Treated like royalty in Hua Hin
THE women hastily preparing steaming hot noodles and organising trays of snacks are on a tight schedule, and time is ticking.
The train from Bangkok to Southern Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore is only minutes away and hungry passengers on the 18-hour trip to the Malay border present the savvy stallholders a business opportunity.
On either side of their stall, activity is picking up pace.
Couples take photos with iPhones at the end of extended arms in front of the Hua Hin station sign.
Visitors wander through the photographic display of the Thai Royal Family, commenting on the Hollywood movie-star looks of the much-loved King Rama IX - the world's longest-serving, current head of state and longest-reigning Thai monarch - and glamorous Queen Sirikit in their younger years.
Tourists jump the tracks for the best camera angle of the long red-tiled station roof with its heavy timber platform seats.
Motorbikes, buses and cars roll on by in a constant flow on the main road, only metres beyond the station fence.
A high-pitched female voice comes over the PA to announce the train's imminent arrival and a station staff member rings the bell in almost ceremonial reverence.
We strain our eyes towards the end of the straight stretch of track coming into the town.
As the large, single beam of light grows brighter in nearing the station, cameras are at the ready.
Our Absolutely Fantastic Holidays guide, Pornpan "Poum" Chantanahom, has suggested we see why Hua Hin station is considered "the most beautiful in Thailand".
Once we arrive, we think the title is due to the quaint red and yellow public station buildings and the traditional Thai architecture of Royal Station, which is used only by the Thai Royal Family.
But the multi-carriage passenger train brings an unexpected joy that once again reminds us of the beauty of the Thai people themselves.
Dozens of schoolboys in brightly coloured uniforms wave and yell "Sawadee Karp" hellos from open train windows. One or two reach down to buy an afternoon snack from the stallholder who is peddling her wares up and down the carriages in the few short minutes the train will stop at Hua Hin.
The wide-eyed smiles and happy giggles on cherub faces as we take their photos overcome any language barriers.
Our own journey to this beachside resort city has come by road via the scenic route from the central plains.
But lying only 230km south of Bangkok, the resort town is a favourite among those wishing to escape the Thai capital for a weekend or more.
Thai royalty and high society have favoured Hua Hin since the early 1920s.
Physicians believed the area's exceptional climate and low rainfall would help King Rama VI, who ruled Siam from 1910-25, with his rheumatoid arthritis. So he built the Royal Summer Palace in 1923 in Cha-Am - Hua Hin's sister beach town.
And a more relaxing holiday home would be hard to imagine: the sprawling golden teakwood Maruekhathaiyawan Palace looks more like a magnificent colonial country mansion than a royal abode.
Painted in lollipop pastels and combining Thai and European-style architecture, the complex, which is open to the public, comprises three groups of one-storey buildings that span a total length of 399m.
The three main areas - assembly area (including a meeting hall, guests' reception room, ritual room, theatre and badminton court), men's quarter with the king's private residence, plus the ladies' quarter - incorporate 16 smaller buildings and are connected to each other by a long, covered timber corridor.
Maruekhathaiyawan translates as "the Place of Deers" and "the Place of Freedom" - named for the many deer that roamed free in the surrounding jungle in Rama VI's time.
These days, however, well-kept gardens and neatly manicured hedge artistry flank the palace, leading out to the promenade overlooking Chao Samran surf beach.
While the grand royal estate is certainly impressive, we feel like we have arrived at our very own palace once we enter the elegant five-star Cape Nidhra Hotel and Spa in Hua Hin.
Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha of Thailand opened the resort in April last year during her maiden stay in a hotel, under tight security.
All rooms in the low-rise complex have an infinity-edge private pool and my bathroom alone is big enough to host a high society soiree or two.
And after having cocktails and canapés at the hotel's On The Rocks rooftop bar at sunset with spectacular views of the Gulf of Thailand, uncovering the Euro-Asian dining delights of in-house Rocks Restaurant, and eating breakfast poolside with the sun climbing through the palm fronds, guests feel regal in their own right.
The 59-suite, absolute waterfront hotel is an ideal place to explore Hua Hin, which means "stone head" and is named after the rock formation at the end of the main beach.
Considered a quieter holiday destination than neighbouring Cha-Am, Hua Hin is all about rest and relaxation, with its 4km of surf beach extending from the city centre to Khao Takiab.
Naturally, quality seafood is abundant here and locals and tourists alike take every opportunity to sample wild and farmed prawns, soft-shelled crab, squid, scallops and wide variety of fish that grace the menus of top-notch establishments such as Yu Yen Hua Hin Balcony (29 Naep Khehat Road, entrance on Hua Hin Soi 51) and Baan Issara (7 Naebkhehard Rd).
Dining by the sea here also allows visitors to admire the Sino-Portugese style architecture common to the area.
Other examples of this classic style can be spotted behind tall picket fences and well-maintained lawns and gardens on a walk
along the beach from our resort.
From early in the morning, the unpatrolled beach is alive with activity - from staff at the many resorts neatly placing sunlounges on the sand to kite surfers, groups of swimmers, walkers and even horseriders.
With a keen eye, at the end of the long stretch of beach, you can spot Khao Takiab and Khao Krailas temples on Khao Takiab mountain, which juts out into the ocean.
Khao Takiab is also called Monkey Mountain for the wild monkeys that live there.
But most of the "wildlife" can be found out and about on a bustling Friday night in Hua Hin - eating at restaurants, drinking in bars and happily haggling at the street-long Night Markets that offer everything from inexpensive silk bed linen packs, clothing, handbags, and jewellery to arts and crafts, CDs, and trinkets.
Watch the people parade and soak up the atmosphere of the street vendors and live entertainers as you pull up a stool at a cocktail bar in the middle of the market or sit the family down at a table for a cheap and friendly Thai feast.
The smaller Grand Night Markets operate right across the road from the entrance to our hotel, which we found reasonable for leather goods and casual clothing.
On my final morning in Hua Hin, I stumbled out of the resort and on to the golden sands at high tide, just in time to join European and Thai tourists admiring a bright red sunrise.
As the minutes passed by, the clouds took on a hot-pink lining and a lone fishing boat was caught in the beam of orange light from the horizon to the breaking waves on the beach - a lasting impression and another unexpected joy to remind me of the beauty of Hua Hin.
GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT HUA HIN
Cape Nidhra Hotel, 97/2 Petchkasem Rd, Hua Hin. www.capecollection.com
Private pool to each room and complimentary Wi-Fi.
Facilities include: reading room, fitness centre, large swimming pool with children's section, sauna and steam rooms, Cape Spa, 24-hour concierge and room service, boardroom and meet roonms.
Hua Hin Hills Vineyard is in Khork Chang, 45-60 minutes from Hua Hin City.
Open 10am-6pm daily. A shuttle bus service is available for 300BHT per person from Hua Hin.
Absolutely Fantastic Holidays: Visit http://absolutelyfantastic holidays.com.a18.readyplanet. net/index.php