Finding the Art in Phuket
Anthony S. Cameron
Doin’ Time in Phuket Jail – Part 2
I’m on my third body search now, and it has turned into not much more than a perfunctory patting down and a chance to inquire about the state of the warden’s stomach. He seems happier than usual and he is especially pleased I have not worn boardshorts and flip-flops this time, having opted for the more respectful long pants and collared shirt. After all, it is concert day, the governor is coming and everything! I notice that the usual buzz of activity at the entrance seems to have gone up several notches. The relatives of the imprisoned are in their Sunday best and a layer of cheap perfume and shampoo hangs above us all, ready to be sucked in through the huge steel doors with us.
The exercise yard I walk into has transformed from the ominously long and lonely walk of my earlier visits into some kind of arts and crafts hub. Tables laden with art materials are spread out around the perimeter and hundreds of tattooed inmates are sitting around them making stuff. There is what looks like a troupe of dancers practising their routine behind them, and beyond that I can see the stage where the band will play, resting up against the back wall. To my right is a red carpet leading to a large, upholstered chair under a pink marquee loaded with tassels. And surrounding all that, the ubiquitous razor wire. I take in the scene and conclude matter-of-factly that I might be hallucinating right now.
On the table nearest to me, a cluster of inmates are painting miniature landscapes onto small rocks with the precision of watchmakers, whilst on another table, broken men are doing charcoal sketches of their beloved King when he was a young man, and pegging them onto the wire fence above them. Others are knocking out pictures of impossibly beautiful Thai women with that long silky hair, or winding pipe cleaners into likenesses of crawling geckos, running chickens, or birds perched on branches. Everything they made was ready to take flight, scamper or slither out of here, on the strength of the mad trumpeter’s wailing, if they had to. And the guys who were making them sat blank-faced and quiet as church mice as they watched their creativity take them beyond the walls covered in razor wire, and it reminded me again how much I liked the art that comes out of struggle.
I was greeting the band and setting up my recording gear when the wardens opened a bunch of gates and a thousand inmates and their relatives flowed slowly and noisily into the exercise yard. Those that couldn’t fit in pressed their faces through the cyclone fence, carving their faces up into geometric patterns as the governor arrived to take his ostentatious seat in front of the proceedings. The show was about to begin.
After the obligatory speeches by officials wearing the uniforms of five-star generals, the first act got up and did their thing. A heavily made up girl dressed like a Japanese whore belted out a couple of tunes to a backing track and managed to pierce my eardrums in a way I hadn’t quite experienced before, even after twenty years of close proximity to loud music. The crowd loved her short skirt, but I think were kind of relieved when the shrieking had finished. Next up was my boys, so I checked my levels and hit record once again. Within a few bars I knew I wouldn’t be using this but kept on recording anyway, throwing confident glances at the singer, who seemed to be having a tough time hearing himself in the foldback speakers above the crunch of the now electrified guitars and thumping of floor toms mere metres away from him. He seemed to wince his way through most of the song. The violinist looked around nervously for most of the song, then shoved a mic into the bell of his trumpet and blew a part of his soul out into the hectic space. It didn’t seem to matter.
There was a low rumble of appreciation from the crowd. The dancers I saw earlier made their way to the front of the stage amidst a cacophony of whistles, whoops and mad cheers from the, until now, sedate crowd of tattooed criminals and relatives, officials and hangers on. The wire all around the enclosure rattled as hundreds of faces pressed themselves through the wire, trying to get a closer look at the girls. The girls played up to it, bending over provocatively, balancing precariously on their stiletto heels as the crowd roared their approval. I wondered what all the fuss was about as I noticed the first prominent Adam’s apple protruding almost obscenely from the throat of the nearest dancer.
I watched as one of the ‘girls’ jogged over to the sound guy and handed him a CD whilst the others took their positions, spreading their long legs and putting their hands on their hips, their ears cocked towards the speakers in silent anticipation. I looked around to where the governor was sitting. His face was a mixture of polite composure and boredom, tempered by the cultural acceptance of ladyboys that is such an endearing part of this culture. The real show was about to begin.
The music was a loud, pumping dance tune and the dancers went to it, pulling off a series of synchronised, choreographed moves that would have made the Bolshoi ballet wonder about themselves. The crowd went crazy and I became convinced that one of the fences was going to collapse under this push of desperate human happiness. The moves got dirtier and dirtier until we were watching ladyboys dry humping other ladyboys as even more ladyboys looked on, their expressions splashed with forbidden desire and pure animal, sexual need.
I looked over again at the governor. He seemed to be enjoying himself, laughing and elbowing his cronies, encouraging them to look at yet another flagrant mock-sexual act occurring in front of them. One of the ladyboys wearing a long scarf strutted up to the governor and wound it around his neck, pulling it back and forth and began thrusting ‘her’ hips at him provocatively. At first he laughed accommodatingly, almost embarrassingly, like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, as the ladyboy cavorted around him and his cronies.
And for a brief moment I am sure I saw the whites of his eyes as the first fence threatened to come crashing down.
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.