Wonderful South East Asia – Part V

On the subject of modes of transport in Phuket, from what I have seen and experienced regarding tuk tuk’s, I would say, while they are convenient, the passenger is exposing themselves to great danger using them. Particularly on the beach to beach journeys, as many of the drivers show little regard for the safety of the passengers or themselves, and also seem to forget which side of the road they should be driving on.

Tuk tuk’s are also the most expensive way of getting around Phuket, as there are no meter taxis, giving tuk tuk’s and local taxi drivers carte blanche to charge silly prices, prices that can only really be described as extortionate. To put this into context, an 8-10 km journey in Phuket will cost you an average of 300 baht, maybe more if you don’t agree a price, while a journey on an air conditioned coach from Bangkok to Surin will cost you 360 baht first class, for an 8 hour journey covering almost 500km!

Many tourists in Phuket opt for hiring a motorbike, which works out cheaper by far and is in theory an excellent way to move around Phuket. However, there are a few problems with this, first of all, that if you hire a motorbike, it is more than likely that you are not insured.  Secondly, that if you are planning to drive any kind of vehicle in Thailand, an international driving license is required – but this will never be mentioned when you are hiring motorbikes or motor vehicles. Thirdly, that the shocking number of accidents and fatalities on the roads of Phuket ( I read about something like 10,000 accidents and nearly 300 deaths a year) involve inebriated foreigners on bikes, as drink driving laws are hardly enforced, and fourth, that one can ride a motorcycle completely illegally on a day to day basis, if one is willing to pay all the fines if caught by the police – this is however extremely irresponsible and should one be involved in an accident with serious casualties, while driving totally illegally, the costs are going to be astronomical.

One of the violations the local police are rigorous on is the helmet law, and that anyone riding a motorcycle is required to wear a helmet. The local Police block off roads for spot checks to snare people in violation of the local laws. Again, violation is subject to a fine or fines, and possible chastisement, by being requested to visit the local police station for a telling off, followed up with showing the law breaker gruesome pictures of actual accident scenes and victims as a result of recklessness on the roads.

The helmet law is actually a farce, as was pointed out to me when I asked the hotel owner what the legal position was for foreigners riding motorcycles in Phuket, as so many foreigners seemed to be doing. He said, in his frank and inimitable way that the law was basically a joke, and that because there is no safety specification on helmets, like there is in the UK for example, one may purchase a plastic helmet from the local market for 99 baht, the likes of which if one were to fart on it, would cause it to crack – to paraphrase him! He also recounted a story of a burly tattoo covered German he knew, who on his jaunts had spotted a police road block up ahead, and as he wasn’t wearing a helmet, stopped at a nearby market and bought a tin pot. He then placed the tin pot on his head, handle sticking out to the side and proceeded to the road block. When he was confronted by an incredulous Thai policeman wanting to know what the man thought he was doing with the pot his head, the exasperated Policeman quickly gave up and waved the man on through. I suspect that this is some kind of urban myth, but would not be surprised if it were true.

I was surprised at how many people I spoke to that had actually taken the wrong motorbike home after a boozy session. The keys seem to work in any old bike, or new!

Hence, knowing what I know about the local transportation scene, I elected to walk, but there are options, cheap options for getting around. Bus is one of them and it is safe, and for very little, one can cover much of Phuket and see local life and pretty views. Car hire is also an option, and much safer than motorbike for obvious reasons, but also because one is insured – but this too is questionable, as the insurance does not cover what one would expect to cover. One of the biggest caveats for foreigners driving in
Thailand is that if they find themselves involved in an accident it is always the foreigner that is at fault and the cost can be substantial depending on the injuries involved.

I recommend reading an article ‘Driving and renting vehicles in Thailand’ by Alex Malcolm for a better synopsis on the situation.

Actually, an added benefit of using the buses is that you get to see a little of local life and you realise that the local transport doubles as a local haulage system for produce from business to business, as vegetables and other produce are ferried between villages and towns using the buses. The driver gets a back hander for his troubles.

Local curiosities

There are a few things that I observed while in Thailand, particularly in Phuket, that I am deeply curious about.

First of all and the most obvious being the Bob Marley cult that seems to have swept through southern Phuket. Not that I have any objection, having grown up listening to his music, but I am curious as to what it is that has made the Thais embrace the man and his music. I can only assume it is his benevolent character and that the easy going sound of Reggae music is fitting with the idyllic setting of the beach. I ask one of the Thais working at Ska bar, to satisfy my curiosity, and he tells me that the reason why Bob Marley is so popular is because they like the words in his songs. That’s good enough for me but I suspect there is more to it.

Second of all Serpico, what is the deal with Serpico? I have seen mud flaps on gargantuan cement trucks with his face painted on them, passenger windows on trucks with his face painted on them, and T-shirts emblazoned with the face of Serpico. There is a burgeoning cult as far as Serpico is concerned and again, I am at a loss as to why? I can only deduce that the character – as Serpico (played by Al Pacino) was a cop fighting corruption within his own precinct – is one of virtue, but I appreciate his character and appearance has lots of 70’s cool appeal and I suspect that this may be he reason.  Speaking of faces painted on mud flaps, Che Guavara is another favourite and I saw his face on many a mud flap on my walking travels to the various beaches.

Thirdly, Karaoke, Thai style. I have been in a local Thai karaoke bar only to find it is not Karaoke in the sense that I am used to back home, as in making a tit of ones-self in public, as one drinks far too much to muster the courage needed to sing a song very badly indeed.

Instead, in Thai Karaoke bars they just seemed to pop money into a juke box that played songs sung rather badly in Karaoke. The odd punter would actually sing a song and it was usually a girl singing quite beautifully. I just don’t understand this phenomenon – but then we are in the land were face is important and this way one can participate in Karaoke and leave ones dignity intact. Maybe I have answered my own question!

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I decide on yet another easy evening of drinking in the local bars but first take a walk up Kata Noi road to see what has changed there and it appears that not much has, maybe for a few bars that were not there last year. Kata Noi road is quieter than the Koktanod road and the scene is predominantly very smart looking hotels, part of the Kata Thani resort and some restaurants and trendy bars in the beachfront complex. Part of the road consists of a row of shops, a tailors shop, some restaurants and a couple of bars. Kata Noi beach is barely visible from the road as the beach resort dominates, but it is very tasteful and minimalist modern in its style, adding to the charm of the beach greatly.

As I walk, the sky frequently lights up and this indicates that an electrical storm is brewing. For most nights there has been heavy rain, but this doesn’t last for long at all and dries very quickly. I am roughly half way along the road when the sky lights up again and follows with a loud crack, my eyes squint in a reflex action and as I open them again all is black, total darkness and eerie silence. I look around at the hotels and the bars and despite the silence I am reassured by the sight of dark silhouettes seated near large windows. I think, no, it is not God about to speak to me, or some kind of alternate dimension I have just stepped into. After 30 seconds or so the lights come back on and the roar of electrical power supplies peak and then plateau to the point that they can no longer be heard, above the resumption of the social interaction in the bars and restaurants. An almost dream like scene and my cue to leave Kata Noi for the familiarity of the livelier Kata Yai.

On my travel back along the Koktanod road through Kata I have to take refuge in a bar as the heavens quite literally open up. It rains solidly for 10 minutes, tropical rain, and the streets empty quickly. The rain abruptly ends almost like a tap has just been turned off. I finish my beer and resume my journey along Kata road before bumping in Steve, a guy staying in the same bungalow complex I had earlier been talking to at the bungalow bar and from practically the same part of England as me. Steve had made some smart moves in property back in England, making a fortune, and was looking to settle in Thailand. He asks if I fancy a beer and I suggest a bar, one of my regular bars. However, I hadn’t bargained on the motorbike ride as I jump on the back of a beast he is riding, one of those monster machines that you can hear coming a mile away, the kind with a huge engine and no muffler. Apart from the fact that we took off like a rocket, I was extremely unnerved by the lack of space I was sitting on. This was not like the bikes you see buzzing around
Thailand, the likes of which often accommodate several generations of the same family at any one time.

No, this bike was for speed freaks and the scant bit of room on the back is for the long haired waif that holds onto the rider for dear life. Only I was the waif, holding onto the rather large Steve for dear life, not very dignified at all really, particularly as we arrive at the bar, were every patron was alerted to the impending arrival by the loud rumble of the engine. As he takes the slope of a narrow side road off Koktanod road up to the bar I come off the back, burning my leg on one of the exhausts. However, I retain some dignity as I land on my feet and not my behind. The incident calls for a rather large scotch.

Night workers

The following day is uneventful. The morning begins with sunbathing on Kata beach before heading for Kata Noi beach which is less populated. I eventually take a long walk around Karon, the local Karon, not the beach side. Karon is a rather uneventful place with locals going about their daily business. There are numerous guesthouses and hotels scattered around the town but the local faces far outnumber the tourists, as they flock to the beaches and the bars and restaurants. As I ponder, I see a man in his late 40s, European, walking along Patak road in nothing but a pair of repulsively tight black Speedos, or could have been a thong, but I had seen enough from the front. I wonder if he would walk around like that back in his home town. No, he wouldn’t, because he would probably be arrested. Why is it then acceptable to offend the locals in another country I think to myself in disgust?

Patak road is a main road that cuts through the local town of Karon and begins from Karon circle and continues on near to Chalong Bay ending at

Peach Circle

enroute to Phuket town. When one takes a bus from Kata town the route is along Kata road which changes to Karon road, the coastal road that runs along the beach. The route along Karon road ends at the

Karon Circle

and turns onto Patak road which goes back in the opposite direction and runs kind of parallel with the Karon and Kata road stretch.

Cruising along Kata road one passes rows of hostess bars, tiny dingy dens of iniquity, establishments of various names but all with the same theme, like a living room with a bar, some tables and seating, and maybe a pool table and a t.v. if the size permits. They are modelled on small huts and are joined together in a continuous row and with names like The Next Heart Bar, Gracefully and Funky Monkey. Of a night throngs of bargirls will be seated outside of the bars beckoning to passers by with calls of ‘hi hansome man’ or ‘welcome’. It is funny really because I have seen them calling after middle aged men passing by with their mortified wives in tow, which gives an insight into the anything goes ethos here. The clientele is not exclusively male, but of couples and middle aged lesbians thrown into the mix.

In the daytime it is a different story, particularly when passing by on a bus at around noon. Some of the bars will be shuttered with bamboo fencing while others will have puffy eyed bargirls pottering around half asleep and looking groggy. Hotpants, skirts and bras hang out to dry on makeshift outdoor dryers hanging on clothes lines and on public display, in preparation for the merry-go-round of nightlife and hedonism in these parts. The day is young.

Walking around Karon town of a night one observes that many of the local family businesses operate well into the evening. I pass young men and women working away as machinists in premises with open shop fronts, others making suits, one chap is an upholsterer and furniture maker and he is busy working away at 10.30 pm, another I see making wicker furniture. I pass a shack with a string of lightbulbs draped over the door frame of the entrance, but I can just make out the shadows of people lounging around on seats inside, but it is rather dark and dingy looking. It appears to be a Karaoke bar for the locals and I hear the familiar droan of a Karaoke singer, coming from the juke box of course, and I can see the sky through a huge hole in the corrugated iron roof.

On my travels I eventually find myself in tourist territory were the loud music, hostess bars and restaurants dominate the streetside. I pass bar after bar, but being half Somali origin and having been baked by the sun I am rather dark, which can have great benefits to those not wishing to partake in the local bargirl scene. It is amazing really that I could walk the length of Kata road and Karon road and go by without so much as a ‘hi hansome’ or a ‘welcome’. I put it down to two things, the first a lack of eye contact. Many of the girls will not say anything unless the passer by indicates some kind of interest, usually a curious glance at the girls will do. The second being my complexion, as I did have one or two tailors approach me thinking that I was in fact Thai or Nepalese – these guys were unsure of my nationality, so they hedged their bets and approached me anyway. In most cases I went unbothered, while sometimes I had girls coming right up to my face and looking at me as if to say, what is he?

The tailors were the funniest, as these guys are usually the most forward in touting there services. One will encounter the advances of many of the local tailors for the duration of stay in Kata or Karon. The annoying thing is that they do not take no for an answer and will accost you every time you pass them, which is tiresome when you make several trips per day to and from your hotel room and have to run the gauntlet of tailors shops that line Koktanod road. I however, had no such problem being so obviously of the poorer persuasion, whatever the perceived persuasion was!

I recognised some tailors that were extremely persistent with me the year previous but this year they were not even giving me a glance – and no, they didn’t recognise me. Mind you, last year I was often accompanied by my friend, of British and Irish origin and very obviously Caucasian and of generous proportions (apparently a big belly or ‘pumpoi’ is an indication of wealth – so I have heard). I do not believe there is anything sinister in it at all – in fact I found the whole thing hilarious, particularly the looks of curiosity and confusion I often saw on the face of the tailors and the bargirls, and the effortless evasion of hassle on my part.

Walking through the busy tourist areas by night one becomes aware of the cattle trucks coming and going, unloading armies of workers from the local villages, clad in working gear, farmer’s hats and with shovels and spades. As one load arrives another load leaves and it is a common sight to see construction being undertaken under halogen light, as workers continue into the night – or at least until the bars close up for the night. The newly built premises will contribute to the numerous bars, restaurants and hotels that already trade in the area, places the workers could not afford to frequent no doubt.

Having walked the earth I make my way to my bungalow but oh no, Rose (name changed to protect the innocent, and not so innocent) is all dressed up for a night on the town and she spots me coming up the road. I won’t go into too much detail here, but ever since I booked into my hotel I have been accosted by Rose, who seems to be after me. She works/manages a massage place near my hotel. I would usually stop and say hi out of politeness, but she is a he, and I got onto this from the start. Now Rose was trying to get me to have an oil massage and I am sure that Rose wanted to do it. But I compromised and said I will have a foot massage instead. With that I was taken into the shop and a motherly Thai woman in her 40s tended to me and did an excellent job, all the while Rose would appear at the window and pouting at me mouthing the words oil massage. I found it all highly amusing.

But there is no way another man is getting a hold of me in that way, particularly with the obvious interest that Rose was showing. Rose was strikingly good looking, but at the end of the day Rose was a man, there is no getting passed that.

Anyway, I have been well and truly spotted by Rose and I can see what is coming next because Rose appears to be wearing a black basque and black evening coat with black skirt and stockings, dressed to kill. She approaches me offering to buy me a drink and take me to a popular bar in the area. But I am ready for her and insist that I can’t and that I am going back to my hotel. She looks with disappointment and I insist that I can’t because I am tired and that I am a bore. Rose then becomes quite irate with me and asks me outright “why you never go with me?” Obviously I do not want to hurt her feelings, so I say that I can’t go with her because I have a girlfriend back home. I follow this up with asking Rose if she has ever seen me with a bargirl while I have been in town. This disarms her immediately and I wish her a good evening before being on my way. Phew!  I am not being judgemental here, probably very conservative, perhaps a little homophobic, but not judgemental. I know that in many ways I am uptight and should be more willing to let my hair down, but that is just me. I know I miss out on a lot of fun being this way but this is the way I am. For those who really do know how to party, then of course Thailand will not disappoint you. Lucky for me, there is something for everyone.

On the subject of Rose, the following day I get talking to an American guy staying in one of the bungalows and we are sat at the bar. He tells me that every time he walks up the road to the bungalow he gets verbal abuse from some masseuse outside one of the massage shops. He goes on to tell me that he popped into the shop for a massage one day, as he suffers with his back, and had turned down the offers of an oil massage from the girl who is now giving him abuse.

It turns out that he was speaking Thai to the masseuse that was working on his back and that the oil massage girl seemed to take exception to this and was saying things in Thai that he did not understand. When he enquired as to what she was saying, she retorted “You speak Thai don’t you. Why don’t you understand?” Apparently, ever since then she had been giving him abuse in the street every time she seen him. Maybe there was more to the story I don’t know.

I had a hunch that this person he was speaking about was Rose and I describe Rose to him and he agrees that this is the same person. I tell him that the she is in fact a he, and I am surprised that he was not wise to this. I explain that I had a little bit of a run in with Rose last night, and that she ‘got a strop on’ when I declined her offer of a drink on the town. It is funny because when I said ‘strop on’ the American dude laughed with a loud shriek, and I immediately realized that he thought I said ‘strap-on’. I was very quick to clear this up with him and tell him ‘strop on’ is an expression used in the UK to mean that someone has become angry or irritated. It was a funny moment.

Farewell South East Asia…for now

My last full day in Kata town begins with paying my hotel bill and then I take a morning jaunt around Kata and Karon with my Camcorder to capture the local scenes, something to take away with me. In Karon I pass a market place, a series of interconnected stalls with canopies overhead covering the entirety of the market and buzzing with local traders and local people.

The afternoon is spent at a bar that I had forgotten about, called Waiting You, a small bar, with a scattering of bargirls in the evening. The thing that attracts me to this place is the adjoining Mauy Thai boxing school and the very obvious boxing ring that sits at the back of the bar, visible also from the street. I order a drink and I ask one of the bargirls when the Thai boxers train in the ring. I am told that they train in the other ring at the back, and that I can have a look if I want. I do, but decide to be cheeky and get rolling with the Camcorder. I am surprised to see that the real action is all in the back with a separate ring and a number of European guys training with the resident Thai boxers. They eye me warily but no objections are raised, which is just as well really as I would not like to be on the receiving end of any of these guys.

I resume my seat at the bar with Bob Marley tracks playing in the background, while one of the bargirls is tearing down decorations from the ceiling of the bar and is precariously balanced on a chair.  I feel uneasy and tell her she will come a cropper the way she is going, before I assist her in removing the remaining decorations, she tells me that it was someone’s birthday party the night before. I am also roped into helping the bar manager decide if her trainee has made a proper Pina Collada.

I stay in Waiting You bar for most of the day as some of the Thai boxers take the main ring at the front, it’s enjoyable to watch over a beer. A couple, that I have been talking to throughout my stay, pop into the bar and we start talking over a few beers. At least until one of the bargirls practically molests his wife. There are also a couple of European guys getting a little frisky with the girl that served me my drink when I initially arrived. Darkness has fallen and people are beginning to change into amorous beasts.

The following morning I go through the daily ritual and begin packing. I have enjoyed my stay here but now I must be off back to the big smoke, Bangkok. I have my last breakfast and go in search of chocolates as a gift to the army of ladies that keep the place running in ship shape and Bristol fashion and for keeping me in clean underwear for two weeks. However, it is not easy finding decent chocolates, but given the high temperatures, it is only to be expected. I do eventually find a shop that stocks some and I load up.

After a final night in Bangkok I fly back to England but I feel that a return visit to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam is inevitable. I have taken a great deal from my journey and still feel like I have only scratched the surface. I will remember the people I encountered along the way. I will miss the sleepy bus journeys through the Isaan provinces, the curious looks from locals and the smiles. I will laugh to myself when I think of the crazy kamikaze style traffic situation in Phnom Penh. I will retain fond memories of Siem Reap, the enchanting temples and the wonderful children that make such an impression. I will never forget Tuol Sleng or Cu Chi. I will remember the young men I conversed with in the street, curious men with a great interest in the west and its exports, mainly football. I will miss the cold showers in Surin and getting ‘pie eyed’ with old men on the streets of Saigon. I will yearn to be on a bus cutting through Cambodia, to see the sugar palms and the stilted homes and the young children playing in the paddies. I will yearn to be on a beach, Bob Marley playing faintly in the background as the waves roll in and crash on the sand. I will yearn to return soon to the beauty, the diversity, the paradox, the mystery, the abundant culture, the cuisine and the wonderful people of South East Asia, there is so much to love.

This year I am trying to arrange travel to North Korea before making my way across China and heading Southeast to Hanoi and onto Saigon. I will cross into Cambodia to see Sihanoukville and Kep and end up eventually in Thailand…it always comes back around to Thailand!

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