Aw, Phuket (Actually Pronouced Pu-ket)
Today marked a milestone in my trip, the flight to the Southern island of Phuket. Gateway to Thailand’s most visited outer islands and beaches, Phuket is the largest island in the country at 570 sq. km. But Phuket is a destination all its own, home to many beautiful beaches, many of which severely damaged by 2004’s tsunami, and viewpoints to gaze upon its neighboring islands within the beautiful Andaman Sea and thale Phuket. Across the the waters East, the rest of Thailand’s peninsula and many more destinations to hit. These destinations are all popular tourist attractions and, in turn, much more costly. TO save some money, I stayed in Phuket Town, which boast few attractions but cheap accommodations and convenient services. On On Hotel would be my home for a few nights, one of the oldest hotels in the town with enough character and historical shine to more than merit the 180 baht a night. It was also seen in the movie The Beach. In fact, the beach (Ko Phi Phi Ley) from the film is just a few hours away by boat and one of my destination for the coming days.
To mark this milestone, I got a bit ambitious and rented a car from the airport. Bad idea. Although I cannot get back back all the wasted time I spent lost and frustrated on the bustling streets of Phuket Town, the stress of having myself a little accident with a local (“A scratch!” proclaimed Mercutio) or the money wasted returning it after a few hours dazed, you live and note the consequences of your choices on index cards and file for easy reference. Driving in Thailand is a whole different ballgame, one that I grossly underestimated given my love of and expert skill in driving back home. Here you drive on the left side of the street from the right side of the car. This transition was easy enough and felt natural after awhile. Enter motorbikes. They’re everywhere, which alone is not a big deal but coupled with the Thais’ utter disregard (and the police’s nonexistent enforcement of) traffic law. This is not all an exaggeration but an understatement at best. Red lights are nothing more than momentary lapse in acceleration, quick stop signs. Driving on either side of the road in any direction is common practice. Entering an intersection for a left hand turn, you enter and then look (This was the cause of minor accident, by the way.) The sheer number of motorbikes is daunting enough but they engulf cars like swarms of haphazard bees. Add to this that on these motorbikes are: elderly, children, I even saw a mother holding her infant on the back… entire nuclear families of parents and 2.5 children (including dogs!) on a single bike. Helmets are hardly ever donned. It is enough to stress out a defensive driver on sight, let alone trying one who’s trying to navigate often nameless streets without a co-pilot. So, I was not at-fault for my accident and the insurance covered what would have been a confusing and further harrowing ordeal given my inability to be understood, but I wanted to get rid of the Honda Jazz ASAP. And I did so defeated and discouraged.
My time with the car wasn’t entirely fruitless, however. I visited the remote island of Si Re, home to a village of sea gypsies. After parading through their home with my sub-compact car, I walked about the island’s coast and found a secluded place to have lunch… within a bamboo hut on the water. The prices were high, not farang-inflated but Thai-tourist-inflated. The woman who served me rushed me immediately to her daughter (This happens often.) as many students get basic English in school. She watched proudly as her daughter was able to point out the vegetarian items on the menu. The hard part of the meal over I found my seat. I kicked my shoes off, which is also becoming habit now, and sat in the cushioned hut exhilarated by the view I was blessed with, with nary another being in sight. My lunch was delivered, a fresh mix of crisp fried vegetables that hit the spot. The waitress then proceeded to try on my shoes (!), motioning that they were a fit. Confused, I feared she’d not return them. Some sly gypsy dealings maybe? She called her son over to ask the price I paid for them but her enthusiasm died when she heard they were from America. She took them off, showing me, with a pained expression, her swollen ankles. I made a mental note to try to find an address for the place. Maybe I’d send her a pair of shoes when back in the States. But no name, no number. This is Thailand.
Another car success was finding my first beach, Hat Kata Noi. (Hat means “beach”, FYI) Here’s how to find a nice beach in Thailand: Listen to where the local transport assumes you’re going (in this case, Patong beach) and rule that out. A process of elimination. That beach is most likely covered in development (bars, clubs, go-go bars, etc) and is way too populated to enjoy. Hat Kata Noi was a small, quiet beach surrounded by luxury resort hotels. They did not have exclusive claim to the beach, however, as I entered freely. The small sanded area was covered in chairs and umbrellas, also free for use. Unfortunately, the sun was within a succession of thick, voluminous clouds with no peeks of freedom in sight. I hit the calm waters anyway, joining the tiny crowd who were, most likely, the inhabitants of the posh hotels towering over the area. (Hat Kata Noi’s neighbor, Hat Kata, is owned mostly by the gigantic Club Med. I though this only existed in dad comparison. Ha.) The water was sweet relief and soon came from up above, too. Rain drops. The length of the grey cloud passing slowly returned me to my car rather quickly. I was anxious and cranky now, not realizing having no sleep the night before and the stress of driving had gotten the best of me. It was too late; I was officially in a bad mood. Not even this gorgeous view perking me up…
Fighting my mood, I pushed onward with the car while I had it, unclear of my own tolerance levels in this this foreign land. Considering how long I’ve been here, it is only natural that my days embrace the normal spectrum of daily living. It is not a vacation but a new version of my life, temporarily relocated. Surely I can expect a day or two to end unfavorably, especially considering my lack of support systems. I continued on, attempting to locate a rumored vegetarian restaurant.. a tip from an old Lonely Planet from 1997. All I found was a big pile of Lost. And I stayed this way for at least an hour or the 6th time I saw the same sign for the airport. Finally I headed in that direction to get the car back, which seemed to me the only way to get out of it given the chaotic congestion and no parking spots in Phuket Town. I tried and failed. No use in trying to get my full day’s worth of vehicle convenience when it was driving me to nothing but a migraine.
So my first day in paradise was hardly that. So what, tomorrow is another day.