The elephant was having a bad day. It charged the same man twice, by mistake or by design, hard to say. I watched them, holding my camera in one hand, shielding my face from the sun with the other. Futile. It was 33 degrees and no semblance of cloud, little cover where the mismatched group of tourists stood with six rescued elephants. My sister’s dream. The closest to ethical touching a wild animal could ever be, she’d singled out this sanctuary in an obscure corner of Phuket. We’d been picked up early in the morning by a white jeep, with plastic awning and some rudimentary benches strapped into the boot. Our first taste of the island, just as it was coming to life.
We were thrown around in the back of that pick up, taking hairpin bends as if partaking in a car chase. The roads were winding and rugged, hugging the sides of craggy hills in a spectrum of green. It was like a frustrated painter's palette, he kept mixing shades to find the right one; ferns, palms heavy with coconut, rubber plantations. You’d go round a bend and down the sheer cliffs the sea would peak at us, sparkling like an Alpine lake, somewhere between blue and white in the glare. The village houses were tidy, most with a Toyota, a water buffalo anda satellite dish, banana leaves drying outside, for the thatching. The towns smelt of breakfast congee, made sweet in the morning with sticky rice and mango, cheerful kids in starchy uniforms climbed onto the back of daddy’s motorbike, open top trucks moved groups of construction workers from place to place. The ride in the boot of the pick-up jolted me around, shaking me out of my jetlagged grogginess and forcing me out of my sulky disappointment . I'd been reluctant to take this trip at all, being so busy with school work, and a week out of it all would only set me back further. A week to a place that initally seemed so... familiar, like I'd been there before. An amalgam of places I'd already visited, pictures I'd seen in magazines, I imagined grotty backpackers everywhere, nothing 'real' about it. And in a way, I was right. It will be like places you've been before, but with a touch of Thailand, and not too many backpacks. Phuket was adventure made easy.
Sweet familiarity. Less polished than Malaysia, less crazy than India, sitting nicely at the crossroads of tantalizingly exotic and easily palatable. Like adding a dash of curry powder to your favorite leek soup, or cardamom to carrot cake. No doubt Phuket was touristy. At every turn, every market stall you’d stumble across another foreigner, themselves stumbling through reading Thai signs. Another of my reservations about this trip, knowing that it would be much more leaflet-toting tourist heavy than our usual destinations. But there was a charm in the mingling of Australian accents, French flair, Thai politeness, Chinese brusqueness and Malay spice. I could see what brings people to here. All along the beach, there were colorful stalls selling pineapple chunks on sticks, banana pancakes and whole coconuts, kids ran in and out of the green Andaman Sea with buckets and spades like it was the local pier. There is no 'other' Thailand; nothing more ‘real’, the whole of Phuket is a tourist’s playground. No sleaze, almost disappointingly so, locals were cheery, tolerant and genuinely welcoming. Layla and I were almost tripping over ourselves to find a more dubious character but met no one remotely strange. Phuket was quickly shedding its reputation as a tacky backpacker magnet, fading to a more family-orientated island with a leisurely pace and long curves of saffron sands.
We paced the old streets of Phuket town, bumping into multi-generational Scandinavian families and backpackers who’d also come to gawk at the intricate pastel facades of the Portuguese houses. It was like that frustrated painter couldn't decide what color he wanted for the town, so each house was a different shade - pastel pink, coral, teal. Cameras were out everywhere, the tourists were sweaty and red in the face. But then so were the locals who stood, smilingly tending giant vats of burning hot oil as they fried batches of banana fritters and ladled out noodles into the bowls of regulars. The tourists wandered among them, a welcomed part of the scenery, a mutual understanding that Thai life would carry on all around us, without us having to really seek it out. And that was what we came for, some with backpacks, most without; it was enough to make even the most reluctant warm to Phuket.
There is a charm to a place where you can wander out of your hotel, right into a Thai village, where chubby toddlers with their weathered grandmas would wave chubby hands, and grandma would look on through slightly suspicious eyes. A charm to a place where your taxi driver helps you negotiate with your boatman so that you get the best deal on an island trip, a charm to a place where you can charter a long-tail boat for just two people, because the boatmen know they'll find enough tourists the whole day. The boats are iconic Phuket, and another line on my sister's Thailand must-do list. Again, I was doubtful, because we'd been so spoilt on a recent trip to Corfu when the two of us had skippered our own speed boat in the Aegean. We didn't need someone tagging along, I moaned, Layla said it would be fun, I sulked, she won. It was so Thailand, to have someone doing it all for you for little more than the cost of a taxi to the train station back home. There were vertiginous slabs of dark granite that fell into the sea, waves bashing rythmically onto rocks, twin palm trees swaying as if to a beat. Our skipper mentioned sea turtle sitings, salt water ate at our sun burnt skin, turned our hair wild and brittle; a lone diver paddled by the shore.
There was a California beach-club-style rooftop terrace in our hotel. The place itself was a startup, shiny and new, not well established, totally unpretentious but somehow sleek. Lots of white stone, wooden decking, color blocking bean bags and fake grass in clean lines. We sat on rattan chairs in the shade during the insane heat of the day, looking out over the sea at white yachts skipping over the waves, beat up jeeps rolling through the village and dogs bounding up to peeling iron gates, meeting their owners. In the evening too, we loved that terrace spot, we'd sit with our feet up on the chairs, scratching mosquito bites and peeling sunburn. Somewhere between being polished resort kids with expensive cameras on the fancy furniture, somewhere near boho veteran travellers with tousled hair, flip flops and printed shorts. The strongest desire to ditch the crowds and total inauthenticity, far too rational and perhaps too arrogant to even fathom backpacking. A sticky point on the bridge between veering off the beaten path and staying with hotel transfers and tiled lobbies. Forever lusting after far flung destinations and new scenery, too often reminiscing about places we'd like to revisit. Luckily, we found Phuket.
Details-wise, I am going to be lazy and direct you to Layla's site itself where she's posting a really in-depth guide in a couple of days. I was honestly blown away by how much research she's done about Thailand so she's really in a much better position than me to give any advice.
After Phuket, by the way, we spent a day and a half in Bangkok. I have a few photos I'll be sharing in my next post, after my week of work experience, which I shall proceed to start with a nose peeling from sunburn and some very red skin. I'm great at first impressions, you don't have to tell me.
A lovely week to you all, and hopefully a beachy adventure sometime soon. Hugs xx