Thursday, September 06, 2007

Trouble in Paradise

No, I am not talking about the 2004 tsunami. Damage to Karon Beach, pictured here, on the island of Phuket (pronounced poo-get) was minimal. There were a few abandoned buildings to be seen, perhaps out of business due to the big wave. But there was also considerable construction underway, not unusual for the popular Thai tourist island on the Andaman Sea which in places reeks of over-development (Bangkok-by-the-Sea, or Costa del Farang). No, I am talking about the difficulty of relating to someone half your age who speaks limited English learned in chat rooms and who subscribes to the values of a culture vastly different from your own. Talk about challenges!

It's the rainy season in Thailand and for that reason airline tickets and hotel rooms are sharply discounted. I asked for an ocean view at the Best Western Ocean Resort, but, as you can see, the view over the four days we were in residence was frequently obscured by a series of surprisingly-vigorous storms coming at us from the Indian Ocean. In a visit to old Phuket Town, which was established in the 18th century by Arab, Indian, Malay, Chinese and Portuguese traders, we were caught in a squall and stood for a half hour under the overhang of a building. Motorbike riders were particularly vulnerable; umbrellas sprouted, and the gutters filled up, but few seemed bothered by the tropical storm.

At our hotel, in the wall-less dining room, clear shades were dropped to keep rain from falling on my scrambled eggs and bacon. The large resort was far from full. Most of the guests were from Scandinavian or Poland, judging by what we heard, and many brought children who splashed in the wading pond besides one of the three pools on the vast hillside property. A few men brought Thai companions but my friend was in the minority here in her own country. I know she felt uncomfortable about it.

"Phuket" sounds deceptively unified. Actually, there are a series of beaches around the island, the best being on the west side facing India. My first choice was Kata but I opted for an appealing deal at the Karon Best Western, a small mistake. Saturday loomed bright and sunny and we hopped on a sawng thaew (pickup truck mini-bus) for a ride south to Kata Beach where an annual surfing contest was being held. The waves were pitiful compared to what I'm used to seeing in Santa Cruz, but a few good rides were to be had. On Koh Samui beach chairs were free if you bought drinks; here the tariff was a stiff 200 baht so we sat on the sand. Kata is a gorgeous beach, small and clean. The fortress-like Club Med owns much of the property just off the beach but access to the surf is unhindered. Wanting to see the rest of the island, we got back on a bus for the ride to Phuket Town where we walked around to look at the mildewed Sino-Portuguese architecture and have lunch (this girl eating chicken satay was sitting at our table) before getting caught in the rain. I found a bookstore with lots of battered paperbacks in English, but could not locate the copy of John Irving's The World According to Garp that I wanted to give my friend, a devoted fan of Irving's. When the rain let up, we found a small shop with internet and cappuccino, the perfect combo.

From Phuket Town we caught another bus to Patong, the neon-and tinsel heart of Phuket. It was just about what I expected, a beautiful white sand beach and a long strip of businesses catering to the every need of farang tourists: tacky souvenir shops, bars that would not be out of place at Nana or Soi Cowboy, swanky resort hotels and restaurants with inflated prices. On the water jet ski riders swerved uncomfortably close to boogie board surfers. Hordes of tourists tromped in their sandals down the streets while tuk tuk drivers and bar girls competed for their attention. We found an air-conditioned Starbucks and my friend got a mango frosty while I upped my caffeine level considerably. Patong and the northern beaches like Kamala sustained more damage from the tsunami. I read a horrifying account by an American doctor staying in a hotel not far from the southern end of Patong and examined his photos of flooding and destruction. Trying to assess what damage occurred is difficult because resorts and tourist businesses are anxious to keep any negative news a secret (did you see "Jaws"?). Everything looked shiny and new, but the cacophony of sights and sounds was overwhelming and we soon returned in a characteristic red tuk tuk to our hotel, a short but over-priced ride to the south, past the ultra-luxurious Le Meridien which hogs a beautiful cove.

During breaks in the rain over the long weekend, we returned to Kata to swim in the delightful water (which at one point turned a strange shade of yellow which prompted my quick exit). Jet skis darted in front of Ko Pu, a small overshore island, while a parasailor on a surfboard skipped over the waves. A friendly dog came and rubbed his nose on my knee. Not far off several topless ladies soaked up the rays before the rain clouds came. Beach front restaurants offered food from all lands (one flew a Swiss flag). I, unfortunately, chose to try a hamburger from a grill on the main street which came back over the afternoon to remind me to avoid red meat like my companion. Anything without rice should send up a red flag ("gin kow," or eat rice, is the expression in Thai for eating anything). In the evenings we walked on Karon Beach under sunset clouds and in the evenings we sampled different restaurants in the small business district, ending out nights on the terrace of an Irish bar.

Relationships are difficult under the best of circumstances. Maybe the illusion of Paradise in Phuket made it seem easier than it was. Thais often laugh when they are unhappy to cover up sadness or displeasure. Sanuk, fun, is often valued above truth, it seems. My lady has some unfinished business with other lovers, and I think she saw me as an easy way out, a dependable old farang who might give her the comfort and stability she lacked in other relationships. But as the youngest daughter, she admitted to being spoiled much of her life, and it appeared that she wanted me to continue the tradition. While we talked and laughed and told secrets, she was frequently argumentative and stubborn. When she said we would never understand each other's culture, I began to agree with her. Our all-expenses-paid romantic weekend in Phuket became less important to her than some tangible gift, like a pair of expensive sunglasses, that she could show her friends to prove my affection. But I made that mistake before when I bought gold jewelry for the girl in Koh Samui. To me it was a nice gift to show my appreciation for time well spent; but to a Thai an expensive gift is an expression of love, a promise to marry. I was not about to get engaged prematurely a second time.

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