Sometime between leaving Ko Phi Phi and arriving in Phuket Town, I became suddenly and violently ill. I stumbled off the boat after holding back a reservoir of vomit for 2 hours, and ran to the bushes to open the spill gate. Disoriented and too nauseous to research a destination, I decided to just follow people from the ferry. Almost everyone was going to a place called Patong Beach. I'd never heard of it, but it must be decent if it was so popular, right? All I needed at this point was an air conditioned room with a bed and a toilet.
I got on an 'ordinary bus' from Phuket Town to Patong. It cost about 20 baht and turned into a school bus halfway through the trip, slowly filling far beyond maximum capacity with kids in lavender and khaki uniforms. They were hanging out the door, piling up in the stairwells, sitting on each other's laps in the aisle, all while screaming and laughing and shoving more kids into the tiniest gaps. The bus was so full it could barely make it up the numerous hills on the way to the opposite coast, sometimes slowing to a near standstill as the diesel engine labored and belched an unhealthy black smoke. Mopeds and pickup trucks flew past us, honking, while a few kids jumped off the bus and ran to the top of the hill to wait for their ride to catch up. When we hit the beach, I squeezed off the rattling, overheated vehicle and fumbled my backpack to the nearest discount guesthouse.
I won't go into the gory details of the following 48 hours - all I'm going to say is that they were spent writhing face-down in bed and making frequent unpleasant trips to the bathroom. When I emerged from that diseased lair, I was surprised to find that Phuket's reputation had preceded itself. My less-than-sunny disposition was compounded by the fact that the island turned out to be a nightmare of corporate tourism. If high season was just kicking off on Ko Phi Phi, it was already in full swing on Phuket. I doubt there had been a low season in at least a decade.
Patong Beach - you can't tell where one Speedo ends and another begins. It's an undulating sea of umbrellas and human flesh, punctuated by hawkers, peddlers, and garbage. It's a game for these people to chuck beer cans and cigarette butts into the ocean. "Ugh, I'm done with this but I don't WANNA walk over to the trash can." I'm not exactly an environmental activist, but come on. Do I have to explain to you why flicking your cigarette butt into a marine sanctuary is a bad idea? There's no driftwood here, but driftplastic - bottles, styrofoam ice chests, fishing nets, and a confetti of multicolored plastic chips litter the beach like gardening mulch. Three decades ago, I bet this landscape was pretty close to flawless. In three more, it'll be a theme park.
The streets in Patong boast an intense palate of odors. In the span of three blocks you could be assaulted with raw sewage, two-stroke engine exhaust, leaking propane, electric ozone due to shoddy wiring, rotting fish behind the seafood market, smoke from distant agricultural fires, vomit, carrion, stray animal feces, and delicious street food. You could give directions based on the smells alone: "Go right at the shit, head straight through the puke, and then hang a left at the gas leak. It should be somewhere between the piss and the hot garbage, but if you hit roadkill, you've gone too far."
A big challenge is framing gawking tourists out of photographs. I'll come across a great vista, but there's an overweight European in a Speedo blocking the shot. A monkey drops down from the canopy and is bombarded with camera flashes, girls screeching, and locals slowly shaking their heads. The curve of this beach would make a great photo, but some idiot left his bag of Doritos in the sand and a 65 year old woman is busy oiling up her loose, leathery skin a bit further down.
I had to get out of Patong as soon as I was feeling better, so I rented a motorbike and drove around the island. There were some nice places, particularly in the south, but I was still hounded by an unfitting sense of commercialism. When they put up a Starbucks, a McDonalds, and a Pizza Hut between a shanty town and a sewage drainage ditch, something is wrong. Priorities seemed completely backwards - a street would have dozens of empty billboards with what could have been tens of thousands of dollars in unpurchased ad space, but a restaurant right below them still has dirt floors.
I had one redeeming night in Patong, the night before I left. The streets were thumping with cheap dance music and I made my way towards the beach where people were buying and setting loose hundreds of sky lanterns. These bamboo and rice paper balloons lift off the ground and gently soar into the air when a small candle is lit at the base. The sky was filled with these miniature hot air balloons for hours. Many got blown into trees or fell onto street tents, causing small fires up and down the main drag. Nobody really seemed to notice or care.
On my one night out, feeling more or less 100%, there was an impressive amount of live music being performed on this stretch of beach. At least a dozen music stages were set up, each featuring its own group of bands and genre of music. You have to give credit to the Thais for knowing how to throw a party. Most of the performers were traditional Thai dance teams, singer-songwriter types playing acoustic guitars, or cheesy synth cover bands butchering the lyrics of classic songs. But one stage was blasting the loudest, shreddingest death metal I've heard in a long time. Their audience was abysmal, but I stuck around, partially out of solidarity with my fellow metal brethren, and partially because death grunts in Thai were hilarious.
When their set wrapped up, I approached the band and introduced myself. They were super friendly, and seemed happy to have someone backstage who actually appreciated metal. I was a welcome break from the tourists in Hawaiian shirts walking by, mock-headbanging, making fun of their music before waddling off to the karaoke-style hacks further down. In a moment of shameless self-promotion, I handed the audio tech my iPod and told him this was my music. Without hesitating, he shrugged and unplugged whatever background tunes they had playing between sets and popped my iPod up on the monitors. He played three or four of my songs on the main stage speakers, volume cranked, while the next band set up. We stumbled through language barriers talking about music, our favorite bands, and what the metal scene was like in Southeast Asia. At one point, I offered to buy the band a round of drinks, only to be informed that none of them drink or smoke. I ended up hanging out with them backstage for two or three hours, a bunch of really cool guys. I left them with a copy of my CD and got a few photos before I headed back to my guesthouse for the night.
It was a good night in a strange place, but tomorrow I was getting off this non-island in search of mellower climes.