By Anita Draycott (with input from your Traveling Golfer, Claudio DeMarchi)
Welcome to the Kingdom of Thailand where east and west, ancient and modern, exotic and erotic, calm and chaotic clash and collide in the most delightful ways.
My pal and publisher, Claudio DeMarchi and I arrived in Pattaya feeling somewhat jetlagged after a lengthy flight. But, no sooner had we checked into our hotel and we were out the door for a Thai massage possibly my favorite recreational activity in Thailand and maybe the world.
Golf in a Kingdom
We had been invited, along with golf tour operators and journalists from around the globe, to the launch of Golf in a Kingdom. Thailand boasts more than 260 golf courses and the folks at Golfasian, Thailand’s largest inbound golf tourism company, selected the cream of the crop, along with fine hotels and resorts throughout the country, to be members of Golf in a Kingdom.
Golf tourism in Thailand has skyrocketed with arrivals in 2012, up 50 percent in the past three years. If this pace of growth continues, Thailand will pass Spain as the world’s most popular golf tourism destination by 2015 or 2016.
It’s no coincidence that the International Association of Golf Tour Operators chose Pattaya to host their Asian Convention and coincidently while we were there. Pattaya was also named by IAGTO as “Golf Destination of the Year for Asia and Australasia for 2012.”
The day after we arrived I opted for a warm-up round on the challenging twenty-seven-hole Laem Chabang International Country Club. Designed by Jack Nicklaus, the course takes you through mountains, lakes and valleys. With phallic rock sculptures, fragrant gardenias and beautiful plantings, it felt like a stroll through a Japanese botanical garden.
Claudio, on the other hand, went to the IAGTO Convention in the morning before heading off to one of Pattaya’s infamous “entertainment districts.” He was grinning from ear to ear when we caught up with him later for dinner. He was also showing off a few items from his shopping spree—top quality sandals ($35) and a flashy knock off watch for ten bucks! I wonder what else he might have been up to?
The next day Golf in A Kingdom was officially inaugurated with a fun tournament on the Siam Country Club Plantation Course, home to the Honda LPGA Thailand. We were definitely an international group. My foursome included journalists from China, Copenhagen and Japan. The 27-hole, Schmidt-Curley design is situated on a former pineapple and tapioca plantation. Bunkers abound on this undulating challenge so hone up on wedge play.
Caddies are an integral part of the Thai golf experience. Each course has its own team of tiny Thai ladies dressed in caddy wear and kerchiefs in club colours. Mine was number 007 and her name was Mew. Soaking wet she probably weighed about 67 pounds. I pinned a Canadian flag on her lapel and she gave me a big hug.
Mew was a skilled caddie. When I asked for a three-wood, she handed me a seven-wood, explaining “three-wood goes to Canada.” And once I figured out that “a little light” on the putting green meant a little right (many Thais have difficulty pronouncing “r”) my score improved.
Pattaya’s Pleasure Principles
I must admit that I have mixed feelings about Pattaya. Up until the Vietnam War it was a sleepy fishing village about two-and-a-half-hours’ drive southeast of Bangkok. Then came hordes of American soldiers seeking some R&R and massages with “happy endings.” Prostitution in parts of Pattaya is thriving, as you’ll see by a stroll down Walking Street. But let’s face, the sex trade is thriving everywhere. Notoriety for the industry started years ago in Amsterdam with their Red Light District. On almost any main drag in Vegas you will encounter someone handing you a card bearing the photo of a pretty young lady, plus her name and number. Locally one need look no further than the back pages of the Toronto Sun newspaper. So don’t let that stop you from visiting one of Asia’s crown jewels.
Pattaya has plenty more pleasurable diversions. At Nong Nooch Paradise, we explored Southeast Asia’s largest botanical gardens and took in a Thai culture show complete with dances, martial arts, kickboxing and elephants that twirl hula-hoops, paint pictures and toss basketballs.
Just north of the city, The Sanctuary of Truth, a massive teak temple overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. Pom, our enthusiastic “ladyboy” guide, with the world’s longest fingernails, explained that the goal was to harmoniously blend Buddhist and Hindu architectural styles and carved motifs. By the way, ladyboy’s are an accepted part of Thai culture. At Tiffany, Pattaya’s most famous cabaret show, those voluptuous dancers flaunting their sequined gowns and fancy hairstyles are really men!
Back in town, my new golfing gal pals from China and Japan and I discovered that there are massage parlours and massage parlours. Directly across the street from our Centra Hotel we found Red Massage, a small clean place with six lazy boy chairs in the front for foot massages and some curtained areas in the back for full body massages.
Thus began the start of a new fetish—the profound pleasure of the ancient Thai massage. Lying on a mat on the floor and wearing a pair of supplied loose pajamas, your masseuse takes you on a two-hour series of contortions and stretching movements patterned on the “Asanas” of Hatha Yoga. Don’t be alarmed when she flips you over and walks down your spine. The average price for this royal treatment? About twelve dollars. You can understand why it’s addictive.
I am also now hooked on Thai food. My favourite restaurant in Pattaya has to be Cabbages & Condoms. Located in the Birds & Bees Resort at the north end of the beach, both the resort and restaurant were created as a Business for Social Progress. As such, profits go toward providing education, HIV/AIDS prevention and other basic needs for the poor in rural Thailand. After strolling through a series of gardens you are greeted at the entrance of the restaurant by mannequins dressed in condoms and birth control pills to drive home the message.
Dinner is served on a deck lit with fish trap lanterns overlooking the sea. I woke up my taste buds with a spicy green mango salad, followed by Tom Yam soup where plump shrimp float in a complex broth of lemon grass and Thai herbs. Claudio and I shared a platter of Phad Thai, Thailand’s national dish of rice noodles stir-fried with fish sauce, tamarind juice, chilies, bean sprouts, shrimp and chicken and topped with crushed peanuts, coriander and a squirt of lime. All of this slides down very well with an icy Singha, a popular Thai beer.
Alas, Claudio and I parted ways for the second chapter of our trip where we get into a lot more golf. My half of the group headed to south to Phuket then north to Chaing Mai; Claudio’s group went to Hua Hin and Bangkok. So stay tuned.
Looking into a trip to Thailand? Check out the following:
Tourism Authority of Thailand www.tourismthailand.org
A special thank you to our friends at Tourism Thailand, Golf Asian and Eva Air for providing the air transportation. www.evaair.com