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Hua Hin: 265km (165 miles) S of Bangkok; 223km (139 miles) N of Chumphon.

Cha-Am: 240km (149 miles) S of Bangkok; 248km (154 miles) N of Chumphon

Hua Hin and Cha-Am, neighboring towns on the Gulf of Thailand, together are the country's oldest resort area. Developed in the 1920s as getaways for Bangkok's elite, the beautiful "Thai Riviera" was a mere 3 or 4 hours' journey from the capital by train, thanks to the southern railway's completion in 1916. The Thai royal family was the first to embrace these two small fishing villages as the perfect location for summer vacations and for health retreats. In 1924, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) built the royal Maruekatayawan Palace amid the tall evergreens that lined these stretches of golden sand. Around the same time, the Royal Hua Hin golf course opened as the first course in Thailand. As Bangkok's upper classes began building summer bungalows along the shore, the State Railway opened the Hua Hin Railway Hotel for tourists, which stands today as the Sofitel Centara Grand Resort and Villas. To this day, the King of Thailand spends much of his time at his regal residence just north of town (note the constant presence of Royal Thai Naval frigates offshore). Yet despite the town's venerable connections, the beaches here cannot compare with those on the offshore islands, and the sea is often murky.

When Pattaya, on Thailand's eastern coast, hit the scene in the 1960s, it lured vacationers away from Hua Hin and Cha-Am with promises of a spicier nightlife. Since then, Pattaya's tourism has grown to a riotous, red-light din, and Hua Hin and Cha-Am are a discerning alternative, though a few hostess bars have opened in downtown Hua Hin. These days, the younger generation of Thais are driving 45 minutes farther south to Pranburi, where a clutch of Thai-run resorts on isolated beaches are drawing well-heeled families away from Hua Hin.

Plan your trip for the months between November and May for the most sunshine and least rain, but note that from about mid-December to mid-January, Hua Hin and Cha-Am reach peak levels, and bookings should be made well in advance. Low season means more rain, but rarely all day long.