I’ll call him the Shah of Thailand.
That’s what’s on his business card, the “Shah” part anyway, which is short for a name virtually unpronounceable by my limited English-speaking tongue — a phonetically driven hodgepodge of rapid-fire vowels and consonants that, in written form, derives from India’s Sanskrit. As a guide for Bangkok-based Golfasian, Southeast Asia’s top golf-and-fun tour operator, Shah knew he needed to come up with a moniker we Yanks could handle.
See, you’ve learned something specific about Thailand already, and it has nothing to do with golf. Or everything to do with it, depending on where you place the game in this fascinating nation’s cultural pecking order. There are 260 courses strewn across its 1,200-mile length, some of which will never make the international stage — only locals and military types need apply — while others, including the six I played over eight days in November, are as well-conceived, well-presented and professionally run as any I’ve played in the United States.
Yes, Thai golf is that good; it translates well here. And I’ll be happy to tell you more on that score, wearing my straight-on travel scribe’s hat, when the time comes in our July-August issue.
But right now I’m looking beyond the Paspalum-meets-Bermuda splendor of the resort and private tracks we played in the capital megalopolis of Bangkok, the tourist destination of Pattaya on the east side of the Gulf of Thailand and the “royal hangout” of Hua Hin on the west. I’m looking beyond the armies of young female caddies who met us, smiling yet sternly committed to the job at hand, at every course. I’m looking beyond the sparkling, spacious clubhouses, models of Western-flavored modernity outfitted with big locker rooms (showering after every round is de rigueur in Asia), restaurants serving cuisine far surpassing that of any Thai eatery along Ventura Boulevard, and, of course, massage facilities, since, by my reckoning, massage is Thailand’s unofficial national sport (though Shah would beg to differ — he says the natives love their soccer and worship the NBA).
I can’t help but look beyond the golf that drew us some 9,000 miles across the Pacific, via Taipei on Taiwan-based Eva Air (go for the affordable, upgraded “Elite” class, and enjoy the assistance of some of the most beautiful flight attendants in the business), and think about all the cultural and commercial sound and fury that filled our senses once the final putt fell.
“Our determination to provide multi-destination, multi-country trips that combine golf and culture and great shopping has really paid off,” says Mark Siegel, managing director of Golfasian and a New York native who now lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife and young son. He adds that Golfasian is seeking additional agent partners in select countries across North America and Europe. “It’s more complicated on our end; more relationships must be established ahead of time, of course. But it has been well worth it.
“This may sound heretical to some, but you can’t play golf every day. We now offer a trip that starts in Bangkok, heads up to Siem Reap (Cambodia), then goes over to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. There’s great golf and at least one unesco World Heritage site in each destination. No company in the world does that trip. You couldn’t even get a quote.”
Shah got us good and full of non-golf info during our maiden bus ride from Bangkok’s spanking-new airport (again, don’t ask me to pronounce its full name) to Pattaya. First came the facts and figures. Thailand is home to 65 million souls, most of them Buddhist who worship the Hindu god of Brahmin — hence all the colorful, intricate temples scattered throughout both urban and rural landscapes, which are, for all intents, the nation’s visual calling card to the world. About a sixth of the population calls Bangkok home, including King Rama IX, who was born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1927, educated at Harvard and is the world’s current longest-reigning monarch with more than 60 years on the throne. Photographed or painted likenesses of the 82-year-old figurehead and his queen hang everywhere in Thailand, especially in the tourist destination of Hua Hin, where his ancestors established a huge royal vacation compound in the 19th century.
Thailand’s parliamentary system of government undergoes a peaceful coup, oh, every 20 years or so. As a people, they abhor violence and have never been overthrown or colonized by outside forces, unlike the nations surrounding them — Myanmar (formerly Burma) to the west and north and Laos and Cambodia to the east. Most people qualify as poor by American standards and make their living by selling various wares from clothing to trinkets to electronics; farming fish or shrimp in rice paddy-like parcels; or cooking “street food” in night markets or along highways from makeshift open-air buildings. Only about 10 percent of the population pay taxes; most mom-and-pop businesses operate under state radar. Legit business (including golf operations) are owned, for the most part, by multinational corporations or foreign investors, especially hard-working Chinese. There is a definite caste system; most Thais recognize that they can only go so far up the economic ladder.
Through it all, the royal family has been a much-admired anchor among Thais for nearly 700 years. No word on whether anyone in their long line has picked up a golf club, though. Shah didn’t think so. Nor did he say whether the king and his court approve of their land’s famous — or is that infamous? — bustling sex trade, an accepted segment of Asian culture that, again, pops to mind when many Americans think of Bangkok in particular. In the interest of journalistic research we did poke our heads into a few nightclubs in the big city as well as down in Pattaya, and yeah, they were packed with men (and women) from all over the world, in various stages of undress.
“Some men in Thailand have what they call ‘minor wife,’” Shah said, referring to the young women some guys keep on the side, with the primary wife’s blessing. Most of them are farm girls employing their wiles to forge a path out of poverty.
It’s a similar deal with caddies, who stay fully dressed for all 18 holes. In fact, they’re covered head to toe under layers of cotton or linen in mind-melting temperatures (which soar into the 100s in the February-March offseason, with 90 percent humidity), their eager faces partially hidden under a wide hat or behind a scarf.
“They don’t want their skin to get dark,” Shah says. “They want to stay as light as possible.” Again, it’s a cultural thing. Driving or pulling carts, raking bunkers and lining up putts for well-heeled expats is considered a plum job, netting them around 300 baht per day — a whopping $10 at current exchange rates. They train for up to six months at one of Thailand’s many high-end clubs, and while their looping skills vary as widely as their command of English, they are as integral a part of Thai golf as palm trees, wiry Bermuda and copious bottles of six-percent Singha beer.
Overall I found that the half-dozen caddies I walked and rode with knew enough about the game to save me a couple strokes. On the greens it was a crapshoot; most break-reading consisted of them making an “O” out of two fingers to signify the cup, then holding up the finger from the other hand to show the aiming point. If it was a big break, they’d measure it out in segments of putter shaft. They pointed out tee box targets to perfection, clubbed me well and even calmed me down when I’d let my alter ego, Ivan the Terrible, rear his ugly head (perhaps because Thailand is a big vacation spot for Russians). My caddie at our last stop, a handsome modern club near Hua Hin called Black Mountain, was so good at her job that I tipped her 600 baht, or $20. She was ecstatic. Imagine a Pebble or Bandon bagger accepting that amount with gratitude — I’d be lucky if all my clubs made it back into the bag.
In fact, Thailand’s caddies represent their country quite well. The folks actually running the show — Siegel himself, Irish golf pros, Australian general managers — make sure everything is up to the traveling Westerner’s demanding standards, at a fraction of the price. Golf averages $60-$120 per round, and if a cart is mandatory, it’s included in the rate.
“The most popular trips here are for eight or nine days,” said Siegel, who’s a member at Thai Country Club near his Bangkok home (“near” is a relative term, sort of like “it’s only 15 minutes from here” in Los Angeles). “We can set them up in the best hotels or smaller places, work in boat tours, shopping, cooking classes — whatever they want. They’re only now realizing just how good the resort golf really is here in Asia, and how high the standard of resort accommodation is, and how affordable they both are by Western standards.”
Oh, yes, about that Thai cooking ... I’ve always loved its melding of Asian strains — curry from India, sweetness from China, intense heat from ’Nam — and could literally eat the stuff every day here at home, but in country it’s better than you can imagine, much more seafood-centric (fish and shrimp farms are everywhere), though chicken and pork are big parts of the average diet, too.
Whether we sampled tasty dishes in an outdoor venue in Pattaya, on a brightly lit barge cruising up Bangkok’s Chaophraya River, in the clubhouse eatery at Muang Kaew Golf Club or in a roadside locals’ joint on stilts near the Gulf — where two of our native hosts ordered everything and knocked it further out of the park with each course, especially a sublime Thai omelet (which resembles a chile relleno) and simply heavenly sea bass fried tempura-style, only lighter — the food was stunning. We downed sticky rice by the pound, slurped pho noodles by the mile and savored amazing sauces by the gallon, or so it seemed. It’s as addictive as the game we came all this way to play.
That’s why Thailand’s aggressive and savvy 21st century tourism cognoscenti, its hospitality industry (led, of course, by big chains like Marriott, Westin and a luxurious homegrown offshoot, Anantara), and perhaps even its royals finally recognize what a boon golf is to an economy that’s somewhere between first and third world. It’s a strong global draw with a propensity for pulling more dollars out of adventurous Yanks who’ve already done Scotland, Mexico and the Caribbean and crave something new.
Of course, it helps to have a great company like Golfasian, with its wealth of insider knowledge, leading you on the ultimate tour into this thoroughly fascinating foreign land. A guy nicknamed Shah, or somebody very much like him, will do his country proud.