In Sukhothai we stayed at a small guesthouse called the Baan Georges. “Baan” in Thai simply means “house” or “home”, and that’s exactly what it was – a house run by a blunt but helpful Belgian called Georges, who had married a Thai woman. While driving us to the bus station for our onward journey, Georges asked where our trip would be taking us next. When we mentioned Phuket, he frowned in the rearview mirror. “Oh, I wouldn’t go to Phuket,” he said. “I was there ten years ago. Full of Russians. They say only 3% of Russians ever leave the country, but they are the worst 3%.”
Georges was, shall we say, not wrong – at least, about the size of the Russian contingent on the island. We had planned Phuket in to be a week of relatively mindless beachiness, and had selected a reasonably quiet resort near the more restrained Kata Beach, and while Russians were everywhere, wearing miniscule swimwear, cultivating tomato-hued sunburns, and swilling beer with enthusiasm, they were perfectly polite beach and restaurant companions. The sleazier side of the island around Patong, though, likely had a different face to show.
This brings me back to an issue I’ve been chewing over since Bangkok; the sex industry in Thailand. Thais are famously fairly sanguine about the antics of farang (white foreigners), but I can’t help but think that that view must be considerably skewed by the not-small contingent of foreigners who go straight from the airport to the skin bars of Patpong and Pattaya. While it’s helpful that standards of female modesty are not as stringent as in much of Asia (I got a little tired of Loz being free to wander around in nothing but shorts if he chose, whereas if I displayed any shoulder or knee I’d be dangerously salacious), it’s hard not to feel a nasty exploitative undertone to the way Westerners use Thailand.
Something else that clicked for me, shamefully late, in Phuket; people in Southeast Asia who work outdoors all day, whether it’s in the fields, as tour guides, or as roadside hawkers, cover every inch of visible skin. Despite the 30+ degrees of heat, the souvenir-sellers on the beach wore socks with their sandals, long sleeves and trousers, gloves, and broad-brimmed hats with scarves swathing neck and face. That’s how closely light skin and status are interwoven.
Kata Beach in Phuket, it has to be said, is wonderful; a long golden stretch of sand with moderate-size surfable waves rolling in on a soft shelving shore. While the beach is covered in loungers and surrounded with bars, it’s very possible to have a chilled and enjoyable time there. I spent some time riding the surf next to a pair of Aussie teen boys, who seemed to be revising for a political geography exam:
“Okay, which states are currently growing economically, and which are in economic decline?”
“I said states, idiot.”
On our first night, walking back from a restaurant, we were startled to see a speeding Jeep pushing a downed motorbike along with its front bumper, with a shower of sparks and a terrible grinding noise. Despite a number of security guards quickly giving chase, we never did find out what had happened. Loz’s theory was that the driver had knocked over a biker and was panicking; certainly the driver either had to know the bike was there or was drunk enough to have no business behind the wheel of a toy car.
On our last day in Phuket, we stumped up for the “flow rider”, a bar by the beach which offers a kind of artificial surfing experience. You ride a small board against a powerful uphill current, with instructors helping you balance – and the current is strong enough to wash someone of Loz’s size uphill with speed, and to body-slam me into the foam back if I wasn’t careful. Unfortunately on my third ride, I wiped out and hit my head hard enough to give me a headache for a day and a nasty stiff neck for three. I think I’m better at actual surfing.