Finding the Art in Phuket
The Art of Not Getting Deported
Anthony S Cameron
Phuket wakes up to the sound of roosters crowing, the Muslim call to prayer and the thwack of a thousand hammer drills making their first mark in the concrete for the day. The traffic hasn’t really kicked in yet, but a thousand cups of Nescafe three-in-ones have, and another day in this strange tropical paradise lurches forward. The art of this place for me lies in the ordinary moments, and often in the innocent early morning moments, moments yet to be sullied by the bold and unrelenting light of the day. It is trapped in the sounds of this developing South east Asian country waking up, like the splash of water coming off a thousand bodies wrapped in sarongs, in the metal clanging of a thousand spoons on a thousand woks, in the decisive thud of a thousand knives on a thousand chopping boards, and it is in the collective sighs of a thousand humans going about the business of building a first world tropical holiday experience.
Of course, the experience of the tourist barely brushes past this excellent stuff on their way to the jewellery emporium. Beach culture is the dream being sold here, and it comes with beach chairs, endless cocktails, jet skis, parasailing, kitesurfing, the odd reggae bar and a thousand ocean view restaurants to test the strength of your stomach. But there is something strangely hollow about it, something kind of fake about it. A feeling that, if you peer behind the curtain you will see the timbers holding up the set. I guess that’s what you get when you transpose a lifestyle concept on an otherwise sleepy, unassuming little tropical island.
The middle of the day is to be avoided, having been blasted clean of subtlety and left to rot in the baking heat. The nights, on the other hand, are to be treasured, for not only do they come to you significantly cooler, but they can house rare moments of beauty that, if you are lucky, resonate and synchronise with the tiredest of hearts, in the most delving of moments.
The other night I was sitting out the front of a bar called Bebop in a funky little street in Phuket Town, watching the rain coming down, listening to some truly inspiring music battle with the tropical deluge for aural dominance, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it hit me. Maybe it was the music that did it, maybe it was the saxophone placed dead centre of our table that spoke to me with its misshapen, worn bell resonating with riffs long since past. Maybe it was the sheets of rain falling on the worn pavement that stirred my soul. Maybe the cocktails my wife and I were drinking were having their magical effect or the ridiculously comfortable chair was having its wicked way with me. It could’ve been the artfully sour-faced waitress sitting opposite us, under a display of miniature musical instruments lit by tea light candles, looking soulfully out at the rain-soaked street, or it could’ve quite easily been the brilliant chalk drawing of two old jazz dudes jamming on the wall next to us. I couldn’t be sure. All I knew was that a rare insight had taken a hold of me. I fumbled nervously with my drink, stared through the broken saxophone at my lovely wife, who had pre-empted the rave that would take a hold of me and our night by raising an eyebrow expectantly and sighing in mock exaggeration.
I didn’t know much, but what I knew right at that moment tumbled out of my mouth with an urgency I hadn’t felt for quite some time.
I watched the rain coming down, watched the people scurrying around under umbrellas, or darting between verandahs, and realised that I had been feeling comprehensively saturated by life of late. And it wasn’t this mad little island that was doing it, although I am sure the relentless scramble for the foreign dollar on every street corner didn’t help me much. No, it was a global kind of feeling, a general sense of exhaustion at the amount of information, images, comments, opinions, feeds, blogs, etc that are out there at any one time. I was drowning in a sea of information that no longer made any sense. Maybe it never did. All this potential knowledge was strangling me, suffocating my soul, stretching my spirit out like pizza dough on a busy Friday night. And I realised that I probably wasn’t the only one. I got the feeling that there were others that had grown tired of the too easily accessible information on any subject you cared to mention. Had the information revolution actually imprisoned humanity, chained them to a feeling of insignificance in the face of the multitude of individual experiences that were so easy to tap into? Was there anything new to contribute? Had everything already been said, quoted, paraphrased, plagiarised, then dished up to a new generation as a new thing?
Was it time, I wondered, for things to remain unsaid, for experiences not to be committed to Instagram moments? Was it time to stop putting every possible fucking experience or near miss experience in the millennial social media straight jacket? Was it time to just wander aimlessly down a street without google maps, without the crushing awareness that a million had walked here before? Could it be, I wondered, that I was completely and utterly insignificant, and that no-one gave a shit whether I was having an existential moan in a cool little bar on the edge of banality? And finally, did it matter at all?
One thing I knew for sure, my drink needed topping up.
So, here I was, on an innocent street in a dirty little whore of a town, having global insights as some of the coolest funk/ jazz fusion squeezed itself out of the speakers above my head and spread itself over my words like some sort of exquisite treacle on a unpronouncable dessert in a wanky restaurant with a five star rating on fucking Trip Advisor. And I realised that I had come across a rare place indeed, an oasis in a sea of easily duplicated experiences, a place of respite for me, something that is nearly impossible to find on this island.
This place was original, an anomaly in the land of the eternal copy. I decided to hang on to it like a life-buoy.
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.
Photos by Roxy Cameron