Australian Golf Digest’s ‘Mr Asia’ shares his thoughts on why Thailand is a golf destination heavyweight.
If you want to experience great golf, visit the Melbourne Sandbelt. But if you want to experience a great golf holiday, then visit Thailand.
Our ‘Asian Specialist’ has selected four destinations around Thailand that cater to golfers of all ages, tastes and persuasions.
Bangkok – Cruising the Venice Of The East
Al fresco dining in the Red Sky Bar gives a breathtaking insight to the scale of Bangkok’s rapid development over the past decade. Located on the 55th storey of the Centara Grand at Central World, the open-air rooftop bar is a relaxed urban bistro, serving seasonal dishes of fusion cuisine. The dramatic outdoor setting reflects the sophisticated nature of a modern Bangkok that is populated with fine restaurants and chic bars.
Yet Bangkok has attracted more than its share of negative publicity in the same period. It would be easy to form the impression there has been constant turmoil since 2006 when the military ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In 2011 Bangkok almost came to a halt when floods inundated parts of the capital. This year anti-government protests and the call for early elections led to another military coup, the implementation of martial law and the subsequent arrest of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Thaksin’s younger sister) on corruption charges.
But look beyond the sensational media coverage and the truth is that life in Bangkok is business as usual for most people. The Thais are remarkably resilient. Sure, restaurants and nightclubs have been forced to close earlier to comply with standing orders. But most of the capital and the rest of the country are largely unaffected.
And that’s good news for golfers. Bangkok is the ideal place to begin a Thai golf experience. It’s characterised by a distinctively resort feel: attentive female caddies at your beck and call; the leisurely nature of cart golf; the pleasant surroundings, such as coconut palms lining generous fairways; and gazebos placed strategically every few holes to quench the thirst with a Singha beer and wash down a fried chicken wing or (as the locals seem to prefer) a boiled egg with soy sauce.
A multitude of courses can be accessed within easy reach of downtown Bangkok. Many would consider the once exclusive Thai Country Club as the city’s most enjoyable golf experience and Tiger Woods at the Asian Honda Classic enhanced its credentials with an appearance in 1997 when he won by 10 shots.
Situated 80 minutes’ west of the CBD, Suwan Golf & Country Club rivals the top layouts for design and memorability, if not conditioning. At half the price, it’s a bargain. For a midweek round – green and caddie fee (1,400 baht), cart hire (600 baht) and caddie tip (minimum 300 baht) – the whole package comes to less than $80.
Also high on a priority list is Riverdale Golf Club, which has rebounded from the floods and is one of the city’s premier layouts. The 27-hole Panya Indra Golf Club is a perfect venue to sample night golf. The Royal Gems Golf City has replicated great holes from around the world, including the entire back nine at Augusta National. Thailand’s 291st golf course, the ultra-exclusive Nikanti Golf Club, is a high-end development with a spectacular clubhouse.
WHERE TO STAY:
Bangkok has an abundance of hotels for every budget. The Westin Grande Sukhumvit offers superb quality in a central location close to the Terminal 21 shopping precinct. Just around the corner are the go-go bars of Soi Cowboy where scenes for The Hangover Part II were shot. A trendy hotel to consider is Aloft Bangkok in Sukhumvit Soi 11, located next to some of the coolest bars (Oskar and Q Bar) in the whole city.
Pattaya – Take A Walk On The Wild Side
About 100 kilometres southeast of Bangkok on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand, the city of Pattaya was one of the first purpose-built tourist resorts in Southeast Asia. A small fishing village until the 1960s, Pattaya was transformed with the influx of recuperating American servicemen during the Vietnam War.
Today, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is keen to promote Pattaya as a family-orientated seaside destination. It’s a challenge. Pattaya is notorious for the strip of girly bars along the beachfront area. Many of the women come from impoverished areas in rural Thailand to earn a living – much of which arrives from the pockets of Western and Russian sex tourists.
However, if you can keep an open mind, Pattaya is a fun place to visit and I felt relatively safe by world standards. To glean an insight into what drives the economy, take a stroll along the appropriately titled Walking Street. Beer bars, neon lights, pumping dance music, food stalls and hawkers are a constant sight. The street theatre brings walkers to a standstill as a small gypsy girl contorts her body into unfathomable positions with ankles behind her ears. Further down the street, a few Asian lads are entertaining onlookers with their acrobatics atop motorcycles.
Inquisitive tourists can stop and watch a bout of Thai kickboxing (or Muay Thai). Over two rounds, the combatants smash each other with fists, elbows, knees, shins and feet. But as the action wears on, it becomes apparent that some punches are pulled and injury is feigned. You can’t blame the boxers for a cautious approach as they step back into the ring time and again.
Meanwhile inside the nightclubs, the young Asian women would best be described as scantily clad. But it’s not all saucy entertainment on Walking Street. I was able to while away an evening in one of the beer bars playing a couple of simple games. In one the locals call ‘jenga’, a stack of little wooden blocks is piled 50 centimetres high. The skill is to extract one of the finger-length blocks without disturbing the stack and add it to the top. The game ends when somebody brings the blocks tumbling down.
Such harmless fun extends to golf in the Pattaya/Chonburi region where there are more than 20 clubs within an hour’s drive of central Pattaya. Many of the world’s leading architects have left their imprint and Pattaya was voted the No.1 golf destination outside Europe and America in 2012 by golf tour operators.
Siam Country Club is a must visit for dedicated golfers. The Old Course is a championship test and hosts the Honda LPGA Thailand each February. The 27-hole Plantation Course, which opened in 2008, has been frequently acknowledged as the best-maintained course in the Asia Pacific. Wild elevation changes are a feature of what was formerly a sugar cane, tapioca and pineapple plantation. The 18-hole Waterside Course opened for play this year, creating a total of 63 holes.
Laem Chabang International Country Club has 27 holes designed by Jack Nicklaus and is regarded as one of Thailand’s finest golf facilities. Of the older traditional layouts, Bangpra Golf Club is a mature parkland-style course with slick greens and the distracting sight of macaques darting around the course.
Hua Hin – The Royal Family’s Holiday Home
Discerning European travellers have been long-time admirers of Hua Hin and it’s not unusual for wealthy Scandinavians to spend an entire northern winter (Boxing Day-March) at the traditional holiday destination of Thailand’s Royal family.
With a population of close to 100,000, Hua Hin is a small beach resort town on the western side of the Gulf of Thailand, about 190 kilometres south of Bangkok. It attracts an older crowd and has a lovely cultured feel (more polo shirts and tailored shorts and less singlets and thongs). The Royal family’s influence accounts for the absence of go-go bars.
Hence, Hua Hin (pronounced Whar Hin) is seen as a perfect couples’ destination. Eco-tourism resorts such as Evason Hua Hin have found a niche. The resort in the peaceful township of Pranburi is set amongst landscaped tropical gardens with lotus ponds and has rustic villas with all the creature comforts. Touring parties would appreciate Banyon The Resort (just over five minutes by tuk tuk from the town centre). This excellent resort features a canal of interconnected swimming pools between the spacious villa-style accommodation.
It’s an easy commute into town to dine at one of the international brand-name hotels. Consider a poolside buffet served at the Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas, a 16-hectare property renowned for its intricate topiary gardens. Formerly the Hua Hin Railway Hotel, it’s one of the classic hotels of the east, which has been painstakingly refurbished to retain its old-world charm. (Incidentally, it was used as The Hotel Phnom Penh in the film The Killing Fields.)
Earlier this year, the inaugural Centara World Masters was staged in Hua Hin for a weeklong golf tournament that attracted more than 500 amateur players aged 35 and over. It was so well received that a target of 700 players has been set for next year by tournament director Peter McCarthy, the Australian principal of Go Golfing.
Little wonder the event was a success because Hua Hin offers exceptional golf. Black Mountain Golf Club received acclaim from Golf Digest, which rated it in the 100 Best Courses Outside The US. Australian architect Phil Ryan from Pacific Coast Design utilised the natural beauty of the surrounding hillside to construct a challenging resort-style layout that’s shown it’s capable of staging championship events. Black Mountain also has an immaculately groomed par-3 course that is no pushover.
In the immediate vicinity are eight good courses within 30 minute’s drive. Some would argue Banyan Golf Club, associated with the resort of the same name, is an even better layout than Black Mountain. Majestic Creek Golf Club & Resort may be the most intriguing test of all three.
DID YOU KNOW?
Due to popular demand, GolfAsian is offering sets of TaylorMade graphite and steel clubs for rent during a stay in Thailand. This gives golfers the freedom and flexibility when planning a trip to Asia. Simply contact one of GolfAsian’s travel experts and mention that you would like to rent clubs (www.golfasian.com).
Khao Yai – Where Cowboy Country Meets The Big Mountains
The cooler climate of Khao Yai has made it a popular retreat for Bangkok residents, however it’s still relatively unknown by international tourists. Established in 1962, Khao Yai – which literally means ‘Big Mountains’ – was Thailand’s first national park. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005, Khao Yai is home to hundreds of species of birds, wild deer and plunging waterfalls.
Upon completion of the two-hour journey from Bangkok, the passage through the township of Khao Yai is an unusual sight: large paddocks with herds of cattle, stables of horses and roadside steakhouses adorned with wagon wheels – not quite the image of a region noted for its vast natural beauty.
The cowboy theme originated from the mind of a Thai entrepreneur. During his impressionable youth, Chokchai Bulakul used to spend four months a year on a ranch in Texas. Clearly influenced by his formative years, he thought Thailand should be exposed to the cowboy way of life. With its location as the northern frontier, Bulakul formed the idea that Khao Yai was the best place to replicate the cowboy lifestyle of the American Midwest. As his personal wealth grew, he was able to buy more property and bring his dream to fruition. The cowboy influence is unmistakeable at Rancho Charnvee Resort & Country Club where a sketch of a galloping stallion embellishes club signage and merchandise. It’s a lovely layout with gorgeous mountain backdrops. And as with just about every golf course in Thailand, the food in the clubhouse is outstanding with a choice between Thai, Asian and Western cuisine.
With nine courses of a resort standard, there’s an ambitious plan to promote Khao Yai as a golf destination. Jack Nicklaus left his signature on the demanding layout at Kirimaya Golf Resort Spa. Dense jungle lines every fairway to give each hole a sense of isolation. Wetlands with lily-covered ponds add to the scenic beauty. Thankfully, the conditioning has improved markedly since the new owners tried to restore the course to its original state from 2004.
The secluded Kirimaya resort couldn’t be any more of a contrast to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. The architecture of the dining pavilion is based on an open-air Northern Thai rice barn. With the convenience of a five-star hotel, each of the Muthi Maya pool villas feature hardwood flooring, modern furnishings and tasteful artwork. They also have their own private swimming pool with views of the golf course and Khao Yai mountains. Along with a luxury day spa, Kirimaya sends the message it is top shelf in anyone’s language.
When planning a trip to Thailand, we recommended visiting the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s website (tourismthailand.org). To learn more about the Thai golf experience, visit golfinakingdom.com. For golf/travel bookings visit golfasian.com or aymgolf.com. More information about the properties featured in this article is available on the following websites:
- Panya Indra Golf Club (panyagolf.com)
- Riverdale Golf Club (riverdalegolfclub.co.th/riverdale)
- Suwan Golf & Country Club (suwangolf.com)
- Thai Country Club (thaicountryclub.com)
- The Royal Gems Golf City (royalgemsgolfcity.com)
- The Westin Grande Sukhumvit, Bangkok (westin.com/bangkok)
- Red Sky Bar (centarahotelsresorts.com/centaragrand/cgcw)
- Bangpra Golf Club (bangpragolf.co.th)
- Laem Chabang International Country Club (laemchabanggolf.com)
- Siam Country Club (siamcountryclub.com)
- Siam Bayshore Resort & Spa (siambayshorepattaya.com)
- Banyan Golf Club (banyanthailand.com/golf)
- Black Mountain Golf Club (blackmountainhuahin.com)
- Majestic Creek Golf Club & Resort (majesticcreekcc.com)
- Banyan The Resort (banyanthailand.com)
- Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas (centarahotelsresorts.com)
- Evason Hua Hin, Pranburi (sixsenses.com/evason-resorts/hua-hin/destination)