With wonderful weather, stunning scenery and an authentically-Thai feel, Chiang Mai is one of the must-visit places in the Kingdom of Smiles – and there’s some excellent golf as well!
There are more than a dozen golf courses in and around Chiang Mai, offering a variety of experiences. One of the must-play tracts is Chiangmai Highlands Golf & Spa Resort, an absolute gem offering 27 excellently crafted and well-routed holes. Each of the three nines – the Valley, Highlands and Mountain – features wide, receptive fairways and postcard-perfect views of the surrounding hills.
Designed by Lee Schmidt of Schmidt-Curley Design, the course opened for play in 2005 and has matured nicely. The undulating site brings some subtle elevation changes into play, while the main shot-making challenge comes on the approach shot to the large greens which are trapped by high-lipped bunkers, mounds and run-off areas.
Condition-wise, Chiangmai Highlands rates five-star with well-manicured Paspalum fairways and fast, firm Tifeagle greens. Standout holes are bountiful but many will name the par-five ninth of the Highlands as their favourite. This sweeping dogleg left weighs in at 558 yards from the black tees, requiring a good drive to the bunkerless fairway to open up the option of going for the green in two – but a stream bisecting play about 120 yards from the well-trapped green will prompt many to lay-up.
The Thai-style clubhouse is simple but has the full range of facilities and a nicely thought-out flow, which is crucial given the heavy traffic experienced in the peak months. As the resort’s name suggests, there is a day spa as well as villa accommodation.
Next up is the renowned Alpine Golf Resort, a Ron Garl-designed course that was the venue for the Asian Tour’s Chiangmai Golf Classic from 2013 to 2014. The original 18 was completed in 2008 and an additional nine holes crafted by local design firm Golf East were added in 2015, but not as a separate nine – instead the new holes were incorporated into the existing 18 to create a routing change.
The signature hole is the sixth of the C Course, a short par-three playing to an island green, similar to but not nearly as spine-chilling as TPC Sawgrass’ infamous 17th hole. Water is also a big factor in another of Alpine’s most memorable holes, the par-four ninth of the A Course which demands two water carries – first to find an ‘island’ fairway and then to reach the peninsula green.
Alpine’s playing conditions are generally excellent although the greens, turfed with a less commonly used Bermuda strain called Novotek, can be a little inconsistent in bite and speed … but that’s probably due to the new nine holes being mixed into the original 18.
Facilities are excellent with the clubhouse offering a day spa should you need some post-golf therapy and a hotel for those who wish to avoid the 40-minute trip back to the city.
Chiangmai Highlands and Alpine aside, other golf courses worth playing include Summit Green Valley, Gassan Legacy and North Hill. Summit Green Valley is just 20 minutes’ drive from downtown Chiang Mai and offers a parkland-style layout crafted by Denis Griffiths, who also designed the highly-rated Thai Country Club in Bangkok. Dating back to 1990, the 18-hole layout has an old-school feel to it with mature trees lining the fairways and upturned, saucer-like greens.
Once the walled capital of the 13th century Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai is a picturesque city with restored remnants of the ancient wall forming a perfect square on the west side of the Ping River. A half-day trip to the famed hilltop Doi Suthep temple and nearby Hmong hill tribe village is a must, while pachyderm lovers might want to pay a visit to one of the area’s many elephant camps.
The main gripe most golfers have about Chiang Mai is the perceived lack of nightlife compared to the likes of Pattaya and Phuket. In actual fact, Chiang Mai’s post-sundown fun has always been there and the city centre has evolved organically to form some nice nightlife districts such as Nimmanhaemin (Nimman for short) Road.
Like most Thai cities, Chiang Mai is a shopping haven. The city’s night bazaar seems endless, stretching more than a kilometre along Chang Khlan Road and branching out into the side sois (streets). The three-storey Warorot Market along the banks of the Ping is just the place to get those famous Chiang Mai cashew nuts and dried longan, along with other tasty local treats.
The best time for a golfing trip to Chiang Mai is December through March, although it can get busy then due to the annual winter influx of Chinese, Korean and Japanese golfers. April, May and June are the hottest months and July to September is the wettest period, while October and November are nice ‘in-between times’ before the large winter crowds arrive.
Air Asia offers two daily flights to Chiang Mai, with flight time taking just under three hours. The early morning flight departs klia2 at 6.55am, which allows golfers ample time to get in a round upon arrival.
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Since you’re already in the northern part of Thailand, an add-on trip to Chiang Rai can easily be worked in. A three-hour drive from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is the capital of the province of the same name and in fact predated the former as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom.
Chiang Rai is a tourist paradise with an amazing range of natural and man-made attractions – ranging from ruins of ancient settlements and temples to stunning mountain scenery and hill tribe villages. An excursion to the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Burma come together, is a must.
For golfers, there are three courses to choose from. Top of the list is the stunning Santiburi Country Club, a Robert Trent Jones Jr-designed course that opened for play in 1993 but is still regarded as one of Thailand’s best courses. The par-72, 6853-yard course has a well-crafted layout with undulating, tree-lined fairways leading to slick greens, guarded by shimmering lakes and large bunkers.
Happy City Golf Resort is a 29-hole – yes, that’s right – Korean-owned course located in the foothills north of Chiang Rai. The course is divided three tracts – the 10-hole Lakeside, 10-hole Mountain Breeze and nine-hole River – which offer some unique experiences such as a green shaped as the Korean peninsula at the par-three seventh hole.
About 45 minutes’ drive from Chiang Rai is the Waterford Valley Golf Cub & Resort, a lush, 18-hole course offering stunning views of the northern mountain range. Dating back to 1994, the course offers wide open fairways with the biggest challenge being some steep elevation changes on a handful of holes.
Air Asia recently introduced direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Rai, departing four times a week on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
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BY JONATHAN PONNIAH