Micah has a work visa, so he is allowed to stay in Malaysia for the entire year. I have a social pass, which means I am not allowed to work and I am only allowed to stay for 90 days before leaving the country. Fortunately, a “border run,” a weekend in a neighboring country, counts as leaving the country. Also fortunately, Malaysia is very close to many other countries in Southeast Asia and the travel is relatively cheap. My original 90 days is up at the end of November, so we decided to make our first excursion to Phuket, Thailand and spend a few days on the beach. Originally, we chose the dates and location to see the Loi Krathong celebrations. We considered Chiang Mai and Bangkok, but we read that Patong Beach in Phuket also has a big celebration. The cheaper airfare to Phuket made the decision. Unfortunately, whatever I was reading did not have the dates updated for 2014 or had the wrong information in general. We missed the festival by 1 day. We were really disappointed in missing out, but what can you do. Chalk it up to rookie travel planning, I guess.
The flight is only about 1.5 hours, so we planned a relatively early flight out on Friday morning and a relatively late flight back on Sunday night to maximize our time away. (This turned out to be a great choice.) A cab is not much more expensive than public transportation, but since we had the time to take public transit, we decided to do that. We took the subway from near our hotel to KL Sentral, the central train station and a train from KL Sentral to the airport. The express train had comfortable seats, it was air conditioned well, and overall it was a good ride with some nice views along the way. Carrying a backpack it was really easy, with anything more than a carry on size bag, the few extra ringgits for a cab would be worth it.
We arrived at the airport around 08:00am, with our flight around 10:15am. We had planned on grabbing something for breakfast at the airport, not knowing how the timing of the trains would work in our favor (or not), and we hadn’t even had coffee yet. The train terminal at the airport had a lot of choices, and the airport itself had a lot of choices. But we made the decision to first go through security before finding something to eat, not knowing how the various lines and screenings would impact us. The customs screening didn’t have a line, so it was quick to get through. In the US, I think customs and security are relatively close together. At least at the airports where I have traveled internationally, I don’t remember them being two vastly different screening areas. Here though, we got through customs and it looked like we had entered the terminal. There were newsstands and small shops, restaurants, places to sit and lounge while waiting for your flight…no sign of a further security screening. We decided to find our gate before acquiring breakfast, so we just kept following the signs. At this point, it’s looking less and less like the main concourse and more and more like a regular airport terminal hallway, and then we find security. The security procedure is the same as in the US, so that made it easier because it was so familiar: put your stuff on the conveyor belt, small toiletries are OK as long as they are in a separate baggie, no other liquids. You were allowed to keep your shoes on, so that was nice. Security managed, we kept on our way to our gate. Now there are just gates and seating areas, no more newsstands or shops and definitely no more restaurants. We passed a Dunkin Donuts and a small coffee cart near our gate, and that was it. The coffee cart was from a café chain we have seen in KL but not tried. They offer mostly Western food and it seems pricey, we could only imagine that the airport prices would be worse. We started at Dunkin Donuts where we tried to order egg sandwiches, but there was only one guy working and he said he couldn’t make any food; we could just have donuts. I like donuts, especially Dunkin Donuts, but we both wanted something with more nutritional value. So we went back to the coffee cart where they only had scones and muffins in the way of breakfast food. But we struck out, again. No muffins left, no scones left, only sandwiches- lunch type sandwiches, like chicken or tuna. We did end up with mochas, at least, but still nothing to eat. First airport cultural difference noted: No real food once you are inside security.
We waited in the seating area outside our gate for the flight to begin boarding. We soon noticed that people were bringing their boarding passes to the desk and it looked like they were checking in…again. I haven’t had to check in at the gate for what feels like a very long time, I barely remember doing that at all. Second real airport cultural difference noted: check in before your flight to go through security, check in again at the gate. We were confused about the purpose, but we did what everyone else was doing and handed our boarding passes and passports to the agent. She ripped off the half that they usually take at boarding and we sat back down and waited for the boarding announcement. It felt really strange to do that, but no one else seemed to think it was even remotely unusual. When the boarding announcement came, we couldn’t hear it very well and coupled with the locally accented English, we weren’t really sure what was going on. I would swear they only asked for certain rows, but nobody was moving besides the handful of premium seat folks. So we asked the agent at the gate what rows they were boarding. He just said, “Yes!” That was strange. We showed him our boarding pass. “Yes, OK! You may board!” Well…OK then…so we boarded.
The flight itself was fine, nothing out of the ordinary. When we landed in Phuket, we deplaned on the tarmac and got on a shuttle to take us to customs. Once we entered the customs and immigration building it was mass chaos. People were waiting in a “line” that snaked all the way to the door, and I use the term “line” loosely here. We got in it, not seeing any other options. There were no signs, in any language, suggesting where we should go. I was expecting a “Thai residents” line and an “everyone else” line, because that is what I’ve seen before, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. We didn’t know if we were in the right line, we didn’t know if there even was a right line. It wasn’t at all clear that we were where we needed to be, but it also wasn’t clear that we had other choices. It was really frustrating, mostly because we felt like there was no organization and we felt so out of our league in terms of “are we doing this right?” It was also frustrating because there were no restrooms inside customs, and we still hadn’t had anything more than a mocha since dinner the night before. I think if we weren’t grumpy from not having eaten, and if we had been waiting in a clearly marked queue, it might have been different. Still boring and frustrating, but at least not so nerve wracking. Eventually, they opened another desk, which helped with the huge crowd. We got in the line for the new desk and trusted that if we were in the wrong place, someone would direct us to the right place eventually. Fortunately, about an hour after landing we cleared customs and immigration and were allowed to enter Thailand. (That’s a weird convention. Were we not in Thailand when the plane landed? Are the runways and customs building on some sort of no man’s land?)
Next adventure: getting to the hotel. I knew that you could get a taxi from the airport to the area where our hotel was for a set rate of 800 baht, around $25 USD, and I knew that there was a designated counter to get such a taxi at the set rate. If we tried hailing our own cab, we could end up paying a lot more. So we found the counter, bought the ticket, and were directed outside. It was a little intimidating to figure out where to actually get our cab, so I just held my ticket in front of me as we went outside and assumed someone would find me. This is pretty much what happened. We were waved over to another desk, where the agent checked my ticket, and she gestured vaguely “over there” for us to get our cab. There was a curb and loading area “over there” and also a crosswalk and another loading area across the street. We started walking and quickly realized we needed more information. I hate asking for help. I would much rather figure things out on my own than ask for help. Not the best strategy in life for getting things done efficiently, I admit. But I know when I’m over my head. I went back to confirm where we should go. We crossed the street, still with the ticket visible, and sure enough a driver greeted us, took our ticket, and brought us to his cab. The cab driver was very friendly but he didn’t know where our hotel was. I had the address written in English, but couldn’t find it written in Thai. He took us to “his friend” at a tour agency to check the address. I had read that cabs frequently do this, to sell you excursions or hotels, and I had mentioned this fact to Micah. We agreed we didn’t want to buy anything at the agency, because we wanted to make whatever arrangements we decided to make through our hotel. An agent came out to confirm the name and address. She returned a few minutes later, offering to arrange our transport back to the airport at the same rate. This seemed like a good idea to us, to get the regulated rate rather than take our chances, so we accepted. “Please come inside then, so I can finish arranging it.” Seemed reasonable. Micah said, “She just got us out of the car and into the tour agency where she can sell us stuff.” Dang! Sometimes I am so gullible, even when I know it’s coming. I’m proud to say that we did stand strong inside and did not buy any of the tours that were offered or anything else beyond our return trip. We reserved a cab for the way back to the airport, got back in our cab and to our hotel.
At this point, it’s about 1:30pm. We have only had a bottle of water and a mocha all day. We aren’t even sure if we can check in to the hotel because check in isn’t supposed to start until 4. It seemed like a good idea to ask, anyway, and it turns out our room was ready! We dropped our bags and headed out to find the beach and find lunch. Our hotel was about a 10- or 15-minute walk to the beach. The benefits of being young, healthy, and adventurous: cheaper hotel a little farther away from the main attractions if you are willing to work a little to get where you want to go.
There were plenty of places to eat right along the beach, all with equally good views and I assume comparable prices and menus. Now the difficulty would be choosing one. My dad traveled for work quite a bit when I was younger, and when we went on family trips, I learned a very important rule: “Choose the restaurant with the most trucks. Truckers know where the good food is.” In a foreign country, we have expanded this rule to “Choose the hawker stall with the most local people, the locals know where the good food is. Or at least where it won’t make you sick.” In a tourist area, this gets further expanded to “Choose the place with the most people, period. We can’t all be wrong!” It turns out that we made an excellent choice and ended up back at that restaurant several times over the weekend. We had excellent curry for lunch and then stayed there drinking beer for a little bit, watching the ocean. One food service culture difference in Southeast Asia that I really like is that you have to flag down the servers, they don’t ask you every 10 minutes if you’re doing OK or if you need anything else. So you can sit there and drink your beer or eat your lunch or whatever and no one bothers you. When you want something, you raise your hand and someone comes over. It was a really nice, relaxing afternoon. We walked up and down the beach for a while and then headed back to the hotel to regroup, shower, and get ready for dinner.
The clerk at the front desk was really helpful. He grabbed a pre-printed map of the town drew us places to go, and places to stay away from. We specifically asked for street food and good local food, and he recommended the “night market” for street food. (I’m using quotes here, because he called it the black market. Black market in Southeast Asia does not seem to have the same connotation as it does in the U.S. Sure, you can buy “off brand” merchandise, but it’s all perfectly legal. In KL, they call similar markets the night market, because it’s set up in the evenings.) The night market did have great street food. We chose some satay (meat skewers) and noodles. I thought the noodles looked like Pad Thai, which is my favorite, and I was very excited to try it. I was beyond disappointed to find out they were just regular noodles though. We had bought two portions of it, but neither of us liked it enough to eat even half of one portion. So we went back for more satay and continued walking around. The satay was excellent, really delicious. We stuck with chicken and pork, though I kind of wish we had tried the octopus. But the stand we chose had a huge line of locals, while the stand selling the octopus seemed to have very little customers. (Remember: Always go where there are more locals, so no octopus satay for us.)
After dinner, we headed over to Bangla Road for a drink and some people watching. Bangla Road is the nightlife district, where the morals are more than a little loose. Living in Austin, we’ve been to a pretty good nightlife district on Sixth Street, but Sixth is nothing in comparison to Bangla Road. There were bars upon bars upon bars with strip clubs and other establishments advertising risqué entertainment- something called a ping pong show, we didn’t get the details- and many of the bars had stripper poles with girls dancing on them in full view from the street. Remember that island from Disney’s Pinnocchio? Pleasure Island, where the boys can do whatever they want and don’t have to follow any rules? That’s what Bangla Road is like. If you have a particular vice, any vice at all, you can indulge it on Bangla Road. And it’s all easy to find. You can’t take more than two steps without someone trying to sell you something, a trinket, a cigarette, a show, some “company”… Micah swears he saw someone with a list of prices for various illegal drugs.
We knew that all of this was what happens on Bangla Road, so we weren’t exactly surprised. I guess we were a little surprised in the extent of the hedonism, because reading a description about it and witnessing it for yourself are two very different things. What did surprise us, was the ubiquity of Cyrillic signs. Apparently Phuket is a very popular place for Russians to vacation. We saw nearly as much writing with the Cyrillic alphabet as we did with the Roman alphabet. Bangla Road featured a Russian Bar (that was the name of it, “Russian Bar”) advertising Russian strippers. Our theory is that this is where Russian mobsters go to retire.
We picked a bar that was open to the street so we could people watch. We also thought we would be out of the way of the people selling things, but it turns out that the people selling trinkets walk right into the bars. The bar we chose had around 6 different serving areas with seating around each of them. Each serving area had a small shrine above it. I’m guessing they were Hindu, because the one I saw looked a lot like Ganesha, but I wasn’t close enough to get a really good look. While we were sitting there, one of the bartenders got up on a platform, prayed, took down all of the garlands that were hanging there, cleaned the shrine, and then hung new garlands. A little while later, one of the dancers at the bar brought over several garlands. The bartender hung them up, said a prayer, the dancer said a prayer, and then she went to work. They did this just as casually as if the dancer had asked for a glass of water. The contrast of a prayerful space quite literally in the middle of a den of hedonism was really incongruous. It was both strange and beautiful. Even a week later I’m still a little at a loss for words to describe it.
The nightclub life is not for us anymore, so we made it an early night. We were also ready for another shower- preferably in penicillin or, at the very least, hand sanitizer. I shudder to think about what we could have acquired if certain types of communicable diseases became aerosolized, if you know what I mean! Besides, we had a big day of island hopping coming up! And if there’s one thing you don’t want to be on a boat, it’s hungover.
Coming up: our Island Kayaking Excursion, and how to tip in a country where tipping is not generally a thing.