Phuket: Bullhorns Sold Separately
17 December 2020
With Christmas approaching, it was time for Nate and I to move from Malaysia on up to Thailand. In order to get back on the rails again, we only needed to hop on the ferry, take a bus to the train station, get on a commuter train to the border, get on a shuttle train to Hat Yai, take an overnight bus to Phuket, and then take a taxi to our hostel. Easy.
As you might imagine, when we spied an advertisement at our Georgetown hostel for a 12-hour minivan straight to Phuket for the same price, we agreed that this was a much wiser move. At 5am, we climbed aboard a comfortable, air-conditioned shuttle with two New Zealanders, two Canadians, and a handful of Malaysians. All seemed well as we dosed off. As the sun rose, though, small things started to wake up our spidey sense and make us question just what we were trading for this “convenience.” Before we reached the Thai border, we were pulled over twice by the police. Both times, our all-business driver became all smiles and chuckles as he hopped out and disappeared behind the van. He’d reappear moments later, and we’d be on our way. Fishy but excusable. Then we arrived at a rest area, and the driver demanded our passports along with two Malaysian ringgits each (50 cents) with all the friendliness of a US border patrolman. I may have been misconstruing this gruffness for a lack of English language proficiency (“Passports, passports”), but as I was already on alert, having our passports whisked away to an undisclosed location for an unknown reason gave off a very people-smuggly air. We handed them over with an exchange of uneasy glances all around and unloaded to fill up on rest-stop food while waiting for our passports to reappear. When they did, they now included a Thai customs arrival/departure card with our passport information pre-stamped into place. Now, filling out one’s own arrival/departure card is not a difficult task and one that is ordinarily done by the individual wishing to enter the country, not by a mysterious office at a rest stop. My alert level rose from a cautious yellow to an annoyed orange. Suspicion arose rose yet again after we finally crossed the land border (A 2 hour ordeal! I will never take airport customs for granted ever again!), and we were forced to change vans three different times. With each switch, mysterious packages were loaded and unloaded, changing hands for money. Fifteen hours and one more police stop later, we were dumped at a bus station still a 30-minute drive from our beach-side destination. At this point, the only remaining passenger besides Nate and I was a French-Canadian woman named Cynthia. Our reprieve from finally being rid of our smugglers was short lived as the three of us were immediately assaulted by taxi drivers who were happy to drive us to our final destination for 700 ($21) Thai Baht - a trip that should cost 400 ($12). They insisted that because there were three of us, this was a fair price. My annoyed orange alert level was creeping up to an angry red. Tired of haggling, we decided to stay the night at a nearby hostel and go to the beach the next day via a 50 ($1.50) baht shuttle. Thailand and I were off to a rocky start.
Luckily, things would only get worse. Kidding. It wasn’t that bad, but it certainly put sleepy, sad Ipoh into perspective. There is faded, torn, dilapidated sadness in Ipoh, but it’s innocuous. It’s just the way the retired inhabitants of Ipoh want it. They have a laissez faire attitude toward tourism, and most of the inhabitants would rather leave than take tourists crowding their streets. Phuket, by contrast, opened its arms (and other body parts) wide open to the throngs of tourists. For an island that had to totally rebuild itself after the 2004 tsunami, making tourism the driving economic force makes sense. But, ew.
Our people smuggling ordeal turned out to be a microcosm of the emotional rollercoaster that Patong Beach, Phuket had in store. I would find myself flung from a Jimmy-Buffet-paradise-lazy-haze to a raging-self-righteous-give-me-a-pedestal-and-a-bullhorn-angry all within the span of an hour. Just lying on the beach was interrupted by people hawking sunglasses, rubber chickens, bobble-head dogs, wooden motorcycles and giraffes, and Heineken cans turned into dioramas. Most of this could be laughed off, especially watching Nate trying to convince a dogged sunglasses salesman that he already had sunglasses on his face and was, thus, not in the market for sunglasses. Some were hard to swallow, though.
A few hawkers walked the beaches with baby gibbons, the smallest of the ape family, offering tourists pictures with the adorable fur balls for a small fee. We learned during a bike ride to the national forest just north of the Phuket beaches that these endangered animals are poached routinely from the tree tops by killing their mothers so that mother and baby would fall to the forest floor. Then the babies taken away and routinely drugged to keep them awake in order entertain their adoring public. I wanted to follow these hawkers around and educate anyone in their path about how they came to have their money maker. Instead, I avoided the trap myself, and I'm now sharing with the blogosphere information about how you can help the Gibbons including adopting one as it is being rehabilitated and introduced back into the wild.
Children were also not spared. School-age children walked around the beach with flower leis challenging sun-bathers to thumb wars and tic-tac-toe games. “If I win, you buy. If you win, I give.” It was easy enough to shrug off the other hawkers as annoyances, but seeing children already trained with sales pitches when they should be playing on the school yard just made me sad. Alas, I knew what I was getting into, so I just crossed my fingers that the tiny entrepreneurs were saving up to pay for college and not to pay the piper.
Of course, once the children faded from view and the sun set, I began to wish that child exploitation was the worst that the island had to offer. Nate and I wandered around looking for a night market so that we could grab some street food. Instead, we found the Patong Beach Walking Street. If the Vegas Strip and Bourbon Street had an affair, the Patong Beach Walking Street would be their illicit love child. It was one endless strip of bars with girls on poles. As we followed other wide-eyed tourists through the street, we were bombarded by lines of people aggressively shoving laminated menus offering many sexy shows and services into our faces. Sometimes they were lined up shoulder-to-shoulder across the street so that we had to red rover our way through them.
I know women in the States proudly pay for college on a pole, and good for them, but this was different. Maybe it’s because of the #metoo movement, maybe it’s because I’ve watched the movie Human Trafficking to teach Indonesian police officers how to talk to victims of the sex trade one too many times, maybe it’s because I’m still raw after our country elected a man who is okay with talking about and physically grabbing women by the p***y, maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but I was not amused. I was surrounded 360 degrees by women whom I think it safe to say were not saving up for college or even there under their own free will. For once in my life I understood why some people feel it necessary to use a bull-horn to get their point across. Sadly, since the beach hawkers were not selling bullhorns and knowing just how effective bullhorns are, I was left with little else to do but to passive-aggressively send angry stares at every man in sight. Poor Nate. He steered me toward a street food haven, and that made things a little better.
Luckily, Thailand is not all Patong Beach. After three days, we moved south to some quieter, family-friendly beaches called Karon and Kata. Here is where we met Sed and his restaurant, and this is also where this story takes a turn for the better. In between our hostel and the beach laid a small, four-tabled restaurant decorated with surfboards and with a small wooden boat out front filled with the catch of the day on ice. The place immediately caught Nate’s eye because of the advertised 60 Baht ($2) Pad Thai, but we were drawn in when the owner, Sed, noticed Nate’s Muay Thai shirt and jovially told him that he needed to fill up on good seafood to be strong for Muay Thai. Sold. Sed continued to win us over when we sat down and he chatted us up about his friends from Ohio and his impressive employment history. It was so nice to have a real, actual conversation instead of wondering at all times about what we were being sold. Sed moved to the area from Northern Thailand because of his love for surfing. He transforms into a surf instructor, a life guard, a fire dancer, a restaurant owner, and a chef throughout the various seasons. Nate interviewed him for Oyster World, so watch out for more about Sed’s crazy life there.
On the first night, Sed barbequed up a fat tuna for us, and we were quickly invited to join a table already occupied by a woman from Moscow, a lovely couple from Norway, and several of the other owners/employees of the shop. The three visitors were celebrating with champagne because it was their last night, and they wanted it to be one to remember. They generously poured Nate and me glasses and welcomed us to add songs to the playlist blaring over the speakers. We chatted the night away, learning that the restaurant was only a month old and that it was struggling to keep up with the big boardwalk restaurants. A small operation, the place didn’t have a menu, preferring to only serve Pad Thai and BBQ’d fish, but to do those two things very well and extremely cheaply. The three partiers told us that they occupied the tables frequently to try to attract other passersby to the high quality food and away from the flash and trash of the chain restaurants. They passed the torch to us, and we gladly took it. We ate there for our remaining two nights in the city.
Swedish men. Captain Martin, called so because of his skipper’s hat and tattoo-covered body, and his friend Stefan. Captain Martin had retired early and lives in Phuket seven months out of the year. Stefan was only visiting for a few weeks in between jobs. Before the night was over, he graciously invited us to come stay at his house in Stockholm, promising us a full itinerary of exploration and fun. The following and final night, we reeled in a party of three all hailing from Cyprus. They were skipping Christmas and were happy to share our little restaurant. They were also heading to Bangkok for the New Year, so we hope to meet up with them there. We exchanged Facebook profiles and were again promised a host in Cyprus.
Sed’s little restaurant was a magical place filled with magical chance meetings and, to me, it was the saving grace of Phuket. After three nights there, we were rich with new friends, and I felt cleansed from my earlier Phuket experiences. I hope that in our little way, we also helped Sed stay afloat for a few more months. Now if you’ll excuse me, while you look at these photos and a video of some other bright spots of Phuket, I have some Yelp reviews to write about the best Pad Thai and freshest BBQ seafood at Sed's Taina BBQ Seafood and Bar.