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Heat with a Cool Heart

The island, at the tip of Thailand's long southern peninsula, has become a resort of world status in just the past few years. Less than a generation ago, Phuket became known as a romantic stop on the international backpacker trail. Now it attracts well-heeled visitors from everywhere, but in winter particularly from Europe. You need not feel as if you're part of the violation of a tropical Eden by joining this group. Earlier in the century (pre-hippies), the island was heavily exploited for its tin ore, and indeed several sites (including Blue Canyon) are artfully reclaimed mines. So Phuket has now found a more sustainable resource and you can applaud that, and you will be happy enough that you have taken the place of the tin.

The island provides one white-sand beach after another, and even in nominal winter--temperatures almost never drop below eighty--the gentle Andaman Sea is warm and clear as Caribbean waters. The poshest resort here is Amanpuri, a place whose architecture and hillside setting impose a serenity that one might have thought available only through pharmacology. The only unsettling thing about Amanpuri, beside its rates (which start at $450 a day, and climb to nearly $5,000 for a private villa with staff), is its all-star cast. It's the sort of place where you fear that Mick Jagger may be lurking around some corner. On a recent week you could have found both Henry Kissinger and Tiger Woods resident here. (Did they dine together?The conversation is delicious to imagine.) But your solitude, if that's what you want, is unlikely to be interrupted. Stillness is perhaps the most valuable commodity in this little world.

Blue Canyon itself has the easy geniality of any good golf club--take a bite of shrimp in red curry sauce, though, and you realize this beats a sliced-chicken sandwich. In other ways, too, local culture makes itself felt. I was talking in the shaded, open-air dining room of Blue Canyon one afternoon with an Australian golf pro named Mark Gardiner. He was explaining the nature of the game here. He said that the first principle of golf in Thailand was the universal Thai concept sanuk, a term often heard but never adequately defined. It is usually translated as "fun" but it means something more--means, one gathers, a certain lightness and harmony of spirit. It's the attitude that makes it necessary to laugh when you miss a putt. (In case you forget sanuk, your female caddie is apt to remind you, when instead of suggesting a club for your next shot she teases you about your last one.)

Gardiner introduced me to two of Thailand's leading golfers, Boonchu Ruangkit and Prayad Markseang. (Marksaeng, the younger golfer, tied for eighth in the Johnnie Walker tournament.) The two, full of smiles, agreed that Thais and westerners did not understand the game in quite the same way. Our conversation had a bit of an underwater quality because of the language difference, and it depended on Gardiner's translation, but it was obvious they had thought about the subject. I said I was interested in the way in which culture influenced golf, and Boonchu expressed vast amusement as he launched into an elaborate pantomime that looked like somebody whipping a horse. With each blow he cried out, "Bong! Bong!" When the translation caught up, it turned out that he was describing an American golfer on the tour losing his temper on the course and thwacking his club against his golf bag. This was an unthinkable thing in Thailand, he explained. Here, in golf as in the rest of life, the idea was "ji-yen-yen," to play "with a cool heart." But once, he recalled, he very nearly got angry himself after a tournament, and actually raised his club as if to strike the ground. Then he caught himself, and he was so humiliated that he later went to the Buddhist temple and sought help from a monk. The monk advised, as monks do, that he meditate on his experience. There followed in Boonchu's account a series of baffling hand gestures: a big circle made with hands held apart, a little circle made of thumb and index finger. He was saying that peace had returned to him when he remembered that golf, even for a professional, was a game, and he had thought of other games and their difficulties. "He says," the translator explained, "that he realized a football is this big and a golf ball is only this big, and even the football doesn't always make it into the goal."

There was much merriment at this tale, and it was only after a moment that I realized I didn't quite follow the reasoning. It didn't matter. In the story, as it does in much of Thai life, logic took a backseat to wisdom.


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