Phuket, Thailand

Before I begin, I’d like to address the difference in photo quality in these next few posts. In an unfortunate turn of events, I lost six thousand photos (everything I took while abroad) at the greedy hands of a software malfunction. The photos included in my Southeast Asian posts from here on out are taken from my Instagram, Snapchat, or travel companions.

While Bangkok was a dusty bustle trailing in its complex history and soaked in its own grieving, Phuket presents an entirely different dichotomy of vibrant nightlife and stunning beaches. Our itinerary for this half of the trip was much emptier than it was the past four days— this was the break portion of spring break. Shacking up in a cramped hostel room with a constant flow of other young travelers, we hopped across the street to the beach as quickly as we could.

IMG_0294Growing up in California has fostered an intense love of the sea in me, and sprawling out by the warm and slow Indian Ocean with a book of Singaporean poetry was just as pleasant as pouncing into the Pacific and climbing rocks in the Atlantic. The ocean has a certain irresistible quality— it is assertive and indulgent, purifying and piercing. Patong Beach is covered in enormous umbrellas carefully watched by many hoping to sell shade and smoothies, who will joke and barter with you until they realize you really aren’t buying anything, and slide off muttering English obscenities. The beachfront is a perfect example of the two-sided nature of Phuket, with idyllic natural views juxtaposed with the desperately eager atmosphere of selling.

Everything is a transaction here; friendly conversation is the foreplay for deal-making. Suspended in the vibrant, beachy colors of Phuket, we learned to perfect our refusals of overpriced drinks and knockoff sunglasses. Bartering is at once an assessment and an exchange; it’s a first impression, a means with which one is judged. Did we pass the test? I’d say barely.

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Photo courtesy of Jacob Levy

Our main planned excursion in Phuket was a visit to the Elephant Sanctuary, which we planned months before after hearing of the brutal treatment of elephants in the region. Baby elephants undergo a process called Phajaan, “the crush,” which cruelly conditions them to allow humans to ride them. Their mahouts (trainers) are forced to use violent methods and overwork their animals because of increasing demand and precarious financial situations. Though there were some communication issues with the sanctuary, we were ecstatic to arrive on site. Even the young elephants were formidable, but after mere minutes of observation, their gentle and playful nature was evident. At the sanctuary, we prepared different types of food for the elephants, fed them (which was a bit like dodgeball— evading and throwing bananas), and enjoyed mud baths with them. Yes, the elephants did their business in the mud pools, and yes, the results of said business were larger than my head.

Although our experience at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was wonderful and relaxing, there was also a somber note that rang throughout the day. Yes, these few elephants are cared for, but the elephant industry continues to exploit and torture in order to profit, and this reflects the broader issue of exploitation in tourism. We enter, excited and curious, cameras in hand, ready to explore and experience, and we provide the demand. We fuel the cycle with every move we make, and there almost seems not to be a solution. We want stories to tell at the end of it all, stories that will make the people at home gasp and wonder and plan to visit one day. We can’t help it. The juice we squeeze from the countries we visit is just too sweet.

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Infamous for its thriving sex trade, Thailand treats women like they treat elephants. Our hostel was a few streets down from Bangla Road, the heart of Phuket’s nightlife. As soon as we began making our way down the neon-lit street, pushing past middle aged men grasping very young women and promoters holding laminated pictures of shows, I was struck by how utterly disinterested I was in the spectacle, even for spectacle’s sake. Everything was screaming to be looked at, touched, bought, like a fruit stand at a local market.

A familiar tightening in my throat told me all I wanted to do was get to the end of the street. Frankly, the worst part was hearing other tourists ooh and ahh. It sickened me. There were young families, children no older than six gazing along the roadside at the women in their denim shorts and platform heels. I heard men perhaps my age discussing recent experiences, defending their choices by saying the women they encountered were “into it.” Enthusiastic lovers can be deceiving, and I imagined myself in their situations. Yes, for many this could be much better than factory work or other labor, but the sheer amount of factors to regulate and secure to maintain some sort of order in this industry is baffling. I pictured performing in lewd shows, willing to try anything and feign enjoyment for more tips, living in fear of HIV/AIDS or other potential harm, being perhaps sixteen, illiterate, and not seeing any other option. I could not fully visualize what such a life would be like, and I suspect that’s what makes the consumption of such things so easy.

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Photo courtesy of Jacob Levy

Phuket is beautiful, undoubtedly. The ocean is sultry and inviting, like the women, but a sinister thread runs through the attraction of Thailand’s offerings— a sad whisper of necessity, of survival. It is simultaneously picturesque and difficult to look at. Understanding the lives of those living and working in Phuket is impossible for an outsider, but behaving carefully is the least one can do. With every additional place visited, it becomes more apparent that tourism enslaves, and the refusal to acknowledge this could not be more selfish or inhumane.

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Relevant links for further reading:
On commercial sexual exploitation in Thailand
A profile of a performer in Bangkok
On elephants in Thailand

This is part of a collection of writing about my time in Singapore (and surrounding countries). For visual documentation of my adventures there, follow me on Instagram @mayisrad.

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