I recently returned from a trip to Thailand. It was a ‘necessary evil’, c/o the Indonesian immigration authorities who impose a maximum stay of six months in the country – according to current, but ever-changing, visa regulations.
There I was, a few months ago, cognizant of my upcoming ‘forced’ albeit temporary exile, furiously searching the list of destinations on Air Asia’s website, for the closest, quickest and cheapest round-trip. Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Perth were among the options, but in the end, I stumbled upon a deal to Phuket.
Yes, Phuket (pronounced Pooh-ket), a dream vacation destination for millions of people around the globe, eager to explore the resort city’s beaches, off-shore islands, diving sites – and some of Thailand’s seedier sides.
Whereas tourists descend in droves on Phuket, spending as long as they can, my intention was to get in and out as fast as possible, ideally a same-day or overnight stay. I don’t mean to sound spoiled or ungrateful, but I just wanted to get this particular visa-run out of the way.
Alas, the shortest round-trip possible – according to Air Asia’s scheduling (or maketing?) people – was to hang around for a day and a half. I resolved to make the best of it… even half-heartedly fantasizing about the prospect of emerald waters, bejewelled beaches and lazy reading by a pool. In my dreams…
Arriving in the late afternoon, I shared a cab into town (yes, town.. not the beach!) where I spotted curiously-named office and store signs, and the first of countless 7-11 convenience stores. Ah yes, the ubiquitous and iconic image of the Land of Smiles.
I found my way to an isolated, high-powered, eerily quiet gated community where I located a modest, single-floor, gated bungalow (looking much like the others), a.k.a. Joe’s house. Not quite the authentic Thai-living experience I had in mind. But an interesting experience nonetheless…
No Thai cuisine was in sight or served for dinner; instead, I was offered a peanut butter and jam sandwich on white bread. Yes, in Thailand, land of pad thai, papaya salad, tom yum soup and other mouth-watering delicacies.
Early the next morning, I made a beeline for the post office in Old Phuket Town; I needed to ship off a package that would have been prohibitively expensive to mail from Bali. Off I went, offloading my pressing errand and lightening my load for the rest of the day.
Shortly after leaving the post office, the skies clouded over and the showers began. But of course: it’s rainy season in Phuket! I stopped for a bite of Hainanese Chicken Rice (truly finger-licking good), then wandered about getting soaked, despite being sheltered by the umbrella that I carry everywhere.
Reluctantly, I slipped into what looked like an indoor mall, passed countless stalls selling gawdy clothing, make-up, hair extensions and fast food, and spied a cinema box office. Only one movie was playing in its original English version: Spiderman. In 3-D. Not much choice, so I paid for a ticket and lay back.
And it was here, of all places, in the middle of an overly-air-conditioned theater showing an American movie that a short film and message flickered across the screen instead of the trailers I was expecting, reminding viewers of their duty to pay homage to the King – even though his Majesty was nowhere to be seen.
What’s the protocol, I wondered: Was I supposed to stand and salute? Place my hand over my heart and lower my head? Bow down in deference to the larger-than-life image of HRH on the screen? It was too dark to see if anyone else had risen, so I just stayed put. Old habits die hard: The King of Siam is still popular, publicly revered and very much treated like royalty.
When I left the theater and mall, my hopes of seeing sunshine were quickly dashed when the sights and sounds of pouring rain greeted me instead. It let up for a few minutes, long enough to pick up a Thai snack and head back to Joe’s, where we talked and watched junky TV – American reality shows, fed by satellite.
By four-thirty the next morning, I was in a cab heading back to the airport for my return flight.
Maybe it was the relentless rain, or feeling marooned in a western-style housing complex – or my reluctance to leave Bali at all. Whatever the reason, Phuket is almost certainly off my bucket list.