The Preconceptions: It’s Vegas without the casinos—Sin City when it stops believing sin exists. It’s a spring break bender on a golden beach where spring is endless, time immaterial, and there’s never any reality to return to. Liquor rains and cocaine snows and the bass beats the rhythm of flesh under it all.
It’s Disney World for all the kids who’ve grown up to love debauchery and question their gender—where all the little girls grow up loose and fast and all the little boys grow up to be girls, and the neon lights never stop shaking their glowing fists toward morality.
It’s the tropical love child of Dionysus and Ibiza.
It’s the kind of place of old Freud would have a heyday in, giggling his whiskers silly and asking on and on about fathers and superegos and why the ids are running wild.
That’s exactly the thought that came to mind with Phuket.
I told my coworker where I was headed for vacation. “Oh man,” he threw his stack of papers on his desk and his hands in the air. “Ohhh maaaan!”
I raised an eyebrow.
“But seriously, dude. Whenever you’re in the bar, or the club, or the discoteca, go for the second-hottest girl there. The best looking one is always a man. Guaranteed. It’s always a man.”
“I’m married. Why would I be picking up girls in…”
“Yeah, but still… It’s Phuket.”
Phuket, I got to thinking, better have some world-class beaches to drag me there.
The Reality: Late breakfast in a cozy café with my wife; the sun is baking, but it’s balmy in the shade and the quiet. We inhale the clean breeze straight off the crystal waves of the Andaman Sea. Two Thai matrons smile on and serve up woks full of seafood and spice. After dispensing a fresh-sliced pineapple, we walk away stuffed and smiling and out only a few bucks. The streets here are clean and clear and the occasional scooter ambles a tourist with a deep tan up to the mountain to the giant Buddha. A grandfather walks a bangs-and-pigtailed girl toward school.
It’s our second morning in Phuket—the first one we spent rushing to catch the launch of a island-hopping excursion. This one, though, comes on the heels of a little sleeping in.
The Explanation: Last night, after hopping islands all day, we grabbed a mini-bus from the marina down here. The other guys—a group of middle-aged Chinese—got dropped off in the heart of the nightlife. The sidewalks crawled with open containers, plunging necklines, and rising skirts and knee-killing heels. Fresh tans glistened on sweaty faces between pulls at the bottles, and thumping bass poured with the smoke from the doors of every other building we passed. That’s Patong, the bull’s-eye of Phuket’s party-on reputation.
Here, you’ve got three choices for a business: A hotel. A night club. A tattoo parlor. Oh, and maybe a 24-hour food-slinging station. Oh, or maybe a “massage” parlor.
And these 50-somethings with no Thai and only slightly better English got off the bus here. They looked slightly terrified. Andy and I exchanged glances: Would they survive? And more personally, had we booked our lodging sufficiently out of the blast radius of the Patong bombshell to get a good night’s sleep?
We shouldn’t have worried: just a kilometer more and we were climbing the sharp turns of the knife-edge draw that sections off these handful of beaches and their towns from each other. Ridges as defined as fingers splay from the knuckle-bone range of mountains carving the island into halves. These fingers reach to the glimmering sea on either side, leaving an island with the topography of a fish skeleton—each little bay between the ridges hosting a world-class beach and a separate enclave of resorts. We were a couple ridges away from the revelry of Patong, into the area of sensible lodging and quiet evenings, of Thai food as real as the chilis floating in it, as authentic as the sands that somehow come to coat the tile floors of everything everywhere, no matter how many mountains away.
The Big Guy on the Hill: After that sizzling breakfast in the chilled-out café, Andy and I hopped on a scooter rented from our guesthouse, and puttered ourselves up the mountain to visit Big Buddha.
He’s something of a legend around here—a statue as big as the resorts below, sitting his Lotus sit and smirking his Buddha smirk toward the sunrise. I wonder when they started hauling all his tons of dirt and stone up the winding mountain roads, whether they wanted him facing east to see that sunrise, or whether they thought all the revelers down in Patong should only get a glimpse of his monstrous white backside as they completed their various walks of shame in the sunrise.
Phuket, Phuket, how am I going to decide what to say about you?
The Big Buddha is free; he relies solely on donations to continue construction, and will therefore be completed sometime around the turn of the century. The twenty-fifth, I mean. The poor guy is destined to sit there, hollow and alone atop the mount, and wile away his days into disrepair on one hand and fresh paint and mortar on the other. But we tourists still like to show up for a snapshot. Some drop a few spare Baht in the collection box.
On the way up the mountain, you can catch other attractions: ride an elephant lassoed with a chain, snap a picture with a monkey bound with a leather leash, engage in your bloodlust fantasies by challenging your friends to a paintball war, or by enrolling in a Muay Thai kickboxing syndicate. Get all that out of your system as you scooter on up your mountain of enlightenment to the big, hollow man with a thousand hair curls grinning off toward the east while the cities behind him swill the lives of their youth away to chase fast pleasures and illicit bliss.
The Beach Scene: We coasted down to check out more beaches—the string of crescent gold, the sand fine as flour and blonde as a pineapple’s rind. Here are the beaches where the surf slips slowly into azure coves. Here, through the warm, transparent nudges of the waves, you see your feet stir the lazy tufts of sand as you wade into the sun-warm sea, and you feel yourself melting away.
Whoa—maybe Big Buddha should hang out on the beach.
Here, too, I expected to find some remnants of Patong’s party throng—surely some beer-guzzling and fresh tattoos, some hangovers and seedy weed hawkers, some sketchy shades leering at the bikinis and some bikinis craving those leers. But no, what I found were Russians, piles upon piles of Russians. Their language may well land itself the covered spot of second-most spoken tongue on the island—menus and shop signs and services in Cyrillic seem almost as common as those in Thai. English tops them all. If there is ever any doubt about the dominance of English as the world’s lingua franca, well, just visit a tourist jam-joint like Patong and hear the globe buy and sell, greet and thank, barter and curse in the accents and grammar of English as a Second Language. It’s strangely beautiful. It’s also frightening, this uniformity of globalization.
But about the Russian stuff: here’s a true story—one fine afternoon, our relaxation in the sparkling ripples and waves was suddenly blasted by a volley of Russian from a handful of middle-aged family men shouting to their wives and kids on the shore.
“Arrrgghhh.” Andy was gritting her teeth. “More Russians. Why don’t they just go to Crimea since they’re so obsessed with it?”
That was Andy—not me.
But to be fair, she immediately apologized to all her Russian friends. Me? I took it a step further: “Yeah, but you know Thailand’s got some political problems too. Since so many Russians are here, they might as well annex it, too…”
I also apologize to all my Russian friends.
The Reflection: But here’s the moral of the story—Phuket’s beach scene is perfect for families. Pack up the kiddos and goggles and sunscreen and waterwings—you’re not going to see anything more disturbing than unshaved Europeans in Speedos. You won’t suffer worse than some jellyfish tingles. Your only lasting pain will be buying the airfare there.
In the end, I never went to Patong—not even in the day. Once, many years back, I found myself alone at the bus stop of one of Spain’s party havens, a Mediterranean hotspot of nightclubs and wild living, waiting on a friend—who was working the summer there—to pick me up. The sun had just set, and the ever-present sweat of a Spanish summer day was fading quickly to the shivers of the shadowy night. All around me the shouts and the whistles of the party were starting; the odors of liquor and hash spilled into the streets, glances cast at a lone and buzz-cut boy who was raised to rise early and shun the sins of the night life, who sat at the bus stop with his luggage waiting on a friend to get off work and pick him up. The city of sun and beaches was rolling over before my eyes, boasting its dark underbelly bared to the stars. I didn’t belong here.
It may have been the longest fifteen minutes of my life. I didn’t want to drag myself back into that.
The Solution: What I did want to do, though, was rent a scooter. Yes, they drive lefty around here. Yes, I once broke my shoulder in reckless driving of a similar contraption. Yes, I didn’t know the roads, don’t speak the language, can’t read half the road signs, and have never driven one of these before.
But a day’s worth of scooting cost half as much as a single taxi ride. The island is big and its beaches are many. The coastline breeze and the waving palms were calling.
It was the only responsible thing to do: Andy and I spent the next couple suns cruising ourselves around all the most famous beaches on this most famous island of the Andaman. We snuck up and down the coast, over the ridges, sampling the beaches as if they were hors d-oeuvres, as if Phuket was our personal buffet and we had the many-stomached digestion of a water buffalo. It was kind of awesome.
If only someone would fish those tiny jellyfish out of the waves. If only someone would talk some sense into the crazy ids—I mean kids—at Patong.