Finding the Art in Phuket
The Art of Watching it Slip Through Your Fingers
by Anthony S. Cameron
Phuket is that itch that you just have to scratch. It is the ever present lure of pleasurable, and often debauched, indulgence that niggles away at you until you give in to its tropical charms, let the massage oil soak into your skin and laugh like you have been caught in the rain without a coat.
From the moment you encounter the taxi mafia at the airport and try your hand at haggling, you know you are somewhere else, somewhere different, somewhere far away from shopping malls and multi-level car parks, far away from the mortgage payments and utility bills that seem to press down hard on the collective brow, a brow already furrowed in bewilderment by the vague insanity of it all. When you take that first whiff of diesel-laden tropical air, the ubiquitous rolling hills of suburbia become a distant memory.
Phuket is one of the world’s great escapes from the drudgery of modern existence, an escape that never seems to last long enough, but simultaneously drags like a B-movie with a paper thin plot. It is this great irony that drives the high tourist numbers that never seem to dip. They just change nationalities, like sampling all the food at the all-you-can-eat buffet. For the last couple of years it has been the Chinese, before that the Russians, before that the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Australians, Americans. You name it, every first world country has been represented here at whatever economic peak their country enjoyed at that time, and made a touch of paradise a distinct possibility. For many, the closest they get to paradise is glimpsing it in the in-flight magazine as they buckle their seatbelt and listen to the roar of the jet engines outside their window.
That’s the thing about paradise: it is such a slippery beast that, just when you thought you felt it brush past you and make your skin tingle, you are abruptly awoken by the realisation it was just the wayward hand of a cheeky ladyboy with nothing left to lose going through your pockets for loose change.
Phuket’s version of paradise straddles a pole in tiny, tiny shorts, thrusts that tight ass out into the air whilst those dead, dark eyes stare out at nothing. The promise of a great experience is more a figment of your imagination than a concrete reality. So, down another drink, take a look at all the other people doing exactly what you are doing, take a big gulp of air and don’t forget to suspend your judgement, cause that’s just going to get in the way.
A trip to Koh Phi Phi is usually on the cards. You know, that island made famous by the movie The Beach. Hundreds of speedboats are ready and waiting to take you there, and when you’re there, don’t forget to take a number and get in line, cause the other ten thousand people jammed onto that little stretch of sand will already have their selfie sticks out, happily snapping away at the sideshow that was once a beautiful, pristine, quiet little gem.
A chance to snorkel all over a dead reef is also included. Just remember to sweep that plastic rubbish out of the frame lest it ruin your instaperfect moment. Oh, and remember to wear your lifejacket on the return journey. Those speedboats have a habit of crashing into one another.
To me, this place IS paradise, but I am a freak. I like the peeling paint and faded signs. I like the broken down, abandoned, half-built resorts that litter this once beautiful coastline. I like the dream on offer every day that seems always just out of reach. I like the mad scramble for the tourist dollar AND the crazy search for some of that tropical, exotic charm no matter how slim your chances are of finding it. I like the rubbish that washes up all over the beaches and the ridiculous excuses the authorities give for why it is there in the first place. My favourite so far was reading about the putrid black water that flows into Patong bay every morning being described as a ‘plankton bloom’.
I like the mess tourism has made of this place. As a westerner from a first world country, I actually derive some demented joy out of having the outfall of my privileged existence on this planet shoved right back in my face. It has become a source of inspiration for me, a place from which to write, a place to create, to sculpt some sense out of the debris of life in the 21st century. Others may find it hard to see the beauty in this tropical mess I call home now, but I have no trouble.
I have written a lot about this place over the years. Some of it has ended up in my novels, some has ended up here, in this great magazine that lets me say pretty much whatever I want about anything I want, whether it be the nature of the creative moment or the sometimes hilarious and nearly always fascinating search for art on this mad little island. One thing I know for sure: I may have written a lot about this place, but in some ways I think it has written me. It has given me a context that I searched for in my own country, but couldn’t find. This place breathes. It breathes the rancid and sometimes toxic air that we give it. Like any place, it sometimes reflects us in ways we may not want to see. At least not without the benefit of cheap rum and another perfect tropical sunset to couch your reflections in. Even under the unrelenting, bright light of the day, this place still sings. Sure, maybe she sounds like an old cabaret singer past her prime, but the important thing is, she is still singing.
And sometimes at night, after the bargirls have gone home and the tour buses have left the streets, I am sure I can hear the old girl sigh.
Anthony S. Cameron is an Australian ex-pat living in Phuket, Thailand, and the author of two novels, Driftwood (2014) and Butterfly on Bangla (2015). Born in Melbourne, he escaped in his early twenties to central Victoria, where he designed and built a sustainable house and raised two sustainable children. His books are available on Amazon here. You can find his sculptural furniture on Facebook here.