DAY 3 - Monday 29th June 2009 - Patong Perils

Phuket is the largest island in Thailand and is invariably home Patong, widely considered one of the country’s most infamous cities, for myriad reasons.

And only Bangkok eclipses Patong in terms of abject seediness.

The entire population of Phuket Island is estimated at 313,000 habitants, consisting of varying ethnic origins, and is mostly comprised of Thai peoples who have migrated to the Island from the mainland. However, it is thought that this population doubles throughout peak season, from November until May, with thousands more folks flooding Phuket with the (often profitable) intention of hoaxing countless gullible tourists from Europe, Japan, Australia and America, also adding to the swollen populace.

The vast majority of these sightseers from abroad head for Patong.

It is therefore unsurprising that Patong happens to be my current place of residence.

Rooftops of Patong

It was now mid-morning, and while Nick was confidently strolling across the buzzing, cracked, concrete roads, seemingly unaware of the surging tide of traffic which came to a screeching halt to allow him to pass, I was gasping from the humidity and squealing with terror, darting from pavement to pavement, wavering uncertainly and attempting to spot a gap in the masses of motorbikes, tuk tuk taxi-vans, lorries, and, to a lesser extent, cars, which constantly rumbled past.

During my taxi ride the night before, I had dutifully noted my driver using the left side of the motorway, and his right-handed motor. I had nodded with approval. They were doing it the proper way, I thought pompously.

I was deceived. Here, road laws are non-existent. Drivers seem to use whichever side of the road they want, drive at whatever speed they want, and generally drive however and whatever the hell they want.

Stray dogs roam the streets of Patong - this is as close as I willing to get.

It was insanity. I spotted two sets of traffic lights that day, one of which was simply flashing red, so everyone ignored it. Another functioning traffic light was overlooked just as thoroughly, if not more so. Cars are rarely seen, being an unnecessarily expensive (and needlessly safer) form of transport. Instead, most people were zipping about on infernal scooter-motorbike-things, often with two passengers, who apparently are not required by law to wear helmets; vans were parked in the middle of roads; tuk tuks swerved around cars, determined to deliver their passengers at break-neck speed (literally) and lorries boomed down lanes daring anybody to overtake them. Faded Zebra Crossings seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever. Vehicles mowed past, no matter the road-markings. Speed cameras?! I laugh hysterically at the very thought.

Traffic chaos

If there is one word which best describes Patong, it is overwhelming.

Resembling the ultimate tourist with my stripy shirt, pale legs, oversized sunglasses and trusty slash-proof bum-bag, as we walked around Patong, the blend of smells sounds and sights is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. Spicy aromas seeped from hundreds of restaurants, the pungent stench of fish and scents of lamb and chicken steaks roasting on spits permeated the air, emanating from market stalls, and the acrid odour of filth rose from the sewers. People clamoured and swarmed and jostled in the streets and roads; beautiful and elderly Thai women; nasal Australian tourists; loud Americans; old Thai men, young Thai men: some minded their own business, others sat and seemed to be doing nothing at all, while natives most screamed at Nick and I to take notice of their offers: throngs of men proffered taxi rides (“Sir, sir, you need taxi? I give you taxi!”), woman in white robes whined their proposals of a Thai massage (“Herroo sir, welcome, Thai massaaage?”), and middle-aged gentleman insisted upon their possession of Hugo Boss suits which they would quite happily sell to me for a discount price. (“Make it Armani and we have a deal”, I spat irritably at one, after growing disillusioned with my polite Thai declinations.) Nick would just ignore them, something I am beginning to grow accustomed to, with my frequent pangs of guilt growing fainter by the hour. Colours clashed everywhere; in signs, gaudy decorations and neon signs. Everywhere, Western culture collided violently with Asian: Burger Kings, Starbucks and KFC sat on every corner, while street vendors set up their stalls outside.

The Ultimate Tourist

It was a world so far removed from the one I am used to.

Thankfully, due to our visit during the low season, Nick and I were not quite as besieged by traders as we could have been. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of people was overwhelming.

Forget organised chaos. It was simply pure chaos. And it was wonderful.

After a quick Thai curry lunch in the local shopping mall, where all of my table manners were blown to smithereens after collapsing and relenting to eat with a fork and a spoon, Nick led the way to Sunrise Divers, who would be my scuba tutors for the rest of the week.

Oddly, petrol is sold by the bottle

The evening was certainly a first. Meeting some fellow Sunrise Divers members: Rory, an outrageous Scotsman and Jean, a slick dude from France, they offered us a lift and to join us for dinner. Nick enthusiastically agreed, as did I, satisfied to be offered a mode of transport which wasn’t waddling around in flip-flops. My face promptly fell in horror as they zoomed around the corner, straddling the motorbike-scooter-things I was so terrified of even touching, let alone riding. I queasily clambered onto the back, gripped the safety bar under the seat at the rear, and was treated to one of the most petrifying journeys in my life. Rory was about as adept at controlling his vehicle as the Thai drivers. After we had arrived and my fingers had been pried from the bar, I crumbled into a heap a floor, trembling and gibbering, my appetite considerably diminished.

Drinks in a bar followed, and were just as memorable. Sadly in Thailand, anything imported, such as wine, costs the earth, so the cheapest alcohol available is beer. Beer on the best of days tastes as though it has been distilled from sulphur, but the “Tiger” beer I choked down could have been shark bile. Much of this time was spent watching Rory decimate Jean at the pool table, and swatting away a pretty Thai bargirl who drank her weight’s worth in cocktails, yelled and danced and attempted to communicate in a unintelligible fusion of Thai and broken English, proceeded to drape herself over every man in site, even me, and ended her night by curling up to sleep on the pool table.

Nick sighed and expressed his distaste for the situation while I busied myself with wiping the stream from my glasses.

Dubbing it an unforgettable day, and a day worthy of a blog entry, would be a slight understatement.

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