Thailand indulges golfers’ senses

No. 15 at Banyan Golf Resort.

Until my recent sojourn to this self-dubbed “Land of Smiles,” the mention of Thailand conjured images of a steamy, tropical climate, impossibly spicy food and an exotic party scene along Bangkok’s teeming streets. I wouldn’t previously have factored golf into that equation.

I’m now, however, of a decidedly different opinion. Having played six rounds in as many days there, I came away thinking Thailand would make for a memorable buddy trip for those who don’t mind spending a day in the air each way to get there. That’s why they invented Ambien, right?

Part of a bigger movement in Southeast Asia (with Vietnam and Cambodia) to entice Westerners and their wallets, golf and real-estate projects abound in Thailand, which now has 260 courses and counting. With the world economy still emerging from a tailspin, a destination where one can play a quality round for $100 or less and eat a sumptuous dinner for another $10 is a no-brainer. Think Scotland with fried crickets instead of haggis.

Crunchy salted critters notwithstanding, the charms of Thailand abound, a fact well known to Europeans, to whom beach towns such as Phuket and Hua Hin stand in for our beloved Boca Ratons and San Diegos. For most of the year, only mad dogs and Englishmen travel to these wet and sweltering tropics, though November to February is easily tolerable, with temperatures in the 90s and less raging humidity. Avoid April like the plague.

Armed with plenty of bottled water and a female caddie, golfers can expect a round here to be a pleasant prospect indeed. You won’t find any grizzled, tobacco-stained loopers here – and vive la différence.

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No. 5 at Siam Country Club.

With ever-present smiles and garbed head to toe in what looks like gussied-up hospital scrubs, these tireless women will choose clubs, fearlessly read putts (“left, two cups, uphill”) and even sit you down and subject you to a neck-and-shoulder massage. Their English is minimal, their charm and maternal solicitude boundless. Surely, Thailand is the only place on earth you’d even think of hugging your caddie after a round. Just tip them handsomely. Twenty bucks here goes a long way.

Our first stop was Siam Country Club, a 45-hole facility in Pattaya that is the country’s oldest private club. Three years ago, Schmidt-Curley Golf Design, an Arizona firm that is ubiquitous in these parts, renovated Siam’s Old Course; trees were excised in the name of breeze and the 101 bunkers given the old Trump comb-over. The result is a welcome anomaly: parkland golf in the tropics.

A towering, gilded Buddha is visible from the course, and local knowledge has it that putts break away from the awakened one. Gautama’s deep serenity may have something to do with the fact that he never had to stare down a snaking 4-footer to win a skin. Two years ago, Siam opened its three Plantation nines, more Schmidt-Curley handiwork. Both courses have played host to the Honda PTT LPGA Thailand tournament.

We moved on to the Woodlands Resort, a sleek and modern hideaway just a 10-minute taxi ride from Pattaya’s florid nightlife scene, before enjoying the green goodness of Muang Kaew Country Club. Another Schmidt-Curley makeover, this 18 features a bucolic setting despite being just a half-hour’s drive from Bangkok. Given the heat, I might have been persuaded to stay in my room watching Thai-dubbed “Three’s Company” reruns, such was the level of luxury at the downtown Westin Grande Sukhumvit Hotel. Its splendor signals that you are not in the Third World per se – Greater Bangkok is home to numerous multinational corporations and has a population of 10 million souls.

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No. 7 at Muang Kaew Country Club.

Walking Bangkok’s streets at night is a gentle assault on the senses, especially the olfactory. Every corner is a bouquet of steaming, exotic scents – lemongrass and ginger, garlic and tamarind. Samosas and pakoras are filled with potatoes and pungent spices and the variety of noodle dishes are endless. Try the khao soi, a mild broth with egg noodles and toppings such as pickled cabbage and shallots, washed down with a cold Singha beer.

As we made our way to the seaside resort town of Hua Hin for the last leg of our journey, we must have passed 200 billboards featuring the king of Thailand, whom I would have labeled a hopeless square had I not learned he’s quite an accomplished jazz saxophonist (plus, it’s against the law to even tease His Highness). I guess you can afford genteel hobbies when you’ve got $35 billion in land and equity holdings. May the King of Swing live long and prosper.

Peaceable Hua Hin is chock-full of beautiful beaches and far and away the best golf in Thailand. From the sumptuously appointed Anantara Resort & Spa, the Black Mountain and Banyan golf courses are but a short drive away, and well worth repeat play if one wanted to hunker down here for a week.

Banyan has it all – private villas for rent, great dining and a strategic layout that climbs its way through a pineapple plantation. Conditions are nonpareil, and gorgeous mountain and ocean views abound. Black Mountain recently hosted an Asian PGA tournament and has a natural, lived-in look uncommon for a newer course. Creeks wind their way throughout, and natural rock formations are seamlessly incorporated into the design.

Of course, Thailand has much more to offer besides lush fairways and surreal nightlife. Don’t forget to tour a few Buddhist temples and make sure to see the King’s Grand Palace in Bangkok. No sandals, no rolled-up shirt-sleeves, please – his majesty’s orders. But it’s life as lived at street level that finally wins your palate and heart and tattoos one of those patented local smiles on your face. From tee to green, a Thai vacation is a timeless and hazardless design.

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