Phetchaburi, one of the country's oldest towns, possibly dates from the same period as Ayutthaya and Kanchanaburi, though it is believed to have been first settled during the Dvaravati period. After the rise of the Thai nation, it served as an important royal military city and was home to several princes who were groomed for ascendance to the throne. Phetchaburi's palace and historically significant temples make it an excellent day trip. It is just 1 hour from Hua Hin.
Note: Western Tours (www.westerntourshuahin.com; tel. 03253-3303), has day excursions for 1,800B per person that includes most of the sights below, or you can see them on a self-guided day trip by rented car.
The main attraction is Phra Nakhon Khiri (also called Khao Wang), a summer palace in the hills overlooking the city. Built in 1858 by King Mongkut (Rama IV), it was intended not only as a summer retreat for the royal family, but for foreign dignitaries as well. Combining Thai, European, and Chinese architectural styles, the palace buildings include guesthouses and a royal Khmer-style chedi, or temple. The Phra Thinang Phetphum Phairot Hall is open for viewing and contains period art and antiques from the household. Though it was once accessible only via a 4km (2 1/2-mile) hike uphill, you'll be happy to hear there's a funicular railway (it's called a "cable car," but that's not an accurate description) to bring you to the top for 40B. It's open daily 8:30am to 4pm. Admission is 150B.
Another fascinating sight at Phetchaburi, the Khao Luang Cave, houses more than 170 Buddha images underground. The stalactites in the cavern make this one of the most impressive cave-shrines in the country. If you can time it right, arrive in the morning when sunbeams cast a dramatic and photogenic light through the cave’s natural ‘skylight’ of sorts. The cave is accessible via steep but nicely paved stairs. Outside the cave, hundreds of noisy monkeys descend upon the parking lot and food stalls looking for handouts. Sometimes you’ll find a guide outside who’ll escort you through the caves for a small fee, but it is not necessary to have a guide.
Wat Yai Suwannaram is a stunning royal temple built during the Ayutthaya period. The teak ordination hall was moved from Ayutthaya after the second Burmese invasion of the city (don't miss the axe-chop battle scar on the building's carved doors). Inside there are large religious murals featuring Brahmans, hermits, giants, and deities.
Another wat (temple) with impressive paintings is Wat Ko Keo Suttharam, also built in the 17th century. These representational murals, painted in the 1730s, even depict some Westerners: There are several panels portraying the arrival in the Ayutthaya court of European courtesans and diplomats (including a Jesuit dressed in Buddhist garb).
Another fabulous temple is Wat Kamphaeng Laeng, originally constructed during the reign of Khmer ruler King Jayavarman VII (1157-1207) as a Hindu shrine. Made of laterite, it was once covered in decorative stucco, some of which still remains. Each of the five prangs (towers) was devoted to a deity -- the center prang to Shiva is done in a classical Khmer style. During the Ayutthaya period, it was converted to a Buddhist temple.
Lastly, the Phra Ram Raja Nivesana, or Ban Puen Palace (tel. 03242-8506; daily 8am-4pm; admission 50B) is a nice stop. A royal palace built by Rama V, the German-designed grand summer home comes alive with colorful tile work, neoclassical marble columns, and floor motifs. Today it sits on military grounds and is a popular venue for ceremonies and large occasions.
Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
Just a 40-minute drive south of Hua Hin, Khao Sam Roi Yot, or the "Mountain of Three Hundred Peaks," is comparatively small in relation to the nation's other parks, but offers great short hikes to panoramic views of the sea. There is abundant wildlife here (seen only if you're lucky). Of the park's several caves, Phraya Nakhon Cave is the most interesting, housing a sala pavilion that was built in 1890 for King Chulalongkorn. Over the years, jaw-dropping photos of the caved atmospherically bathed in morning light have made the rounds on tourist brochures, traveler’s Instagram accounts, and glossy magazines. Plan to arrive around 10:30am to see the famous light in real life. Part of the cave’s roof collapsed many years ago (it’s a secure structure today, no worries) and there’s enough sunlight for photosynthesis to occur, and now trees grow on the cave’s floor, adding to the stunning ambiance. Weekends get busy but mornings and evenings are generally people-free. The path to the cave starts at Laem Sala Beach, and it is a 430-meter climb to reach the cave from there. Parts of the climb is steep and rocky, but it’s manageable. For more information, call the national parks office at tel. 02562-0760, or check out their website at www.dnp.go.th. To arrange a tour, call Western Tours (tel. 03253-3303; 1,700B per person). The tour stops at a pineapple plantation and fishing village before the short but steep walk up to Phraya Nakhon Cave.
A half-day trip to the Pala-U waterfall close to the Burmese border (63km/39 miles west of Hua Hin) is another nature trekking option. Nature trails take you through hills and valleys until you end up at the falls. Western Tours does the trip for 1,700B per person.
Prachuap Khiri Khan
If you've had enough of Thailand's many overdeveloped beach areas, the small town and beaches near Prachuap Khiri Khan (just a 1-hr. drive south of Hua Hin) might just be the answer. Some of the kindest people in Thailand live here, the beaches are lovely and little-used, and the town begs a wander. There is little in the way of fine dining and accommodation, but it is a good stop on the way south to Chumphon. If you decide to crash for a night, there are a host of guesthouses in town, most of them with shared bathrooms. The nicest is Prachuap Beach Hotel (123 Suseuk Road; www.prachuapbeach.com; tel. 03260-1288; doubles from 900B) with brightly painted walls, firm beds, and (most importantly) a diligent staff keeping it clean. More likely, you’ll at least need a place to eat, if so, try the Isan delights at the famed street food shop called Som Tam Baa Nook (Suseuk Road just off the beach; approximately 7am to 4pm) or the simply named Intown Seafood (no English sign; at the end of Chai Talay Road; tel. 081705-6507), where fresh-caught fish is the reason for going.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.