October 30, 2007

Phuket, Thailand

Of Bikes and Yen

Every trip worth taking has moments you’d rather forget than relive. But every trip worth writing about has moments you’d rather relive than describe. Phuket, on day three, yielded the first of these moments.

I arrived in Phuket knowing monsoon season wasn’t quite over. I’d arranged my visit assuming I would skirt around the storms by starting in India, where monsoon season ends a few weeks earlier. That plan, of course, was foiled. By Day 3, though, I had accepted that I needed to let it go before I frittered away what little time I had.

Lacking even a hostel reservation, I boarded a private coach to take me to Phuket Town. Yet somehow “town” doesn’t convey the mish-mash of scooter swarms, ramshackle apartments, makeshift auto shops, and countless (then-vacated) tourist restaurants jumbled together to form this seaside resort-city.

I found the hostel, On On, as my guidebook “recommended” with about the same enthusiasm as an outdoorsman recommends eating grasshoppers to stay alive when lost in a forest. Six bucks for a concrete bed and a hallway fluorescent light, inexplicably lacking a switch, directed squarely into your room—a feat never elsewhere attributed to a diffuse bulb. Even though I had a room in the rear, the street noise penetrated the bricklike pillow I squeezed over my half-deaf ear. Head nestled atop my backpack, I expected an interminable, forbidding, restless, night. Yet the cell’s monotony somehow lulled me into a few hours’ sleeplike hypnosis.

My spartan post for the evening could not dampen my spirits. Inspired by the rice-burning bikes, but opposed in principle to a scooter, I resolved to find a manly cycle. I’m not sure a 150-cubic-centimeter glorified lawn-mower engine glued to a drainpipe frame fit the bill, however, at least it had a clutch, saddlebags, and a black gas tank. The rental-shop owners were the first of many to nearly faint when I told them what I ride back in the States.

The Manly Bike

A few hundred cubic centimeters short of a Harley—or for that matter, a Vespa.

I floated up and down the rolling coastal hills for a few hours, stopping to wander among the not-so-humble huts, many of which the Californicated adventure travelers I saw in Baglamphu no doubt occupied. Indeed, so many surfer dudes scoot around, many without licenses, that they’ve now taken to pulling you over for riding while bleach-blond. Easily mistaken for a native Californian, especially halfway around the world, I did not escape the apparent roadblock.

Not knowing how much would make for respectable Thai baksheesh, I explained that the “M” certification on my Californicated license meant I could ride hogs ten times this size back in the States. He bought it. And let’s be honest, isn’t that more convincing than a racket-job international driver’s license anyway?

I found the charming, if overrun, section of the island and parked my scooter-bike along the road. I let the waves wash over my boardshorts a few times and dove in. Then, barefoot, I ran a few miles across the wet sand. I eventually relaxed the fearsome clutch on my drop-proof, waterproof camera and snapped a memory.

The Not-So-Humble Huts

The Kitsch’n

A bit further down the road, I found the overrun agglomeration of shops selling the Thai analogue to I♡NY t-shirts and hot dogs. Yet the strip had an aura of authenticity, which the tsunami warning signs most tangibly embodied. Phuket “Town,” unlike countless other ravaged small-t towns, had been by and large rebuilt since 2004. Farangs like me, and the myriad other Asian tourists from Singapore, China and Japan—gawking, complaining, parting with their money—probably sped that along. But anyone in Phuket when that wall of saltwater pounded ashore stood no chance, farang or Thai, rich or poor.

Tsunami Alert

Yet they rebuilt. I considered it a tribute to the value of tourism that the Thai people cared enough to start over. Granted, the warning signs weren’t going to save anyone. But they served as a stark reminder of how lucky I was to be half a world and all of a mindset away from both that sort of tragedy and my petty worries.

With skies overcast by early afternoon, the downpour could not have been far off. I settled on a mostly-empty beach bar for a beer, then moved inside for a plentiful helping of Thai peppers and whatever else they mix with the rice and sauce.

Thai Peppers

The downpour arrived, indeed, with such petulance I nearly had to board a baht-bus back to the brick-bed.

It’s just a little rain

Silently, I thanked my girlfriend for forcing me to bring the el cheapo poncho without which I would have been soaked in two minutes flat. I ducked from awning to tree to storefront hoping the rain would let up. It wouldn’t, I learned the next morning, for another twelve hours.

Yet the roads were no less crowded than before with scooters darting hither and yon. If they could stay dry, why couldn’t I? Some of them used slickers, others garbage bags, still others rode two-up without even a jacket. If they could handle it on a scooter, why couldn’t I on a full-fledged chopper?

But there’s another reason darkness is the traveler’s nemesis: It confounds one’s innate sense of direction. Squinting to read tiny Roman letters, swerving to avoid puddles and potholes, and dodging locals on two-wheeled implements of every description, I limped and floundered my way back to the town center. I had only seen these roads for a few minutes in the daylight, yet they roped and twisted back on themselves, a labyrinthine mess, as I progressed from wet, to soaked, to drenched, tired, and defeated.

Neither the man nor the adventurer in me likes asking directions. But I had no map, no inner compass, nearly no gas, and no patience left. I don’t recall where I found a pencil-sketch street guide, but I pointed and signed and pleaded sheepishly to find the On On, or even a street near it.

Something about inter-lingual dialogue leaves nothing to guesswork; when you reach that eureka moment, there’s no doubt you’ve understood and been understood.

A few minutes later, I approached my refuge, a stronger man for it. You don’t brave Thailand for comfort, at least not at 27. A few hours later, half asleep, half awake from the fluorescent interrogation lamp and motorbikes remorselessly speeding by, I smiled to myself as the monsoon hangover intensified the pat-pat-pat on my rotting shutters, then subsided. I hadn’t exactly stared death in the face and laughed, but the 21-year-old European trainster and the 25-year-old would-be Inca trailer would have skipped the bike rental and taken a baht-bus; instead, I had a “fresh” t-shirt, another day to explore, and a story worth reliving and describing.