Phuket, This Place is Weird

A tour of Thailand’s tourist-infested underbelly

Photo by Surawitch Atsaradorn via Pexels

The first thing that the Lonely Planet writes about Phuket, an island off the west coast of Thailand, is a friendly reminder that it is pronounced Pooket, not Fukit. The longer I stay here, though, the more Fukit seems appropriate. This island is a huge f*ck it to Thai culture, the environment and women. The peak awfulness of mass tourism.

I came here to study Muay Thai, or Thai kick-boxing, for three months, as part of a book project. I’ve rented a flat on Airbnb, a beautiful little room in the centre of the island, in a leafy condominium with a pool about half a kilometre long. Seriously, the pool runs the entire length of two of the buildings. I wake up in the morning, look out of the window and see a glistening blue street down below, lined with trees, and behind it all rolling hills covered in jungle. I spend my time in between classes writing out by the pool, swimming, or beach-hopping on my motorbike.

So of course, I’m not gonna say I hate Phuket, because it is impossible to dislike somewhere so sugar-coated. It’s just that the longer I’m here, the more sickly sweet it appears. It’s not that I don’t like it — it’s too easy to like, too plastic, like a boob job. Even if they look perfect, you know it’s all fake, and they feel like shit.

The first thing that bothers me is just how built up it all is. Phuket is a pretty big island — something that, even though I am from Britain, I struggle to get my head around. It seems like the sea should be everywhere, but it isn’t. What is everywhere, though, are high rise condominiums. Aside from a few hills, still covered in jungle, the entire island is covered in concrete. Especially next to the beaches.

One of the most famous spots on the island is Patong, a place where “you can find anything, if you are willing to pay for it.” “What happens in Patong stays in Patong” wink wink nudge nudge. It’s a muddle of bars, strip clubs, massage parlours, clubs, restaurants and malls. You could be anywhere in the world, but you can still leave with a Thailand t-shirt, tell people you had an authentic Thai massage and maybe leave out the bit about the happy-ending. All of this is steps away from a stunning beach. White people buy stuff and get hammered, get sunburnt and then get rubbed down with coconut oil. It’s frankly weird, and not without its absurd comedy.

And in every bar, prostitutes wait for clients, and strolling down the streets, temporary couples of older men and young Thai women. It must be weird for Thai girls growing up in a place like this. Their entire sexuality is being defined for them by white guys making an industry out of their mid-life crisis and their Asian fetishes.

At one point, I find a beautiful beach, hidden down a path in the jungle, and there in the water are half a dozen such partnerships. I’m nosy, let’s call it an occupational hazard of being a journalist, so I can’t help but watch them interact. It’s uncomfortable, and somehow sad. On the one hand, here we are at the intersection of racism and sexism, the powers at play are painfully visible. The women are serviable, attentive. They aren’t economically free to do what they want. They live in a world in which non-white women are exoticised, and women from non-western countries treated like a commodity, a natural resource of the land from which they come, exploited by outsiders. On the other hand, the men carry with them an intense sort of loneliness. They try laughing around with their partners, try to create some kind of intimacy, but it can never truly work. You can tell, as you people watch, that it isn’t just about the sex. It isn’t. It’s about the human touch and the empathy. Things men have been taught not to want or need. And so they end up taking them from women secretly, without any recognition.

I don’t want to get into a debate about prostitution in general, but I would like to say that Prostitution could have been one of the only occasions where the emotional labour of women actually gets recognised — it always goes invisible at home and at the office. The client and the seller are acutely aware that what is being provided is more than just sex. Thing is, they are the only ones.

I had always avoided Thailand, because the stories I heard about it always involved ping-pong ball shows or copious amounts of drugs (“dude I emerged out of the forest three days later covered in war paint holding a monkey and I have no idea what happened”). It seemed like the sort of summit of neo-colonialism. In Phuket, I find that I wasn’t wrong — although of course, there are plenty of places in Thailand that aren’t so touristy, and that are still filled with the rich Thai culture. Still, I’m glad to have seen this particular absurd side of the world. After all, travelling isn’t just about the places you love, it’s also about the places that make you think wtf, stare wide-eyed, and know that you will never quite be able to describe your experience to anyone once you get home.

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