Finding the Art in Phuket
Anthony S. Cameron
Catch of the Day
If you are looking for a nicely written food review, you are in the wrong place. If you are looking for a glowing account of a diving tour or a boat trip to James Bond Island, then you are in the wrong place. If you are looking for travel tips or directions to the best local market, then, I am sorry to say, you are in the wrong place. If you are looking to buy a pool-villa or condo at a discounted price for a limited time only, then you are definitely in the wrong place. If you are looking for a wakeboard park, go kart track, Tuk Tuk ride or parasailing adventure, then, sadly, you are in the wrong place. If you are looking for an elephant ride or massage, new suit or free tickets to the fucking dolphinarium, then I am afraid you are in the wrong place. But if you want to feel the pulse of this mad island, if you want to peel back the lid and have a peek inside, then grab a beer and stick around.
This aint no advertorial.
The art of the everyday is everywhere, all the time, and yet you won’t find it in any brochures at the airport. You won’t see it out of a bus window on your way to the sunset lookout with the other 5000 people. You won’t be sitting next to it at the poolside bar, or eating from the same bain marie at the hotel buffet. You won’t be lying next to it on the massage table, wondering if you should strike up a conversation or not. The art I am talking about is the stuff in the background as you whiz past on your way to somewhere else, and if you’re not careful you could easily miss it.
This is probably a good time to say ‘I fucking love this place!’ so that you know where I am coming from here. I should also probably mention that I have a fairly bent view on life, but you probably knew that already, assuming some of you are recidivist readers of my tropical ramblings.
I am the guy who walks into the squalid heart of the sea gypsy camp, rather than the beachside fish market because, the gypsies are more beautiful to me. I am the guy who will hassle the pickpockets and begging children more than they do me, because then it’s like we’re rapping. I speak just enough Thai to make a funny conversation possible, and I have just enough spark in my eyes to follow it through. I love the sea gyspy kids: they are wild; they are agile, and their eyes see everything. They are the indigenous fringe dwellers in a place where they were the only people for thousands of years. Sound familiar, Aussies?
So at around 5pm every night the buses start arriving at the sea gypsy market, laden with Chinese, Korean and Russian tourists on a package deal which includes a boat trip to an island and a visit to the sea gypsy market. Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention the free breakfast buffet.
As soon as they get off the bus, the sea gypsy kids go to work in ragged teams of three or five, distracting some, engaging others with their clown-like antics and method acting begging style. It’s almost like watching a show that is in its 20th season. Everyone knows their lines so well they are now having fun with it. More and more buses arrive and the old sea gypsy men sit and watch the passing parade of gluttony whilst the women keep busy scaling and gutting the catch of the day.
Young sea gypsy girls with their make-up set on whore can be seen heading off to the nearby nightclubs to ply their trade to the same tourists who are now buying their fish and taking it across to the seafood restaurants, who will cook it for them.
As for the pickpockets, they really have to pounce before the tourists sit down to eat, so they try and get them whilst they are dazzled by the first of many seashell souvenir shops at the entrance to this strange sideshow. After that, they are down to the odd straggler out in the open, a much more difficult target.
Surrounding the restaurants on all but one side is the sea gypsy camp, a ramshackle collection of rusted iron and broken cinder block windowless rooms with panoramic views of abject poverty. I’m pretty sure these rooms don’t come with a free breakfast buffet. What they do come with is all the trappings of a third world existence. And, as an added bonus, for a limited time only, you also get to be ineligible for a Thai ID card, which means you cannot vote, buy a motorbike, own land, or run a business. Sound like a good deal? Not convinced? Ok, we’ll throw in the fear of being evicted at any time so a bus parking lot can be built for those poor fish-starved tourists.
Soon the sea gypsies will be arriving by bus too, in full sea gypsy costume, ready for the 5pm show.
I am the guy who finds a spot behind the dirty street that passes as a promenade and listens to the mad clatter of the knives, forks and spoons of a hundred people devouring seafood as an old sea gypsy guy sitting nearby in the dirt carves a fish out of a discarded water bottle. I watch his hands turn the ugly plastic reminder of the human condition into a part of his soul. He hands it to me with a toothless grin, shows me the ocean trapped in his eyes, and now embedded in this carving I hold in my hands.
You won’t find this in any art gallery soon. There won’t be a special offer attached to draw you in. There won’t be free wine and grand proclamations by people trying to earn their 40% commission. This didn’t come out of government arts funding, and never will. This is the art of the streets, the art of desperation, the art that cannot help itself because it’s a normal, everyday part of life.
And may it always inspire me.
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.