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World’s cheapest Golf game – Yes, but in Thailand’s war zone!

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

© Frank P. Schneidewind

Golf brought me some of the most amazing moments in Thailand, but two courses were outstanding beyond belief. One was at Don Muang (AFB), right smack between the runways and the other one was hugging the finest shoreline on the coast of mainland Siam in Narathiwat. We visit the Chulabhorn GC here with you!

This feature is a little bit dedicated to my own and wilder past, and also a young USMC friend by the name of Trevor. It dates back prior to the mishap, which partly revoked my personal mobility. Melona and me traveled frequently in the southernmost part of Thailand. The civil war zone there, came along with the international media's need for on-site reports and photographs. We were happy to supply and our interviews/reports plus pictures made it into numerous publications (via  news agencies). They were our bread and butter then, so to speak.

Each of those trips was well planned and safe enough for us, they brought much more than just doing some work in an area, the tourists probably had never heard of. Narathiwat province became our home for weeks at a time and it always has been a beautiful part of Asia. This area was a part of the former independent Pattani Kingdom since the middle ages, until they were annexed by Siam (Thailand) in 1771.

A massive military deployment in 2004, lead to an escalation of the civil unrest. The military needed to remain on site, in order to suppress militant Muslim or Islamic groups. These insurgents target teachers, Buddhist monks and everything, that resembles Thai authority or government. Hardly a week goes by without ambushes, bombs, killings and gruesome slaughter of innocent civilians. The body count exceeds 4.000 today and there is no end of this dramatic scenario in sight. IEDs also pose an ever present danger in the cities and their markets. Local media widely ignores this conflict, other than rebroadcasting some agency news and victim numbers. The military itself here, is in the cross-hairs of snipers, if on patrol. Teachers have the need to be guarded commuting to their schools and peaceful monks face an alarming threat by IEDs during their early morning walks for alms. Our presence on this trip came to an end and we were invited for a round of golf by an officer, whom we befriended here a long time ago. Convoys, returning from the field, were out in force, as we neared their camp.

Some of their gear displayed, was probably previously being used in long forgotten wars in Asia (Vietnam?). The Thai Marines here do an exceptional job, protecting citizens, schools and Buddhist temples from the Muslim insurgents in this region. Thousands of innocent people have lost their lifes in the ongoing struggle, ever since the former Minister President Thaksin Shinawatra (now a fugitive and convicted felon) escalated the situation here back in 2004. News report several times weekly, if not daily, about new ambushes, beheadings and bombings. Many young Marines died too, ambushes and IEDs, bombs and grenades took their toll on them. They are mostly a part of the forces, which were originally stationed in Chantaburi, 1.200 km to the northeast from here. They also provide the security for Narathiwat's airport. Their Camp Chulabhorn (name of a Thai princess), is located between the ocean (Gulf of Thailand) and the airport perimeter.

The staggered and multiple perimeters of guard placements, are meant to protect the Camp Chulabhorn from ambushes and this is probably a normality in all regions globally, with heightened alert levels (in any conflict zone). My own ugly face was a familiar sight to them. I exchanged a few quick words with the friendly dudes here. We are no threat to any smiling person and guys in uniform just look a bit rougher. It is a part of their job after all and the presence of personal body armor in this heat, told a grim story by itself.

I feel a bit sorry for these dudes, having to keep guard in scorching heat and sometimes horrific rainstorms to guard their area, but it has reasons too.

The IDs were checked and verified a few times, the scheduled tee-off left plenty of time for us. We proceeded well into this camp and had our car inspected and tagged as we continued. The round of golf with our friend, was a very welcomed break from our usual tasks in this neck of the woods.

We wasted our time on their marvelous stretch of beach, until it was time to proceed to the golf course on the camp. Displayed here is the tag, which classified our personal car as an admitted vehicle. The tag was to be clamped visibly inside the visible windshield area.

The golf course itself was tucked away inside the camp on the southern side.

A real surprise waited at the basic clubhouse, where I was to meet my golfing buddy. He paid 240 Baht green fee and I slipped to the counter behind him to pay my share. Cheap golf game, so I thought by myself. He gave me a funny look and asked what I wanted to do there, while he waved four score cards at me. The 240 Baht were not only covering his and my green fee, but also two more for some of his friends, who wanted to complete our foursome for this round! 60 Baht per person? I thought that was a joke, but he pulled me around the clubhouse and pointed at a weathered sign out there:

There is stand, faded – but legible. 60 Baht (under 2 $) on regular days, 100 Baht (approx. 3 $), on public holidays.  Non-members were charged 40 Baht more, but nobody worried here checking memberships. We were the only golfers visible and quickly dressed for the occasion. The clubhouse staff posed for a last picture, before Melona had to surrender our camera at the clubhouse.

The two officers, which came along, were superior in rank to my friend, but undetectable for me. Because everyone was wearing a poloshirt and golf-shorts. We were now just all casual golfers for the round and had a ton of fun. Melona (she doesn't golf yet), was allowed to troll along with my caddy. She didn't mind at all and did joke around with the female caddy a lot. Probably commenting on my less than perfect game.

This round included the roughest of roughs imaginable and tricky greens as well, a few splashed balls needed to cool off also. The borrowed clubs were decent, but I did not exactly have had a chance to beat the others. Their birdies were admired much, my own best holes were par. Does anyone now, if there is a name for four over par? Had that on three occasions!;)

Above picture shows one of the final holes, close to the clubhouse again, where a huge spider was waiting for careless insects on a well-weathered sign. These shots were done, while we took a shower afterwards. We concluded this day with a dinner in the camp. It was a great day out golfing and I ended up with a gross score, that I better not broadcast to you.;(

Most larger military installations in the free world have a golf course for recreational purposes. I must admit, that these were always somewhat of very interesting to me in the past. Some of them are truly spectacular, like the one smack in between the operating runways at Don Muang Airport. Most are not accessible by the public, but I really felt privileged to play those. They are usually well kept, but without the truly manicured lawns, as at the much pricier private or public courses have.

Phuket – a tiny beach called Paradise Beach

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

© Frank P. Schneidewind

Not all beaches on Phuket island are disgusting forests of beach umbrellas and full of the human hordes, that mass tourism brings to that Province of Thailand. Some rather secluded beaches can almost not be found on the touristic maps. Paradise Beach is one of them. It's relative close proximity to the nightlife hub and overly touristed beach in Patong, never really has bothered Paradise Beach, which has been a heaven for a selected few. Even before the big Tsunami devastated the coastline here, this was my absolute favorite place in this neck of the woods. It was a nightmarish ride on a moped over hills and through forests to get there. A dirt road, that never saw any maintenance, was the only way to get there. A boat ride from Patong was optional bookable, but always has been prohibitively expensive for me. Perhaps, if I would be doing my traveling and exploring in a group, I would opt for this, or if budget reasons would not be important.

Small way-markers could be spotted along the path, but the trail head was well hidden for many years. One just had to follow the coastline south of Patong and get to the hilly flank to the left side of Patong Bay (as seen from the beach).

A forestry trunk road or something similar, used to wind its way over the seaside hill. It stretches for a few miles uphill, before it descends dramatically to almost ocean level. If you were an inexperienced rider, your knees may have been bleeding by now, as the hill climb outdoes the climbing capability of small mopeds in the end. The relatively loose ground also did call for something with more tread, than ordinary motorcycle road tires. They covered the loose gravel now with a layer of cement, that greatly enhances chances to make it. Make sure to attempt this only as a single rider or on a dirt bike. Dual passengers were hardly able to make it to the top together.

The best is to drive ahead and signal your other passenger to come and follow afoot, when you have reached the peak safe. Groups of bikers should attempt the final leg one by one and not in a convoy, as the incline may require some sudden zig-zagging over the with of the road surface.

A small beach side restaurant here also sells refreshments to take away to your beach mat. That is for the case, that you do not want to hire one of their loungers.

Ocean kayaking was a big hit here, before the Tsunami rolled by. Paradise beach was not hit by the brunt of the massive wave, but it sure destroyed some property when it came by on it's way to hit Patong and all West facing beaches. This one basically faces North and is not as huge as others on Phuket. Accommodations never were built here, which may have added to preserve the beauty. The restaurant and shop owner picks up his goods and on occasion passengers, with his powerful 4×4 truck.

Unless you come in peak season, it is not crowded here and a lot cleaner than Patong for sure. No notorious Tuk Tuk pilots or jet ski dudes to spoil your day here. The restaurant surprisingly has reasonable prices and the rental fees for beach or snorkel gear, are not exaggerated. Ocean kayaking here requires slightly skilled paddlers, because there are currents, drifts and waves to negotiate out there.

A boat is stationed here and makes occasional pickup trips to Patong or Tri Trang beach. Tri Trang is the almost undeveloped natural beach to the South of Patong. One has to pass it, in order to get to Paradise Beach.

The water here is superb and very clear, it appears not to be contaminated at all. Patong gets bad headlines too often for my taste. Coliform bacteria and other unwanted things were found there in higher than average concentration, just recently again. Phuket has lost all 4 and 5 star rated beaches in 2010, this one they probably never checked.

Paradise Beach is too insignificant for tourism, no lewd drag queens in sight, no 24 hour big macs on a beach side road, no beer bars or kathoey shows near here. Not even those notorious beach sales people make it here. The beach sand has a very light color and is powdery fine. Some larger boulders on both ends may be climbed or used as a natural chair or lounger. This beach appears to be good for kids as well, as it is fairly easy to supervise them. Plenty of things to do as well.

Across the bay, one can spot Kamala Beach, another famous touristic hot-spot. Not quite as raunchy, as Patong, more of a family holiday area, but well developed. Parts of Patong can be seen at times, but the noise from there luckily doesn't carry this far.

The sand here at Paradise Beach is probably so light colored, because of many reefs in nearby proximity. Broken corals at the flanks denote the existence nearby. Snorkeling is supposed to be rewarding here,, as reefs attract an abundance of marine life forms. Please do not feel tempted to take any coral from here, it is prohibited and may give you a problem at customs here or at your home airport!;)

The long stretch of Tri Trang Beach, can be spotted from the hill. A scenic viewpoint here is not signposted, but worth a photo stop on your way back.

Make sure to pay this beach a visit, when coming to Phuket. It is pretty here on a nice weather day and even then hardly as crowded as most other beaches.