Monday, March 9, 2009

Phuket, Thailand

In addition to providing the opportunity to explore the region and enjoy some general downtime, my periodic forays away from KL also give me the chance to renew my visa and to shop at the duty-free stores. As expensive as liquor is here in the city, the option of buying duty-free is always welcomed. For example, a 750-mL bottle of regular Absolut vodka costs around RM125 here in town (roughly US$34). At the duty-free shop, however, a 1-L bottle, which is 33% more vodka, is only RM56 (US$15). By volume, the 1-L bottle in KL would cost about RM167 (US$45), a staggering 300% increase in price over the duty-free shop. It pretty much goes without saying that I’ll never buy imported liquor at any other place outside the airport.

So this time I was off to the island of Phuket, a short hour-long flight from KL. It’s the largest island in Thailand, roughly the size of Singapore and a globally known hotspot for tourism. Phuket lies in the Andaman Sea off Thailand’s southwest coast and was one of many areas devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami. It’s hard to believe that was over four years ago… seems much more recent to me. Malaysia’s immensely popular low-cost airline, Air Asia, had a promotion back in December (I was in Bali at the time) called “Get your Baht to Thailand” (baht is the unit of currency there) and gave away 100,000 free seats and I happened to get one, having to pay only the airport taxes and fees. So it was an incredibly cheap flight, even by SE Asia standards, about US$38 round-trip. Since I had never been to Phuket before (indeed, it was my first time anywhere in Thailand), I chose to stay in a very touristy area. Since it was only a two-night trip, I figured that even if it was not that great a place, I could handle it. So after a bit of researching online, I picked Patong Beach, probably the most-developed beach on the island.

My outbound flight was at the ungodly hour of 7:10 a.m., so I had to be up at around 4 to get a cab to KL Sentral (note the phonetic spelling), the main train station in the city, where I caught the 5 a.m. SkyBus to the airport, a solid hour away. Even at 6 a.m., the airport was completely packed. It was, in fact, the most crowded I’ve ever seen the low-cost terminal. We took off right at sunrise – look at that gorgeous sky – and flew north for an hour and ten minutes and landed in Phuket. Since Thailand is an hour behind Malaysia, despite being directly north, even with the lengthy taxi ride from the airport to my hotel, I was there by 8:30 a.m. I stayed in a guesthouse near the beach and it was really quite nice… the room was huge and had plenty of amenities like a kitchenette with sink, fridge, hot water kettle, microwave, and dishes. There was also a TV and DVD player, a big king-size bed, a nice bathroom, and free Wi-Fi. It ran about US$24 per night, a typical SE Asian bargain for accommodation.

Obviously one of the great delights of any trip to Thailand is the food. Even in landlocked Denver, ten thousand miles from this relatively obscure country, Thai restaurants are popular and easy to find. My first meal there, however, was a footlong Italian sub from Subway. Ha ha… I felt nothing but shame, but I couldn’t help myself. I haven’t had a proper sub sandwich in months and there it was, beckoning me. I redeemed myself by having delicious authentic Thai meals for the rest of the trip, but at that point, I just had to get a hold of a spicy toasted sub. We have Subways here in KL, but not many, and none are especially convenient to where I live. In Patong Beach (a street scene is pictured here), I saw four without even looking for them. Subway is clearly the top U.S. import there – by contrast I saw only one each of Burger King, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and KFC. Here in Malaysia, you can scarcely open your car door without hitting one of those four places. Check out this offering stand for the gods (you'll need to click on the picture to enlarge it)… I guess even a deity benefits from a straw. I thought that was kind of amusing how all the beverages left for the gods had straws.

So here’s the beach. It wasn’t the greatest, but it was nice enough and the water was clean and warm. The only really disgusting thing was the tourists, and I can’t overstate this. It was like a mass of great, pink, hairless walruses had washed up on the beach. Now, we Americans are routinely (and justifiably) derided and mocked by the rest of the world for being fat and slovenly. In fact, I’m told in Europe there are two kinds of “fat” – there’s “fat,” then there’s “American fat.” When I eat out at a place like Chili’s here with my friends, and we’re tucking into burgers and fajitas and a spicy, greasy queso dip, I’m queried, “Is this what food is like in your country?”

When I reply that yes, this is a pretty typical example of American food, the response is, “My god, no wonder Americans are so fat. This is so delicious!” I can’t even pretend to be insulted by this, either, because it’s true. However, there wasn’t an American in sight in Phuket. It was a bunch of fat—and I mean American fat for some of them—Europeans in every direction I looked. I could tell because these bags of blubber were shamelessly shoehorned into the typical Euro-skimpy Speedos (for the men) and bikini-type things (for the women). That is very much a European convention. Go to an American beach and tiny little Speedos for the men are the exception, not the rule, and women generally know better than to put on a bikini if they really can’t work it. Seriously, it was an awful, awful sight to behold. Do I need to paint a picture? Just imagine a 50-something man, about 5’9” and 275 lbs. (that’s 175cm and 125kg for my metric readers) and sunburned, flailing about in a lounge chair, wearing little more than a thong. I almost had to gouge my eyes out. Phuket, I’m told, is an immensely popular destination for Europeans, and indeed, I met people from Germany, the UK, Finland, and the Netherlands in my brief stay. So anyway, following that eyeful of unpleasantness, I vowed no more visits to the beach. It really was that bad and I’ll certainly remember those horror-stricken moments on the beach, surrounded by fat Europeans, the next time anyone has a go at Americans for being so fat. It’s a shame which, clearly, we don’t bear alone.

Since the beach I was at was seriously overrun with umbrellas, lounge chairs, and a hundred pink elephant seals in Speedos, I decided to book a snorkeling trip to some of the offshore islands. If you’ve ever seen the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, you’ve seen some of these islands. They’re spectacular. One small island gained so much exposure and fame from an appearance in an old 007 movie, it’s now actually called “James Bond Island.” The one featured in The Beach is Ko Phi Phi, which I assumed was pronounced “fee fee” until I realized that Phuket is “Poo-ket,” which means this poor island has the most unfortunate name of “Pee Pee Island.” I chose not to go there or to Bond Island because of their incredible popularity. I picked a six-hour tour that went to three islands in the Khai island group, Khai Nai (ky ny... how now, brown cow?), Khai Nui, and Khai Nok. The price was really cheap, only 800 baht, which is roughly US$22. It included round-trip transfers from the hotel, the equipment (mask, snorkel, life jacket), lunch, bottled water, soft drinks, fresh fruits on the beach, and a so-called “English speaking guide” which turned out to be a real stretch of advertising. Our guides were great, though. We got on a big speedboat and left from the marina on Siray Island, which was right off the southeast coast of Phuket (itself an island) and headed across the sea to still more islands. The water at the first island wasn’t that clear since the sand was being churned around by the rough seas.

At the second island, however, we disembarked on the white sandy beach and had lunch (crab salad sandwiches) and fresh fruits, witnessed yet another wanton display of lardtastic tourists roasting their flab on the beach, then went snorkeling in the shallow waters of the Andaman Sea. The water was warm and clear and inundated with thousands of colorful, tropical fishes. About six species seemed to proliferate, including the beautiful lunare wrasse, but every now and then, I’d see an odd larger fish near the rock outcroppings. What struck me, even then, was the total absence of any invertebrates. No corals, no crustaceans, no starfish, no anemones, no urchins… just fish, and oodles of them. I learned quickly that, if I stayed relatively still in the water, they would swarm around me in no time, which was really cool, and if I stayed still much longer, they’d check to see if I was something edible, which was not quite as cool. I picked up a disposable underwater camera in Patong, but the pictures from those cameras are rarely spectacular. Nevertheless, here are a couple of underwater shots. Look, it’s me snorkeling! I also managed to cut my ankle on one of the rocks. Coral cuts can be nasty, since there are many bacteria in the sea with which our bodies are not familiar. This wasn’t a coral, and the lacerations weren’t deep, but it was still pretty painful, particularly on that spot near the ankle bone. Two days later, back in KL, it still hurt, but I’ve been putting antiseptic cream on it and taking a broad-spectrum antibiotic just as a precautionary measure.

We headed on to the third and final island which is where I got some of the best shots (above-water), I think. One in particular really stood out… the clarity of the water, the juxtaposition of the white sand and the craggy, black rocks, the many different shades of blue. There weren’t nearly as many people on this island, so the snorkeling was even more enjoyable. Although the water itself was clear, visibility was limited in the shallowest waters because of turbidity… beyond about two meters, it all became quite hazy and indistinct. Take a look at this picture, and though the water is what really takes center stage, note the swelling clouds overhead. About two minutes before our scheduled departure time, our guide indicated that it was time to go… now. A quick look to the east drove the point home: a massive thunderstorm was approaching and even as we hastily boarded the speedboat, we watched the storm consume the small island just to our east. One minute it was there, the next, it was lost from view, obliterated by the sheets of rain connecting the vast cloud to the sea below. So we took off, speeding across the water, propelled by twin 200-HP V6 engines at wide-open throttle. And the storm gave chase… it was thrilling and brought back clear memories of racing across Mobile Bay as a young boy, riding in a boat driven by my dad as a ferocious thunderstorm enveloped us. We were a bit more fortunate this time: We had fled Khai Nok island in just the nick of time. As we sped across the warm Andaman Sea, the small island we had just left was lashed by the heavy rain, disappearing before our eyes. We were outrunning the storm, but only just. We got back to the harbor of Siray Island and disembarked. Literally seconds after I got in the van and closed the door, the squall front hit the marina with amazing force. Chairs and umbrellas and debris were scattered and the people on the docks turned away from the sudden burst of wind as everything in its path was sandblasted. Everyone in our party got in the van, wiping their eyes, and we set off for the long ride back to the west coast of Phuket. Before we even crossed the short bridge connecting Siray Island to Phuket, the first bands of rain hit. Not too many times in my life have I seen such torrential rain. It came in spectacular driving sheets; a true tropical thunderstorm. From my seat, I watched the scenes unfold as they paraded past my window: bicyclists and motorcyclists braving the storm, great rivers of water gushing off roofs, people setting out huge buckets and drums to collect the rainwater, dogs huddling under overhangs. We crept along and after awhile, the rain subsided. By the time I was dropped off at my guesthouse in Patong Beach, the rain had almost completely stopped.

And those are really the highlights of Phuket. The food was great and the snorkeling was really fun. I got a little sunburned on my shoulders and neck, but not bad at all. I was once again reminded of how connected to the ocean I am. Maybe it’s because I was born under a water sign (Pisces) or maybe it’s because I was born and raised near the sea, but I always feel very “at home” when I’m near the water. Odd that I wound up living in Colorado, isn’t it? I’m reminded of that old Little River Band song, “Cool Change” with the lyrics, “I was born in the sign of water, and it’s there that I feel my best. The albatross and the whales, they are my brothers.” Some of the lines in that song could almost be an anthem for so many of our lives... talking about how our lives seem pre-arranged and how refreshing change can be (paraphrased, of course).

Back in KL, an enormous amount of heavy rain for a few hours on Tuesday afternoon caused some pretty serious localized flooding in the city. As a result, the normally 20-minute ride home from KL Sentral took nearly three hours. These are a couple of shots from the local press. It was a muddy mess, but had all drained off by later that night, leaving a bunch of soaked cars behind. And that’s about all… I’ll close it out with the photos and try to write again soon!

Also, for those of you old enough to remember the song I mentioned, I've included a nice video of dolphins and whales swimming and jumping in the open ocean set to the song. Enjoy!