Finding the Art in Phuket
Anthony S. Cameron
Butterfly on Bangala
One of the most bizarre and absolutely fascinating streets in the world has to be Bangla Road, Patong on a Saturday night.
To the sober eye, the world of Bangla Road is like chewing gum stuck to your shoe: it’s kind of annoying, and leaves you feeling vaguely sullied. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to scrape it off. Hundreds of bars line this mad street, all with pretty Thai girls in tight skirts and high heels holding drinks special boards and staring blankly at the moving human feast. ‘Priscilla’ style ladyboys prance theatrically up the street in long gowns, flashing their plastic tits at anyone who catches their eye for the briefest of moments, whilst ping pong show touts and guys with monkeys on little chains vie for your attention and a hundred sound systems spill sodden dance tunes out onto the worn pavement at your feet. Neon lights flash on and off and moving lights ballyhoo the street, bathing the entire Bangla Road circus in a surreal array of colour.
After a couple of drinks, everything changes: the uncomfortably surreal becomes somehow tolerable, and perhaps even comforting; the relentless grab for your dollar becomes mildly flattering banter; the soundtrack of a thousand wasted people stumbling in and out of clubs becomes music to your ears. It’s not like you have to be drunk to enjoy it, but it sure does help. As for my wife and I, we were neither sober nor drunk, having come to this street for another reason: we were here doing ‘research’ for my (at the time untitled) second novel, so we teetered between the worlds and watched the madness of Bangla Road get into full swing in front of us.
It is one of the last places you would expect to witness a moment of intense human beauty, and yet somehow we managed it.
Patong works on you slowly at first, tenderising you with small blows before coming in with a roundhouse punch that leaves you senseless, broke, and wondering where you are. Patong is your self-esteem floating on a belly of lies and deceit, of one-dimensional moments being bumped into on crowded streets, tripped over by drunks, and hammered beyond recognition by relentless shots. It is the eardrum bursting from too much bad music coming out of plastic tweeters and people shouting at you to be heard. It is the quiet moment just before you begin pissing when you hear the sound of footsteps, slow and sure. It is the years of living etched into your face in a matter of hours.
Everyone seemed to be wearing t-shirts and singlets with various ‘clever’ messages spread across them. Beer t-shirts, ‘No Money No Honey’, ‘No I don’t want a Massage, Tuk-Tuk, New Suit or Elephant Ride’, all the testimonies to the mad grab for the tourist dollar that people buy to mark their holiday. To us it looked like some kind of ugly uniform designed to lure pickpockets, tuk tuk drivers and tired, freelance whores. And it seemed to be working.
We had been there for maybe four hours, me writing notes and little phrases and my wife taking photos of the human zoo stumbling past us, their phones thrust out in front of them like miniature walking sticks. By 1a.m. it was one tragically funny human scenario after another going past, dragging their heels or walking barefoot due to lost flip flops, the feet blackened and torn by broken glass within minutes, their brains fried from one shot too many, their room keys lost somewhere along with their money and cards.
We had just decided to head home when my wife saw her.
She was standing out in the middle of the busy street holding a sign that said “Ping Pong show”. She didn’t look much older than 15, she had herself all done up in that Japanese schoolgirl look, complete with the pigtails. My wife noticed something unusual about her, something knowing, and when I turned and looked at her, I could see what she meant. There was something in her face that had seen too much too early and it had given her a wise look underneath her cutesy smile for the tourists. She still had a skip in her step and a brightness in her eyes at 1a.m. There was something about her that the street could not defeat. She knew it. The street knew it.
She must’ve felt us staring at her and she gave us a sideways glance and a cheeky grin as she approached the next potential customer staggering towards her. She danced to his left and right and slid under his outstretched hands, giggling like it was all some kind of joke. She manoeuvred herself behind him and turned him around and pushed him gently off in the direction of the ping pong show. She gave him a little kick in the butt to get him going whilst giving us the side of a huge grin. She turned and faced us, raising her arms up as if to say ‘whatever it takes, right?’ We couldn’t help but smile back.
Suddenly a huge butterfly flew down and landed right next to an overflowing rubbish bin. The girl noticed the butterfly, and immediately went over to it. She reached down and gently allowed the butterfly to climb onto her outstretched hands, then slowly stood up. We looked at her, she looked back at us with an expression of childlike wonder as the butterfly spread its wings out slowly in her hand, over and over, like a slow dance. Even from where we stood gobsmacked, we could see the delicate hues of violet and yellow that were spread across its wings like some sort of triumphant flag. It was a thing of exquisite beauty on such a dirty little street. The girl put her face next to the butterfly, as if she was whispering some nugget of wisdom, or maybe some kind of plea to get her out of here, I don’t know. All I knew was that my mind was now racing. Then she let the butterfly go with an upward thrust of her arms and watched it escape into the crowd with this beautiful forlorn look on her face. The butterfly careered off a lady boy’s headdress before making it out above the electric wires that hung limply from post to post like some sad line of honour.
I wrote the line “memories die just like a butterfly on Bangla”, not knowing that I had just found the title for my second novel, whilst my wife snapped away and the night took a hold on us.
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.