Finding the Art in Phuket
Anthony S. Cameron
Looking for Art in All the Right Places
Let’s get the introductions out of the way first. Readers, meet Maailay. Maailay, meet the readers. Maailay is a touch on the shy and timid side, but she will warm up to you as we make our way through this piece. An initial sniff of you and she’ll work the rest out later. And then there is me, we’ll call me ‘Tony’, and I’ve already checked out your scent. Let’s just say I reckon we’re in for an illuminating ride. I am the conveyer of these words and, more importantly, the owner and driver of The Sidecar, the vehicle that delivers us up and down the western coast of Phuket, onto the debris strewn beaches that for us (I think it’s OK if I speak for Maailay here) are some kind of paradise of possibility.
Oh yeah, just so you know. Its Maailay’s sidecar, OK?
For a while I was labouring under the false impression that it was mine, given I had paid for it and get it repaired a lot. Lucky for me, Maailay straightened me out on that one in the early days. I was her driver and adventure creator and there was no reason to get ahead of myself now, was there?
So readers, allow me to introduce the third main character in this piece: The Sidecar.
As you can see rust has taken a firm hold on the old girl, but with judicious use of spray paint and the cover-up technique that is the norm here, this is what you get: rust bleeding through layers of mismatched paint. We love her just the way she is.
Sidecar may be a touch on the dull side when empty, but when she is laden with the day’s collection of fishing boat timber, cigarette lighters and driftwood, and with Maailay perched on top with that mad grin that looks like it is trying to split her face in two, then the old girl is quite a sight!
Our backdrop is the mad, messy roads and stunning coastline of Phuket, with its lonely northern beaches as our mecca. The soundtrack is the crash of waves, the splash of food hitting hot oil, the staccato hum of the ubiquitous Honda click, the gloomy whoosh of the wind through the majestic Casuarinas that line the northern beaches, and the thump of the long tail boats as they push through the monsoon swells with the ease of an elderly gentlemen on an afternoon stroll. The scent is pure, unmistakable Thailand: tantalising wafts of barbequed chicken and Papaya salad, crispy, deep fried holy basil and morning glory mixed with the sweet smell of fried pork; and the thick salty, warm air coming off the Indian Ocean, bringing with it the rain that rejuvenates us all.
So, I think that just about covers the intros, let’s get on with it then.
Let me just say at the outset that Sidecar probably feels the hardest done by on our little adventures up the coast. Outside of a perfunctory check that there is in fact some oil in the engine and a glance at the tyre pressures as I hop on, Sidecar undergoes no mental preparation for the impending onslaught of steep hills, police checkpoints and curvy roads. Not to mention the load of driftwood and lighters I will be asking Sidecar to carry as the day wears on. I have been known to whisper to Maailay “Let’s not tell her yet, ok?” conspiratorially as we casually fuel up at the service station and, now having written that, I can see why the staff at that fuel stop look at me the way you look at someone who is ‘touched’, I think it used to be called.
And to them I guess I am. I mean, I do smile a lot and talk to my dog around other people and I am one of the few farang here who rides a sidecar instead of a new plastic step-through and it is often full of what looks like rubbish …hmmmm, I can see why they might think that now.
So, now seems a good time to give you a bit of context for our driftwood adventures. This is Thailand, and not only that, this is Phuket, one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations. This island is some kind of strange Thai anomaly, being set-up for tourism and expat retirees. There’s plenty of wealth here and construction never seems to stop, but at the end of nearly every street there is also a Burmese ghetto constructed from roofing offcuts and broken cinder blocks that houses the illegal labour that makes it all possible. The third world and the first world on the same street.
Thais are used to seeing rich farang driving new cars and shiny motorcycles, not rusty old sidecars made from rebar and driftwood. And if you happen to be smiling and talking to your dog a lot as you ride, then I guess you are going to stand out a bit.
So anyway, you know, we’re cool with that.
At 7a.m Phuket is still asleep as we creep through the Nai Harn back streets and head for Kata Hill, the first of many ‘hills’ Sidecar will have to endure before the day is done . I build up speed on the corner near the first elephant farm and the shooting range (a strange combination of businesses I would have thought) and watch as Maailay leans into the corner as I put as much torque onto the back wheel as I can without starting to slide sideways towards the open concrete drains that run along the edge of the road. I gear down a little too early and make the engine race as it searches for grip on the road again, and at the same time go full throttle as I feel the gradient increase. Sidecar is up to the task, and before I know it we are passing the second and third elephant camps, where I find myself watching Maailay twist her head and look quizzically at the massive beasts enslaved in chains. I try to imagine what she might make of them. They must smell really cool to her, that’s for sure.
The last corner approaches and we go down to second gear and swing ourselves sideways around the slippery early morning corner and I swear Maailay shoots me a look mid –corner, as if to say, ‘WTF?’ so I straighten the Sidecar up, ease off the throttle and cruise on up the road to View Point, the top of the Kata hill.
It’s too early for even the most keen tourist so , instead of the usual array of tuk tuk’s and minivans, we find our view unimpeded as we round the corner and the West Coast of Phuket stretches out before us full of the promise that only early morning can bring.
“This place is fucken beautiful,” I shout to no-one in particular, as we head down the other side of the hill into the waiting arms of Kata beach.
We are looking for art on the most unlikely of islands.
And we are on our way.
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.
Pics by Roxy Cameron