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A taste of Thailand

Like many of its Asian neighbours, Thailand is hoping to become a golf power. Unlike the other countries, the country’s pace is manageable and the prevailing attitude one of serenity. James A. Frank reports

During the cultural revolution, the mantra on the streets of Beijing was “The East is Red.” Four decades later, Mao must be spinning in his tomb because with golf spreading through Asia, today “The East is Green.”

Japan and Korea have long been golf-mad. China is muscling in on the golf market as vigorously as the currency market. Vietnam has beaten its swords into bunker rakes, there are courses near the temples of Angkor Wat, and rumour has it that Burma’s generals are driving Titleists instead of tanks.

And then there’s Thailand. Peaceful, friendly, non-confrontational Thailand, a delightful amalgam of great food, beautiful beaches, exemplary service, and the ability to satisfy almost any non-prurient interest – all at very affordable prices. There is culture – temples, palaces, museums – but it’s downplayed so the emphasis can be put on enjoyment: watching the sun set, getting a massage, riding an elephant, snorkeling, drinking, lazing. Thailand is a playground for adults, the “anti-Asia.”

Exotic tastes in golf are more than catered for at the stunning Blue Canyon
Country Club, where there are two tough 18-holers

“It all stems from the Buddhist religion,” explains Mark Siegel, managing director of tour operator Golfasian, an American who has lived in Bangkok for 20 years. “The Thais hate conflict. You can see it in the fact that they never take sides, have never been colonized, and have not been involved in any recent wars. It makes them great hosts, but is also the reason nothing ever gets resolved here.”

Maybe so, but someone resolved to make golf a major ingredient of Thailand tourism, and as a result there now are more than 250 courses. Admittedly most are nowhere near Western standards, but a few dozen make the long trip well worth taking. The courses are as different as the geography. Up north, in the “Golden Triangle” where Thailand meets Burma and Laos, the terrain is mountainous and the fairways wide. In the middle of the country, around Bangkok and the resort cities that lap up against the Gulf of Thailand, the designs range from classic to excitingly modern. On the southern island of Phuket, the golf has a resort feel: Rounds are longer, hotter, and more expensive.

For a taste of old Siam, go north to Chiang Mai, the country’s capital 800 years ago. The original city – a maze of winding streets, wats (temples), and markets – is girded by walls and a moat; the new city that surrounds it is filled with hotels, shops, and restaurants. About half an hour into the nearby mountains is five-year-old Chiang Mai Highlands, a well-maintained course of broad expanses, dramatic changes in elevation, and enough water and sand to put real risk into the many risk-reward holes.

Chiang Rai, another former capital, is a few hours to the east and deeper into the triangle. Drugs are still smuggled through the mountains, but visitors likely won’t see any evidence unless they visit the House of Opium, a museum dedicated to the longtime cash crop. The museum is across the road from one of the area’s finest resorts, the Anantara Golden Triangle Chiang Rai, which operates its own elephant camp: Asian elephants aren’t as big as their Indian or African cousins, but they’re not small; they’re also natural comedians and put on quite a show during their late-afternoon bath in the Mekong River.

Nearby Santiburi Country Club is a big ballpark with plenty of water and movement both side to side and up and down. Both northern courses are cooled by mountain breezes, a welcome characteristic that does not make the trip south. Chiang Rai is also about an hour from Mae Sai, a border crossing into Burma, which turns out to be little more than a street market of cheap knock-offs, everything from sunglasses and DVDs to Viagra and cigarettes.

Twenty minutes from Chiang Rai, the Santiburi Country Club is a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design – and one that maximises the natural elevation of its forested acres.

Bangkok deserves a day or two of palaces, museums, and markets. For all the crowds, cars, and cacophony, the capital flows with its own serene choreography and is much less manic that other Asian megacities. And as is true throughout Thailand, it’s hard to get a bad meal (although Westerners might be wary of food carts on the street).

Less than an hour from downtown, the Thai Country Club is traditional in both design and amenities. The parkland course is not long, but tightened with water and sand. It’s perhaps best known for hosting the 1997 Asian Honda Classic, when Tiger Woods – visiting his mother’s home country – drove the 360-yard par-four 10th hole and then three-putted. Angrily.

Putting can be a challenge on most Thai courses due to the strong grain and subtle breaks. Most of the fairways and rough consist of wiry, Bermuda-like grasses that thrive in high heat and humidity. An umbrella is a must, occasionally for protection from the rain but more often from the sun.

Thai Country Club is one of many clubs with an excellent caddie corps, young women who can earn more outdoors than in an office. Covered head to toe – sporting a tan is tantamount to admitting one works on a farm– the caddie is truly the golfer’s best friend, offering yardages in serviceable English, driving the cart, running to the shack for cold drinks, even giving an impromptu back rub. They’re also delightful companions who will gladly talk about their lives, teach a little of the language, and make a badly played round enjoyable.

Pattaya, on the gulf three hours east of Bangkok, has many massage parlors (both legitimate and not so), nightclubs, and tourists frequenting the first two. The nearby Siam Country Club has two fine courses that couldn’t be more different. The nearly 40-year-old Old Course was the country’s first privately owned layout: It is flat, lined with trees, and features rolling greens, diabolical chipping areas, and a tough final four holes. Just up the road, the two-year-old Plantation course is the wild younger sister, 27 holes of big drops, uphill shots, acres of sand (27 bunkers on one par-five hole alone!), and Himalayan greens. Carved through fields of pineapple, tapioca, and sugar cane, Plantation is usually the visitors’ preference; taken together, the two courses offer stark contrasts and great fun.

Ocean views are par for the course at Phuket’s Mission Hills Resort & Spa, a new and challenging layout from Nicklaus Design

Three hours west from Bangkok is Hua Hin, a quieter, family- friendly gulf village. In town, the principal site is the summer palace of King Bhumibol, the world’s longest-serving head of state and a revered presence throughout the country. Just out of town is one of the country’s newest and most highly regarded courses, Banyan Golf Club.

The year-old Banyan was designed by a local architect who whittled through fields of pineapple along a gently sloping hillside. Perfectly maintained – the zoysia grass is lusher and easier to play from than what’s found most everywhere else – Banyan is beautiful and deceiving, demands the ability to move the ball, and remains memorable months later. There are also alluring views over the gulf, an ultra-modern clubhouse, and a residential village in town that packages golf with modern accommodations. Not far from Hua Hin, Black Mountain Golf Club is another modern design, with streams and rock monoliths strategically placed for challenge and excitement, a bit of Trump-like eccentricity up and down the hillside.

Phuket is all about fun, all the time. It’s ringed with beaches, offers every manner of hotel from backpacker-spartan to ultra luxurious – the Anantara Phuket, near the island’s north end, is regularly named one of the world’s top hideaways – and creature comforts tend to be slightly more expensive than elsewhere in Thailand. A cab ride away is Phuket City, where any hedonistic itch can be scratched.

Tops among Phuket’s many golf alternatives is the Canyon course at Blue Canyon Country Club, which plays around and down into a big hole with two lakes at the bottom. Hard and long, Canyon is walking-only: Take it slow, drink plenty of fluids, and listen to the caddie. The next-door Lakes course is easier, more straightforward, and allows carts.

Built in the remains of a former tin mine, the Blue Mountain course in Phuket is routed to take advantage of a variety of landforms and elevation changes

Before scaling the Canyon, warm-up on the Banyan Tree course at Laguna Phuket resort, which is also walking-only but blessedly flat; it’s a good test for higher-handicappers if they can avoid the lakes and survive the two long par-fives at the finish. Another rehearsal in a similarly canyonesque vein is scenic Red Mountain Golf Club, built in an abandoned tin mine; it’s difficult, but has the good sense to permit carts.

THAI TIPS

Thailand’s courses are best explored with the help of an experienced tour operator, and there’s none better than GolfAsian (golfasian.com). The staff can arrange golf, hotels, meals, sightseeing… you name it. Check out their website as well as golfinakingdom com, a consortium of golf properties countrywide.

Hotels come in all price ranges. Consider staying in at least one Anantara Resort, located in Phuket, Hua Hin, near Chiang Rai, and elsewhere in Thailand; they’re expensive but among the world’s finest. Bangkok has all the big hotels: The Westin Grande is conveniently located in the busy Sukhumvit district; Marriott operates the only resort in the city, one of many elegant choices on the Chao Phraya River (with its own motor launch from midtown). In Chiang Mai, a number of small, cozy hotels sit inside the old walled city, notably the lovely De Naga.

The Banyan Course at Laguna Phuket Resort offers a wealth of scenic lagoons, coconut groves and undulating fairways

In Pattaya, the wild bar scene is at the south end of town so consider staying north at the modern Woodlands Resort. English is spoken almost everywhere, and most restaurants menus are translated. Food is uniformly fresh and, away from the big hotels, reasonably priced. The local beers are cheap and good; wine is expensive.

It’s safe to walk around the cities at night, but taxis and tuktuks (motorized three-wheel cabs) cost almost nothing. Foreign currency is not accepted, ATMs are everywhere. At the golf clubs, caddies are usually mandatory, but should cost no more than 10 euros, including tip. Good clubs, shoes, even umbrellas are rentable everywhere. Bring plenty of balls, they’re ridiculously expensive.

Probably the most important decision is when to go. Very close to the Equator, Thailand is always hot, with the winter months the most temperate. Summer is rainy and humid. Drink plenty of bottled water (beer isn’t very good for hydration, sorry). The dress code is extremely casual, but some palaces and temples deny entry to visitors in shorts or short skirts, so pack accordingly.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine











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