I am a journeyer; a wanderer; a restless soul in constant search of another great expedition. Perhaps I should have lived centuries ago when the world was there to be discovered. Instead I’m stuck in the 21st century, which, for my golfing soul, maybe isn’t such a bad thing. Truth be told, I doubt my wimpy ass would have survived in the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria era.
So I travel the world not on the swells of the high seas but in a pressurized cabin at 37,000 feet, where complimentary alcohol and airport lounges make lengthy trips much more tolerable as I search for golf in places others might not.
The world has opened up in my lengthening adult days, and golf has played its part. Had you told me 30 years ago I’d one day venture to Vietnam, China or the Middle East to play golf, I would have thought something had gone terribly wrong for the free world. So when a friend suggested a two-week golf and touring trip to Thailand instead of our regular British Isles trip, it took only a moment’s thought before plugging Bangkok into the search engine.
An evenings’ work led me to the realization that two weeks in Thailand would cost no more than our week in the British Isles, and the cultural exchange rate would likely be far more fulfilling. We plotted a route that included the stand-still highways of Bangkok, the narrow roads to places like Kanchanaburi and Hua Hin, and a ferry ride across the Gulf of Thailand.
Still, to be honest, I left on the 24-hour travel day from the American northeast to the Asian southeast excited about the experience Thailand would present but expecting the golf to be enjoyable but secondary. 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 in half a month even though Thailand is smaller than Texas.
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.
Almost all trips to Thailand start in Bangkok, the most visited city in the world according to Mastercard’s 2019 Global Destination Cities Index. Very few of those trips are made by American golfers, so Mark Siegel, owner of Golfasian, the biggest inbound golf tour operator in Southeast Asia, finds most of his business in countries a little closer.
“From what I see, most Americans that come here are backpackers or beachcombers,” says Siegel. “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 Thai’s speak, or that there are many golf courses, world-class golf courses, in Thailand.”
Any trip to Thailand requires several nights in Bangkok – a city of contrasts. East versus West, old versus new, traditional family lifestyles (albeit Third World ways) versus the push to join the First World. In Bangkok all of these values collide, most imprudently in the fact that 94.6 percent of the population follows the religious teachings of Buddha but the nightlife makes Las Vegas look tame.
The Bangkok skyline is as impressive as any western city, made so by dozens of high-rise condominium projects and dozens more under construction. Those projects often cast shadows over traditional street markets that date back hundreds of years and where generations of families sell local vegetables and herbs that most Westerners won’t 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 – as are most sectors of the Thai economy. Still, much of the population is just trying to eek out the average income of about 800 baht ($26) per day.
There are about 50 courses around Bangkok, many of them local courses, but increasingly there are world-class layouts that attract international golfers. Perhaps the best golf experience is the Nikanti Golf Club. About an hour from city center (if there can be such a designation in a sprawling city of 10 million people) Nikanti is an experience with a 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 a clubhouse locker to a sumptuous post-round buffet in the ultra-sleek clubhouse. You won’t even reach into your pocket for snacks and water at the over-the-top halfway houses on each six.
At the new Royal City Gems Golf Club you can play a bunker-for-bunker replica of the back nine at Augusta. 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.
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 an East Coast 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.
The international cuisine in Bangkok is world class, but not getting out to the local restaurants is a mistake. At most of these 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 few bahts. But in the end both you and the proprietor are happy.
These places are the real Thailand. Bangkok is wonderful, international and cosmopolitain, but it’s a city where you’re more likely to pull up a barstool next to someone from some place else.
A note as we leave Bangkok: Don’t even think about driving yourself around Thailand. Leave that to skilled professionals. Your driver will be a hybrid of Mario Andretti and Ralph Cramden, guiding a 12-passenger van through thick traffic and gaps so tight that you, as a passenger, will lean away from the window because you’re sure the oncoming truck is going to sideswipe the van.
While being chauffeured keeps anxiety from building, it often means you don’t pay particularly close attention to where you are. Somewhere along the path from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi our driver pulled up to a wayside gift shop/market/restaurant and announced that the lunch we would get in this decaying building that might be condemned were it in the States, might the best of the trip.
Our server, who I suspect doubled as the owner, spoke no English. We pointed to pictures of Tom Yom soup, a plate of giant prawns (served in Thailand with the heads on because locals eat them as well), a sea bass dressed in all kinds of herbs and spices and a few other interesting looking dishes. The meal came in waves, each as good as the previous. We sampled Thai whisky (OK but nothing special) and Singha, a Thai beer as good as any mass-produced American beer. When the bill came it amounted to little more than pocket change for each of us.
Just north of Kanchanaburi we raced into the Grand Prix Golf Club. Each hole is sponsored by an automotive company, so the Hyundai sign in the distance might be your target line. It is one of dozens of no-baht spared layouts that make Thailand well worth the journey.
While, golf here doesn’t necessarily distinguish itself in style from American golf the way links golf does, it does offer a steady diet of layouts every bit as good as America’s best modern public courses. One difference is most have lavish, almost over-the-top luxurious, clubhouses.
Some even offer the opportunity for a famous Thai massage. The physicality of a Thai massage falls somewhere between extreme yoga and torture. You’ll be bent and twisted in directions you didn’t know the human body was capable of accommodating, and 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.
South of Kanchanaburi at Royal Ratchaburi golf takes on a more earthy tone. The layout lacks the bells and whistles of the Thai course that attract international travelers but gives you something those don’t. You share the course with thousands of monkeys freely roaming the fairways without regard to your game. They might be curious about 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 elsewhere.
In the town of Kanchanaburi you find a significant piece of world history – 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.
You can visit the open-air Jeath War Museum for a gruesome look at the life of POWs during the occupation. The actual human toll is contained in two huge cemeteries where more than 9,000 Allied soldiers are buried.
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 would eat it. You may have heard Thai food packs more heat than Dirty Harry, but Thai restaurants back home 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.
By the time my taste buds recovered, we were halfway to Hua Hin.
At Black Mountain Golf Club near Hua Hin (pronounced wah-HEEN) I was drawn to climb to an elevated platform attached to the clubhouse. It reminded me of a fire lookout station, or a beach house that’s not quite close enough to the ocean so you climb to a platform on the roof to check out the conditions. When I got to the top I realized this platform exists for a similar reason.
On this morning the sun inched above the mountains – not distant mountains but mountains snuggling right up to fairways and greens – and cast long shadows, giving Black Mountain that soft, sun-bathed beauty a course reveals only 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 with this view, it’s hard understand why so few of them are golfers.
The loop around the Black Mountain reinforces tour operator Siegel’s notion that more American golfers should find their way to Thailand. This is the type of course one rarely comes across. Not only is each hole a pure golf challenge, each is visually stunning, either from the beauty the stone and water features on the course or the mountain scenery that surrounds it. Black Mountain is considered one of the world’s 100 best outside the U.S. and there is little reason to challenge that.
At Black Mountain, as in every course in Thailand, a caddie is mandatory. Caddies are always female, always impeccably dressed in the club uniform and always eager to help. They are well-versed in the rules and etiquette, although 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 caddies 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.
Hua Hin is a seaside resort town along the Gulf of Thailand about two hours southwest of Bangkok. The beach is lined with luxurious hotels and upscale resorts, the kind where you could vacation quite nicely without ever leaving the property. The town has a hip and cosmopolitain ambiance but keeps its distinct Thai flavor with palaces, vibrant street markets and a place called Khao Takiab Mountain, commonly known as Monkey Mountain. There is a historic temple at the top and some wonderful views back down to the city but hundreds of monkey roam freely and you can walk among them.
Also up in those hills is Banyon Golf Club, another of Thailand’s gems. It opened in 2009 and was named the best new course in Asia Pacific. Built on a former pineapple plantation, if you stray too far off the fairway you might tangle with a remaining shrub and all of its prickliness.
For most of the round you’re surrounded by hills, but Banyan sits high above Hua Hin and the tee box of the par-3 15th hole treats you to a panoramic view out to the Gulf of Thailand, which is where we depart one Thai beach town for another.
The wake of the ferry that runs daily (weather permitting) between Hua Hin to Pattaya cuts a swath through the stillness of the Gulf of Thailand. It stays straight and true, no need to navigate choppy waters on the crossing – at least on this particular day. The two-hour cruise saves more than two hours making the same journey by road.
From Pattaya’s Bali Hai Pier, you can tell this is a party town. Spring break in Florida times a thousand, maybe a million. Nightlife across Thailand is world famous. Evenings may start innocently enough but who knows where they might end up.
Certain streets in Thailand’s cities and resort towns leave little to the imagination. On the famous Walking Street in Pattaya a Hooters restaurant is the place to escape the blatant and overt display of sex. On less famous but even more lurid Soi 6 (Soi is a side street), almost every establishment is bathed in pink neon that would make Las Vegas blush.
Streets like these and famous Bangkok hot spots like Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy and Patpong, are lined with peep shows, massage parlors and racy bars. Painted ladies call out to international travelers hoping one will buy them a drink and see where the evening goes.
But you have to go looking for these places. Thailand’s city centers go way beyond go-go bars and back alley massage parlors. The majority of Thailand’s nightlife is found in cultural hot spots, restaurants flaunting irrepressible Thai delicacies or international cuisine, clubs with beautiful Thai dancing and lively bars with cutting edge mixologists.
You can get from place to place in a 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.
So after a night out in Pattaya, a day at Siam Country Club is what’s needed. The club’s four courses each offer something different. Its new Rolling Hills course features a 19-foot deep bunker labeled the “Wall of Death” on the par-5 15th. It is all but unescapable. For a more traditional experience, try the Old Course. It was the second course built in Thailand, opening in 1970, and plays to a very traditional American style. The Plantation Course played host to an LPGA event, and the Waterside Course presents a bit of a tropical feel with views of distant mountains.
In the end, Thailand may not be a bucket list destination, but it offers a culture far different from places golf normally takes us.
“Everything has opened up. You can explore the world through golf,” says Siegel. And you might as well start in Thailand.WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?