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Day 151 – Old Town Hua Hin (Nostalgia, Thai Style)

August 1, 2010

Dateline: Hua Hin, Thailand – Sunday, August 1, 2010

Natives are tourists, too. We forget this sometimes. In the U.S., most of the people you see staring up at the New York skyscrapers, gawking at the Grand Canyon, and wandering Disneyland are Americans. People like to visit objects of national pride or things that remind them of their country’s past. Or things with lots of neon.

It’s the same here in Asia. The Forbidden City was packed with Chinese tourists with nary a Westerner in sight. Same with the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian. Watching the in-country travelers gave me a sense of what was fascinating to the local population.

Hua Hin has its mix of locals and Westerners. Most weekenders, though, are Thai. In part that’s because the town is only a few hours away from Bangkok. Its white sand coastline, cooler temperatures, and loads of resorts make for a quick getaway from the city.

It’s not all lounging on beaches; Hua Hin is stocked with royal history. The Marukhathaiyawan Palace that I visited yesterday is only one of many formal royal residences in the area. In fact, Hua Hin is home to the current king, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Crowned in 1950, His Majesty’s six decade reign has survived an otherwise tumultuous succession of coups and government changeovers. Most Thais, particularly those from Bangkok, seem to have genuine affection for the man. He reminds them of how far the country has come. He is also a link to the country’s past. His age (82), his health (poor), the perception of the throne’s heir apparent (a spoiled playboy), and the recent Red Shirt uprisings have some Thais reminiscing about the days when the King was strong and the country was in a less precarious situation.

The laidback beach town and royal nostalgia seems like a good antidote to the bustle of the city and the turmoil in the government. Here, the breeze is warm, the ocean is clear, and the royals are still majestic. Hua Hin is an escape.

It should be no surprise, then that a favorite Thai attraction in Hua Hin is a faux old town. A small shopping, eating, and entertainment area has been constructed to look like a cleaned up version of a bygone Thailand. Vendors sell vintage candy and toys. There’s a storefront dressed up to look like a 60’s barber shop and a CD shop that only sells music from old time Thai crooners. The workers at the food stands wear floppy hats that are out of place in the 21st century. In the back, there are country fair types of games where you can try to win your date a stuffed animal or two. Strings of hanging, incandescent lights soak the buildings in a warm, inviting glow. In the background, ‘50s style Thai music drifts through the elevated walkways. It’s the Wonder Years for Thai cities.

Back home, something like this would feel kitschy. It’d feel like the place was trying too hard. It’d give me the same feeling of hollow nostalgia that I get when I walk down Main Street in Disneyland—I’d feel emotionally manipulated.

Here, though, I have none of that baggage. I don’t feel like a corporate juggernaut is toying with my emotions. Old town Hua Hin is a pretty, interesting place. It’s a window into how many Thais like to see their past.

Take the guy selling slushy soda drinks in tall cups with string handles. For all I know, that’s just a hipster update to an old school drink. Or the shop selling sweet paste that’s been shaped to look like miniature fruits and vegetables—it could be the equivalent of the guy selling churros in Frontierland, a sort of cleaned up version of a grittier street food. Here, though, it doesn’t seem odd.

The Thai tourists pile up to take pictures in front of the Hua Hin sign. They crowd around vendors to try novelty food. Even in the light rain of a Sunday night, the place is crawling with Thais who want to see how things used to be.

It’s a quiet, fun evening. It’s an escape. A welcome one, considering I leave for home in two days. In a few weeks, I’ll be looking back at my time here yearning for this day gone by. Nostalgic Hua Hin now has a nostalgic feel for me, too.

GALLERY: Click through to today’s gallery to see bonus pictures of old town food and old town toys.

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