WE TOOK THE 12:30 longboat on a blisteringly hot afternoon to Koh Yao Noi off the eastern coast of Phuket. Our bags sat haphazardly among the cargo in the hold with the other passengers—island locals, an international school group, a spattering of backpackers. They sat two-by-two on worn teakwood benches alongside shipments of water, rice, and mail, looking forward like sweaty nuns in service. Outside on the bow, the sun burned like a giant piercing beacon as islands burst forth from the sea like limestone giants.
We had come in search of solitude, authenticity, raw adventure—something to assuage the relentless commercialism we had experienced for weeks on the Phuket mainland. Well here it was, man—a sojourn into a remote island community only now being touched by development and western influence.
For five days we drove motor scooters around the island, dodged lazy dogs in the roadway, explored desolate beaches hidden down muddy jungle trails, and experienced laid-back island life in a place that still gripped its own raw, gritty authenticity like a vice. In short, we basked.
And then it was over. After a short boat ride and a taxi cab, we found ourselves back in western Phuket in all of its crass, colorful, immersive, and alarming splendor.
ON AN ISLAND already overburdened by a crushing number of tourists, Patong is Phuket's de facto capital of tourism. Just a few decades ago, Patong was a raw and comparatively sleepy seaside town complete with rice paddies, dirt roads, and an economy built on tin mining and rubber. The wise and wizened backpackers of old who stumbled on this place kept the secret close to their chests.
Today, many of Phuket's 3 million visitors a year come to Patong en masse for its bright beaches, clear waters, copious resorts, and, for some, the much-covered and fretted-over sex trade. This is no longer a quaint island village. Tourism has eclipsed the area's natural resource industries by degrees. The rice paddies have been paved over. Tin mining is finished. Tourism rules supreme. And it is barely-controlled mayhem.
When we arrive in Patong, the heat is somehow, impossibly, even more immense. We are perpetually sun-kissed here, sweating, busily assailed on all sides by touts hawking sunglasses, Thai massages, seafood, custom tailored suits, skin-eating fish, and live acts involving ping-pong balls that I can't describe in a respectable forum. The air is thick with moisture and the scent of burning trash.
On the beach, our white plastic chairs are arranged in rows along with countless others as far as the eye can see. Foreigners with skin the color of chalk furtively dip their toes into the Andaman Sea while their headphone-wearing children laconically sip the milk of whole coconuts. I watch in wonder as a Thai national attempts to wrap a henna tribal tattoo around the massive arm of a corpulent Russian in a bikini, her folds bursting forth as she lay there expressing mild disinterest.
From under the relentless tropical sun parades a near-endless and specialized breed of Beach Touts swaddled from head to toe in protective hats and scarves like extras from a post-apocalyptic film:
"You want smoothie? Massage? Sunglasses?"
After a while, the onslaught becomes so routine, so persistent, that you begin to wonder if maybe you DO want a scarf, after all. Maybe you have been thinking about getting a new pair of cheap knockoff sunglasses despite the fact that at this very moment you are wearing a perfectly good pair of prescription sunglasses of your own.
Behind us, the tourists that brave Patong's notorious Bangla Road wrestle with touts of a different sort. It's all lights, action, elbow-to-elbow crowds, children selling trinkets with their sad eyes, and calls for sex shows, tuk-tuks, dinner you don't want, and 50-cent beers that come with a much steeper price in the "girly bars" you buy them in. Multinational families push their stroller-bound children past wildly-gyrating balcony dancers and signs screaming "Live F**cking Show!" in bold letters. You wonder what travel agency advised them to do this.
THE FRIGHTENING THING about Thailand, and especially Patong, is that as a westerner you start thinking of the Thai baht as fake money. The exchange rate here is so vast, so severe, and the U.S. buying power so strong, that you begin throwing dollars like seed to the lawn. A hundred baht here, a hundred baht there. What does it mean? But much like Las Vegas, it gets you in the excess; it traps you in a cycle of spending in small increments that you are not even aware of until the third time it repeats. Then you check your bank account, and only then does it become apparent that you have, indeed, been nickeled and dimed to death.
Evidence submitted: we saddled up to a bar on Bangla Road to watch a local cover band sling workable versions of classic western rock like "Jump," "Livin' on a Prayer," and, inexplicably, "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor." All the bands here on Bangla Road are playing some variation of the same set list, a thing seemingly designed to algorithmically suss out the real tip-winners from the duds.
We had come here to continue an ill-advised drinking session that had begun some hours earlier with a dinner of seafood and noodles accompanied by a pitcher of beer at the local night market. The beer here—the ubiquitous Chang, Tiger, and Leo—was advertised at 50 baht apiece (about $1.50 USD).
"Hey, check out that guy!" I yelled to my companion. The drum kit's subwoofer destroyed any notion of conversation at an acceptable level. A farang of about 60 with short, thinning white hair and a careless beard danced alone and with abandon. A spattering of drunk tourists and Thai bar girls milled around him, listlessly swaying to their own beat.
She considered him for a minute.
“I bet he’s the founding owner of some forgotten early web giant," she said. "He cashed out his earnings when the bubble burst and he moved to Patong. He lives modestly but comfortably. Doesn’t have to work.”
"What company?" I asked.
I thought about it. "No. Altavista."
"Yes," she said. "And now he spends his days dancing in Patong clubs where no one knows him."
It wasn't unreasonable. This is a cheap place to hide.
The overwhelming kick drum was starting to get to me. I checked my wallet. At some point at this bar we had managed to spend 20 American dollars in Thai baht. I didn't feel like we had spent 20 American dollars' worth of cheap beer. I also didn't feel like I had been pickpocketed. But the money had, apparently, been spent, a casualty of the niggling tendency here to consistently buy low and tip high.
So we did what any self-respecting traveler does when it's time to leave the bar in Patong: we packed up and made our way across the teeming street to the next bar. The sign there said confidently, in simple terms and with not much further fanfare, "Hip Hop Music." And there, the drinks continued to flow into the hot, dark night.
WHEN YOU'RE BOPPING around a new country for a month or so, you tend to pick up the language enough to get along at a basic level. The amount to which you do so depends on your own particular degree of conscientiousness. If you possess a deep-seated sense of cultural courtesy or just a good old-fashioned dollop of western guilt, you take the time to learn the language. Hopefully, you arrive in-country with a handful of key phrases and niceties at your disposal.
In that vein, I present a general use, basement-level crash course in Thai pleasantries (bereft of gender modifiers):
Thank you: kahp-KOON
How are you?: sah-bye-DEE-mye
No, for the last time, I don't want a tuk-tuk tour: Mye. Mye mye mye.
Please remove the lizard from my shoulder... OK, fine, I'll get a picture: Mye... (sigh) chye. How much?
You know you're probably butchering it all, but at least you're making the effort, which is more than many of the other farangs do. They come to Patong to get drunk, get laid, take advantage of the women and kathoeys, aid and abet the abuse of elephants, and generally leave the place in a worse way than they found it.
Any principle of cultural or urban LNT on the part of the common visitor here has seemingly disappeared long ago. The gap has been filled with a vicious cycle of crime, poverty, environmental degradation, cultural concession, and conveniently-overlooked municipal regulations in the name of tourism. Bars and resorts proliferate and encroach on public beach land. The sale of counterfeit goods abound, and the sex trade is openly displayed on the streets. Public utilities groan under the weight of tourism's demands. The local police force is overextended, and it asks the public for its assistance.
While there are many, many good people here, to be sure, there are also just as many waiting to dip their hands into your fat, arguably-naive western pockets or press their own children into begging on the streets just to survive.
OUTSIDE THE GUESTHOUSE window, the streets have come alive with the clatter of the city. The day's sun emerged hours ago. Our heads are pounding. I check my wallet. The money is gone.
I lay my head back on my pillow, gingerly, and look over at my companion. She looks back.
What have we done? We ask it of each other without making a sound. We're referring to the hangovers, but it sags with the weight of moral dilemma.
There are visions of jostling crowds, louder music, street chicken kabobs, buying cheap trinkets from child beggars, more geriatric dancers, generous tips, the gifting of souvenir flowers to a French boy with long hair. And we realize, despite our disdain of the sex trade, of elephant rides, of fancy high-rises with western drinks at western prices and of beaches filled with bored, entitled tourists, that we may not be any better than anyone else. We have fed the tourism machine of Patong just as headily as any other, and we have done nothing to balance the scales in return.
That night, we witness one of the most beautiful sunsets of our lives as the sun drops hot and red below the sea's horizon. Many of the day's visitors have gone home, and the beach is nearly empty. Behind us, Bangla Road has yet to fully awaken. Twenty feet away, a Cambodian child plays on the seawall, his parents looking on as a light breeze dances across the sand. For a moment, I'm reminded of the beaches of Koh Yao Noi. I wonder if Patong might have resembled it, not so long ago.
Back in our guesthouse, I find a Polaroid photo on the dresser from the night before. We are standing arm-in-arm in a bar, sweaty and smiling. The memory rushes back: we had fallen prey to a tout with an instant camera promising photos for $2 USD. I had dropped $10 while reaching for change, and the tout had grabbed it. My companion had seen it but said nothing. It wasn't worth the risk posed in a town known for touchy, tourist-weary security people prone to violence.
I mean, after all, it's all fake money here.