TEE OFF IN HUA HIN
Written by JOHN BORTHWICK
Not many golf course deals beat the one hatched on the Royal Hua Hin course in 1932. During a game Siam’s King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) was told that an alliance of bureaucrats and officers in Bangkok were demanding he replace Siam’s 700-year old absolute monarchy with a constitutional one. The King reportedly said to his companions, "I told you so," and played on. And thus began Siam-Thailand’s go-stop-go journey towards liberal democracy.
Golf is still the hottest game in town with Hua Hin regularly hosting major local and Asian tournaments. In mid-June it will be home to the Centara World Masters Golf Championship, the biggest event of its kind in Asia, with an anticipated 700 competitors, including a large foreign contingent.
Hua Hin’s destiny as a golfing mecca began in 1910 when Prince Chakrabongse "discovered" what was then a quiet fishing village while on a tiger hunt. His enthusiasm prompted King Rama VII to build a summer palace in 1928, calling it Klai Kang Won, "Far From Worries". The current king, Rama IX, still spends much of his year there — you can tell when he’s “at home” by the Navy boats parked offshore.
In the 1920s Hua Hin came into vogue with Siam’s court and Bangkok society, and a railway was pushed through from the capital. The exotic little Royal Waiting Room constructed for the king still stands on the station platform, a uniquely Thai structure that looks like a cross between a temple and a ticket office.
Just across the rail line is Royal Hua Hin, Thailand's first golf course, which opened in the 1920s — legend has it that the caddies first had to chase tigers off the fairways. Today there are nine courses along the Gulf of Thailand between Cha-am and Hua Hin, making this virtually the Gulf of Golf.
The most historic resort here (and HQ for the World Masters event) is the Centara Grand Beach, formerly the Railway Hotel, built in 1922 by Prince Purachatra. Its seafront grounds, breezy pavilions and palatial balconies are an analogue of those aristocratic, pre-digital times — and a reminder that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. The real scene-stealer however is the topiary in the resort’s grounds: a wondrous, motionless stampede of green elephants, deer and giant rabbits. And that’s before you hit the Elephant Bar.
The World Masters tournament, organised by Golfasian and Australia’s Go Golfing, will run from 14 to 19 June at four of Hua Hin’s world-class courses, Black Mountain, Banyan, Majestic Creek and Imperial Lakeview. Over the five-day period all contestants play each course once, with one lay-day. Entry is open to all golfers over the age of 35 with an official handicap and, despite its amateur status, there will be US$30,000 in prizes and lucky draws.
A game of golf, as Mark Twain reckoned, ruins a perfectly good walk. So, for non-golfers and post-tournament players, what else is there to do in Hua Hin? The
sea here is calm (as are the streets). The beaches are wide, clean, uncluttered and not lethal with hooning watercraft. The best one is Khao Takiap, just south of town. Predictably, there are plenty of Buddhist temples, as well as several night markets. Because of its conservative roots Hua Hin-by-night has never aspired to be the Big Sleazy; nevertheless, it is fun, with plenty of fresh seafood at quality restaurants, plus a bar zone of the (comparatively) quiet riot category.
Another Hua Hin royal retreat (now retired) is the vast Maruekathayawan Palace, built in 1923. This restored treasure that stands on the beachfront north of town and is open to visitors is billed, uniquely, as "The Longest Golden Teak Palace in the World" — is there another?
Twenty-three kilometres south of Hua Hin is Khao Sam Roi Yot ("Mountain of Three Hundred Peaks") National Park, with forests, waterfalls and beaches. The park is a sanctuary for deer, monkeys and other species, but its most popular visitor spot is the grand Phraya Nakhon Cave. Worth the excursion and mild exertion.
Meanwhile back at the Masters golf championship: one of the participating courses, Imperial Lake View, is owned by Chang brewery, co-sponsor of the big event. Last year they generously provided free Chang for the players at drink stations on the course. As contestants quenched their thirsts, their progress grew slower and slower. Following groups were delayed — and then they too fell upon the beer. The result, a pile-up of slightly pissed portly persons in loud shorts. New rule for 2015: free beer after your round, in the clubhouse, not on the course.
Hua Hin Tips
1. Bangkok to Hua Hin: the 200 km road journey takes around three hours. Hotel limo 7000 baht; meter taxi 2500 baht; coach from Suvarnabhumi airport 300 baht; express train 300 baht. Public vans are fast, cheap (200 baht), cramped and prone to prangs.
2. Fees vary from course to course, peaking at top-drawer Black Mountain, where a round costs 4500 baht, which covers playing fee, buggy, caddy and tips. Most clubs offer a limited shuttle service to and from Hua Hin and Cha-am, as well as having their own resort accommodation.
3. Aim for a weekday game to enjoy Hua Hin’s uncrowded courses; the weekend influx from Bangkok makes conditions much busier.
4. More information. Centara World Masters Golf Championship enquiries: www.thailandworldmasters.com. Centara Grand Beach Resort: www.centarahotelsresorts.com. Hua Hin: www.hua-hin.com