Phuket: Making Ends Meet

That morning in Phuket, it appeared that I did one of the few things I never thought I’d be able to do in an island so ruggedly cosmopolitan: I scandalized a local.

Her name was Penprapa Chooklin. She is the Communications Manager of Phuket’s nearly 30-year-old Amari resort. Born in the northeastern side of Thailand, she came to the island years ago to take part in its lucrative tourism industry. After telling me that she has been here for more than 10 years, I had an episode of naiveté, automatically assuming that very little could surprise, let alone shock, her.

We were at Patong Beach, after all. From Amari, it would only take a couple of minutes in a 200-baht tuk tuk ride to reach Bangla Road. There, women would engross spectators with the variety of things they could stuff in their privates, neon signs scheduling religious meetings would glow a stone’s throw away from go-go joints, and there would be nights when one might find nearly every ethnicity accounted for. Patong is a place that tends to familiarize, if not desensitize, yet there she was, a local standing right in front of me, visibly disarmed by an innocent question.

“How come your bathrooms don’t have locks?” Her initial response was that of confusion—thick lines surfaced on her face as she strained to hear me correctly. And when I repeated my query, her countenance roused in disbelief. “Why would you need [a] lock?”

Peace of mind, for one. It wasn’t really a big deal, but I was in the first of my five-day stay in the island. I was booked to spend five more nights rooming with a relative stranger: the contributor commissioned by our magazine to join the trip and review two resorts. He’s a decent person, I bet, but I didn’t particularly fancy the thought of him accidentally walking in on me while I was taking a bath or something. At least for me, that’s a legitimate concern.

Of course, people who come to Patong Beach do not usually worry about such things. Here wrinkled, sun-burnt women of age casually stroll in public donning string bikinis that can barely cup their breasts. Here, one can hear couples from a grapevine of tourists vividly discussing things like the technicalities of properly executed fellatio. Here, the people who hear such things hardly seem to care. Here, as Chooklin explained after collecting herself, the people who book hotels usually “share rooms with their family, their friends, their lovers or no one” and that was her kind way of opining that this side of Phuket wasn’t for me—at least not with the situation I was in.

Overall, however, as an island whose economy relies heavily on tourism, Phuket apparently wants to have something for everyone. At nearly every turn during my fiveday sojourn, I was confronted by the lengths it goes to just to get what it wants.

The First Taste

Through a direct Cebu Pacific flight from Manila, we arrived in Phuket on the 5th of March, 2014, just days before military checkpoints situated in Bangkok were garbed in flowers “for a gentler image.” At that time, Thailand’s capital was still anxious over its testy political landscape. The image of widespread protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was still fresh on people’s minds. And the memory of military interventions that followed was even fresher.

In the midst of it this, however, Phuket seemed unfazed. The island, after all, is about 800 kilometers away from the heart of the crisis. It also operates an international airport which has around 220 flights to different locations daily. On a financial context, it seems to have little reason to care about Bangkok’s woes. Political protests in the north may have begun picking up October last year, but the island’s appeal to tourists remains solid. Amari Phuket, for one, continues to operate somewhere between 85 to 90 percent capacity yearly.

“I would say we’re about 5 to 10 percent affected,” said its General Manager, Warakorn Jarusirikul.

Of course, this didn’t necessarily mean that the island was in the best of light when it met us for the first time. Beyond the arrival gate of the Phuket International Airport in Thalang District, the Phuket that greeted us seemed languid, exhausted and careworn. Cab drivers, who I expected to find barking for passengers, took to their trade with surprising discretion— almost whispering their services to anyone with luggage. The ground, meanwhile, was littered with cigarette butts, crushed water bottles and crumpled paper. And the road leading away from the airport does not seem particularly well lit.

It looked like there was a party and we missed it. As it turned out, however, the “party” just concentrated somewhere else. On board a van headed for Amari, this is a fact our journey alluded to.

But the more we drove southward, the more our gloomy and breezy road travel began to decelerate and light up. Cars began clogging the road. Billboards, street signs and more intricate infrastructure began surfacing from the shadows. And of course, more 24-hour convenient stores and moneychangers began popping up. Soon enough, the streets were practically ablaze and our van was crawling. Nearby, a massive sign summarized everything—“WELCOME TO PATONG.”

Defined by various media as “a tourist Mecca,” Patong is a beach town that serves as one of the most important commercial centers in Phuket. From above, it is a crooked grid of shops, hotels, bars and restaurants mostly profiting from the popularity of its coast. The place, according to Chooklin, rarely sleeps. And, during a day tour she arranged for us, we got to see what keeps it awake.

In the mornings, a great number of tourists crowd the shore where lines of rented umbrellas, beach chairs and massage tables cover a 3.5 kilometer stretch of white sand. And if they’re not by the beach, tourists crowd the commercial centers of the town. Throngs of them practically clog the avenues leading to the beach, the main roads or the Jungceylon Mall, which is one of the primary shopping complexes in Patong. Ingrid Knopp, a Belgian native who has been staying in Phuket with her husband, said that the island is all about “easy living.” She added that you can walk down the street all dressed up or naked and people still wouldn’t mind. In this town, this becomes apparent.

Deep within Patong, people of different nationalities generally don laidback fashion. Most pedestrians are often an article of clothing away from being beach-ready. And the closer we were to the beach, the more dressed down people became. Some even go overboard.

At the Loma Park, a patch of land dedicated to remembering the devastation brought by the tsunami, I saw children amusing themselves with various recreational fixtures. Not far were families relishing each other’s company. And a few steps away, a Caucasian woman was lying on her back, topless in the midst of other bodies splayed across the sand.

Technically, this is illegal in the island. In a statement published by Phuket Gazette just last year, Captain Urumporn Koondejsumrit of the Phuket Tourist Police said that going naked or topless in public venues can incur fines ranging from 500 to 1000 baht. Complaints have also been aired by locals who at times seem greatly outnumbered by the island’s visitors. Contrary to Knopp’s theory, there are people who actually care about what you choose to wear or not to wear.

But there are those who slip through the cracks. In the “Issues and Answers” section of the aforementioned daily, a reader once asked why there are women going topless or nude in the island. Captain Koondejsumrit justified this by citing a trait prevalent in the local community: leniency towards tourists.

“Public nudity is against the law in Thailand,” he told Phuket Gazette. “However, we are aware that tourists might not know Thai laws, and nudity might be allowed in their countries, so the first thing we do is warn them and explain the law to them. If they do it a second time, they will be charged with public nudity and fined.”

Indeed, a zeitgeist which favors foreigners is something we could not help but encounter during our stay in the island. For instance, numerous members of Phuket’s working class choose to take up monosyllabic nicknames that are easier to pronounce for people from other countries. A number of the island’s signs also come translated in various languages and alphabets, albeit with some translations being confusing if not funny (like seats in the mall being offered at “100 bath”).

Of course, such concessions seem sound. The island does attract a sizeable amount of moneyed foreign guests, a fact difficult to contest after a nighttime tour of Patong’s busiest area.

The Price Of Patong

I can’t forget the first time I saw Bangla Road while on a van headed for Amari that first night. Our vehicle was wriggling through the middle of Patong and, as we flanked the famed stretch, our driver immediately pointed it out. “This area,” he said in lilting English, “many tourists.” Had he chosen to remain silent, I still would’ve noticed the place. Chooklin said that Bangla Road is closed to vehicular traffic come six in the evening, and it is not difficult to understand why.

At its gate, the area was practically choking with people. The festive, well-lit path was so populated that it almost seemed as though it was regurgitating people onto the road we were driving through. But according to Amari’s Executive Chef, Philip Walker, we were lucky; our vehicle was still moving. “It gets pretty crazy at night,” he said.

People don’t usually “walk” into Bangla Road; they “immerse” themselves into it. This is something I realized during an evening tour of the place. A street that envelops wholly, Bangla Road is a mass of intrusive sensations. Its pulse is a thick irregular baseline, a chest-rattling presence frilled by a cacophony of obtrusive commerce. Its touch manifests in multiple angles: from an accidental run-in with an awestruck tourist, to the intentional yank of a local selling something. Its appeal, meanwhile, is comprehensive at best. In one building, one may find a pharmacy on the ground floor, an eatery on the second, and go-go joint on the third.

Of course, Bangla Road is seen by many as a red-light district. And such a reputation falls within reason. No more than a minute into the place and already barkers were flashing me with flyers, poorly cropped photos of women in skimpy tank tops, pasty make up and curve-inflating poses. The place is ruled by open bars blatantly peddling their merchandise. Each of them tries to stand out by featuring something unique to the area, but only a few refuse to provide what the Bleacher Report’s analyst Andrew Robeson defines as the “three things Americans love: beer, babes, and balls.” By balls, of course, he meant sports. And every public television set here seemed glued to the sports channel.

Technically, sex is not sold here. Prostitution, after all, is illegal in Thailand. What is sold here are overpriced alcohol that serve as tickets to private rooms and expensive special items on menus like one of the oldest, and most flexible, of commodities: another person’s “time.”

This seems to be the reason behind Patong’s popularity—it tolerates, if not embraces most desires, and bends over backwards to fulfill them. Even in its cluttered state, new developments continue to emerge from various parts of the town. New ventures rise constantly, seeking to sate demands. To some, this is a good thing. But there are those who feel that Patong is spreading itself too thin. In its attempt to please nearly everyone, there are those who fear the day when Patong will lose the capacity to please anyone.

“It’s kind of funny,” said Alfred Thompson, an American citizen who has been going on annual visits to Patong in the last decade. “I’m glad that I can pretty much get whatever I want here, but the sheer number of people just makes it too difficult to enjoy that.”

Around 24 hours after our evening visit to Bangla Road, we had another taste of Phuket’s nightlife. This time around, it was courtesy of the Cherngtalay area, located in the middle of Phuket Island. We came for a white party, one held to celebrate the launch of Phuket’s new Nikki Beach Club. And what we got was a more refined version of Patong’s revelry.

While Patong had go-go dancers gyrating on poles, Cherngtalay had ballet dancers posing in cages. While Bangla Road’s gate came guarded by women clad in scanty metallic fabric, Nikki Beach Club’s sanctum was overseen by a stilted maiden donning a flowery hoop skirt.

But the north, these days, wants to do more than offer a polished version of Patong. Here, there are those who know of the south’s allure and are working to provide an opposing experience. On the latter half of our Phuket sojourn, we met Patong’s anti-thesis: Mai Khao.

The Virtue Of Saying ‘No’

Back in the day when Phuket’s economy relied heavily on tin mining and banana plantations, the island was teeming with immaculate beaches. Among them, of course, was the coast of Patong. But since the boom of the tourism industry, the famed white beach lost a great deal of its allure to overpopulation and wanton development. Up north, the beach of Mai Khao has been working to avoid the same fate. And it continues to remain safe by doing the one thing Patong seems to have trouble with: saying “no.”

“There are a lot of things you can’t just do in the beach,” said Jon Ashenden, the General Manager of Sala Phuket Resort and Spa. “Vendors are not allowed here. And just last week, we chased off some ATV riders.” A sign near the beach front further enumerates what else are not acceptable: alcohol, fishing, litter, and pets.

By “we,” of course, Ashenden meant the North Phuket Resort Alliance which Sala Phuket is part of. A group which also consists of Renaissance, Anantara and JW Marriott (establishments occupying the coast of Mai Khao), the coalition serves to guard their share of the island. And as we stayed at Sala during our last few days in the Phuket, we got to see the result of its stewardship.

Spanning around 11 kilometers, the coast of Mai Khao is a generally unspoiled stretch of maize-colored sand rolling off a lush forest of pine trees. Here, the only consistent sound is that of the Andaman Sea crashing against a pristine coastline. To some, this is the next frontier; to others, a reminder of the past.

“What we offer here is something different from what people are used to in areas like Patong,” said Ashenden, “Here, the lifestyle is a complete opposite from what you might usually find in the South.”

Such a lifestyle involves untouched beachfronts, unobtrusive resorts, bucolic market places and starry nights. Nevertheless, Mai Khao has its own behemoth of a destination. But unlike Patong’s Bangla Road, this juggernaut is far from man-made.

I met it during my first evening at this side of Phuket. I wondered off into Sala’s backyard. Past the pool area, the biking trail and the curtain of pine trees, I found myself face-to-face with the establishment’s main attraction—the expansive, immaculate and unbridled coast of Mai Khao, a proclamation of Phuket’s natural beauty, a reminder that it doesn’t have to try so hard to be loved.