Sunday, April 14, 2013

120 Hours in Phuket, Thailand

The plane wheels bumped the runway at 2 A.M. The Phuket National Airport reminds me so much of the Delhi bus station. Chaos. Coincidentally, Thais greet each other the same way as Indians, with hands in prayer. "Mai" replaces "Namaste" as the greeting. When I first arrived in Japan seven months ago, I involuntarily reverted back to greeting people this way. It took me a couple of weeks to break the habit and for the traditional Japanese bow to become automatic. The first two days in Thailand I was bowing to everyone. Finally, I got the hand gesture back. When we came home to Japan again five days later, it took a few more days to rid myself of "Mai" hands. It's like jet lag, but with greeting customs.

We paid WAY too much for a cab to our hotel. I blame this on two things: 1. We hadn't properly memorized the dollar/yen/bhat ratios. 2. We were exhausted and had been traveling for about twenty hours total. 5 1/2 of those hours were spent in the worst place on earth. Seriously, there can be no place worse than the Shanghai airport. I imagine it as a lower hell realm. "Restaurants" had the rudest servers, service personnel provided no service, everyone was miserable because they had to wait in the international terminal, separated from the entirety of the airport, and when you looked outside, all that could be seen was endless haze. Seriously, they need to sell highly concentrated doses of vitamin D in that airport. Everyone would benefit, even the natives...especially the natives.

1700 Thai baht, the cost of the 35 minute cab ride from the northern located airport to our west central hotel, is equivalent to $57. No prices in Thailand, a cheap country to travel in as long as you don't let souvenir shops overcharge you, reflect the high cost of living in Japan, but that cab fare sure did. Oh, the "cab" was some regular dudes Honda civic. About every third or fourth roadside store is a stand offering cab rides to the some 6 million tourists who visit Phuket in a year. ALL of them are cheaper than the one we took.

Arrival. Check in. Pass out. Wake up three hours later. I figured sleep could come after a day of exploration. Free breakfast. Naps by the Indian Ocean. Clear water. Beautiful landscapes. Rented jeep dubbed SS DEATH TRAP. Seriously, it was. Shocks didn't exist and the axles were so rusted every turn felt like they were snapping in half. The "meat" of the lime green rental was JEEP, but the steering wheal was Honda. The whole dash had been ripped up and replaced with a thin metal sheet. It had an RPM gauge and speedometer poking through, but they didn't work. The gas gauge supposedly did, but I was skeptical. The floor was covered with mats, but if you moved them over with your foot you could see through to the road below. The bottom part of the back seat was not attached to the metal, so the back seat was really two horizontal metal bars with a back leather cushion that looked like an army of cats had desolated it. John had to keep one foot on the gas and one on the brake to start it. There was an emergency break, which we used, but I don't know if it was any good. I thought I'd be adventurous and get behind the wheel on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the car (their roads are like Japan's) but my bravery quickly diminished and I was passenger the whole trip.

Day 1. Skipped the tourist filled beaches in the afternoon and followed the locals inland to Phuket town. It was fun to walk around in this old "downtown" district. John got some great shots of locals and I enjoyed seeing many Buddhist temples, adorned with gold and bright primary colors. Other than people yelling to offer us rides (we exchanged the SS DEATH TRAP for a leisurely stroll), we enjoyed the old shop houses  Sino-Colonial mansions, and local flavors.

Day 2. Beach side. Pool side. Foot massages. The beach side is not only lined with shops and restaurants, but also an alarming number of outdoor massage booths. 1 hour foot and shoulder massages on the beach were about 5 USD. By the time we left, I had 3 massages (the aforementioned, one aloe massage, and one traditional Thai massage) and a pedicure, and I didn't spend more than $35.

Day 3. Sailing trip to Phang Nga bay. Famous for the location of the James Bond flic The Man with the Golden Gun, this island has a lot more to offer than a Hollywood name. We hopped on Captain Mark's Aussie sail boat with an Australian family and a childless older French couple to explore the hidden caves and secret hxng(s) (Thai for room; pronounced hong). In the case of islands, hxngs are inner areas of water not accessible from the perimeter of the island.

At night, we found an Italian shop that sold the freshest produce and comfort foods from home. We bought red-pepper roasted foccacia bread, tomatoes, basil, emmental cheese, fancy shiraz, and baked kettle chips. We went back to the hotel, made sandwiches, and cheered to the love that brought us there.

Day 4. Elephant trekking.  Gibbon Rehabilitation Center. Bang Pae Waterfall located in  northeastern Bang Pae national park. The rainy season hasn't happened in Thailand yet, so the waterfall was devoid of water. However, we still had a nice 30 minute hike to the top, led by the cutest dog affectionately dubbed Sir Shrimp Scamppers the wee wonder mut of Bang Pae. I've now been lucky enough to be led up hilly terrain and Himalayan mountains by the sweetest dogs in both India and Thailand. I left them with pieces of my heart.

Gibbons are apes indigenous to East and Southeastern Asia. They resemble monkeys in appearance and habit  and are known for their speed and distinctive singing. Sadly, the species was wiped out through poaching by the 1980s on Phuket island. Now, they are making a comeback through WARF's Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. I was in tears when I learned about the lives of some of these resilient creatures. There are numerous gibbons being used as tourist attractions on Phuket. By paying to have photos taken with a gibbon, people are helping to reduce the number of wild populations and cause suffering to these animals. Most of the apes at the GRP had horrific backgrounds: being drugged to stay awake, and forced to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes for tourists' entertainment. We bought t-shirts and donated a huge chunk of money so these sweet creatures may one day make it in their natural homes with their families.

In the evening we drove to a beach about 6 km away and had a yummy buffet-style dinner at a place called Nok and Joe's. This restaurant has a pleasant story. Joe is a Canadian expat who moved to Thailand and met and married Nok. After the 2004 tsunami, Joe built this restaurant entirely out of driftwood (bar, chairs, tables, everything). The atmosphere was uncannily similar to the flora-bama. It was a bit touristy, but quite warm. The couple gave Nok's original seafood restaurant to Nok's sister. The night we went, we enjoyed a Caberet show with Thai ladyboys, hosted by the worst open mic guitar player. As we were leaving, the man started singing "Sweet Home Alabama" and I knew that few things in my life would feel as surreal as that moment. Seriously, dude. We're in freaking Thailand! Before we left, John showed the dude his driver's license, and the singer's reply was, "I don't want your ID, I want your money!" We didn't break it to him that we lived in Japan, with rapidly declining yen.

Day 5.FLYING HANUMAN JUNGLE TOUR! The raddest thing ever. A zip line course through one of the preserved rain forests on Phuket island. 28 lines. Crazy height. Rad views. I was full of adrenaline the entire 2 1/2 hours. The longest ride was 400m with a top speed of 60 km. WOO! Okay, honestly, I was scared poopless, but it was so FUN! Of course, by the time my brain juices settled, the course was over. Next time, I'm hanging upside-down.

During sunset we climbed up giant rocks on the beach's perimeter, and watched how fast the fire retreated to the west. The red-orange plasma reflected on an 18th century-like ship and the blue water. At that moment, anything I imagined was true. The Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans are now settled in pockets of memory and I'm anticipating all the gorgeous and mundane pleasures of the future.

High tide, in the twinkle of glowing lamps, we walked, toes in the sand, cool water whipping, playing, trying to reach our thighs. Every moment like this is perfection. Whatever beach, any lover's hand, there's something about the water that pulls us to the beginning of time, when we are one with every creature we used to be, and we can hear desire like an ode driving us to evolve into even more greatness.

We noticed a neon- glowing bridge in the water, at the end of the beach, and like bugs to light, we were drawn. The contraption looked like giant legos pieced together to make a 100 yrd. bridge on the water. At the end was a ladder down to a roped off swimming area, deeper into the ocean than I would ever swim. We wobbled to the end, brave, and giggling, and thanks to this wonderful play toy some random children, John, and I can now claim that Jesus was not the only one to walk on water.

Day 6. Lazy day preparing for returning flight.

Phuket's total population is roughly the same as Mobile, AL, however they see 6 million tourists/yr. Surprisingly, since Putin's trip to Phuket a few years ago, a majority of these tourists are Russian. According to The Phuket News, Russian tourists and Chinese visitors accounted for 38% of arrivals to Phuket last year. But a lot of locals and Aussie expats I met don't care for them. The reason according to the aforementioned source: Russians  like exclusive things...and that's the problem- there are no exclusive things in Phuket.

John and I were at a restaurant about 5 minutes from our (almost) beach side hotel (first we had to cross the street and walk through a small field) and the table beside us was a Russian family. We observed them rudely calling servers, walking up to the kitchen area and taking things, and constantly harassing the workers. They had someone at their table about the entire hour they were there, and were requesting outrageous things like (4) boxes of Kleenex and plain white toast. The servers ablidged and smiled, but I could tell they were offended.

It might not be a first world nation, but there are worst fates than residing in exotic Thailand. Our unofficial plan is to get as many people as we know to move with us there and open a make-shift operation providing English lessons, yoga classes, and kayak tours (You know who you are people; you better deliver)! ;-) Our official after-Japan plans are unknown. We still have so many places to travel while we're on this side of the world.



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