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King's palace turns village into tourism hub

Once a simple fishing village, Hua Hin has evolved into one of Thailand's bustling tourism gems thanks largely to the presence of a revered resident: King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Just a few hours drive from Bangkok, Hua Hin is an alternative to Pattaya, a nearby beach resort best known for its thriving sex tourism, as visitors, especially Thais, find the lack of the party vibe here to be a selling point.

"As opposed to Pattaya's throbbing nightlife, many tourists prefer Hua Hin because its tranquillity offers them good family retreats," says Kittipongse Suranand, the governor of Prachuap Khiri Khan province, which includes Hua Hin.

Hua Hin, about 220km south of the capital, is home to Klai Kangwon, a seaside palace where the world's longest-reigning monarch has spent most of his time since 1999. The palace means "far from worries" in Thai.

The king's nearly century-old home looks like an Italian villa with its red-tile roof and grassy manicured gardens stretching down to the sea. But the public can only see the gate - even the beach outside is closed to passersby.

The king himself only leaves the grounds to pray at a local Buddhist temple, although some of his children are occasionally seen shopping at local markets.

But his mere presence here has been enough to transform the town.

"Tourists know the king lives here and they feel secure. The town, which is close to Bangkok, is beautiful with many buildings being renovated," says Natcha Sanrara, deputy head of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in charge of Hua Hin.

The governor launched a three-year program called Hua Hin Paradise City in 2004 to improve infrastructure and clean up the city's five-kilometer long beach in an attempt to boost local tourism.

The results so far are impressive.

"The whole town and the beach look cleaner than ever," says Emorn Sitthirat, a 28-year-old housewife from Bangkok.

Emron, whose previous visit to Hua Hin was four years ago, also noticed that buildings and train stations here were painted in yellow, the color Thais associate with Monday, the day the 79-year-old king was born.

Kittipongse says painting Hua Hin's buildings in yellow in Honor of the king was part of the makeover program.

"We want to make this town a more pleasant place for the king who has stayed here permanently for almost seven years," the governor said.

Local authorities have also stepped up security in the town and banned go-go bars and strip clubs, popular attractions in rowdy Pattaya, transforming Hua Hin into a classier beach resort.

Another pull for high-spending travellers is the annual Hua Hin Jazz Festival, which this year pulled in former Yes drummer Bill Bruford. The king is known as an avid jazz player.

Along with small boutique hotels, global luxury hotel chains including Hilton, Hyatt, Marriot and Sofitel cater to high-end customers here. The number of hotel rooms is expected to expand from the current 4 000.

Sven Wermelin, general manager of the Rock, one of 3 000 small and posh hotels in Hua Hin, says his business is booming despite cheaper alternatives in Pattaya or Phuket, Thailand's resort island along the Andaman Sea.

"Scandinavians come to Hua Hin even though here is more expensive than Pattaya and Phuket. Hotel occupancy rate here is stable at 80 percent for eight months annually," he says.

Of the 2,5 million tourists visiting Hua Hin every year, 80 percent are Thais with the rest largely from Europe, mainly Scandinavia, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

The number of tourists in Hua Hin in the first three months of 2006 jumped 28 percent year-on-year and the Tourism Authority aims to lift the number of tourists by 20 percent this year.

Each tourist spends 2 800 baht (about R500) a day on average, higher than in Bangkok or foreigner-dominated Phuket including hotel room expense.

Hua Hin property developer George Mastronicolis said safety is the top reason that tourists come to Hua Hin.

"Since the king decided to live in Hua Hin, the city has changed completely with local authorities working heavily on infrastructure programs including international schools, hospitals and golf courses," said Mastronicolis, a Greek national who has lived here for five years.

"Another important thing is that Hua Hin has preserved the Thai culture and lifestyle," he said.
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