Phuket

My neighbor - young, lean and hard with a pleasing face - wore a yellow T-shirt with the royal insignia on sleeve and chest. He was visiting Phuket to audit a hotel for his investment bank. I asked if the yellow T-shirt was for his king. He said, yes, cautiously. I pointed to the king’s picture in the glossy special edition of Bangkok Times and said he has a good man’s face. Still cautious, he said disconnectedly that it is nothing compared to what he has done, helping the poor in the villages for decades. I glanced down: my casual shirt was, coincidentally, a pale yellow. I am wearing yellow too, I exclaimed. Thank you, he said, beaming, reassured that I wouldn’t speak lightly of his king. Our talk stayed centered on the king. He has heart trouble now and cannot work like before, he said, and I sensed a genuine catch in his throat.

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From the air, Bangkok looked a flat plain from horizon to horizon, its wealth showing in stilted expressways and tall buildings that stuck out at us from the plains. From the fringe of the city, rectangular watery aquaculture patches ran for miles up to the sea, not a square meter wasted. Over the Gulf of Thailand we went, crossed a narrow strip of land, and soon dropped below clouds over a completely different terrain by the Andaman Sea: Phuket is a mass of gentle hills, packed together, completely green - many heads with thick curly green hair. The sea, brilliant at noon, pushed into the island forming small and large bays; the land boundary turned and curled abruptly in the stretches that I saw from the air. The spectacle equaled its reputation.

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Thais do not raise their voice. Faces drop or turn away in quick response to a frown. They are a healthy, gentle people. The visible economy in Phuket is tourism, with capacity built to take the influx of the high season that lasts from November to March. Now in June, the monsoons have arrived, it is hot still, and taxi drivers, tour operators, masseurs, restaurants, hawkers, small-shops, are all touting aggressively to squeeze some business out of the low season; but they do not push beyond a couple of attempts.

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We were there to run the marathon, so we could walk only a little, needing to conserve ourselves. We spent the one day we got after the marathon buying sundry things and in the evening, against the pronouncement of the guidebook that Patong is debased, hopeless, we went there on the recommendation of the young lady at our travel desk. She assured us that Patong has good shopping. The hilly drive from our beach hotel to Patong in the South was a fine experience. We came down a hill to Kamla Beach, on which many fishermen perished in the tsunami. In the town by the beach tourists did not wake up from deep sleep following Christmas revelry of the night before; high waves took them up and away. Now they have many signs identifying evacuation points in the event the tsunami returns. The pain and shock have gone. Our driver asked how many we lost in India. We all lost, he said. Then he was excited at the wave of tourists arriving from India, a major new source. He had seen on television that planeloads of Indian tourists are arriving on direct flights into Bangkok. He had read somewhere that Indian businessmen living in England and America are buying Phuket property. He appeared comfortable with the news.

We were glad we came to Patong. It was only drizzling when we got off the car, so we could walk a little on the long promenade by the beach. On the sidewalks, Indian touts pestered us with garments, tuk-tuk drivers gave no peace; but it was far more exciting than Phuket Town. When rain struck we hurried back to the main street with its open-bars and cafes. Tourist couples sat in them; single male tourists sat with Thai girls. A man stood in the rain on the street and waitresses called him in; he made conspiratorial signs that said he was with someone who would join him soon. We didn’t find the kind of place I wanted: a place with live jazz. In the Thai restaurant we went wet and dripping into, they had a giant screen for football. Switzerland were defeating Togo who had superb attack but no finish. The Westerners and the young Japanese who moderately filled the place all cheered Switzerland and gasped together whenever that favorite was challenged at the goal. Our hearts were bound to Togo.

When we walked back to our taxi, the open-air bars had turned raunchy and the atmosphere of early evening had gone. A drunk tourist danced with a couple of waitresses; he wore no clothes above his waist. Pretty young women with hard faces and vacant eyes sat in small groups on high stools in the open bars. A young tourist walked with an exceptionally beautiful and boldly attired girl, sharing an umbrella, wearing simultaneously the flushed look of one on a first date and the furtive embarrassed look of one in an illicit venture.

Our taxi was gone too, we called and the driver asked us to wait ten minutes. Right there a foreigner in an SUV knocked down a foreign biker. The biker was gaunt and wore a polythene raincoat. The SUV driver was large, middle-aged and paunchy. He got off and tried to light a cigarette. Massage girls holding placards with massage written on them and on the back of their orange T-shirts gathered to stare interestedly from their foyer. A concerned but expressionless policeman started to guide two-way traffic on the single available lane. Time passed and the SUV driver had still not lit his cigarette, which hung from his mouth in the drizzle. They wouldn’t talk to each other; they didn’t make any move; no conclusion was apparent even in the end. Finally, the situation not changing, the SUV-driver got back into his car; the biker picked up his bike, distraught and wet through his transparent raincoat, all his attire clinging to him. The SUV sped past the bike and neither looked at the other, nor at the policeman who stood with his back to them.