Phuket is Thailand's biggest island but it felt more like a hyperactive, self-contained city. What I first noticed was the many motorcycles and mopeds. We drove in a taxi towards the Asperry Hotel in Patong and posts on the sides of the roads, backgrounded by green hills in the distance, were filled with posters advertising a barrage of local events. When I arrived at the hotel I was impressed considering the price I paid: for just under $US40 (Dh150) a night I managed to get myself a spacious, modern room with a king-size bed and a balcony.
Most of the people I saw on Phuket were European, Arab or Israeli. I would have liked for there to be more locals but Phuket is a place where foreign tourists go to mingle with other foreign tourists and middle-aged men go to meet young Thai women. I walked along Thawiwong Road which was filled with shops selling shoes, T-shirts, jewellery, fabrics, bags and art. Some Thais were holding monkeys and snakes and luring tourists to take pictures with the animals on their shoulders. The sounds of live music from bars and nightclubs saturated the air along with noisy chatting from inside. I passed bar after bar walking along the crowded pavement. The smell of urine was overwhelming. I finally arrived at the Sabay Beach Restaurant where I was able to enjoy shrimp curry for less than $4 (Dh15) before a magnificent beach view.
Even though Patong lacked any sense of authenticity in terms of culture, it is party town and if that's what you're looking for you'll not be disappointed. I met a few Brits that night who said they were in town on business. One of them was a guy my age who left England to open a bar on one of Patong's main roads, Bang La Road. I also met members of a Filipino band that plays at Molly Malone's: an Irish pub located at the east side of the main road. They were extremely nice and invited me back to their friend's place for a birthday party where I sampled delicious home-cooked Filipino dishes. The lady who cooked the meal owned the flat and to my surprise spoke Arabic without an accent. She had lived in Saudi Arabia. I finally called it a day around 8am and headed back to the hotel in a motorcycle taxi. Later that day I visited the main beach a block away from the hotel. It suited my style more than those in Brazil because I could lie down and relax without the crowds. I followed up my beach trip with a painful two-hour Thai massage where almost every bone in my body was cracked.
That evening I headed out to Thawiwong Road again and met a pair of South Africans and three Australians. One of the South African women worked in Thailand as an English teacher and had lived there for three years. Her friend was visiting her from London. The two Australians were sales reps living in Sydney and taking their annual leave in Phuket. I started to realise that the majority of tourists in Phuket were not backpackers but rather people taking a week or so off work. I found few hostels in Patong and I presume this is the reason why there weren't as many backpackers around. I did not get back to the hotel until 8am again. When I did, I put on my swimming trunks for a tour to Phi Phi Island,which was made famous as the setting of the film The Beach.
As we approached by speedboat I was struck by the island's mountainous rocks reaching skyward. I did feel, however, that the beach's scenery was partially destroyed by the number of tourists visiting it. There must have been over 300 people standing on the shore when we arrived and I was reminded of the old films showing immigrants moving to New York and coming to Ellis Island where crowds stood, watched and waited.
I ventured to the other side of the island, which was quieter, and climbed a ladder to reach the top of a cliff that viewed the ocean. As I walked back I overheard some Emiratis speaking. One of them was trying to take a snapshot of his friends. I approached him and offered, in Arabic, to take a picture of all of them. They looked a bit surprised that I could speak Arabic. I find it amusing how most Middle Easterners can't tell that I'm an Arab.
We got back on the boat and started our approach to Ao Ling (Monkey Bay). Our boat stopped near one of the area's small cliffs where we were told to grab bananas from the tour guides and feed them to the numerous monkeys climbing the rocks. All the tourists gathered along the boat's edge to feed the monkeys and I felt, somehow, that our roles had been reversed so that we were becoming an attraction to the monkeys. The people pushed and shoved to get near the monkeys which, comparatively, seemed to be civilised spectators, watching us in disgust. We stopped again to snorkel at Lho Sa mah Bay and Pi Leh Cove, followed by lunch at Leamtong Beach before heading back to Phuket.
I was extremely tired due to the lack of sleep the night before and so I headed straight to bed at the hotel for a good five hours. But since it was my final night I decided to venture out to explore Patong further and walked to Bang La Road where all the excitement seemed to be. The place was very touristy and, once again, I passed a number of Middle Easterners as I strolled along the road, which was packed with people and closed to traffic.
The area seemed to be the Soho of Patong, an assortment of bars and restaurants jammed together, their names presented in neon lights. All of the lights and noise had a dizzying effect and so I left after bidding a final farewell to my Filipino and Australian friends. The following day I would catch a flight to Chiang Mai where I would be joined by my sister Jomana. Next week: Omar reports from northern Thailand