Saturday, July 24, 2010
Postcard from Phuket
[This is the first part of my Thailand travel notes]
A trip to Phuket and Bangkok was waiting to happen. I’ve been living in the South East Asian region for the last 5 years and yet I hadn’t travelled to these tourist clichés on the map of Thailand. Perhaps one main reason why I was not eager enough about visiting these places was their commonplaceness—everybody goes to Phuket and Thailand. From Singapore, going there is as clichéd as being a heterosexual.
I’ll give you an example. Just before I was to start for Phuket, one of my colleagues rubbed it in: “You are going to Phuket? Huh, I’ve been there twenty-five times!”
Seriously, I guess one can’t beat the argument in the age of low cost airlines (just like you can’t beat tweeting and watching pirated DVDs—almost everybody is at it). As Naipaul has remarked, travel has become so plebian now. Tourism is so much part of our globalised lifestyle that anyone who saves a penny or two or owns the wondrous credit cards travels once or twice a year to arrogate to oneself the status of belonging to that global jet set that regularly rubs its bum on the leathery smallness of low cost short-haul flights.
So, when an opportunity (to attend a regional tech event which later on got cancelled) to visit Phuket and Bangkok arose in May this year, I said enough was enough. Even clichés needed to be struck out of my travel diary. Earnestly, tickets were booked one month in advance.
When the time to fly came, it suddenly didn’t seem like a good time to visit Thailand: The Red Shirts had been protesting against the present government in Bangkok for more than a week and one of their rogue generals had just been shot. Bangkok was under siege and the city was under partial curfew. To my chagrin, the tech event that I was supposed to attend shifted its venue from Phuket to Singapore. But I was in no mood to change my plans. Given this background, my colleagues were a bit suspicious of my sanity when they came to know that I was travelling to Thailand, and was not paying enough attention to the news.
And what was I thinking? Dude, what is the fun of travelling if it was not laced with a bit of danger? My philosophy is that travel mixed with a bit of a danger makes it an adventure. For me, the curfew and the protests did it. So, one sunny morning, off we went to Phuket on a Jet Star flight.
The Sea, The Sea
When the plane was about to land in Phuket International Airport, I looked down the window and the surface of the Andaman Sea that spread beneath us presented itself like an immobile expanse of boredom, a blue bedspread, rumpled as a grandmother’s creased cheeks.
At the immigration, the visa officer looked bored and stern. No swadika, no smile. Hello, is this Thailand, I wondered. Thankfully, visa was free (The Red Shirt’s troublemaking in Bangkok had hit tourist traffic throughout Thailand) and it straightaway meant a saving of 3000 bahts for me. I suddenly felt lucky and wallet-wise, marginally closer to Donald Trump (remember I am a journalist married to austerity, not a banker or a businessman). The queue at the immigration was small and it didn’t take much time to clear immigration and collect our luggage. I love the breeziness of small town airports!
Outside, it was a bit warm. A hotel taxi was waiting for us. The taxi driver was amiable. Once inside the air-conditioned cab, I asked him a few questions and he said a lot of yeses with smiling nods. It simply meant that the conversation was flowing in only one direction—mine. It took us forty-five minutes to reach our hotel which was near Patong Beach, fifteen kilometers west of Phuket town. The road to the town was in great condition which coursed through the hill-like greenery-filled landscape of the island. My wife felt a bit pukish but I and my daughter were okay. Sporadically, the road was flanked by single-storied houses, shops and business establishments. On the way, interestingly, I saw more mosques than temples.
We had reached the airport around nine in the morning and by the time we checked into the hotel, the first thing that demanded attention was our hunger pangs—a uniformly felt family experience. I changed into shorts and a T-shirt and came down from my hotel room to recce the area for food outlets. The whole place was infested with big and small inns and hotels and western style brasseries, coffee shops, restaurants, and hawker outlets. Given the heat and lack of choices, I settled for a pepperoni pizza and some fresh fruits and beat a hasty retreat to my hotel room. A little rest and then we ordered lunch. The lunch was standard Thai food from the hotel’s kitchen: the order was misunderstood, the chicken meat was harder than usual and the portions were, maybe, let’s put it this way, good enough for ladies but not sufficient for a grown up Indian male with a moderate to good appetite.
In the afternoon, we took a stroll on Ao Patong—a three kilometer stretch of sandy beach. Some Western tourists were relaxing on chaise lounges, barbecuing their bodies or sipping their drinks under colourful parasols, a book spread on their knees. Clichés I know but what do you expect on a beach? Young couples and surfers played with the waves in the shallow waters, their smiles and laughter adding mirth to the somber sea.
On the beach, my wife thought the Andaman Sea was a bit darkish and I quickly remembered its devastating tempestuousness during the Asian tsunami. Thousands had perished. I didn’t want to think about the tragedy, so I turned my attention to my four-year old daughter. She was the happiest: she loves the sea and the sand and she rolled about in it for a while. And I thought, children were usually happy because they had little memory. I bought a fresh coconut and we shared it “as a family,” the way my daughter loves to put it.
A thin and turbaned middle aged Muslim man, with a dark beard, sat on the sand behind me. He was with a young boy. They looked straight out of a madrasa. What were they doing on the beach, I wondered. Were they enjoying the dancing waves or were they there to soak in the pleasure of beach revelers, to be in commune with them, indulging in a vicarious pleasure? How would I know? “Where are you from?” he asked me. “From Singapore,” I said, adding a wan smile. Would he ask for money, I feared. The man did not talk much. He looked rather sad. I kept an eye on him. The man and the boy left in less than half an hour. I felt a sense of relief but I immediately questioned it: why did I feel relieved? The man had every right to be there (there was a Muslim cemetery bang opposite the beach); he was like everybody else except for his dress. He could even be one of the original inhabitants of the area (this being the South of Thailand), but now he looked more alien than others there. An oddity! The image burnished in my memory, headlined, an oddity.
A little later another man came. He was a Thai. “Where are you from?” The same question. I replied. He showed me a piece of paper. He was collecting funds for Tsunami victims. I had my doubts. He could be a fraud. I apologized and waved him off. It is easy to dismiss a request when you talk to a man from behind sunglasses.
In the evening, the lights came on and the streets magically came alive with people—in cars, in tuk tuks, on scooters, on foot. There were touts everywhere: men and women asking us to buy stuff, dine at sea food joints or get massages. Every few steps, a tuk tuk driver or his agent would offer us a ride. A mini truck passed by slowly, with young boys on board in shorts mocking a Muoy Thai sparring, advertising for a super championship match in town. There was music and noise everywhere, the sheer liveliness of a place that thrived with human interaction, energizing the participants and onlookers alike. And I thought, dude, where are the protesters? Where is the unrest? Later, I saw a story in the Phuket Post (30 April- 13 May): Phuket backs the PM. “More than a thousand Phuket people delivered a handwritten letter to Go Wichai at the Provincial Hall on 19 April (hoping)…that the letter will encourage PM Abhisit (Vejjajiva) and his party not to resign and dissolve parliament…” In short, the Phuketites were for business and for normalcy.
Taking in the festiveness, we walked up to Jung Ceylon, a modern shopping complex where all your StarBucks, MacDonalds and Carrefours are. I experienced an effusive sense of relief but at the same time was struck with a sense of smallness—what a little world of brands made my mental universe. “Daddy, I want to eat junk food,” my daughter whispered in my ears when she found herself magically transported into this mini Singapore. She craved for a Burger King meal and that’s what we bought her. Surely, a guilty pleasure. We did some shopping in Robinsons and Carrefour and grabbed our dinner in the Jung Ceylon’s food court, and that’s where I made my greatest discovery: an Indian food stall named Bismillah Kitchen.
Amid all kinds of Thai food represented there, I was glad to find Indian food represented too. Also, this was the only food joint that displayed a halal sign, indicating that their food was kosher. Coming from Singapore, we were spoiled as Singapore has hundreds of halal certified food stalls and eateries. The stall was being manned by a young Pakistani man, Hassan. We ordered our dishes in Urdu and felt quite at home. The microwave-heated food was miraculously delicious (rice, dal, potato with peas and a bowl of meat with gravy; the pudina chutney was amazing) and so inexpensive that I decided to come there for all our subsequent meals. A single Burger King meal cost us about 250 bahts--and here we were getting nearly home cooked food for the whole family for just about 200 bahts. It was unbelievable.
Over the next few meals, I got to know a little bit more about Hassan. He was from Punjab and instead of venturing to Dubai or London as most of his countrymen do, he moved to Thailand. “There are lots of opportunities here,” he said. He was happy to see someone from the subcontinent. “Saheb,” he said, “I hardly see any Pakistanis come here. They seldom get out of the country.” “True,” I said, “There are reasons for it”. Then we talked about politics. “What is sad is that in Pakistan, Muslims are killing each other because of politics,” he said. Hassan was not much educated but he knew what was going on in his country.
Changing the topic, I asked him, are there a lot of Muslims in Phuket? “Oh, yes,” he said, “and they are very strong.” How, I further pressed him. “They are strong in business and they have a lot of clout.” Perhaps that explained why I saw so many mosques in Phuket.
Then he complained about a neighbouring stall owner who sold Thai food: she sold both chicken and pork and yet had the temerity to brandish a halal sign on her stall to attract Muslim tourists. “How could she do it?” Hassan said. Are you going to complain to the authorities? “No,” he said, “But next time they come on inspection, they will take action against her.”
I promised Hassan that I would write about his food stall. He was thankful. On the last day, he gave a free treat to my daughter: Milkmaid poured over a hot parantha. “Yummy,” my daughter declared.
For our remaining days in Phuket, we avoided the tourist traps and did more of the same—walking around, shopping and more family bonding over food and siestas. We even gave the Phuket Fantasia, a nightly dinner buffet with a Las Vegas-style show, a miss. Each ticket costs around 1800 bahts.
The night before we moved over to Bangkok, I took a stroll down the Soi Bangla, Patong’s liveliest party zone. The road is flanked by drinking holes and was crowded with tourists and street performers. Amid pulsating music, I could see mostly Western tourists drinking beer in bars and young girls and ladyboys pole dancing for the patrons. Some touts tried to entice me to free sex shows that I refused with my polite nods. The market-like open air atmosphere on the Bangla Road gives one a totally different experience, unlike the closed door revelry of Singapore’s Duxton Hill or Hong Kong’s Wanchai district. Good for those who like this kind of stuff.
A shorter version of this travelogue was published in The Daily Star, Dhaka.