Finding the Art in Phuket
The Art of Tolerance
Anthony S Cameron
They say that you can feel the pulse of a place through its traffic, that you can sense its spirit as it dances on the tar. If this is the case, then the roads here are a daily abstract painting bursting forth in all directions. Any part of the road, median strip or pavement is fine in this daily free-for-all, and the common remark of ‘up to you’ takes on a whole new meaning when a truck is barrelling towards you on the wrong side of the road covered in wacky stickers and the last thing you see is the whites of the trucker’s eyes streaked with broken blood vessels and you swear to yourself later you could hear the chink of the spent Red Bull bottles rolling around his feet as he squeezed past in a rush of hot, diesel rich air.
If you have come from a place that puts you in a state of financial fear for breaking a road law, then your first solo drive here will be quite an experience. Think of the road as a moving feast, a place where radical moves are done slowly enough for everyone around to adjust, where the expectation is for anything to occur and that even the most selfish and cocky manoeuvre will be tolerated with a smile through the tinted glass. One of the few rules of thumb is to try and keep most of your wheels on the ground if possible. If you want to drive at three times the speed limit, go ahead, just try and do it using only two of the three available lanes.
If you are late for a meeting, feel free to ghost ride on the shoulder instead of sitting in the traffic. Just put your hazard lights on and everything will be cool. If you want to make a left turn from the far right lane, go nuts. Just do it slowly and politely and please ensure that you block as much through traffic as you can, at least until the lights change.
If you’re a minivan, then the road is your high speed canvas. None of the above polite niceties apply. Wherever you are going is a hell of a lot more important than any of our destinations, obviously, since you seem completely unaware of our existence; except when you are tailgating one of us who is stupidly doing the speed limit and holding you up. These dudes carry guns so you want to try and dish out your road rage behind the safety of your tinted glass cocoon or put it in a story like this, because a bullet is more precious than the life it takes, and there is plenty of jungle to go hide in until it all blows over.
Sure, the roads are crazy here, but there is an air of tolerance that hangs over it all that keeps us all alive and ready to dance another day. It is that tolerance and easygoing approach that keeps tourists flocking here, and it’s not just in the traffic.
It is in the awkward smile as another farang wearing a g-string bikini walks into your restaurant next to the mosque and doesn’t think anything of it. It is in the feigned indifference as the plump, middle aged lecherous hand grabs at the young nubile Thai body and gives it a satisfying squeeze. It is in the tight lipped grimace as you watch all your land being sold to foreign business interests. It is in watching another beautiful Thai woman hopping out of a rich white man’s car. It is in the money you send back to your family in Isaan, the loose change that spilled from a first world pocket. It is in watching the culturecide occurring around you as you reach for another belt of lao khao to help it all make sense. It is in the weary laugh of the tuk tuk driver as the big Russian belly gets pushed out at him, bereft of context, just a mindless gesture in a place where only money talks.
But most of all it is in the heartbeat of this island as she strains under the weight of a tourism industry that knows no limits, and in the little things. The small differences bleached by the hot sun and the large chasm breached in the interests of the greater good. It is in the massage parlour happily co-existing with the mosque and its population of worshippers. It is in the myriad of cultures that grind up against each other as the infectious beat tears a hole in the night.
Phuket is a grand old lady, and she can take this constant transformation. She can take the pilings being driven into her bedrock constantly, she can bear the curious brown sludge that runs out of the rivers into the ocean surrounding her, she can absorb the tonnes of rubbish that get buried under landfill in the dead of night. Sure, she might groan a bit, but what old lady doesn’t, right?
Meanwhile the jungle creeps silently around the edges, waiting to swallow it all up.
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.