiling and filthy. (Who knew their trunks were so slobbery?) You can tell the volunteers and the animals are all very happy to be there. I am definitely going to look into visiting more sanctuaries and seek out volunteer opportunities, as it was such an incredible experience.
Next up, we are bouncing back to Bangkok for a couple nights before heading to Vietnam…