As appeared in Colorado Avid Golfer
By Jake Kubie’ – May 03, 2010
A heady confluence of Buddhist culture, surreal golf experiences and frenzied nightlife defines a journey to Asia’s storied kingdom.
Nuer, my caddie at Siam Country Club’s Old Course, was borderline frantic as she hastily plucked off the green the ball marker I had dug out of my pocket. With Ninja-like agility, she replaced it with an oversized Mickey Mouse coin from a magnetic holder clipped to the brim of her lampshade hat.
Thanks to Nuer, I managed to stay out of the pokey and continue on a weeklong sampling of golf and culture in the Kingdom of Thailand—an expedition that took me throughout the south central region from Pattaya, along the Gulf of Thailand’s east coast, to Hua Hin on the west coast and back to Bangkok on the gulf’s northernmost point.
Nuer, along with every other caddy I had through a half-dozen rounds of golf, was a pleasure and truly one of the highlights of playing golf in this proud, never-colonized sovereignty of Southeast Asia. When you arrive at most of the country’s 250 courses, you’re greeted by an army of women clad in full-body uniforms that conceal nearly every inch of skin from the neck down. They’re cheerful, eager to please, take care of everything from ball marking to neck massages, and giggle and gossip when you get frustrated over a missed shot, providing a dose of humility, calming presence and the type of perspective you’d expect from Buddhists. And if you’re lucky to get one who speaks English with relative fluency, they can provide tremendous insight into Thai culture and lifestyle.
My infraction on the fourth green notwithstanding, my round at the Siam Country Club’s Old Course was truly exceptional. Host of this year’s Honda PTT LPGA won by Japanese pro Ai Miyazato, the club is located 15 minutes east of Pattaya, which is situated along a scenic coastal stretch on the Gulf of Thailand, and is the country’s first privately owned golf course. The classic layout’s gently rolling fairways and greens could easily be mistaken for any of Hawaii or Florida’s better country clubs, except for two obvious traits–dozens of elephant topiaries scattered between holes and a Buddhist shrine perched on a ridge above the ninth hole, whose bright orange pagoda pops against the dense jade tropical foliage.
Siam Country Club’s sister course is exactly the opposite. With three nine-hole courses named for the sugar cane, tapioca and pineapple plantations that once covered the property, the Plantation Course is a considerably more modern, wild and difficult. Set at a higher elevation, the Plantation has an excessive number of bunkers, much more severe elevation changes and crowned greens defined by multiple tiers. Coarse, hip-high plants resembling upside-down wicker brooms provide contour on most holes. Any suffering endured during the round, however, is quickly eased with a couple icy Singhas from the veranda of the absolutely stunning contemporary clubhouse.
The drinks keep flowing back in Pattaya, located along the Gulf of Thailand. Once a quiet fishing village, Pattaya experienced rapid growth as a popular rest and relaxation locale for GIs and Marines during the Vietnam War. With that heritage, you can only imagine what it has become. Today the city offers the country’s most vibrant nightlife, particularly along the city’s famous Walking Street—the Thai version of the Las Vegas Strip and Bourbon Street wrapped up into one stretch of neon—and fluorescent-drenched pavement. What’s often the seedy underbelly of many cities is flaunted; an odd mix of restaurants, discotheques, nightclubs, cabarets, tailors, massage parlors and street vendors peddling everything from souvenir trinkets to fried scorpions and grasshoppers cater to an international clientele. It’s complete sensory overload.
The nearby Woodlands Hotel and Resort offers a much needed respite from the bedlam. Tucked into a secluded nook just down a narrow alley from the beach, Woodlands treats guests to modern hardwood-accented accommodations, multiple pool complexes, and refined dining—all for around 3,000 baht ($100) per night.
Equally enjoyable as Pattaya, but much more subdued, Hua Hin (pronounced Wah Hen) is a laidback resort town in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula 120 miles south of Bangkok on the opposite side of the Gulf of Thailand. Instead of Walking Street, Hua Hin has its renowned night market, where fresh seafood stands and garment vendors substitute for cabarets and nightclubs.
Stay at Anantara Resort, located just five minutes along the same coastal strip from the king’s sprawling vacation complex. One of the most extravagant resorts I’ve ever visited, Anantara Hua Hin offers gorgeous guest rooms with soaring ceilings, balconies with expansive day beds, top-rate service and an impressive and colorful breakfast spread highlighted by Thailand’s renowned selection of exotic fruits such as lychee, mangosteen, rose apple and pomelo. The property is decorated with an equally eclectic assortment of artifacts and architectural features that looks to have been lifted from an Indiana Jones movie set.
Banyan Golf Club is an adventure in itself. Located in the mountains south of Hua Hin, Banyan was built and designed by a Thai company and was won a well deserved ranking as the “Best New Golf Course in Asia Pacific” by Asian Golf Monthly. With a minimal amount of earth moved during construction, the course ambles through its naturally hilly site, providing elevation changes–some incredibly dramatic–on nearly every hole. Searching for errant shots requires a bit of bravery–and long pants, as most native areas bordering the fairways consist of prickly, rigid pineapple plants.
Banyan’s spectacular, exquisite pagoda-style clubhouse typifies the kind of clubhouse experience that makes golf in Thailand so memorable. Attendants greet you the moment you walk in with hands clasped, a traditional half bow and a friendly sawadee (hello and goodbye). You’re given a locker key and towel and led into locker rooms that rival–and in many cases outdo–those of this country’s finest resorts. Golfers can easily spend a couple post-round hours enjoying drinks and fresh Thai cuisine on sprawling indoor/outdoor terraces, getting massages or taking dips in a hot tub.
“The clubhouses all over Thailand are staffed and built to accommodate the après-golf ritual, with great restaurants and space to kick back and relax,” explains Mark Siegel, owner of Golfasian, which operates golf tours throughout Southeast Asia. “I read a lot about how American golfers struggle these days to find time to play 18 holes, and I guess I can understand the issue. But it’s just not like that here. And frankly it shouldn’t be like that, especially when you’re on vacation.”
Nearby Black Mountain Country Club, located 20 minutes from Hua Hin, is no exception. Along with an equally impressive clubhouse, Black Mountain’s course features very similar lines and elevation changes as Banyan and swells and falls from its namesake mountain, which looms nearby, providing a lush backdrop for the entire course. Manmade rock walls, shapely white sand bunker and tall brown native grasses define the course.
The view from the 34th floor of Bangkok’s Westin Grande Sukhumvit does little to reveal the chaos below. Home to more than 10 million people, Bangkok is a massive city with an endless skyline of modern high rises dwarfing older apartment buildings. Street level exposes a side of Thai life not seen in the resort towns like Pattaya and Hua Hin. Bright orange, yellow and purple taxis clog the roads, motorcycles and mopeds weave through traffic, and the unrelenting blaring of horns makes for a daunting experience for even seasoned travelers.
Bangkok especially springs to life at night. Street vendors selling cheap clothes, knick-knacks and hot-of-the-wok meals line the sidewalks turning them into narrow passages. Alleyways burst with light from massive and elaborate neon signs overhanging the entrances of countless cabarets with names like Kiss, Déjà Vu, Midnite Bar, Our Place and We’re Soulmate.
Sanctuary exists less than an hour outside Bangkok’s city center at Thai Country Club. The prestigious club has hosted numerous professional tournaments, including the Volvo Masters between 2005 and 2008 and the 1997 Asian Honda Classic, which was won by Tiger Woods in his first visit to Thailand as a professional. Plaques scattered throughout the course remind you of the superhuman shots executed by the pros, like the one telling of Tiger’s drive that reached the green on the 370-yard tenth. A true tropical oasis, Thai Country Club’s immaculately maintained fairways border large lake complexes that snake around the entire course, which is a perfect challenge for everyone from Tiger and Vijay to novice vacationers.
To be sure, Thailand is a long haul. But it’s worth the trip. While it’s not difficult to find a similar combination of great golf courses, world-class service and luxurious accommodations, it is nearly impossible to do it as economically. Aside from airfare, which can run well over $1,000, a trip to Thailand can be less expensive than a few days in Scottsdale or Palm Springs. Even the finest hotels, including Anantara, seldom exceed $200 per night and few golf courses charge more than $100 per round. Factor in the rich culture and you’ve got a golf vacation of a lifetime. Just remember to keep all that saved coin in your pockets around the greens.
Total flight time from Los Angles is approximately 18 hours, not including a layover in Taipei. Book a flight on EVA Airlines and if it’s in your budget, upgrade to Elite Class, which provides a little extra legroom and access to the airport’s Evergreen Lounges. evaair.com
Bangkok-based Golf Asian has arranged nearly 17,000 golf vacations for visitors from Europe, North America, Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. While they also organize tours in Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia, Thailand is by far the most popular golf destination, accounting for about 85% of trips. Itineraries feature the country’s best golf courses and hotels and packages can be tailored for all preferences. For more information visit golfasian.com or 866-550-2284.