Hua Hin

David Whitley discovers that there’s no such thing as a free game of pool in Hua Hin, Thailand 

“Ooh! There’s a pool table. Shall we have a game of pool?”

It all started innocently enough. Wandering back from the waterfront seafood restaurant, a succession of nightcaps were in order. One in the vaguely saloony theme pub, one in the uncharacteristically swish wine bar… and one in the bar with a free pool table seemed like an excellent extension of the plan.

Until this point, I’d formed a fairly benign opinion of Hua Hin. The guidebooks say it’s where the weekending wealthy from Bangkok come for a break. A little like Brighton is to London, or Cape Cod is to Boston.

On a weekday, though, this doesn’t shine through. A walk down the beach – it’s long, the sand is fairly white and the water is a dubious muddy colour – reveals a lot of Scandinavian reading material. It’s a place with a different scene – a little too pricey for the backpacker crowd, and a surprisingly high concentration of middle-aged northern Europeans.

Menus and shop signs are often translated into Finnish, Swedish and Danish. Bars show obvious allegiances to Norway or Germany. There are more couples than you’d normally associate with Thailand. On the whole, it seems like one of those places that isn’t quite great at anything but is rather enjoyable for that. Everything – the markets, the restaurants, the bars, the beach, the tours and attractions nearby – is reasonably good without ever threatening to veer into excellence.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, if you just want somewhere to hole up and chill out for a few days, but without having to go stir crazy.

After picking up the pool cue, chalking it and breaking, I took a little look round the bar. When we first walked in, it looked to have a good mix of locals and tourists, but closer observation made the key demographics more apparent.

The locals were all women in their 30s, beyond the initial flushes of youth, yet still surprisingly friendly towards the foreigners. Who were all paunchy white men in their late 40s and 50s.

Aaaaaah. One of those bars.

We finished the game of pool and moved along. Better to move to a bar where there won’t be undercurrents every time a waitress takes my order. But strolling down the lane, it quickly became apparent that our bar with the free pool table was the tip of an iceberg.

Each bar we walked past was more obvious than the last. The girls got younger, the clothing skimpier and the middle-aged Scandinavian men drooled more blatantly.

The bars were interspersed with massage parlours of the happy ending variety. Girls sitting on benches started propositioning me.

“Bloody hell,” said my wife, suddenly twigging that we’d walked into a red light district more readily associated with Pattaya. “It’s like Shaun of the Dead, but with prostitutes.”

My embarrassment was compounded by the fact that I was suddenly lost. All attempts to get to the main road or the beach were marked with more wrong turns and even more pick-up bars. “No! You’ve got it all wrong,” I wanted to explain. “I’m not a sex tourist. I’m just very lost.”

Or “No love, I’m sure you’re very nice. But I’m not after that.”

Or “There’s been a terrible mistake! I shouldn’t be here.”

Or “Do I really look like a sex tourist? Please tell me I don’t look like a sex tourist.”

Seemingly wandering round in circles as girls danced very unsubtly by streetside tables, I began to imagine how mortifying this would be if I were an older man travelling alone.

Despite any protestations to the contrary, all the seedy old men would think you’re one of them. And any the other tourists wandering around lost would put you in the grubby lech camp too. It’s a marvellous place for a reputation to be ruined…

You can get Bangkok, Chiang Mai or the Islands included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW