Notes from Paradise

 | Fri 29 Nov 2013 14:52 ICT

Walking alone, along Bangla Road, Patong Beach, at something close to three in the afternoon, the first hour of a holiday in Phuket:

The bars are half-full with the previous night’s now ludicrously drunk drunks. There’s a slightly unstable carnival atmosphere. Bangla Circus: where the acts spill into the audience. Sober people walk up and down the road watched by the funny exotic animals, roadside attractions inside their Happy Bars. Some of the performers paint their grave faces, readying themselves for another night on the tiles, making money, getting by. If they’re lucky in the morning they’ll hobble home on scuffed high-heels with some cash to send back to a poor bastard and his gran in Issan. Thailand’s burlesque holiday paradise, ageless under neon lights – will it ever get old?

I enjoy it, on a short time basis of course. I’m more of a spectator these days than I am a tourist. You can only be new once; innocence is a one-off deal, but it feels good to be back in an X-rated reality. I can understand Philip Roth’s character Sabbath when he says:

For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can’t beat the nasty side of existence.”

It’s not all that nasty, but there’s an element of immorality to it all: the good stuff that ignites the imagination. I could write poems from a bar stool for an entire month… if it weren’t so expensive.

I brought Baudelaire with me, a fitting companion:

And yet, among the beasts and creatures all—
Panther, snake, scorpion, jackal, ape, hound, hawk—
Monsters that crawl, and shriek, and grunt, and squawk,
In our vice-filled menagerie’s caterwaul…

The cops look crooked, corruption prevails… hearts are torn to pieces, wallets that took a month to fill are emptied in minutes, there’s always a hustle, and fights break out by the hour as you’d expect when drunken men have less than reliable time-shares on their artificial darlings.

“…plucked her eyebrows on her way, shaved her legs and then he was a she, I said hey babe, take a walk on the wild side…”

I was in search of a packet of Ritalin – I’d heard from a self-diagnosed ADHD friend that it was quasi-legally available at most pharmacies in Patong, and I’ve always wanted to experiment with it as a novel writing adjuvant. No joy. It seems regulations have changed since my friend was in Patong a few months ago. Crime is capricious in Phuket. Solly, no sell… If you’re up to no good in Thailand, don’t speak Thai.

As I walk back empty-handed to my hotel, a man with a strong scouse accent leans over the edge of a packed bar. He’s a huge muscular guy of about 40 (but he looks 50) and he shakes my hand vigorously. He’s obviously extremely high on MDMA, and very happy.

Gurning, grinning, he says to me, “‘ave a fuhking greit dei maeit.”

He doesn’t want to let go of my hand. He probably raved in the 90s and is experiencing forgotten elation. In 2013, almost anything is possible in Phuket.

I’m still smiling when further down the street another Caucasian man of about 35 with sun-bleached hair and sun-damaged skin, who could have been a surfer before he started drinking seriously, attempts to crawl along the pavement but keeps collapsing onto his stomach, a skinny beached sea creature almost dead out of water. I consider helping him, but then I think he’s just part of the extreme process, the circus… you can’t take it too seriously.

When in Thailand’s most dissolute hotspots, I’m always reminded of this passage in Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night wherein he describes European soldiers freed of their usual constraints, lost in the tropics:

“…we saw, rising to the surface, the terrifying nature of white men, exasperated, freed from constraint, absolutely unbuttoned, their true nature, same as in the war. That tropical steam bath called forth the instincts as August breeds toads and snakes on the fissured walls of prisons. In the European cold, under gray, puritanical northern skies, we seldom get to see our brothers’ festering cruelty except in times of carnage, but when roused by the foul fevers of the tropics, their rottenness rises to the surface. That’s when the frantic unbuttoning sets in, when filth triumphs and covers us entirely. It’s a biological confession. Once work and cold weather cease to constrain us, once they relax their grip, the white man shows you the same spectacle as a beautiful beach when the tide goes out: the truth, fetid pools, crabs, carrion, and turds.”

I know that’s very cynical, but there’s some truth in the assertion that a tropical steam-bath does seem to have a quota of how many white men it drives to self-destruction. Better to burn out… than do the washing-up?

Phuket, or rather Patong, is going through something of an identity crisis of late. The shameless circus has a relatively tame sideshow, and in comparison to the frantic unbuttoned western man escaping quotidian bores, the new tourists seem rather tepid and restrained. They can be seen dodging trucks and stepping over the shadows of giant cranes, overtly ignoring locals with goods to sell. They walk in straight lines, in their hot pants and floral dresses, and don’t ever seem to seep into the nefarious crevices where the old-style geezers are filling their guts with beer and praising the past when you could fuck for the equivalent of five British pounds. I’m talking about the Chinese and Russian tourists. The nouveau riche from those predominantly poor countries seem to be on a different trip altogether.

Hedonism, decadence, is, from what I observe, a western thing in Phuket, while the new consumerism is more branded. New money buys goods – not girls, booze, drugs.

On the streets around Patong, malls are being erected, as are (more) expensive hotels. The streets are caked in mud and full of potholes, the nascent outline of a congested, branded future. I listen to complaints from locals about the new tourists, street workers not keen on the Russians and Chinese, whose spending power offers scant alliance to their homemade trades.

“I don’t like Russians,” says a girl working at a bar I’m having a beer at.

“Why?” I ask.

“They use the toilet, but don’t pay the 10 baht or buy a drink.”

People talk about a crisis looming for the island of Phuket. Congestion, corruption, over-development, ecological catastrophe… One man’s progress is another man’s poison.

If you read Thai web forums you’ll hear Phuket expats use the appellation ‘Murder Island’… I was buying a kebab on the street next to the Muay Thai complex when a man with a southern English accent started angrily ranting to me.

“This place is finished, mate. All they fucking want is your money. Saw an argument the other night… tuk-tuk drivers… there’s two of ‘em, one fucking puts an axe in the other’s ‘ead… a fucking axe over a few baht.”

He’s right about high tensions. The money, the very huge sums of money Phuket makes, is not exactly being evenly distributed. The scramble for cash is sometimes a little fractious, hysterical. But the tourists just want their fun in the sun; they’ve paid for Thai smiles, and so they resent locals banging on about money.

How much smiling can you expect from a minimum wage earner in Phuket, forever playing desperate host to the demands of so often belligerent tourists who seem to see look right through him?

Owners of bars, clubs, and restaurants have stated in the press that they just can’t afford to pay the huge under the table payments to the scores of government agencies and mafia. And not paying is not an option. That’s why a beer on Bangla can cost up to 300 baht a bottle

An excerpt from a novella I wrote for the literary journal EastLit. Patong Beach 2011:

The streets bundled drunken sun-burnt tourists from one bright light to the next, balls tightly packed into a tired pinball machine bouncing off touts, prostitutes, and farmer’s daughters who had been packed off to what they thought was the end of the world by desperate elders, with a 3rd class one-way bus ticket to sell cigarette lighters that talked and flashed. Cripples crawled around under the feet of over-indulgent tourists who were unable to differentiate a show from a catastrophe. Russian girls drifted casually, disdainfully, in-between the football jerseys of proud-to-be-English almost-alcoholic men who had come to Thailand to fuck and ultimately fall in sloppy love with girls that liked to say the word ‘love’ but had never experienced anything more than cold survival. They were born losers in the game they played, the survival of the poorest. There were lurid scenes of exploitation and manipulation in every bar, though in the guise of something benign. Poverty and wealth, hustling in the streets, the needy and greedy fighting for notes and travellers checks with as much tenacity as dogs dig holes in the ground where they sense bones. But people came in hordes from all over the world, like martyrs on a pilgrimage to worship a filthy stinking shrine, giving themselves, their money, to the photo-shopped images of smiling Thais who found these foreigners arrantly repellent, but also frustratingly indispensable.

I am having a great time, me, on my holiday. But I’m aware that people are driven by necessity out of their hometowns (you’ll find the majority dream of returning to the countryside) to work in Phuket doing things they’d rather not do, like swallow a stranger’s sperm, or wai all day long to people who resist recognizing their autonomy. That’s just the reality of the developing world, I guess. Tough shit, the spoils, and the progress is not for all, I guess. We can always fantasize about a happy ending.

I’m sure, however, that there are plenty of happy, content, fulfilled people in Phuket. People who are enjoying their jobs, their lives. I think I met some of them. My fiction above is exaggerated, bombastic, but I wrote it to serve a point, which was to address the daily dogfight for cash in Phuket, but also the mentality of tourists who tend to treat locals like slaves, or duty-bound artificial intelligence. Locals, whose culture and identity, whose well-known hospitality and grace, has been packaged and sold to tourists who’ve been promised a virtual Sybaris by invisible suits and PR departments driven only by fiscal objectives.

It remains to be seen how long the lowly will exude their flaunted grace under pressure.

Grace under pressure: I think Earnest Hemmingway’s three moving words will be particularly resonant as Phuket, and Thailand in general, heads into an uncompromising future devilled by a widening distribution of wealth.

Rolling around in the ocean on Kamala Beach, watching the sunset, riding around hills on a hired scooter: yes, it is a fantastic island, even if it has contracted the tropical malady. I love the place, and what I like most is the feeling of being lost, finding something still pretty much untouched, the little bits of undeveloped beach from where you watch the ebb and flow of nature not demarcated by jet-ski operators.

Is anything sacred?

When you over-sell and over-do, what is natural becomes artificial, and therefore loses its real value. When that happens, at some point the system crashes, just as economies do when they are artificial. When nature, or culture, when space itself, is sold out, its destiny is almost certainly disaster. Let’s hope the short-term profiteers of Thailand’s natural wonders are always circumscribed and watched by those with a social and ecological conscience.

As my return flight takes off, bound for Chiang Mai, I pick up the free AirAsia magazine. On the back page there’s a glossy full page advertisement for King Power.

Feel the wondrous touch with the very first step at King Power. You chose to shop world class brands at our boutiques, be epicurious. Enjoy the wonderful Thai culture and masterfully crafted Thai gifts and let the very Thai hospitality embrace you at King Power. We give you the experience complete with the endless and refined splendor.

My first thought is of a professional nature: maybe a drunken copy writer (goes with the job I suppose) raided a fridge full of stale adjectives and puked them up in the morning along with bits of prepositions and chunks of nouns.

What was the meaning, or hidden meaning, of this ad?

The mish-mash of words says a lot about the consumer climate, it says it’s mindless. The fact that Epicurean philosophy has been hijacked by brand consumerism is proof enough of the idiocy of advertising. Epicurus must be spinning in his modest grave.

Nonsense is the language of the new consumer paradise. Pretty, empty adjectives. Words themselves have been sold out by the engineers of public relations, and so it’s hard to say something like you mean it, even when you mean it.

I’ve experienced Thai hospitality. I’ve been treated by the wealthy, and been fed by kind hosts who don’t have the money to feed themselves half the time. The checkered King Power enterprise exploits this better part of culture to sell its products. It’s putting Thai culture up for sale, and yet the people who constitute this culture are hardly in on the deal. The community spirit, I think, is alive in Thailand, and that I greatly appreciate. The commoditization of this spirit, especially seeing as it pays no dividends to the community, will in the end defile it. This is one reason why old expats lament the passing of time. The best things in Thailand are still free, but paradise, it seems, must be sold at any cost. Something, at least, has to be given back to the people whose virtues, or cultural identity, have been sold down the river.

Protestors this week hold up placards in Bangkok accusing certain politicians of kai-chat (?) – sell the country, or sell out the country. Who exactly do they have in mind, and what part of the country are they referring to? It seems to me that a lot of people want in on the great Thailand For Sale scheme. Economic progress that widens gaps, expands societal fractures, and deepens critical fissures where unhappiness is concerned, or in Aristotelian terms, prohibits people the freedom to ‘flourish’, is not progress, but regress, or at best stasis. Phuket is a glaring example.

However… yes, I did have a ‘nice’ holiday. 


James Austin Farrell