Teeing off in Chiang Mai

Meraj Shah        Print Edition: July 10, 2011

Circa 1898. A group of itinerant British expatriates, desperate to escape the tropical heat, stumble into a town in Northern Thailand . Smitten by the salubrious climes of Chiang Mai, nestled in the shadow of the highest mountains in the country, the group set up camp, and, (as their countrymen in that age were wont to do) wasted no time in establishing a club to while away time on those easy languorous afternoons.

The picturesque Highlands course
The picturesque Highlands course
That's the genesis of the oldest sporting club in Thailand - the Chiang Mai Gymkhana - which houses a nine-hole course and a host of other sporting facilities. The course survives, almost in its original design to this day. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then in Chiang Mai. Flanking the banks of the Ping River, the erstwhile capital of the Lanna Kingdom located about 700 kilometers from Bangkok and second in importance only to the capital, has evolved into a fascinating multi-faceted representative of Thailand's history and culture.

When should you go?
The best time to visit is 'high' season (October to March). Everyone, including Thais from other parts of the country, come to Chiang Mai during this period which translates into racked-up rates for everything from lodging to green fees. May is a good time to avoid tourists and avail of great deals on accommodation and at golf courses.

Getting to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is just over 700 kilometers from Bangkok which takes about five to seven hours by road or is a 45 minute flight. Thai Airways operates multiple flights throughout the day. For a more authentic experience, and if you have time on your hands, a 12-hour train ride from Bangkok is a good option. Trains from Bangkok's Hua Lumphong Station depart six times a day from 8 a.m. to 10p.m.

Boarding & lodging
Chiang Mai has an array of hotels catering to most budgets ranging from as little as THB 500 for small mom-and-pop run guesthouses to upmarket luxury hotels and resorts. Most golf courses also offer accommodation and you can get good deals to stay and play if there's a particular course you're interested in. If staying in the city, then opt for those close to the Ping River for easy access to the nightclubs and restaurants which are concentrated on the banks of the river. Options include the centrally located Le Meridien (www.lemeridien.com/chiangmai; Tel: +66 53253681-3) and the Centara hotel (www.centarahotelresorts. com; Tel: +66 2101 1234).

Booking tee times
Pre-booking tee-times is a must during the high season. Call the clubs at least a week in advance or better still confirm the same over mail before you arrive in Chiang Mai. In the low season it's possible to walk in for a round on weekdays. As with most golfing destinations, the courses are very particular about teetimes: if you miss yours then it's possible that you won't get another opportunity to play on that day.
On the golf front, a dozen or so new courses have eclipsed the historical layout at the Gymkhana to offer golf tourists a wide range of options which include championship courses designed by well-known names including Schmidt-Curley, Ronald Garl and Peter Thompson. Most visiting golfers make a beeline for the Alpine Golf Resort. It's ill advised, unless you're really on top of your game. The Ronald Garl design is a 7,541-yard monster, possibly the most difficult in Chiang Mai. Only those with 8 handicaps and below are allowed to challenge the course from the black tees (you need to carry your handicap certificate).

Landscaped strawberry farms dot the hills
Landscaped strawberry farms dot the hills
For lesser mortals, the blue tees present a morethan-adequate 7,174 yards of length to navigate. Set in the San Kampaeng forest with golden teakwood trees lining the fairways, the course has a breathtaking layout. But it really bares its teeth if you try and bludgeon it into submission: this is a shotmaker's course with deep bunkering and water in play on most of the holes. With most par-4s averaging over 400 yards, you're hitting mid and long irons on your approaches. The fourth hole, for example, is the longest par 5 on the course at 652 yards and then there's the more difficult 11th hole, a 524 yard par 4 dogleg with water down the entire left side of the fairway.

The signature hole is the 15th with an island green reminiscent of TPC Sawgrass. At 169 yards, this hole looks tougher than it is (the green is almost 50 yards long). The Alpine is a fantastic course to play but to enjoy your game it's important to shelve the ego and stick to either the blue or even the white tees (which at 6,814 yards is no walk in the park either) Also set amongst the hills is the Schmidt-Curley designed Chiang Mai Highlands which opened only in 2005. A 45-minute drive from the centre of the city, the course affords magnificent views on every hole.

A traditional artist
A traditional artist
However, with almost 100 bunkers and large undulating greens, it's as difficult as Alpine. Starting off with a downhill first hole, the course eases the golfer into the game with a gentle terrain before testing him with more elevation changes on the back nine. The landing areas are large but the bunkers are downright cavernous.

To score well on this course you have to avoid the sand traps. Much easier to get around keeping in mind the fact that you're there on vacation is the Summit Green Valley Country Club. Moderate speed greens and relatively wider fairways make this a more receptive course to midhigh handicappers. That said, the course can seem deceptively easy: an abundance of water bodies and bunkers in the landing areas do require smart play from the tees.

Night golf at Summit Green Valley Course is a popular pastime in Chiang Mai for those looking to beat the heat
Night golf at Summit Green Valley Course is a popular pastime in Chiang Mai for those looking to beat the heat
The hole that stays with you after you've finished is the 416 yard, par 4, 9th. The drive has to fly over water and needle through bunkers on both sides of the landing area. The second shot also requires you to clear a water body to its way to an elevated green surrounded by big palm trees. The course is fully floodlit and you can play night golf if you're looking for something different. Plus the green fee for night golf is substantially less.

The waterfall pool side area at the Centara Hotel
The waterfall pool side area at the Centara Hotel
The charm of golf in Chiang Mai, and what distinguishes it from other and equally viable golf destinations in Thailand like Hua Hin and Bangkok is the climate. While the rest of the country swelters in tropical heat and humidity from end-March, Chiang Mai is pleasant till May. The other upside of visiting during the 'low' season (March-October) is that the rates for accommodation and golfing plummet to almost half, making it excellent value for money.

Then there's much to do in town: pubs and restaurants on the Ping riverfront spoil you for choice once you're finished with the day's golf. There are spas galore and even Thai cooking workshops for those interested. An absence of traffic snarls and off-course entertainment and activity options add to the charm of Chiang Mai.

Take a swing at Thailand's Hua Hin

Unlike other tourist hubs in Thailand, the city doesn't have a beachfront. But in any case a vacation here is not for lounging about. It's more about getting out and doing stuff. Check out the ancient Buddhist temples, go for a hill trek, raft on the Ping, play golf and go clubbing at night. You will be booked for your entire time there. There's not a moment to squander in Chiang Mai.

Things to do

Local knowledge
Chiang Mai is an old city. It was established in 1296 AD. The Old
Quarter is still encircled by a defensive wall which was originally constructed to protect the inhabitants from invasion by neighbouring Burma. The quarter houses over 300 Buddhist temples, some of which date to the 13th century. Surrounded by some of the highest mountains in Thailand, Chiang Mai is significantly cooler than other parts. In the lush forests surrounding the city is the Doi Pui Suthep National Park which is very popular with bird-watchers. The hills are home to a number of traditional nomadic tribes. A number of operators can arrange treks which include interaction with the tribes.
Pay a visit to Chiang Mai's famous umbrella makers. The parasols are known for their intricate designs. Adventurous souls can also head to the Tiger Park in Mae Rim where you can pet and sit beside perfectly docile tigers (much to the felines' amusement, one suspects).


Alpine Golf Resort
7,541 yards; Par 72; Designed by Ronald Garl.
Green Fee: THB 2,500 (Rs 3,600)
Website: www.alpinegolfresort.com

Chiangmai Highlands Golf & Spa Resort
7,049 yards; Par 72; Designed by Schmidt-Curley.
Green Fee: THB 2,800 (Rs 4,035)
Website: www.chiangmaihighlands. com

Summit Green Valley Country Club
7202 yards; Par 72; Designed by Dennis Griffith
Green Fee: THB 1,800 (Rs 2,590) on weekdays; THB 2,400 (Rs 3,460) on weekends, THB 1,200 (Rs 1,730) for night golf.
Website: www.summitgreenvalleycountryclub.com

Royal Chiangmai Golf Resort
6969 yards; Par 72; Designed by Peter Thompson
Green Fee: THB 1,400 (Rs 2,020) on weekdays, THB 1,800 (Rs 2,590) on weekends.
Website: ww.royalchiangmai.com

Inthanon Golf and Natural Resort
7268 yards; par 72; Designed by Khun Suphachai Silamon
Green Fee: THB 1,800 (Rs 2,590) on weekdays; THB 2,000 (Rs 2,880) on weekends.
Website: www.chiangmaiinthanongolfresort. com

Mae Jo Golf Club
6,730 yards; Par 72; Designed by Seni Thirawat
Green Fee: THB 1,800 (Rs 2,590) on weekdays; THB 2,400 (Rs 3,460) on weekends.
Website: www.maejogolfclub.com

* Caddy fee at all courses ranges between THB 200-250 (Rs 290-570). Most golfers tip between THB 200-300 (Rs 290-430). Carts are available at all courses and usually cost between THB 500-800. The green fees listed above are for the high season (October-March) and are usually heavily discounted in the low season (May-October).

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