Finding the Art in Phuket
The Art of The Cultural Melting Pot
Anthony S Cameron
Phuket comes at you all at once, with a slippery handshake wrapped in a suffocating blast of humidity and diesel fumes, speaking a scary blend of languages and moving slow enough to stop the sweat from forming. And that’s on a quiet day. A quiet day is barely distinguishable from a busy day. Planes land at Phuket airport with alarming regularity, spewing out the 15.5 million who visit here every year, distributing them across the island like icing on a cake with not enough pieces to go around. Patong, that lovely den of iniquity, gets most of them, and if you’ve ever been on a bus heading down Patong hill fresh from the airport, that feeling that you are about to die as a result of the failing brakes and the ridiculously steep hill will never leave you, and propels many into a week-long drunken stupor. Some argue Patong is much better that way. Drunk, that is. Oh yeah, darkness also helps.
After a short restorative dose of the hotel airconditioning you will find yourself on the street, where Patong’s gritty version of life presents itself to you like one big pouting Instagram photo. You will pass Italian, Thai, Russian, Indian, French, German, American, British and you-name-it restaurants. Take your pick, but don’t fret because there’s another street just like this one, and another, and another after that. Along the way you will hear a many of the world’s languages, and probably all at once. Bursts of Russian, Chinese, Thai, English, German, Danish, French, Spanish, Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Arabic, Cambodian, and even Nigerian will pass you by on a hot gust of tropical air, itself laden with sultry intentions. Add to that the ubiquitous, thinly veiled snarl of the massage girls and you will start to wonder if someone isn’t conducting this strange human symphony.
And if that’s not enough for you, zoom in on the aromas for a moment. Check out the beautiful, sweet smell of roti cooking on a stainless steel pan, get a nose full of fish sauce as you pass the Somtam stall on your way to the kebab shop, where the aroma of spicy meat pulled you in from a block away. Try and pass the wood fired pizza shops without swooning from the scent of the most popular food in the world. Try, I dare you, to pass one of the French patisseries without snaffling a couple of fresh croissants, or falling in proximity love with the waitress.
By now you will have sweat running down your back as you walk and your body will have started swelling from heat retention. Beer signs will start to stand out more, and that beach at the end of the road will be reduced to a shimmering haze in someone else’s imagination. The lizard-like tuk tuk drivers and touts will have begun to take on a ‘fear and loathing’ edge as they lunge at you from the shadows and you will start to wonder why that broad shouldered, tall Thai chick with the legs is giving you the eye. All those languages that danced around you before so interestingly now sound like a hundred dementia patients all talking at once and suddenly you realise that it isn’t just the heat sapping your sanity. You have hit a cultural overload, and all the input coming at you is some weird kind of human distortion, and as another Singha sign looms, you realise that beer might be the only answer to a question you have already forgotten.
Two or so beers later you find yourself back out on the street declining an offer from a ladyboy to ‘suck your cock in three different languages’, wondering where your wife has got to and why the street itself looks so unfamiliar all of a sudden.
You stumble away slightly bewildered and come across a ‘balloon’ bar on your way back to your life. Twenty free shots of Thai tequila later and you have made your first friends, the bargirls who have been sitting next to you and staring into their phones as you kept downing those drinks while you amazed yourself at how impervious you were to the tequila’s potency. There are lots of other guys that look like you in the bar: drunk, red faced and laughing. You discover a new language, called ‘Tinglish’.
You figure it’s time to go after you wake up on the floor next to your barstool with the party still going on around you.
You make it out onto the street somehow. It’s night time and the streets are packed with touts and bleary eyed tourists with that look of dulled expectation on their faces. Miraculously you come across your wife, who has been out looking for you for hours, ruining her own chance of fun and not at all interested in your drunken adventures. You run the gauntlet with her, past the touts, lady boys, massage girls, pole dancers, alluring aromas of food you now couldn’t keep down, the streets now a blur of colour and sound, a sensory blast that is a million human beings out on the town with nothing to lose.
You make it back to your room, and, sobered by blissful aircon, promptly decide to take your wife back out to the bar where your new friends are waiting. Your night has just begun.
Welcome to Phuket. A very strange chunk of paradise.
I am pretty sure there isn’t another place quite like this one.
Photos by Tony Cameron
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.