Phuket. An island paradise, or is it?

1 03 2012

I’m not quite sure what my expectations were of Phuket.  Well, no actually, that’s not true.  I expected the pristine beaches, swaying coconut trees and sparkling azure waters that I had seen in the travel brochures since as long as I can remember.  Where bamboo and coconut husk huts line the shoreline and you can step out onto your own piece of tranquility.  And of course, who could forget the tropical paradise depicted in the film The Beach.  I believe that this actually exists somewhere in Phuket, but I certainly can’t afford to go there.  And it certainly isn’t at Patong Beach in Phuket.

In the back of our tuk tuk heading to Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

Why so many people pour into Patong for their holidays is completely beyond me.  Run down buildings line the streets, litter lingers everywhere, the roads are terrible and pockets of nostril crippling stench waft on the breeze and assault you when you least expect it.  Oh and don’t forget the rats that scurry under the broken concrete pavers, or the family of eight rats who live under the bridge next to the shitty brown pollution filled stream that runs through the village.  However, I may be being completely unfair here.   After all, a massive tsunami did wash through only eight years ago, and the bamboo scaffolding on the local building sites would indicate that progress is rather slow in Phuket.

The footpaths in Patong are practically non-existent so it’s you against the traffic:  the scooters which they hire out to drunk white guys visiting the island for their stag’s night; the tuk tuks (and no thank you for the one thousandth time I do not want a damn tuk tuk); and the knobheads who try to force their huge brand new 4WD vehicles down streets the width of popsicle sticks.  Walking is hazardous to say the least, and then there’s that whole ‘no-one-stops-at-crossings’ thing to contend with.

Patong just isn’t my cup of tea, and based on my observations I think you have to be a particular type of person to choose Patong as your number one holiday destination:

Type 1:   In an open front bar, a fat white bloke in his sixties sits slavering and ogling a young Thai girl standing between his legs, while she in turn dances in front of him, gyrating and rubbing her hips against his pelvis.  This was a common sight in most bars we passed; old white blokes, suffering some sort of mid-life crisis, who were passing their days with three or four Thai girls hanging off them like pretty Christmas baubles.  I guess in Patong they got more bang for their buck, so to speak.

Type 2:  Beefy Russians seemed to be everywhere we looked, walking the streets topless with their pecs and calf muscles permanently flexed and looking like they had just strutted off the Conan the Barbarian film set.  Have you ever tried walking like that?  With your calf muscles flexed?  It gives one an unusual and constipated sort of a gait.  Well at least that’s how Roger looked when, not wanting to be outdone, he tensed up every muscle in his body, blew his chest out and Schwarzenegger-strutted towards the beach.  He slipped into a full body cramp just twenty metres down the road!

Type 3:  And finally, as we got closer to the beach, from amongst these sleazers and posers there appeared the most badly sunburned tourists I have ever seen in my life!  Hundreds of them, one after the other, minced past us carefully, chests blistered red hot, shoulders burning, arms burning, faces on fire.  It was extraordinary!  Red lobster-like westerners with seemingly no comprehension of skin cancer or slip, slop, slap.  God it was horrific.

We had to give in and take at least one tuk-tuk ride before leaving Thailand.

Type 4:  Add to this mix the hundreds of hawkers who would do anything and everything to get your money.  “Hello hello.  Tuk Tuk?  Giddaya!  Tuk tuk, tuk tuk?  Hello Roma!  Where you going – you need tuk tuk?  Hey mate.  Giddaya Australia.  Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk?”  Oh God, make it STOP!  One thing that did catch us out now and again was when we strolled down a random alleyway – past six suit sellers, four DVD sellers, five watch sellers, seven silk scarf sellers, four t-shirt sellers, three massage parlours and a partridge in a pear tree – only to be confronted by a dead end, which meant we had to bloody well walk back past them all again to get out!

The only street seller I bought from because she actually picked that I was a Kiwi - not an Aussie, and not from Rome!

Type 5:  And then there were the “suit guys.”  These were immaculately dressed young men in beautifully tailored suits who stood in front of you, arms spread the width of the pavement and tried to get you into their store to buy three suits which would be ready for collection in just 24 hours.  “You wanna suit mate?  You wanna suit?” they called to Roger.  From underneath his Tui hat and behind his dark sunglasses he chuckled, “Do I look like I would wear a suit MATE?”  Grinning from ear to ear and undeterred, the suit seller continued his pitch, “Ahh, you English.  Lovely jubbly!” he mimicked in his best Del Boy accent.  Roger simply shook his head and walked away.

After dark in Patong Beach

And finally, Type 6:  The weirdoes.  As night fell and the neon lights erupted from every corner, the face of Patong came to life.  Tuk tuk’s turned into glorified chariots as boom boxes thumped out the latest rave music, flashing lights surrounded the cab and neons glowed brightly from underneath.  And that was when the freaks really came out to play!  Very tall (a little too tall if you get my drift *wiggles eyebrows*) Thai hookers lined the streets, eyeing Roger up appreciatively as he brushed past them.  A large Japanese sumo-wrestler-looking bloke happily strolled the streets, his face painted white and made up like a geisha.  At one point a man with wide scary eyes loomed out of the darkness, a chameleon clinging to his forearm, and thrust the small lizard’s scaly face up under our noses.  You can imagine my reaction…and the stream of swearwords that followed!

A VW Cocktail bar on the side of the street. At night time the roof pops open and the neons lights up.

While the beach itself is nice, it is chock-a-block full to the brim with tourists and types 1 through 6 – which doesn’t make it the relaxing idyllic paradise I imagined.  For any Brits reading this, Roger would say Patong Beach is “like San Antonio (Ibizia) on speed.”  It’s cheap, it’s cheesy and it’s sleazy.  I really can’t understand why the hell anyone would chose to come here for a holiday.  But if that’s what spins one’s wheels then so be it.

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The Ruins of Ayutthaya

19 02 2012

Initially Roger and I had planned to buy a third class train ticket to Ayutthaya (phonetic pronunciation:  A-you-tay-a; Roger pronunciation:  Are-you-there-yet), then take a ferry across to the island, hire a tuk tuk to get into the town and from there explore the ruins by bicycle for the day.  Thank god we chose to take an organised tour instead!  The ruins were spread all over the place and it would have taken us hours to bike around them all, and today was the hottest day we had experienced since arriving in South East Asia.

We clambered onto our mini-bus at 6.45am and wedged our large bodies into the tiny seats that were clearly designed for small Asian passengers.  Sitting on the back seat (the only seats available) we tried to eat our breakfast that had been so lovingly packed for us by the manager of our hostel, but it was difficult with our elbows steadfastly pinned at our sides.  We felt like tiny T-Rexes flapping our lower arms about in vain, trying to butter a croissant, peel a banana and then transport those items of food into our mouths.

Something to do on a rainy day:  have someone wrap your arms to your torso in glad-wrap leaving only your lower arms free, and then try to eat your lunch while they bounce on the sofa next to you.  Not easy is it?

Owlface getting spiritual at Ayutthaya

Aside from the lack of room, there also appeared to be a significant lack of suspension in the back.  The highways and roads around Bangkok were atrocious and the bus ride was one of the roughest I’ve experienced since I broke Dad’s land rover axle off-roading at Kurow!  And not only was the road pitted, slumped and cracked, but we hit these deformities at 130-140 kph!  I cursed the absence of a wonder-bra as my boobs bounded haphazardly of their own accord in every direction, while our maniacal driver zigzagged in and out of the traffic, not slowing down for a second – except for when he pulled into oncoming traffic and was forced to brake abruptly, the back end of the mini-bus sliding sideways while the locked wheels skidded along the road.  That made my knuckles turn white!  Did I mention there were no seatbelts?

Me contemplating ascending our first temple in Ayutthaya.

Crinking our necks downwards to see out the window, roadsides littered with rubbish and scrap whizzed by, cats and dogs roamed about ownerless and impoverished, filthy little shacks stood precariously on stilts, polluted flood water lying stagnant underneath.  They were the most squalid and atrocious living conditions I have ever seen in my life.  It made Castle Street in Dunedin seem like a luxury resort, and it certainly made us appreciate the small things in life – like clean running water and the wonder of electricity!

Roger taking a moment on the way up.

So after one and a half hours travelling (groans) we arrived at the first cluster of temples at Ayutthaya, the former royal capital until 1767 when it was destroyed by the Burmese.  Pleased to be off the bus, and full of sprightly enthusiasm, we strode up and down the steep steps like a couple of mountain goats – stopping to take just the right camera shot here, just the right camera shot there, descend back down to halfway and then climb to the top again, buttocks burning, and all in the name of a good bit of film footage.

The Sleeping Buddha at Ayutthaya

Hot, sweaty and grinning we leapt back onto the bus and headed for the next attraction:  the third largest sleeping Buddha in Thailand.  It was here that we learned of the devastating effect the Bangkok floods of October 2011 had on the ancient temples and ruins of the area, washing away or damaging the foundations so badly that in two or three years, the temples and monuments may no longer be standing.

A shrine of worship in front of the Giant Sleeping Buddha.

But my, my, how our enthusiasm waned as the day wore on.  By the time we reached the foot of our eighth temple I had my old-woman-shuffle on.  I had to be cattle-prodded by Roger to climb just five steps for a photograph, and only then would I do it with the promise of a Thai massage when we got back to Bangkok.

Ruins at Ayutthaya

It was steaming hot, and just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get hotter – it did.  As the mercury hit 38 degrees and the humidity peaked at what felt like 100%, my eyeballs began to sweat.  Even those tube things that fill up with air and flap about excitedly behind the rugby posts in New Zealand couldn’t get themselves up.  The faded, dusty tubes were flopped over in half on the sides of the road near petrol stations, and every now and then they would make a feeble attempt to burst full length up into the air, only to cave over side wards and loll on the ground.  That was me and Rog – we were those tubey things, slumping against each other on the ground at the foot of a three hundred and something year old temple.

When the Burmese attacked Ayutthaya they cut all the heads and arms of the Buddha statutes. The roots of this tree picked up a head as it grew and it is now firmly embedded within the tree roots.

The last stop on the tour was at Bang-Pa-In Palace, and by now our whole tour bus had the old-woman-shuffle!  Our chirpy Thai tour guide dressed in her tight jeans, cool t-shirt and not even a flush in her cheeks, dropped us at the entrance and told us to be back in an hour.  As she flounced out the gate, we all turned slowly and began to stumble, shuffle, our way around the collection of buildings that were built over the years from 1637 – 1889 by the various Kings of Thailand.  These buildings were in vast contrast to the ruins we had spent the day amongst.

The Divine Seat of Personal Freedom, built in the middle of the pond in 1876

Rog and I at Bang-Pa-In Palace.

Finally we were back on the bus from hell for the one and a half hour drive to Bangkok.  Same maniac driver, same terrible roads, same backseat boob bonanza.   Tomorrow we would NOT be on the backseat – no, no.  We would not be a couple of chumps two days in a row.