Amore Del Tropico
Arriving at Thailand’s Phuket airport bleary eyed and weary limbed after a nine hour economy flight from Sydney, we were relieved by the timely appearance of our hotel’s private taxicab pulling up in front of the arrivals hall. As it happens, we could just as easily have walked to the Phuket Airport Hotel, which turned out to be as close to the terminal as its name would suggest. Unfussily checked in by the friendly night porter, we found our garden-facing room clean and functional, if a little stark, save for a smiling Buddha painting adorning the wall above the bed. As an overnight stop off ahead of our journey to Ko Phi Phi Island the following morning, it appeared to tick all the boxes.
Our only mission for what little remained of the evening was to source a decent meal, Jetstar airline’s in-flight food service having stretched little further than a bag of overly salted pretzels. Conscious that the surrounding Thalang district’s finer eating establishments were most likely contained within the gated walls of its myriad private resorts, we weren’t sure what to expect of the local neighbourhood’s dining scene. But with our daydreams of Thailand auguring a tropical paradise and the pristine beaches of south east Australia still burning bright in our memories, the dimly lit and grimy street we encountered as we stepped gingerly out through the hotel’s front gates was most certainly not it.
At first, with a festering hunger propelling us on, we chose not to let our unease deter us as we trotted down what appeared to be a main highway. But our pulses were soon set racing by three quickfire encounters with local wildlife that perhaps only David Attenborough would have been unruffled by.
First there was the whopping great cockroach that scuttled out of the shadows less than a metre in front of us; then there was the elephantine snail that had somehow ensconced itself in the road’s central reservation and would have surely entered into a sticky and crunchy argument with my foot if I’d caught sight of it a moment later; and then there was the pack of scrawny dogs that burst out alarmingly from behind a set of overspilling metal dustbins and eyed us up and down with the same drooling fervor that they would usually reserve for a fresh bowl of mushed up horsemeat.
In addition to this menagerie of gruesome tropical beasties, there were cars that hurtled past at such breakneck speed that there would have been little hope for any hapless pedestrian tourist unwittingly stepping out into the road to avoid treading on a giant mollusk. There were the roadside outlets that, while seemingly operating under the guise of public restaurants, were so dark and dingy that even the most experienced traveler would have given them a wide berth. And while the locals we encountered on our wanderings – eating, selling, chatting, laughing - were not in the least bit threatening towards us, the fact that we couldn’t understand a word they were saying did not exactly help to make the scene feel any less alien.
What all of this boiled down to, of course, was a classic case of culture shock, exacerbated no doubt by heavy jetlag and loudly rumbling tummies. A month further into our trip and we’d be taking on streets like that with little more than a shrug of the shoulders, but so far outside of our comfort zone did the environs appear to us at the time that we feared - if not for our lives - then certainly for the continued purity of our underpants.
Respite, to our shame, arrived in the unlikely form of a branch of Tesco. Amid the rundown restaurants and shabby street stalls, the sight of this gleaming icon of British retail, unmistakable with its white and red facade, was not a little incongruous. But just as we’d sought refuge in the familiar (if enfeebling) comforts of McDonalds when we first arrived in a similarly overwhelming Morocco three years ago, so Tesco promised us a modicum of homeliness in this strange and fearful land.
Not that this Tesco bore much resemblance to the UK’s sloganeering hypermarkets, its interior, as we discovered, decidedly rough around the edges and Heinz baked beans nowhere in sight. But it was here that we purchased the first of what would become many large bottles of purified water on our South East Asia adventure, and they at least provided a much needed dose of rehydration.
Back out on the road, we resolved to continue walking for a little longer, even though the only eatery approaching a realistic contender for dinner was Subway – and after Tesco that just felt like too much of a cheat. But a couple of minutes later, we suddenly found salvation in the brash neon lights and Disneyland Wild West stylings of The Mango Saloon, a bar-cum-restaurant that has no doubt rescued many a weary traveller in its time. Welcomed by a typically cordial waitress, we were seated in front of a giant screen showing English Premier League football highlights, which for me is about as good as it gets. A Pad Thai and pint of Chang lager later and we felt sufficiently relaxed and refreshed that the journey back to our hotel – even with mosquitoes buzzing excitedly around our inviting bodies - felt entirely achievable.
After all that night’s exertions, I would have put money on us having the most blissful, uninterrupted sleep of ours lives. However, I hadn’t banked on being awoken repeatedly by the incessant buzz of our hotel room’s fridge freezer, which we later discovered was a near-ubiquitous amenity in Asia’s mid-range hotels. After more than an hour of futile swearing into my pillow, I decided to take evasive action and switched the bloody thing off at the socket. This had seemed like a perfectly sensible idea at 3am, but unfortunately my semi-functional brain had failed to account for the freezer section, well, melting without power. Cue a frantic pre-breakfast floor mopping session the next morning - and a lot more swearing.
Thankfully, our first 24 hours in Asia proved to be something of an aberration in the grand scheme of our tour, and a forceful reminder that you should never judge by first impressions. It also taught us straightaway that only a few hundred meters outside the sanitized luxury of Phuket’s tourist resorts (the walls of which some holidaymakers choose never to leave during their visits here) there is still something of real Thailand to be experienced, in all its ramshackle glory.
Post-mopping, our second day continued with a simple breakfast of toast and marmalade with coffee in our hotel’s garden courtyard, from where we were collected by the private car we’d booked to take us to the Ao Po Grand Marina. The journey was our first chance to experience our new surroundings in daylight, though the frequent blasts of tropical rain did their damnedest to obscure the view from the car window.
Away from Thalang, the landscape was thick with greenery, the vast tracts of tropical vegetation interrupted only by the occasional roadside hut or stilt-supported house. Rocketing by in leather-seated comfort, our fascination was matched only by our guilt at witnessing first-hand a simplicity of living that made the opulence of our own experience appear ridiculous. But we knew too the importance of tourism’s contribution to the economy, even if the money we would spend here would likely contribute little towards improving the lives of Thailand’s most impoverished.
Before we could get too introspective about the morality of our trip, however, we were swept away by the sparkling gleam of the Andaman Sea as a high-speed ferry carried us away from Phuket to the self-proclaimed tropical paradise of outlying Koh Phi Phi Island.
With an intensive month of sightseeing across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam ahead of us, we’d always planned to spend the first week of our Asia adventure firmly in holiday mode, and to that brief the Outrigger resort at Koh Phi Phi did not fail to deliver. Our first sighting of the island from the upper deck of the boat was every bit as cinematic as you would hope from a place that had outshone Leonado di Caprio in the Andaman set Danny Boyle movie The Beach. Hemmed with a glittering white sand shoreline, and with towering coconut trees completing the holiday brochure look, Koh Phi Phi appeared to be the realisation of Desert Island Discs listeners’ imaginings, and for us provided the scene for our trip’s most relaxing days.
But first we had to navigate the small matter of actually getting onto the island. It transpired that the waters, even some half a mile out from the beach, were unusually shallow, so our boat wasn’t able to go any further than the spot where it had unexpectedly anchored. After spinning gracefully in tranquil waters for some fifteen minutes, a somewhat more primitive longboat moored alongside us to transport the passengers in batches to another point about thirty feet from the shore. Our final mode of transference resembled nothing less than a tractor towing a metal cart, onto which we were graciously loaded and dragged onto the purest beach I’d ever seen.
Now I must say at this point that resorts are not typically our thing. My idea of holiday hell is spending a week by one of those fading Mediterranean beach hotels where pasty Brits go to get fried and a thousand families try to outwit each other at musical deck chairs and towel swap. Thankfully, the two resorts where we stayed in Thailand, while still unashamedly engineered for Western tourists, did at least maintain some degree of connection to local culture and styles.
Outrigger’s accommodation, for example, consisted of a series of wooden bungalows, raised off the ground with stilts and roofed with a thatch-like weave. The simple interiors nevertheless provided all the creature comforts one could reasonably hope for, and the front terrace, complete with tables and sun loungers, was ideal for mid-afternoon snoozing and reading.
Around the resort, the elegantly manicured gardens and lush tropical walkways provided a tastefully augmented version of real Thailand. With a beach reserved exclusively for the resort’s guests, a mercifully uncrowded pool area, and a fine selection of beachside bars and restaurants serving enormous cocktails in hollowed coconuts and first rate Thai and western food, our relaxation needs were met in every way.
Our stay’s highlight came in the form of a pair of Thai massages, the first massage of any kind I’d ever actually paid for, prudish Brit that I am. With such glorious surroundings and hours to idle away each afternoon, it was a case of “Why the hell not?”
The spa was set high up on the hillside overlooking the resort and as we ascended the wooden staircase that snaked up to its entrance, we were greeted by wafts of ambient music and the scent of burning incense. So far, so hippy. Warmly welcomed by a pair of immaculately dressed local women, we were invited to sit and sip on green tea as we waited to be summoned to the massage rooms. The views from the reception area’s vantage point were worth the trip alone, but we’d barely had time to soak them in before we found ourselves being led to a private parlour where we were promptly requested to strip down to our underwear.
From that point on, nervous giggling proved hard to subdue. Garments duly removed, we were invited to lie face down on a couple of tables, each complete with a cushioned hole through which our heads were to be placed before the massages began. The first surprise was the bowl of floating flowers that met my eyes as I pressed my face through the requisite void. The second was the realization that my masseuse was crawling up my back with her elbows, a sensation that brought to mind nothing less than being mangled by a combine harvester.
And so the treatment continued, with all manner of kneading, scrunching and slapping taking the place of what I had traditionally imagined of a massage. Wondering if Holly was being similarly re-sculpted on the adjacent table – for my position meant I couldn’t see a thing that was happening, bar the slow motion of the flowers shimmering in their bowl – I thought about calling out to ask her, but feared this might set off a full-on fit of the giggles.
An hour later, and it was all over. Intermittently relaxing, but largely painful, I emerged grateful to have had the experience, if not for the aftereffects on my joints and bones. I also felt a little cheated when comparing notes with Holly afterwards, for it appeared that her masseuse had gone the extra mile and thrown in to her treatment a free hair restyling, complete with dexterous plats and a frangipani. Surely they could have done something equally inventive with my beard?
Our three days on Ko Phi Phi were every inch the halcyon escape we’d hoped for, with radiant sunshine and balmy evenings completing the tropical dream. But ever eager to experience something new, we spent our fifth day in Thailand travelling back to Phuket, where we’d booked a further three night stay at a slightly more offbeat resort in Thalang.
Where Outrigger felt authentically rustic, Indigo Pearl was as architected as a stately home. Wildly contrasting with the surrounding shoreline, yet oddly at ease with its rainforest backdrop, the resort had the feel of a steampunk storybook with metal, concrete and rainbow glass converging to dizzying effect. It was a design that carried through from the alien chandeliers in its reception, through its walkways and swimming pools, to the minutest details of its rooms and restaurants. All the cutlery used there, for example, was part of a stylized set that took cues from a workman’s spanner, while the bedrooms’ wall-mirrors resembled the rusting decor of an ancient ocean liner.
It was fortunate that the architecture carried so much interest, for the days we spent there coincided with a particularly dismal patch of weather, repeated thunderstorms scuppering any hope of an afternoon sunbathing on the local beach. But one evening did at least allow for a stroll down to the seafront, where one of the most spectacularly violent sunsets I’ve ever witnessed left me as awestruck as my first wide-eyed wanderings through Indigo Pearl’s otherworldly interiors.
Much as we enjoyed our time in Phuket, we never let go of the thought that these resorts were bubbles, cut off spatially and culturally from the land and people around them. Emerging refreshed from our week of massages and cocktails, fine food and long sleeps, we looked forward to reacquainting ourselves with the more palpable Thailand of our first night. Which was just as well, because if any place was going to test our burgeoning love of Asia, Bangkok was surely going to be it.