After a smooth but sleepless journey, I finally arrived at my guesthouse at Kata Beach, Phuket at mid-day on Thursday 16th April. The climate is stifling. It is hot (in the high 30’s) and extremely humid, exacerbated by occasional afternoon rain. I know many people who hate this type of weather, but I love it. It makes me feel alive. I love walking around and feeling the sweat rolling down my chest and back, watching beads of sweat breaking out on my arms. If you don’t like it the only way to avoid it is to stay inside in air-conditioning. But not me.
The first thing I did after unpacking and showering was jump into shorts and singlet, and start walking to acquaint myself with my current home away from home. I walked along Kata Beach and back along the main road. I ate spicy seafood soup whilst sipping an ice cold Singha, promptly followed by another one, at an outdoor restaurant. Weather like this always makes me crave ice cold beer. I walked the streets, looked at the different stalls and shops (most selling the same stuff) and yes, I sweated it out.
My guesthouse, Southern Fried Rice, is located on a side street off Kata Road just near Kata Night Bazaar, a night spot with many bars and not so good music. The Bazaar really comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights when they pump out the music, including a bit of Johnny Cash. Fortunately the noise isn’t too bad for my room and I can sleep through it.
It was only yesterday that I realised my new home away from home is in an area that is a little on the seedy side. One of the dive guys mentioned something in passing which confused me so I decided to open my eyes a bit more when walking around. That’s when I saw it. Dragon Bar, on the corner had a billboard above it of a scantily clad female bending over, oh and there just so happens to be dancing poles on each of the bars. Maybe there is also a special reason they have left all of the bar stools wrapped in glad wrap. How did I not see this before? I just wasn’t looking for it. I suspect this is not the only bar like this around here (I just haven’t gone looking).
Phuket is quiet, really quiet by Phuket standards. I noticed it on my first night. Most of the restaurants and bars seem to be empty. This is odd, because low season doesn’t officially start until 1st May and there still should be people around finishing their Easter vacation. Walking into Karon beach yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice how many shops were void of potential customers. I chatted to the Kashmiri owner of the Asian Arts shop. He told me it had been unusually quiet for 6 weeks already and that the economic crisis and the Bangkok riots were affecting business. Terje, the Norwegian owner of Southern Fried Rice, confirmed the effect of the riots when he told me he had already had a few cancellations from Australians due to arrive this week.
There may be a need for people to reconsider their need to travel to Bangkok but not here. It is so far away from the trouble and life is relatively peaceful. I say relatively, because Terje told me a story about an altercation between a couple of American lads and a tuk tuk driver which ended up in the tuk tuk driver smashing the scooter with a bar. Unfortunately they had rented it from Terje. With the tourist downturn, the tuk tuk drivers are fighting for fares.
I had considered renting a scooter myself but last night I saw a westerner hit by a Hilux , the typical 4WD ute drive here. He was riding his motorbike (minus helmet and only in shorts, t shirt and flip flops) on the main street of Kata when he was hit and flung onto the bitumen. There he lay, lifeless. I thought he was dead until I saw him convulse a couple of times. A huge crowd was gathered around and noone really seemed to be doing anything, not checking him or comforting him. I saw a policeman drive past when I was 5 minutes walk up the road, this was some 15 minutes after the accident occurred. It was a horrible thing to see and it left me feeling nauseated to my core. What if that was me? I have since vowed never to ride a scooter here.
I’m doing my best to support the local economy and especially Terje. He is very friendly and extremely helpful. He even drove me to look at Phuket Muay Thai camp today so I wouldn’t have to pay the taxi fare. Southern Fried Rice’s location does not subject it to walk-by tourist trade. Access to the Night Bazaar is from the main road. There are few people staying here now and even fewer eating in the restaurant. I am eating here when I can. The food is good and many of the restaurants in this area seem to be much the same.
So what am I up to I hear you ask. Apart from slowing down, enjoying breakfast, enjoying coffee from my Italian barrista (yes I found decent coffee and it’s not Starbucks), enjoying reading on the beach, swimming in pounding surf, chatting to the local shop keepers and watching gorgeous sunsets, I have started to make plans, for next week anyway.
I met with Rene, the owner of Sea Fun divers this morning to discuss courses. Sea Fun operate out of Le Meridien and Kathathani resorts, both of which are way out of budget as accommodation options for this trip. I was lucky to dive with them when I stayed at Le Meridien on a work conference back in August 2007. I was really impressed with the operation. It’s not the cheapest way to dive Thailand but my experience is you get what you pay for. The premium you pay gets you a low instructor to student ratio and a better quality experience. Rene spent a good hour chatting to me and gave me his mobile number in case I have any emergencies or need help while I am here. I’ve also had regular communication with Lisa, another employee, before I came here. They are so helpful and happy to spend the time required to make sure I am comfortable with everything. I am starting my Rescue Diver and Emergency First Response course with them on Tuesday and then all going well and I feel it is the right next step, I will complete my Dive Master course as well. Depending on how much time I dedicate each week, the courses will probably take me between 3 weeks and 2 months to complete.
I am also shopping around for a Muay Thai gym. I’ve checked out two so far. One that is two minutes down the road from me, but the Romper Stomper and Rastafarian looking guys intimidated me. The other one is Phuket Muay Thai, about 3 kilometres from Kata beach set on the side of a hill of Patak Road with beautiful sea breezes. I chatted to a guy from Perth about his training experience there. He had trained at another couple of places in Thailand and suggested that whilst this one was good for conditioning, it was not good for learning technique mainly because the instructors English is limited. I want to learn technique. He suggested Naiharn Boxing club, which is new and owned by a westerner. I’m going to check it out on Monday (boxing gyms are closed on Sundays, day of rest for students and teachers).
So for now, I’ve got a whole two days of rest and relaxation ahead of me before I get stuck into the exciting stuff. Whilst I can’t wait to get into the diving courses, I don’t mind having this time to myself. One of my initial fears was about being lonely and whilst it’s too early to feel lonely yet, I am quickly learning that even when I am miles from home there will be people around to help and support me (Terje, Rene and Lisa are good examples of this).