Such was the case at Patong Beach on the island of Phuket in southern Thailand, where Im continuing my slow journey around the planet. I had expected Patong to be a bustling place, but thought there would at least be some sandy lanes and secluded beaches to enjoy. Instead, there are thousands of shops and restaurants here, packed like a train wreck into a two-mile strip of beach, with tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world: Russia, England, Germany, Australia, India -- but again, no Americans that Ive seen.
This is a place which endured the 25-foot tsunami wave three years ago on Dec. 26, 2004. This monster roared through town, sweeping hundreds of people, cars and shops in its path. But theres not a trace of a reminder that it ever happened today.
Besides the insane level of hyper-development, there are hundreds -- perhaps even thousands -- of prostitutes mixed in with the tourists. Its quite an odd sight to see some fat old bloke with a gray crewcut and hair growing out of his ears dining with his teenage bar girl while a young family from Sweden (or wherever) sits with their kids at the next table. Some of these illiterate girls are hooked up with big bullies and look scared silly.
So, the island of Phuket is kind of a downer -- and far from a paradise -- but as Mick Jagger once said, If you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need, oh baby.
Indeed, my wife Jeannette (who is spending two weeks in Thailand) and I find paradise on Phi-Phi Island after a 30-mile boat trip into the Andaman Sea. Here are scenes of tropical splendor fit for a Hollywood movie: in fact, The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was shot just a coconut-toss away on Phi-Phis little sister island. Its about a group of backpackers who go looking for a secret island paradise in Thailand and find a bunch of pot farmers.
So what does paradise look like? Long-tail dragon boats ply the bay and in the distance, sheer rock outcroppings tower from the sea. The shoals are aquamarine and lined with palm trees, frangipani and hibiscus flowers, and people walking around half-naked or strapped with backpacks. Bayside cafes are piled high with prawns the size of bananas, lobsters, and whopper fish, still wriggling on ice. At night, fire dancers whirl batons and bolos filled with kerosene on the beach while the bar blasts Limp Bizkit, LL Cool J and Bob Marleys remix reggae at a thumping volume that pounds right through your heart. Would you like some merrywanna to go with your beer? The friendly barman can supply.
But its too hot to do much of anything but melt. A tough day here is dining by the waves over shrimp pad thai and pineapple shakes and trying to decide whether to lounge on the beach or hang by the pool... Or should you go for a chocolate banana crepe instead? Hmmm...
Anyway, Im sure readers back home could care less about such drivel, being caught up in the excitement of Christmas and the New Year, but heres the latest from the other side of Planet Earth:
-- We had the good fortune to explore a sea cave full of thousands of sleeping bats near James Bond Island, where The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed in 1971. The cave had a horrible, hideous stink -- like the concentrated B.O. of 100 jock straps that had been worn for a month on jungle maneuvers -- only worse. The captain said to keep your mouth shut if you looked up. Aye-aye sir! Scary place...
-- The biggest freak show in Asia has to be that of the lady boys of Patong. These are transsexuals and transvestites decked out with long, sleek hair, full breasts, girlie outfits and thongs. Some are dressed in ballet tu-tus, ball gowns and wedding gowns. On a street full of go-go bars, we saw a flock of five she-males dancing to the sounds of Ice, Ice, Baby for a huge crowd gathered outside a disco. Some idiot Western tourist handed his little baby to them to shake up and down on the platform. Classic. But then, you see all kinds of European and Australian families with little children and infants walking down this street late at night, which is basically a red light zone. Many of the kids look exhausted.
-- Our hotel charged extra if you got a new tattoo, because the ink from a fresh tat tends to bleed on the sheets.
-- I had a live cobra dumped in my lap by a chap named Snake Man, who was clowning around during a visit to a snake farm. The cobra was six feet long and as big around as my arm, with a soft, silky texture. It had a What the hell?!? look in its black doll eyes and was loaded to kill too -- we watched Snake Man milk it for poison after I got my lap dance. I was glad he had a good grip on its head, because I jumped about a foot.
Hmmm, I see on my watch that Christmas is just a week away as of this writing. It seems like an event in another galaxy. My stay in Thailand is almost up and its time to ramble on. Paradise gets a bit snoozy after awhile -- not to mention expensive. Where to spend the holiday? Cambodia? Malaysia, Laos? Perhaps a place that resonates with m-my g-g-g-eneration. See you there.