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I’m not entirely sure why, but halfway through a 14-day trip to the Kingdom of Thailand I found myself climbing to an elevated platform attached to the clubhouse at Black Mountain Golf Club near Hua Hin. It reminded me of a fire lookout station, or a beach house that’s not quite on the beach so you climb to a platform on the roof to check out the ocean conditions. When I got to the top, I realized this platform exists for exactly the same reason.
On this morning the sun peaks above the mountains – not distant mountains but mountains snuggling right up to fairways and greens – and throws long shadows across the course, giving it that soft, sun-bathed beauty of a course that only reveals itself when the sun hangs low. The view embodies just about everything I wasn’t expecting from Thailand – it’s way better than I thought. Not only the golf, but everything. The food. The culture. The people. The history. All of which is wrapped in a Buddha-like Zen that gives the place a calming harmony of spirit among everyone, everything. Well, except for the traffic in Bangkok. Beyond the fact that the average driver in Bangkok spends 64 hours a year stuck in traffic, it’s not hard to see why 38 million people a year visit Thailand. But it is hard understand why so few of them are golfers.
I left on the 24-hour travel day excited about the experience of Thailand and expecting the golf to be good but secondary aspect of the trip. I returned having played some outstanding and memorable courses and hoping one day I can see more because there is too much golf ground to cover even though Thailand is smaller than Texas.
“Everything has opened up. You can explore the world through golf,” says Mark Siegel, managing director of Golfasian, the biggest inbound golf tour operator in Southeast Asia.
In Thailand you can find yourself swimming in the impossibly blue water of the Andaman Sea near Phuket one day and riding an elephant through a mountain river near Chiang Mai the next. Well, maybe a couple of days later, because in between those 950 miles you’ll will want to sample some really great golf. But to go to Thailand only for the golf is wrong. Here’s why.
Bangkok is a city of contrasts. East versus West, old versus new, traditional family lifestyles (albeit Third World ways) versus the desire to join the First World. Any trip to Thailand requires several nights in Bangkok, where all of these values collide, most imprudently in the fact that 94.6 percent of the population follows the teaching of Buddha, but the nightlife makes Las Vegas look tame.
And then there are the dozens of high-rise condominium projects under construction that help give the city an expansive and modern skyline as impressive as any in the Western world. But those projects often cast shadows over traditional street markets that date back hundreds of years and where generations of families have sold local vegetables and herbs that most Westerners won’t even recognize and with names we can’t pronounce. (How much buap hom, fak thong or Khilek do you have on hand?) The luxury condominium market is booming in the capital city, but much of the population is still just trying to eek out the average income of about 800 baht ($26) per day.
The Famous Thai Massage
The physicality of a Thai massage falls somewhere between extreme yoga and torture. I was bent and twisted in so many directions that I heretofore didn’t know the human body could accommodate that. Twice I think I started to cry. You will be shocked at the amount a leverage a Thai girl who might not even weigh 100 pounds can exert on the tight and underused muscles of a middle-aged man. There are more elbows thrown in a 90-minute Thai massage than in most NBA games. But you walk out feeling loosey-goosey and wondering whether it might not have been wiser to have the massage before playing golf. The Famous Thai Cuisine One night at a restaurant along the River Kwai (yes, that River Kwai) curiosity got the best of me. I asked our guide, Dang, to spice up a piece of sea bass the way the locals eat it. You may have heard Thai food packs more heat than Dirty Harry, but Thai restaurants in The States don’t do the real deal justice. One bite and my mouth felt like an Australian bush fire had broken out. My eyeballs were sweating and over my whimpering and flailing for water, Dang casually downed the remainder of the fish as if it were as easy on the palate as Raisin Bran. The international cuisine in Bangkok is world class, but not getting out to the local restaurants is a mistake. At most of these out-of-the-way, roadside eateries no English is spoken, so you look at pictures on the menu and point. Almost regardless of where your finger lands a traditional Thai dish arrives at your table. It’s epically delicious and way too much food for what seems like way too little money. But in the end both you and the proprietor are happy.
The Famous Thai Nightlife
Evenings may start at the luxurious rooftop bars in Bangkok where visitors can enjoy the highlife of Thai nightlife, but who knows where they might end up. You’ve probably heard Thailand’s nightlife can be a bit more, well let’s say, exotic, than hotel bars and lively nightclubs.
Yes, walking down certain streets in many Thai cities you are serenaded by girls calling out to international travelers hoping they will buy them a drink and go from there. But as blatant as the establishments are on those streets, you have to go looking for it to find it.
Bangkok’s world famous hot spots like Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy and Patpong (remember the “Deer Hunter?”) cater to international travelers with peep shows, massage parlors and racy bars and most other things you can conjure. On the famous Walking Street in the beach town of Pattaya, the Hooters restaurant is tame. On nearby Soi 6, almost every establishment is bathed in pink neon that would make Las Vegas blush. But that’s just the bromidic Western image of Thailand. For every go-go bar and back alley massage parlor, Thailand matches and exceeds it with cultural hot spots, restaurants flaunting the irrepressible Thai cuisine, nightclubs with beautiful Thai dancing, and lively bars with cutting edge mixologists.
One thing to know: where there are scantily clad ladies there are also Thailand’s world-famous ladyboys. You’ve been warned.
The Ultimate Golf Shopping Experience
Thaniya Plaza in the Silom District of Bangkok is a five-level mall dedicated almost entirely to golf. In the dozens of shops you can get everything from used Pinnacles to custom-fit Honma clubs. For $20 you can get a nice pair of golf slacks tailored on the spot by a seamstress who has a sewing machine stashed between seemingly endless racks of clothes. Don’t mind the fact that there’s no fitting room. The racks of clothes are so close together the hundreds of other shoppers won’t see you making sure the tailored pants fit.
Don’t even think about driving yourself through Bangkok, or really anywhere in the country. Leave that to skilled professionals. Your driver will be a hybrid of Mario Andretti and Ralph Cramden, guiding a 12-passenger bus through thick traffic and gaps so tight you, as a passenger, will lean away from the window because you’re sure the bus is going to scrape against the passing truck. And then there’s the rickshaw. It is still a staple of city travel, but no longer powered by foot. At some point an ingenious rickshawer thought to save himself the tiresome legwork by putting a two-stroke motor on an oversized tricycle with a canopied platform and a bench. Seat belts? The rickshaw is commonly known as a tuk-tuk for the sputtering sound the little engine makes. The time will come when you need to hail one, but if you think a New York City cab ride is hair-raising, it’s nothing compared to a death-defying ride on a Bangkok tuk-tuk.
Caddying in Thailand is a public works program. A caddie is mandatory for every round. They are always female, always dressed impeccably in the club uniform and always eager to help. They are well-versed in the rules and etiquette.
The system is a bit awkward in that each caddie chauffeurs a single player so there are four carts in every group. Many courses allow fivesomes and even sixsomes, so at peak times the course looks a bit like Bangkok rush hour. Many speak only sporadic English so communication can be difficult and four carts taking off in four different directions tends to break up the camaraderie of the group. You will only touch your ball when you tee it up and take it out of the hole. The caddie will mark it on the green, even if she has to run to beat you to it, clean it and even adjust your Sharpie line. One thing to know is that it’s OK to use your rangefinder or ask your caddie to use it. You’re not hurting anyone’s feelings.
You can spend two weeks in Thailand for about the price of a week playing famous links courses in the British Isles. Flights to Bangkok are often less expensive than flights to Europe, and the trip, although long, requires just one layover. A 14-day golf and touring trip in five-star accommodations during high season runs about $3,500. Unlike the British Isles, that includes caddie fees. All you have to do is tip, and 600 baht ($19) will make her ecstatic. Tip your caddie $19 at a links course in Scotland or Ireland and you’re sure to get an entirely different reaction.
Food, tourist attractions and souvenirs are equally economical. There are plenty of international restaurants where you would pay similar prices to home, but the local restaurants and street markets offer ridiculously good food for ridiculously low prices. At a market in Hua Hin, I got a 12-ounce T-bone, baked potato, salad, corn on the cob, and a prawn the size of my hand – butterflied, grilled and lightly buttered – for 500 baht (about $16). At an open-air market near the bridge over the River Kwai, I got a T-shirt for me and matching ones for my toddler grandsons for $8 – not each, $8 total.
Thailand is an ancient country full of palaces and statues of Buddha, but the most fascinating piece of history is the bridge over the River Kwai. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Thailand and planned to advance to Burma but needed a railroad line to move supplies. Allied prisoners and locals were forced to work 18 hours a day building the bridge and railway that became known as the “railroad of death” because of the incredibly rough terrain, tropical heat, shortage of food, brutality of the Japanese guards, malaria, and poisonous snakes.
Near Kanchanaburi you can visit the open-air Jeath War Museum for a gruesome look at the life of POWs during the occupation. The human toll is contained in two huge cemeteries where more than 9,000 Allied soldiers are buried.
And, Finally, the Golf
Thailand isn’t a destination where you play 36 holes a day every day. The cool season of November through March is as sultry as the dog days of a Middle Atlantic summer. In 12 days in the country, we played seven rounds and on the off-days strolled through palaces, spent a day immersed in World War II history near Kanchanaburi, took a river cruise through Bangkok, and delighted in the culinary experience that Thailand is.
Almost all trips to Thailand start in Bangkok, the most visited city in the world according to Mastercard’s 2019 Global Destination Cities Index, although very few of those trips are made by golfers.
“From what I see, most Americans here are backpackers or beachcombers,” says Siegel. “We get a few golf groups. I’d say 99 percent of the golfers I speak to back in The States don’t even know where Thailand is or what language Thais speak, or that there are many golf courses, world-class golf courses, in Thailand.”
Many of those are near Bangkok. Nikanti Golf Club, about an hour from city center (if there can be such a designation in a sprawling city of 6 million people) is an experience with a certain degree of sophistication not often found anywhere. The design is impeccable, the conditions unbelievable, and its 6-6-6 layout not only nudges at the future of golf but pays tribute to the six realms of Buddhism. Your fee ($175) covers everything from practice balls to a sumptuous post-round buffet in the ultra-modern clubhouse. You won’t even reach into your pocket for snacks and water at the over-the-top halfway houses on each six.
On the other side of Bangkok you can play a bunker-for-bunker replica of the back nine at Augusta at a complex called Royal City Gems. It won’t convince you you’re in Georgia, but all the elements of each hole are distinctly recognizable. The front nine is replica holes from around the world.
In nearby cities there are plenty of no-baht spared layouts like Black Mountain near Hua Hin, where the stone and water features create stunning backdrops and accent the layout that is considered one of the world’s 100 best outside the U.S. Black Mountain was built as a luxury resort community to entice golfers from around the world to buy second homes – for a fraction of the cost at similar resort communities around the world.
You get a more earthy experience at Royal Ratchaburi near Kanchanaburi, where there are no ingenious design elements but thousands of monkeys freely roaming the fairways without regard to your game. They might be packed around your ball in the fairway, but when you get to within a few steps they will noisily excuse themselves and continue eating bugs from each other’s hides somewhere else.
Somewhere between the experience of Black Mountain and Royal Ratchaburi fall courses like Grand Prix, a fine layout where each hole is sponsored by an automotive company, so the Hyundai sign in the distance may be your target line. Stunning Banyan Golf Club is a Rolex Top 1,000 course and one of Thailand’s most honored layouts. It opened in 2009, but plays to very classic styling so it’s easy to feel like you’re playing a course decades old. On the eastern edge of the Gulf of Thailand, the beach town of Pattaya is filled with exciting water sports, sultry nightlife and Siam Country Club, a four-course complex where the new Rolling Hills Course features a 19-foot deep bunker labeled the “Wall of Death.” For a more traditional experience, try the Old Course. [END]