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Hua Hin on the cheap

Fifty years ago, when Hua Hin was just being recognised as a fabulous holiday beach destination, no one was paying Bt10,000 a night for a room at the Railway Hotel, although even then it was the most luxurious place in town.
And no one was paying Bt40 for a scoop of ice cream, either, or Bt400 for a biscuit party by the beach.
Hua Hin is still a favourite getaway for well-heeled Thais, but is it even a possibility for budget travellers?
If you've got Bt2,000 a day for two this month, lingering over your Earl Grey too long at the Museum Tea Corner might be inadvisable. That's Bt420 each off your budget for a start, and as much as high tea in colonial splendour is appealing, let's move on.
Taking the shoestring tour of Hua Hin begins with a sense of pride upon pulling into the train station there, having just endured five hours in the cheap seats all the way from Bangkok.
Buses from the Southern Bus Terminal cost Bt125 one way, and still take more than four hours, though there are some that cost Bt160 and get there in three hours.
If you want to be close to the beach - and, yes, paying next to nothing - walk past the Marriott on Phetkasem Road and turn left into a small, quiet street with no name. Look for a big signboard with a long list of guesthouses.
Among these are the Leng, the Thip-Urai and the Chanphen.
In high tourist season, most of these are fully booked with visitors from a part of Europe that gives the street its jocular name: Soi Scandinavia.
For Bt750 a night, tax included, you're not going to get much, as you can gather from the tiny reception areas.
The rooms typically have a pair of single beds, clean bathrooms, air-conditioning, a fridge and a TV. The good news is that you'll find a fair-sized swimming pool, most unusual for this price range.
"This street used to be a small townhouse estate with the shared pool," says the manager of one of the inns. "When the houses were converted into guesthouses, the owners split the expenses to keep the pool for all their guests."
During the current low season, many of the guesthouses are being renovated, so there's a bit of noise to put up with, but the hammering and the economical proportions are quickly forgotten when you stroll down a small alley to the blue sea and long sandy beach. Go on, do some shopping! Buy a can of pop for Bt20.
It's a shorter walk to the surf if you stay in town, and it still costs only Bt750 for most places on busy Srasong Road. There's also a grim-looking youth hostel that offers dormitory-style sleeping for Bt120.
And lots of budget travellers head to Nares Damri Road, near the Hilton, for seaside accommodation on stilts.
At the Fulay Guesthouse, prices vary - a room for two with a fan and tiny shower goes for Bt350 to Bt450, while air-conditioned rooms start at Bt850.
Hungry? Head to popular Khao Tom Jae Maew for rice soup with seafood at Bt30 a bowl. It's on Dechanuchit Road near the night market, which is packed with stalls selling fishy foods for between Bt50 to Bt300 (unless you order a lobster, of course).
Plus, you can satisfy your sweet tooth with sticky rice and ripe mango (Bt50) or coconut ice cream (Bt15).
Strolling along the beach is free, but if you want to perch on a canvas chair, that'll be Bt50. Find yourself a sunny bit of sand instead - just be careful a horse doesn't step on you.
Hua Hin is small enough that you can wander around for hours without needing wheels, but a short taxi ride only costs Bt50.
Just four kilometres from Hua Hin town is the village of Khao Takiab. It's Bt300 by taxi, but you can just as easily wait for a Bt10 songtaew near the night market.
Or, rent a motorbike for Bt400 a day to tour Khao Takiab, the lookout on Hin Lek Fai Hill and the elephant camp north of town.
The standing Buddha at Khao Takiab - which doesn't cost a single satang to admire - gazes out over the sea, and there's a temple that also offers panoramic views for the price of a steep climb.
(If you have food with you, but not enough to share, watch out for the monkeys - they're the champs when it comes to freeloading.)
A stroll back to Hua Hin can be tiring, but it's an hour well spent. There are lovely colonial beach houses with lush gardens on the way, many of which once belonged to Siamese nobility.
In the mood for some culture? Try the Rashnee Thai Silk Village, where the whole silk-making process is explained - at no charge.
A little golf? A tight budget is no problem on Mother's Day (August 12), when women pay just Bt74 to get teed off at the Majestic Creek and Palm Hills resorts.
After a long day of scrimping and saving, you must have some money to reward yourself with a nice romantic meal by the sea!
For a mere Bt300, visit one of the shoreline restaurants near the Hilton. Fried rice costs Bt95, fried vegetables the same and a small Singha beer Bt55. There you go. The Bt255 seafood pizza and Bt350 fried seabass will just have to wait until you've inherited your fortune.
The Hilton's Hua Hin Brewing Company, by the way, has a live band as well as DJs, and stays open late. A small glass of Sabai Sabai Beach Beer will set you back all of Bt140. Maybe you can manage that.
If in the course of your day you've accumulated enough budget-brained friends, perhaps you can collectively muster Bt1,500 and get a 3.5-litre tub of the suds. That should keep you happily broke.
And if there's any spare change left in your pocket at all, 7-Eleven is open all night. July 06

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