Into the belly of the beast in Patong, Phuket

patong beach sign

patong pizza girl

     This place was an outlier on the main drag since it’s pizza (or is it?) and no one else was there. I half-expected to walk into a McDonald’s and see a girl dancing on the counter.

     Patong is like Las Vegas: you have to see it to believe it exists, but after a day or two you can’t wait to leave and you don’t return until you have forgotten most of it. That said, the beaches on the entire west coast are fantastic, and I never got stung by the sea lice that plagues all the other beaches in southern Thailand but that no one ever mentions because we’re so busy perpetuating the whole Land of Smiles nonsense.
     I was last in Phuket pre-tsunami, over ten years ago. Patong is unrecognizable now. The main little party street is now a wide behemoth of a pedestrian zone with innumerable bars that have listless girls “dancing” on table tops. There are more ladyboys and they-might-be-ladyboys than you can imagine existed and you can hardly look at a girl in such an area without wondering what the original gender was, it’s so confusing. Thais on the street are hustling to get you into bars, clubs and massage places and alongside are Russians trying to get you interested in Russian girls in bars, clubs and massage places.
ladyboy maybe

     The person on the left certainly looks like a woman, right? In Thailand you never know, which is very, very disconcerting. The ladyboys put an extraordinary amount of effort into their appearance. What’s especially interesting is how integrated they are in mainstream society. I have seen them work promotional events, acting as the public face of a company, which goes a long way in explaining public acceptance. I dare say that in the enlightened city of my birth, San Francisco, they are still on the fringe of society. Am I wrong?

     My dream is for another tsunami to come and wash away anyone who utters the word “taxi”. For most travelers it’s easy to enjoy where you are without thinking of public transport, but I’m not one of them. Some cabal of corrupt politicians has created a system where public transport connecting the two major towns on the island with thousands of people stops at 5pm and the infrequent airport bus takes 90 minutes to go 25km, so instead it is all unmetered rapacious taxis, which means that all the sidewalks in Patong for several kilometers is taken over by thugs yelling “Taxi!” at you all day and night long. There is an unofficial maximum fare posted here and there, but to go within town it is 200 baht (US$6!) and they have zero incentive to budge downward. They know and you know that you will be fleeced.
     I don’t know why this makes me so agitated, but it does. It may just be the rant of a crank who is nearing ten months on the road and whose brain fried long ago, but I hate taxi mafias more than genocide or age restrictions in hostels (I can solve that problem by getting a Somaililand passport; it’s high time I reinvent myself as a 34-year-old Somali entrepreneur anyway.) This is where Patong’s problem is like Kuta, Bali: it’s all short-term thinking because they know the tourists will never stop coming.
     The tourists will never stop coming unless the latest plan from the military government comes into fruition. Up to this point, coups, tsunamis, civil war, terrorism, violence against tourists, and too-spicy food have failed to make a dent in foreigner arrivals, but the murder of a British couple on Koh Tao might be a game-changer. The murder itself no one would care about as that can happen anywhere and a couple of Burmese guys are being framed as scapegoats, but the military is thinking of implementing two incredibly bad ideas.
     One is having foreigners wear bracelets showing what hotels they are staying at. Few men and certainly no women will want to wear something that has the name and hotel of where they are staying. The other is to pair every single tourist entering the country with a Thai local to watch over us like we are naughty kids.
     I say they aren’t going far enough. Since most tourists stay less than two weeks, let’s give henna tattoos on the forehead to everyone at the airport and border crossing stating their hotel, some background info, maybe how much cash they are carrying around. Let’s forget the bracelet, too, and just go to a dog collar and leash.
kvas phuket

     It’s incredible how many Russians are here. Lots of Chinese, too, but Russians thoroughly dominate. Any other nationality is a very distant third. “Kvas” is a fermented drink made from rye popular throughout the former Soviet Union.

patong sunset jet ski

     From a distance, it’s beautiful.

     I went to a private extension of Patong Beach (100 baht admittance) called Trai Trang Beach or Paradise Beach as well as the two beaches further south, Karon and Kata. Paradise is too small and claustrophobic with only a narrow strip of sandy-floored sea to swim in, but it has decent facilities.
     Karon, Kata and the whole eastern coast is great. The beaches are all long, white and wonderful, the water is lacking only some blueness but is excellent for swimming. On my first day there in Patong I lay floating in the Andaman Sea, blissfully drifting along, lost in thought about search engine optimization and Facebook likes when a jet ski roared by me, shattering the calm and sending my heart racing.
     The beach is plagued with such nuisances as well as four(!) different places where a speedboat drives in a circle while you and a Thai kid are whisked around in a parachute/kite. (What do you call that, kite sailing?) That’s another good business as they are busy the entire day, blowing their whistles and making a commotion.
     If we are turning the beach into a carnival, why stop there? Why not a firing range on the beach? Olympic hammer throw trials? Javelin practice? Do I sound old? Have I mentioned I have been away for ten months?
takraw patong

     Takraw on the beach in Patong. Amazing athletes, but the points come too fast because there are rarely any rallies.

kata surf

     Manmade surfing. US$25 an hour to be in a group of eight people taking turns to try their hands at it. This is on the southern end of Kata Beach.

     Hitchhiking is a pain because there are too many taxis around and few people speak English. I hitchhiked from Patong to Phuket Town with a man who said he couldn’t accept payment from me even if he wanted to. He seemed afraid. The local government is cracking down on illegal taxis just to control the trade, not out of any malevolence by them.
     I stayed at Niku Guest House near the middle of the action in Patong for 400 baht (US$13). (Late October is just before high season. Over the winter I hear it is hard to find anything under US$25.) It was OK, but Patong is the kind of place where you lock your bag to something in the room, even if it is a single room and you keep the key.
     Most guest houses elsewhere in the world have a policy of not allowing anyone in your room, but in Patong they want you to be sure that you can and probably should. Niku says, “Fan room with a bed for two persons. For two budget oriented persons who don’t mind to share a bed, or the one who wants to invite a guest.” Patong has a large seven-story hotel in Patong called Sleep With Me. I’m guessing they have a permissive guest policy, too.
     In Karon I stayed in a nice room near the beach at Paradise Beach Inn for 400 baht. It’s a long story, but I will be the last person to get a room at that rate. Let’s just say they were happy to see me go.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

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Into the belly of the beast in Patong, Phuket — 4 Comments

  1. You know you are a far more active blogger when you are in SE Asia. You should go there more often 🙂 Patong is on my must-avoid list, but those are some great shots. And I refuse to wear a bracelet naming my hotel. Seriously, what possible use could that be other than identifying the body?

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