Over the top by Meraj Shah: Golf in exile

Khao Yai National Park, in central Thailand, is the golf crazy nation’s best kept secret.

golf, sports
The Nicklaus-design Kirimaya GC is the pick of the eight layouts in Khao Yai

No one talks about golf and Khao Yai in the same breath. It could be that the wildlife preserve in the Pakchong district of the Nakhon Ratchasima province of Thailand would rather cater to nature enthusiasts rather than droves of visiting golfers. But the truth is more insidious – tired of waiting for tee times at the crowded golf courses in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Hua Hin, and other golfing hubs in Thailand, the Thai golfer is understandably indignant. And there’s no way she’s going to divulge the whereabouts of possibly the only place where you can still play a surfeit of courses without bothering to make a booking or hankering for a morning spot.

It helps that Indians aren’t that hot on wildlife, and who can blame them? Who in their right mind would go to Thailand – the land of blue waters and virgin beaches – to head to a tropical forest where the only attractions are elephants and monkeys? Been there, done that. Of course, everyone conveniently forgets to mention that the wildlife reserve is in fact hemmed in by no less than seven-eight golf courses, all of which are substantially frugal on the pocket and easy to get to – you can easily make for an afternoon tee time if you leave Bangkok after breakfast.

Also read: Over the top by Meraj Shah: One for the ages

As far as public courses go, Rancho Charnvee Golf Club is one of the quirkiest layouts in all of Thailand. At first, the eccentricity seems limited to the over-the-top cowboy western theme of the resort accommodation – until you come to the back nine that is, and are confronted with the unfamiliar sounds and sight of low-flying vintage aircraft barnstorming over the fairways. As it turns out, the swashbuckling owner is as besotted with flying as he is with golf and the Wild West. And when you’ve got enough land to build a golf resort then where’s the harm of throwing in a private airfield while you’re at it? And so it is that between wide fairways and large water bodies, there’s an airfield right on the golf course. Why spend three hours on the road when you can just charter a flight in Bangkok and get here in a jiffy? Rancho is eminently fun to play. It’s tough but not overly so: wide-open fairways don’t penalise hooks and slices and you’re always in the game if you can recover on your approaches. The Bermuda greens are immaculately cut, and the course is maintained to championship levels. And to top it all off, it’s a public course, and pretty nifty on the pocket too.

While it may not be as immaculately kept as Rancho Charnvee, Kirimaya Golf Resort’s charm is all about its hidden-in-the-forest setting and exclusive feel. First off, there aren’t that many players on the course – mostly hotel guests and a few walk-ins – which heightens the feeling of isolation and stillness in the jungle setting. And, as with most Jack Nicklaus designs, the course blends seamlessly with the natural surroundings, while providing a fairly challenging test. Kirimaya is tough but fair and the singe track layout means there’s no criss-crossing of holes. It’s a modern course but with a quaint old-world ambiance that complements the Khao Yai experience.

If you’re feeling sadistic then all you need to know about Mountain Creek is that it was designed by Seve Ballesteros. When someone once asked the Spanish legend why he didn’t use new-age technology to fine-tune his swing the Spanish golf legend famously said that his ‘hands were his computer.’ And that’s exactly the kind of feel you’re going to require to get through this course in one piece. Forget all about large landing areas and wide-open fairways – Mountain Creek has tapering pathways leading to the most treacherous greens you’re likely to have played in recent memory. And all sorts of monstrous trouble – creeks, lakes, impenetrable rough (which transforms into the full-blown thicket in places), and pit bunkers – abound where you least expect it (DLF G&CC members will feel right at home). Goes without saying that this is a course where the driver is best kept inside the bag, or even better left back at the hotel room. What you’re going to need to tackle the three nines – Highland, Valley, and Creek – are razor-guided irons and a silky touch around the greens. Apart from golf, the national park is the biggest draw in Khao Yai: visitors can stargaze, watch wildlife up close, traverse nature trails, or take wine-tasting tours. Khao Yai’s USP is its quietude and the feeling of complete isolation from the urban world.

Also read: Over the top by Meraj Shah: One for the ages

For gastronomes, (especially those who aren’t squeamish!) a visit to the nearby Pakchong Night Market is an absolute must. Sample fried grasshoppers and other delicacies while you wander through the local fresh produce market. For the best pork ribs in the region, head to Krua Khao Yai – a popular authentic Thai roadside restaurant eatery and wash it down with some local brew from the PB Vineyard—not for wine snobs but much like Khao Yai, it’s the earthy, authentic flavours that make for a sumptuous experience.

Even more importantly, and this is pivotal if you’re heading to Thailand in the low season, the area around Khao Yai rises from 400mts to 1,351 metres above sea level which translates into lower temperatures than Bangkok making it considerably cooler than the Capital and a good option even in the summer months. The one thing you’re not going to find in Khao Yai is the frenetic nightlife of Bangkok or Pattaya, but once you’ve had your fill of that, and are looking for nothing more than a few games, unwinding at a spa and moments of peace, then this is the place to do it.

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First published on: 30-04-2023 at 04:00 IST