As we steered our motorbikes along the left shoulder of traffic-choked East Chaofa Road on a bright Saturday morning in central Phuket, I could feel the sun searing through hapless layers of 55 SPF sunscreen I’d slathered onto the back of my neck, my forearms, my feet, and my thighs. Tomorrow my skin would be scorched and beam with a dull, hazy-red glow; sunburned tourist red.
Parched and hungry and roasting like skewers of barbecue meat on a charcoal grill, we pulled over for a short pit stop at 7-11 to relubricate and cool down the bikes. (A recent geographic survey determined there are three 7-11s per square mile for every one human in urban Thailand.)
Our journey to the west coast of Phuket began about an hour earlier in sleepy Panwa, on the southeastern tip of the island, where we were bunkering down for three nights in a slick, poolside junior suite at the Radisson Plaza Resort Phuket Panwa Beach, otherwise known as The Mouthful. The plan was to take East Chaofa Road south from Phuket Town, then cut across west on Rt. 4028. That would take us to Kata Beach, where we’d cool down with a refreshing swim in the sparkling Andaman Sea, then continue north on 4028 along the shore to Karon Beach and, out of morbid curiosity, Patong Beach.
That was the plan, anyway.
We fostered no utopian dreams of finding a paradisaical beach free of touts and tanning tourists on the west coast of Phuket. There’s a good reason why up until now–after two extended trips around Thailand, then nine months spent living in Bangkok–we still hadn’t visited the country’s largest and most-touristed island. We’d heard and read horror stories about overdeveloped, overpriced, overrated Phuket, and recoiled at the thought of joining the consumerist hordes and seeing a sad, unseemly side of a country we hold so dear. We’re no beach snobs, but there are plenty of options in Thailand and this place just wasn’t high on the list, at least not until we could afford, say, the secluded luxury of the five high-end resorts lining exclusive Bang Tao Beach.
Yes, our expectations were suitably grounded as we zoomed towards Kata, the road increasingly lined with shabby hotels, generic tourist shops, faux Thai restaurants, and crappy pubs the closer we got to the sea. Before we knew it, we found ourselves in the heart of Package Tourist Candyland.
The narrow streets, crammed with the same fast-food chains found in most Midwest US strip malls, teemed with painfully sunburned tourists stumbling over each other in tiny pairs of underwear passed off as bikinis and Speedos. I expected it to be unsightly here, but it was shocking just how far down the vacation shit hole it had fallen. We hadn’t even reached notoriously trashy Patong yet; this was Kata, which one guidebook claims “manages to maintain a laid-back character.”
Down an alleyway snaking off the main strip, we finally caught a glimpse of the beach and parked the bikes in a crowded restaurant parking lot. I gawked at the squandered paradise laid out before us on an arc of soiled white sand blanketed with beach chairs, umbrellas, and overweight sunbathers bobbing up and down in the water like donuts in coffee. This is what millions of people fly halfway across the world to Thailand for every year? We decided against elbowing our way through the masses and searching for one of the few tiny squares of unoccupied space available, skipped the swimming, and hopped back on the bikes. Next stop: Karon Beach.
We didn’t stop at Karon, though, except for gas from a roadside fill station, where the gas was pumped from a big, rusting drum with a handcrank by a Thai youth of about 13, maybe 14 years old. Already disillusioned and a bit disgusted by the rank stench of consumptive tourism all around us, we pressed on with the grim mission, due north for Patong.
If Kata is the Fifth circle of Beach Hell, Patong is the Ninth. I struggled to find any redemptive signs to cling to. Tourists crawled through this recklessly developed eyesore like ravenous ants on a rotting piece of meat; Thais seemed exhausted by the rigors and shifting, unreasonable demands and expectations of this ongoing foreigner onslaught. It was a scene as regrettable as it was repulsive, and no place to linger longer than necessary, which was all of about 10 minutes. We’d seen enough.
We backtracked down Rt. 4028, taking the fork left at Kata Beach and speeding east until the intersection with East Chaofa Road, where we took a left. The sun was still beating down–is this what it feels like to be microwaved?–as we raced towards Phuket Town, missing our turnoff onto unmarked Rt. 4023 once, twice, a third time, before we finally lucked onto a side road that wound through a residential area of the Panwa peninsula, and eventually dumped us back onto 4023.
The Radisson was a short ways down the road. The resort’s security guard pushed up the silver bar at the parking lot entrance as we pulled in: after the hedonistic carnage we’d experienced on the west coast, it felt like he was opening the gates of heaven.
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