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|Tourists have long flocked to Thailand for the culture, the beaches and the food. To that list, add golf. (Courtesy Bangkok Golf Club)|
BANGKOK, Thailand - It's crowded, polluted, congested, noisy, chaotic, smelly and gray. But peel back the skin and Bangkok, or the City of Angels as it's known in Thai, opens up like a strange exotic flower. A frenetic combination of centuries-old temples, colossal shopping centers, gleaming skyscrapers, floating markets, chic art galleries, alien-like sex shows, five-star restaurants and never-ending food stalls, Bangkok is a crossroad between traditional Buddhist values and breakneck capitalism, between East and West, between what is old and what is daringly new.
Founded by King Rama 1 in 1782 following the Burmese sacking of the capital Ayatthaya, Bangkok began as an amphibious city. Built on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, most of Bangkok's earlier residents lived and fished from bamboo boathouses moored to surrounding floodplains.
But the city would not remain a backwater for long. Fearing renewed attacks, city planners constructed an intricate network of purpose-built canals intercropped with medieval-like forts and watchtowers, earning it the moniker "Venice of the East."
Bangkok suffered heavy Allied bombardment during World War II when Thailand paired itself with Imperial Japan in what Thais describe as a desperate-yet-clever act of self-preservation - not the country's proudest moment.
Thailand reverted to its historically tolerant and outward-looking nature after the Allied victory. The R&R mainstay of U.S. and Australian troops during the Vietnam War, Bangkok burst onto to the international spotlight in the 1960s as a hedonistic hideaway - a sin city of the East where everything could be bought and the rules did not apply.
Expansion and Westernization continued into '80s and '90s, when double-digit economic growth turned the former riverside settlement into a smog- and traffic-choked metropolis of Babylonian proportions. And while Thais suffered immensely during the Asian financial meltdown in 1997, the economy has since recovered and the city is singing once again.
Success in the business world goes hand-in-hand with love for golf, so finding world-class golf courses is no problem in Bangkok. More than 30 golf clubs can be found in and around the city's sprawling outskirts, easily reached by air-conditioned taxi.
Fares are dirt cheap compared to what one might expect to pay in Europe or the U.S., while green fees vary from $20 to $40, with the most exclusive country clubs still charging less than $100. Golf carts and caddies also come at a steal.
Surprisingly, nearly all Thai caddies are women. And while their knowledge of the game is often superficial, Thai caddies are attentive, jovial and brimming with genuine Thai hospitality. There's a reason call it the Land of Smiles.
Joel Gershon, an American who is editor of Elite, the magazine of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club Golf, said more and more tourists are traveling to the country, clubs in tow.
"Golf has become a reason people are coming to Thailand along with the more traditional reasons, like the food, the culture, the beaches and the people," Gershon said.
Many of courses operating in greater Bangkok today were built in the hedonistic 1990s, when giddy entrepreneurs spent millions constructing the courses of their dreams. Coupling the design expertise of golf legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Yoshihara Aihara with the principals of "Feng Shui," the Chinese art of positioning objects in patterns corresponding to the flow of energy, their creations are precise, empowering and distinctly Thai.
"Thailand is a gread golfing destination because the quality of courses is very high for the price you pay compared to what you pay in America and Europe," said Antonio Choy, a Canadian working as assistant general manager of the 18-hole Bangkok Golf Club. "Thailand is a good destination for general visitors, too."
With shaded kiosks at every second or third hole, decorative shrines, lush colorful flora, open-door policies and world-class facilities, Bangkok's courses offer year-round golfing opportunities in luxurious surroundings at relatively cheap prices. Among the most noteworthy are the Royal Bangkok Sports Club on Henri Durant road; Subhaphruek on KM 26 of the Chon Buri-Bang Na expressway; and the Alpine golf and Sports Club in Pathum Thani province, a one-hour drive north of the city.
Thailand has more than 200 golf courses, some average, some superb, some even built around national parks, or around the steep precipices of tropical coastlines.
The island of Phuket - An internationally renown tourist mecca only one hour's flight from Bangkok-offers seven courses and a menage of tourist entertainment, from shopping, to boating, to fine dining, to Thai boxing exhibitions. The beaches here are among the best in the world: white sand and blue water shadowed by towering green mountains.
Then there's Pattaya - an animated seaside resort about two hours drive from Bangkok that sports 20 inexpensive yet well-maintained courses. There are more bars and nightclubs in Pattaya than days in a year, top-tier hotels and resorts of every description and plans to build Thailand's first legal casino.
For those who prefer cooler hilly climates, Chang Mai and Chang Rai provinces in Thailand's far north boast about 10 good courses. The area is dotted with national parks, waterfalls, hill-tribe villages, elephant camps, raging rivers and health spas. A longboat ride south along the Mekong River takes travelers to Luang Praubang, in neighboring Laos. Wedged between layers of thick, forested mountain, this World Heritage City boasts 52 wats, or temples, on one hill, though no golf courses at the present time.
One historic city in the region that has been bitten by the golf bug is Hua Hin, a romantic beachside town three-hour drive south of Bangkok. Hua Hin is home to some of the oldest and most exclusive hotels, courses and clubs in Southeast Asia. Standout is the Royal Hua Hin, a majestic 18-holer designed by Scottish railway engineer A.O. Robins back in 1924. The residence of Thailand's much-loved King Bhumibol, Hua Hin is a must-see location, especially for those visiting Thailand in September, when the King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament comes to town. Like the aptly named the City of Angels, elephant polo is but a small part of a unique cultural mishmash that backdrop Asia's most exotic golfing opportunities.
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