HUA HIN, THAILAND - They see me before I see them. The first one I notice, as I climb the scores of steep steps, is staring straight at me. Gradually, I become aware that I’m the target of many more eyes.
Sure, I’d come to see the monkeys. But it was strange to feel as if they’d been waiting for me, an entire welcoming committee of primates. Mid-afternoon, no crowds, quiet, a sea breeze relieving the sweltering heat, the resident macaques are chilling out, arrayed high in shade trees and, I begin to realize, stretched out low in the underbrush and even in the open on flat ground like so many sun-bathing tourists.
Among them, I gradually tune in, tiny and wide-eyed, are babies. I’m a sucker for all monkeys, big or small. But baby monkeys, living dolls? Come on. Name something cuter.
Plus, these toddlers are not behind bars. They’re not somewhere up in a rain forest cover, either, only to be glimpsed if you’re lucky. They’re perched a few metres away. They’re deftly climbing, their tiny fingers and toes already deft as pickpockets, an array of construction rebar, their very own monkey bars.
This tribe lives a privileged existence. Buddhist monks, funded by donations and fuelled by love, feed them and ensure their safety on Khao Takiab, a.k.a. Monkey Mountain, a rocky outcropping adorned with temples and a glittering, serene 20-metre statue of Buddha. The place affords stunning views northward up some five kilometres of broad, pristine beach stretching to the centre of Hua Hin. I walked all that way, stopping for beers and shrimp Pad Thai en route, but there are plenty of cheap alternatives from tuk-tuks to taxis to the locally preferred option of songthaews, covered pickup trucks with benches for seating.
Above The monkeys are cute but they are aggressive.
Anyway, monkeys, what a bonus. (Even though, I am told, caution is advised especially at feeding time. Those teeth are real and those fangs are sharp and those monkeys are wild and, yes, they more often than not get what they want.)
I’d come to Hua Hin, a three-hour drive south of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand, not for the wildlife but for the consistently outstanding late-winter and early-spring weather (34C, blue skies every day). I’d also come, with the help of a specialized tour operator, for the golf as this resort town of only abut 80,000 —which was originally developed as a get-away for the Thai royal family —is surrounded by an array of first-rate courses.
One of them is Sea Pines, which boasts a series of superb finishing holes verging on the oceanfront, coincidentally within easy walking distance of my buddies at Monkey Mountain. I’m not aware if the monkeys ever venture down to the course, but I do know they sometimes head to the beach beneath their sanctuary and frolic in the surf like so many of the ubiquitous lotion-lathered visitors from northern Europe.
Above The beaches in this Thai community are unspoiled and a great place to escape.
Hua Hin, quiet and safe, with a full range of accommodation from hostels to a Hilton, attracts an older crowd than other Thai beachfront resorts. Not that it is in any way stuffy. But neither is it tacky. Yes, there are some bar girls and raunchy pursuers, but even they seem to exercise a restraint you’d rarely see in, say, Pattaya, across the Gulf.
Sea Pines was developed by the Thai Army and, as such, officers get preferential treatment. I’m travelling on my own and start my round in the company only of the Thai-standard mandatory caddy (all are women and all are versed in the fine art of reading greens and stroking bruised visitors’ egos).
We soon pair up with an Englishman and his non-playing girlfriend. He’s swinging an old, beautiful set of Ping Eye 2 irons he found in Ireland. He’s great company. Later, I would play with a couple that spend half their summers in Finland and winters here operating an online nurse recruitment business. I would play also with a German who tells me he only flies business class, a perk of a lifetime spent working for the Krupp steel empire (eat your heart out economy class). He’s retired, but still a board member.
Over the course of a total of two weeks, I’ve played seven rounds of golf on five different courses. There are eight to choose from within about a 30-minute drive of central Hua Hin, another five farther out. Course quality is high, although I was shocked and disappointed by the burned-out condition (local drought) of the Jack Nicklaus-designed Springfield Royal layout.
Above While it may be remote, this area of Thailand offers many modern pleasures like golf.
The cream of the crop are Black Mountain, which played host to a PGA Asian Tour event in March, and Banyan, both opened within the last 10 years. Take it from a guy who usually plays public courses in the Greater Toronto Area, usually breaking 100, sometimes 90, rarely 80, both are challenging but fair, visually stunning and memorable. If you were to walk into the pro shop at Banyan, greens fee and caddy would cost you about $145 Cdn.
The way to go for me, and I suspect most first-time visitors, is to book everything in advance in a package. It may be cheaper and it most definitely makes everything less stressful. I’ve used Golf Asian (http://www.golfasian.com) twice with no complaints. They take care of everything from meeting you at the airport in Bangkok, to fetching you at your hotel (a wide range of lodging is available, I opted for a small three-star place walking distance from the bars and night markets) for each round and getting you back there safe and sound. Then back to the airport. All for about $1,500 for one week. / Tour East Holidays — http://www.toureast.com — also offers many Thai tour packages that can be customized to include golf.
The monkeys? They’re free.