By Anita Draycott
This is the last of our Thailand Golf Chronicles. In May Traveling Golfer Claudio DeMarchi and I were invited, along with golf tour operators and journalists from around the planet, to the launch of Golf in a Kingdom, a collection of the top courses, hotels and resorts throughout Thailand.
Pars, Parties and Ping Pong in Phuket
Claudio and I parted after a few days in Pattaya. His group went to Hau Hin and Bangkok; mine traveled south to Phuket and then north to Chiang Mai.
Just minutes after landing at the Phuket Airport, we were teeing off at the Blue Canyon Country Club’s Canyon Course. Playing a round of golf here entails following in the footsteps of such legends as Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els as many of Asia’s top tournaments have been hosted on this lush course by Japanese designer Yoshikazu Kato.
Carved into the edge of a canyon, the fairways unfold across a verdant valley dotted with freshwater lakes. Number 13, the 390-yard signature hole, is also christened “The Tiger Hole” as Mr. Woods blasted 270 yards across the canyon from the black tees to the green.
My favourite is number 14, a drop-dead gorgeous par-three that plays onto an almost-island green in the shape of Thailand from hugely elevated tees.
Blue Canyon’s Lakes Course, also by Kato, features water on all but the 17th fairway. It’s a gentler test than the Canyon Course with gigantic greens and generous fairways.
In Asia, caddies are mandatory and almost all of them are women. If you’re a high roller, you can hire three—one to select and clean your clubs, one to carry a parasol and stool, and one to light your cigarettes and give shoulder massages. One caddie is really all you need. At Blue Canyon, my caddie told me to call her Lek. Soaking wet she probably weighed about 67 pounds. After a few holes she asked my age. “Fifty-something,” I mumbled and then hit a career drive. Lek clapped. “You very old but strong,” she noted. At the end of our round, she patted my butt and exclaimed, “Very healthy, madam.”
Not speaking another’s language, except for a few words, can sometimes be the most direct and honest way of expressing oneself—like it or not. By the end of the round Lek had remarked that I was fat-assed and ancient. For this I tipped her a few baht and headed to the palatial clubhouse for another addictive Thai massage.
The new Pullman Phuket Arcadia Naithon Beach Hotel proved to be a true cliffhanger. Somehow the architect managed to tuck 277 state-of-the-art rooms into a steep hill. Guests are transported around the resort and to nearby Naithon Beach by modified golf carts. I took a stroll along the beach strip and encountered droves of Russian tourists, who must find the Thai climate to be quite a change from their homeland.
Kudos to the Pullman’s culinary team. The Italian restaurant serves authentic recipes and wood-fired pizzas. The breakfast buffet is well worth getting up for. You name it; they’ve got it—from mango smoothies to spicy Pho soup, omelet stations, French-style pastries and lattés that put Starbucks to shame.
After a dip in the hotel’s dreamy infinity pool we were ready to tackle the Red Mountain Golf Club that bills itself as “the most exciting golf course in Phuket.” I might add the most dramatically beautiful and the best I’ve played in all of Thailand. Designed by Jon Morrow on what was a former tin mine, Red Mountain dips and dives to take full advantage of the dizzying elevation changes and red rock outcroppings. It’s a challenge but there are all sorts of risk and reward options along the 6,900 serpentine yards.
Natural waste bunkers, towering precipices, deep ravines and flooded gullies are all seamlessly integrated. And as you weave your way through Red Mountain, you are rewarded with panoramic views over Phuket before heading back down another gully lined with tropical forest. The elevation changes so drastically on this layout that golf carts are compulsory. Every aspect of Red Mountain ensures that players are captivated by the exciting diversity of play and the spectacular natural scenery.
The par-threes on Red Mountain are most memorable. The third requires a carry over what looks like an excavation zone; the spectacular signature 17th has elevated tees and a postage stamp green. Pick the right club and a birdie is yours.
After our round we spent the evening in Phuket’s party town, Patong. The rooftop Sky Lounge at The Kee Resort & Spa serves east-meets-west tapas and creative cocktails. Just a seven-iron away, the Bangla Road night market is choc-a-bloc with Go-Go bars and “ping pong” sex shows with such menu items as whistles, catfish, hamsters and bananas. Use your imagination.
Elephants, Hill Tribes & Monks in Chiang Mai
The next morning we left the heat of Phuket and flew north to cooler Chiang Mai, the capital of Northern Thailand, known as the Lanna Kingdom in the thirteenth century. Lanna means “the land of a million rice fields.”
Our headquarters was the Chedi Hotel in the centre of town, formerly the British Consulate. Chiang Mai was once notorious for poppy cultivation and the opium trade. Nowadays, the hill tribes rely more on tourism and other kinds of agriculture for their livelihood. Every evening vendors set up their stalls on both sides of Chang Klan road and women from various hill tribes, wearing ornate headdresses, sell silver trinkets and hand-woven silk. You can barter for a “genuine fake copy watch.” My twenty-dollar “Cartier Tank” is still ticking. As a general guideline, start the haggling process by offering about half the opening price.
In between bazaars and bargaining, we visited the Elephant Farm and watched the pachyderms perform amazing feats, from throwing darts to kicking soccer balls to painting intricate landscapes. Years ago, elephants hauled lumber, but when teak exportation dwindled, many of these pachyderms and their trainers became unemployed. Fortunately, they are now finding new careers in tourism.
After the show, we climbed aboard the strong and gentle beasts of burden for a jungle trek to Baan Tong Luang, a village where various hill tribes still dress in traditional costume and sell handicrafts. As a sign of beauty, females from the Karen tribe wear multiple brass rings around their necks, arms and legs. I tried just one and it was awkward and heavy. Image having 20 around your neck!
En route to golf one morning, we found ourselves on a street filled with saffron-swathed Buddhist monks carrying alms pots. Outside the shops, vendors had set up small tables and were selling offering baskets. Their religion forbids the monks from asking for food, so the tradition is to buy a basket containing some rice and fruit, take off your shoes, kneel down and offer the basket to a passing monk. For this he’ll bless you.
Whatever your beliefs, it’s a happy way to start a day, especially if you’ve got a round of golf booked at the Chiang Mai Highlands Golf & Spa Resort that coincidentally was built on the hermitage of a revered monk. Located 1,000 feet above sea level this might well be the coolest place to take a swing in all of Thailand. A Schmidt-Curley Design the course has been voted as one of the top three new courses in Thailand by Asian Golf Monthly readers. The signature 18th is a dramatic par-five with a pesky stream that efficiently catches any errant shots from 80 to 120 yards to the green that is well protected with bunkers. As the yard book says, “Imagination is a terrific asset when try to get up and down at Chiang Mai Highlands.”
After dinner, our foursome headed to a small massage place just up the street from the Chedi hotel. I bought a bottle of Scotch, some paper cups and a bag of ice from the 7-Eleven store next door. We enjoyed a one-hour foot and shoulder massage while we passed around the bottle. Try doing that back home.
It was my last night in the Kingdom and as I drifted off to sleep I pondered this strange and wonderful country. Thailand was never colonized by western powers and Buddhism teaches compassion and forgiveness, rather than judgment. Maybe that explains this culture that combines cool serenity, unpredictability and the pleasure principle in the most serendipitous ways.
Thai One On
Planning a trip to Thailand? Check out the following:
Tourism Authority of Thailand www.tourismthailand.org
Golf In A Kingdom www.golfinakingdom.com
A special thank you to our friends at Tourism Thailand, Golf In A Kingdom and Eve Air for providing the air transportation. www.evaair.com