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    Monday, November 05, 2007

    Big pimpin', spendin' cheese



    Simply put, Phuket is a pimp. With no real goods to sell, the town hawks itself in harsh neons and worthless merchandise. Everywhere you walk, hands poke at you from makeshift storefronts. Voices implore you to do one of three things: buy a suit, ride a tuk-tuk (an open-air taxi), or get a massage. The women at the massage parlors loom out front in groups, and rise up en masse when a white man walks by. They'll all call out to you in a voice they imagine is coquettish, elongating the word "maaah-saaah-zheeee-eeee" into four squeaky syllables. They do it so much that the word and the tone both seem meaningless to them now. After a day or two in Phuket, (pronounced poo-ket) it started to sound meaningless to me. What was being implied, of course, was that back-rubs were code for sex or at least happy endings. But it was offered so casually and so indiscriminately, it had all the value of a souvenir T-shirt.

    Unknowingly, Evan and I stayed on Patong Beach, by far the most touristy and overrun strip of Phuket. It was a self-contained three streets that stretched down the length of the island, with dead-end alleyways bisecting the top street. Walking along them gave me the impression of a gauntlet, and worse, there was no destination worth heading toward. This was a resort with little besides the beach to offer, outside of overpriced (by Thai standards, anyway) restaurants and Western-style bars clogged with fat Australians. Even the one cultural activity, Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, was advertised with a screaming PA system and two men fighting on top of a van. It was unsubtle and in-your-face, fitting in perfectly with the Phuket ethos.

    The most depressing part of the island were the bars though. They were everywhere you went and mostly interchangeable. Throbbing American basslines would blare through the speakers; isolated TVs would broadcast the latest soccer match. Inside and hovering around the entrances were Thai girls in skimpy, Day-Glo outfits. The younger version of the massage parlor, it had the same implications in play. These girls though were often young to a point of discomfort, to a point of legality. And yet in each establishment, there were always some ugly sixty-year-old man nursing a Singha and chatting up his waitress. If you lingered long enough, you could see her drawing closer and his hands moving more freely. By ten o'clock, the streets would be full of these men walking back to their hotels, arm-in-arm with sad, willowy girls half their size and a quarter their age. (Phuket, being an equal-opportunity opportunist, also had a surprising number of karaoke bars, massage parlors, and dance clubs that catered to old Western men with a preference for boys or even ladyboys.)

    Still, that's not to say there weren't some pleasant aspects to this stop on our tour. For one, the off-season prices were cheap enough for us to get a hotel instead of a hostel. It was pretty amazing to have a nice place to relax versus, say, the fourteen-bed room in Singapore or the hose-and-bucket shower in the shared bathroom in Kuala Lumpur. Our balcony offered a pretty magnificent view of a orange-roofed village and lushly verdant hills, proving that, aerially at least, Phuket could be a stunning place. We also had access to a huge pool and an omelette bar at breakfast, not your typical backpacker accoutrements. The beach itself was also lovely with white sands and a warm, baby-blue Pacific. Still, in predictable fashion, a steady supply of vendors bothered you every three minutes with offers of sarongs, fried skewers, sliced mangoes or energy drinks.

    After three semi-fun days, we decided to cut our time in Phuket short and changed our flight. I was also getting nervous because there'd just been two earthquakes in Indonesia. That was the same catalyst that set off the massive Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which devastated a large part of Phuket and went on to kill over 225,000 people in eleven countries. The damage from that disaster was largely unseen in Thailand by 2007, but ubiquitous signs still pointed the way to a tsunami evacuation route. Luckily, our flight out to Bangkok turned out to be fine. Two days later however, when we were originally slated to leave, a plane crashed at the Phuket airport. The rough weather was blamed and ninety people, most of them foreigners, were killed. Suddenly, once again, Phuket took on a new gravity, a fatalism that's the antithesis of everything it otherwise stands for. At its core, Phuket is engineered to be frivolous and escapist, libindal and gluttonous, where even the unloved can purchase affection and every night you can party for a price.

    * MP3: "Big Pimpin'" - Jay-Z ft. UGK from Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter [Buy it]

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