After a week in the urban intensity of Bangkok, we were ready to move on to more sedate climes and swap crushingly busy markets for vast empty beaches and the heaving Chao Praya river for the rolling Andaman sea.
Phuket is a famous contradiction. With a large Islamic population (here mosques allegedly outnumber Buddhist temples) there is a conservative streak running through the culture. Phuket Town, the capital of the island, is a tightly knit, functioning city with little regard, or need for a tourist industry. The markets are resolutely local with few, if any, concessions to non-Thais. English is not widely spoken, for example, and subsequently much communication must be done with elaborate hand gestures. The buildings here are crumbling relics to colonialism, stunning facades with peeling paint and overgrown driveways – the settlers long gone. It is traditional in an endearing and sleepy way.
Just 20 kilometres west lies Patong, the very antithesis of Phuket Town. Patong suffers thanks to its reputation as the sex tourism capital of Thailand. Formerly home to a US airbase, the town grew up and flourished on vice – the black market, sex, drugs and drink seem to be the key aspects of the economy. If hedonism were a currency, Patong would be beating the global recession. Pirate DVDs are sold openly on the streets along with fakes of every label under the sun. By day the neon lights look sad and stark as sunlight cascades the bright glow of reality over them but by night they dominate and turn the narrow streets into a lurid, glowing homage to Sodom and Gomorrah.
But thanks to international investment and government intervention, Patong is gradually shedding its reputation, or at least trying to. It is still a hedonist’s paradise (Michael Houellebecq’s novel Platform is a staggeringly well-written account of the underbelly of Patong) but, by all accounts, far less seedy than it once was and during daylight hours could even be described as a family resort.
Having had enough of late nights and neon, we chose to stay on the north of the Island, about 45 minutes from Patong, at one of an increasing number of resort hotels on the Mai Khao beach. These luxurious retreats offer unsurpassed luxury, endless activities (should you want to do more than lie in the sun), a staggering range of food in a number of restaurants and will even loan you a movie or two if you feel like staying in. There is even an on-site shop to provide you with all the necessities (at grossly inflated prices). In short, it is like the Truman Show.
And this is at the heart of the problem. If you want to lose yourself in a glorious fug of luxury then these Thai theme parks are ideal. If you want to experience Thailand but don’t want to get your hands dirty or be bothered with non-essential trapping like ‘culture’ then they are perfect. You can forget that there is a world out there, a world where taxis are cheap and food is a fraction of the price, and infinitely better, than in the hotel.
Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time softly floating on this cloud like, inland cruise ship but we soon got itchy feet. Having seen Bangkok and all the excitement and variety and intensity, shifting to this Truman-like existence was hard. And like Jim Carey’s character, our sense of adventure and intrigue got the better of us. And we were delighted that it did.