For our last day in Phuket, we wanted to basically do nothing. We wanted to go to the beach and we wanted to get a massage, which also happened to be our only two “plans” before we landed in Thailand. From our own observations and talking to the staff at the hotel, we knew that there were many small spas where we could get a massage near the beach. We were assured that they were all clean, licensed, and professional- essentially, we could chose any of them and it would be OK, there wasn’t one “best” one and there weren’t any to avoid in this area. (There were some to avoid in a different area, however! And we did.) We also knew that they all take walk-ins, so we decided to do the beach first while the sun was still out and figure out the massage thing later. Much like in KL, Phuket was clear and sunny in the morning and cloudy and rainy in the afternoon…at least the weekend we were there. With our “plan” set, we were ready to get Day 3 underway!
The only problem that still needed a solution was what to do with our bags. We did just pack our backpacks for this reason, but if it was possible to leave them at the hotel, that was preferable than dragging them to the beach. Our favorite front desk clerk provided a fantastic solution: we could leave the bags in their secure storage room for the day. The hotel had a shower in the pool area that we could use when we got back, and they would give us clean towels. Problem solved! We tipped this guy way too much, too, but he really earned it. We complimented him profusely to his boss before we left as well.
We had breakfast at a place on the beach (more pancakes!), the same place we had lunch on Friday, and then headed down to the sand. Apparently before the military coup in May 2014, local people used to rent umbrellas and beach chairs along the beach. But since the coup, the government has banned such ventures. I’ve read that perhaps they are looking for greater regulation on the industry and/or perhaps they want to make it a government-run enterprise to collect (more) tourist dollars. On the message boards I looked at, some tourist regulars to Phuket are furious about this, but not having been there before to form an opinion, we didn’t really mind. We brought towels from the hotel and staked our claim to a patch of sand. We each took turns swimming while the other one sat on the towels with our camera and beach bags. The water was perfect and so salty! Growing up on the Atlantic, I thought ocean water would be ocean water- with some variations in temperature of course. Not so. The Andaman Sea was very unlike what I am used to- the salinity was much greater, and the salt felt…less coarse. Sometimes in the Atlantic it’s almost as though you can feel the individual grains of salt on your skin; we didn’t have that sensation here at all. The waves were nice and very fun to play in- great body surfing waves. We spent a fantastic couple of hours between the sand and the water.
Another big difference in beach culture was all the people selling things on the beach. My hometown is pretty well known for its beaches, but outside of the snack bars and the occasional Italian Ice stand, people don’t really (openly) sell things. It’s also worth noting that the few vendors that do exist are in relatively fixed spots; you need to go to them if you want something. In Phuket, people walk up and down the beach trying to sell you things. We saw sarongs, carved wooden trinkets, wooden baskets, jewelry, friendship-style bracelets, and lots of other actually useful things like sunglasses, sunscreen, towels, and snacks. (It was interesting that they tried to sell us sunglasses even though both of us were wearing sunglasses.) It was annoying that there were so many people selling stuff because they just kept coming! They were only like a minute apart from one another, it was like a parade! The other reason it was really annoying was they would really give you a hard sell. There is a polite “no thank you” hand gesture in Southeast Asia that I have grown quite fond of. It’s almost like waving at someone, but with a more rapid back and forth movement. It’s usually sufficient to refuse the street vendors in KL, but the vendors on the beach would stand right in front of your towel for a solid 30 seconds or so, even after getting the polite “no thank you” gesture. 30 seconds might not sound like a lot of time. But try staring down someone for a full 30 seconds, while that other person ignores you. It’s just a touch longer than feels comfortable for American politeness standards.
There wasn’t a great deal of open beach sand between the edge of the water and the “sea wall” in front of the restaurants, enough for about two rows of beach towels. As the tide was rising, there were one or two waves that lapped at our towels, so we scooted back a little but we didn’t have any more room to go back farther. When Micah was swimming, there was one really substantial “rogue” wave that totally swamped our towels. I had all I could do to lift up our camera and t-shirts in time. Our towels got soaked, and our beach bag got soaked…the beach bag was OK because we bought a waterproof bag before our island excursion (more on this later). We tried to get sorted out as best we could, but it was hopeless. We decided at this point to rent a bamboo mat. Our now-favorite restaurant had a small piece of beach in front where they rented mats for 100 baht. We noticed it on Friday and again earlier that day, but elected to sit on the beach proper, with our toes in the sand as it were. But at this point, we didn’t have a lot of choices. 100 baht is only about $3 USD, but we weren’t sure whether that was per hour or what the time frame was. When Micah asked how long the rental was for, the manager shrugged and said “All day.” So for about $3, we had our own mat, towel, pillow, and small table for as long as we cared to stay there. Plus, it was mostly in the shade, which was good for me and my fair skin at that point, AND it had service to the restaurant. We hung our sand-and-water logged towels on the sea wall and happily camped out for a bit longer…now with an ice-cold beer in hand! At this point I could see the utility of being able to rent a chair and an umbrella. After a few hours in the sun, a shady spot was nice. Another perk of our new spot was that far fewer vendors approached us. We still were approached, but it was not as frequent.
We continued taking turns swimming and sitting for a while longer when it started to rain. We had a few drops here and there all morning, but this was a no-doubt-about-it rainstorm. It was time for a late lunch and to consider leaving the beach for massages anyway, so the rain came at the perfect time. We had lunch at the bar while it rained and, during a break in the rain, we were off down the road to find a massage at one of the dozen or so small spas near the beach. Micah had seen one earlier that looked good to us and they had availability right at that moment, so we chose them. We were the only ones in the front room, which was really nice. We chose 30 minutes of reflexology and 30 minutes of Thai massage. We can’t remember how much we paid, but it wasn’t more than $20 USD each. If we had more time, an hour of each would have been amazing. The reflexology was fantastic, hands down the best foot massage I’ve ever had. It also converted Micah, who was concerned that it wouldn’t be worth the time or money. When it was time for the Thai massage, they brought us back into this curtained off cubicle. I have never had a Thai massage and did not expect the full contact nature or the active participation on my part. It did feel really good, and I know that it realigned my body and opened up my systems because I had cold symptoms the next day- I’m convinced from junk getting processed out of my body because I was totally fine after a few hours of rest and a whole lot of water. Maybe because we only got 30 minutes instead of an hour though, it didn’t feel as completely relaxing as I was expecting. (Granted, I don’t have a lot to compare with it, I’ve only ever had one other massage in my life.) It felt like the thing to do when in Thailand though, get a Thai massage, and we’re both glad that we experienced it. I would definitely do it again when/if we go back to Thailand, but for a full hour.
As we left the massage, however, it started pouring rain. Just a straight downpour. We had brought umbrellas and rain jackets with us…and left them in our bags at the hotel. With no other choice, we started trekking back to our hotel in the driving rain. Not for the first time, my eagle-eyed husband saved the day! Micah spotted some ponchos through the door in a convenience store and we bought some for a couple bucks. With our ponchos on, and the camera tucked safely into our new waterproof bag, we were still drenched at the end, but considerably less worse for the wear.
Now, it’s time for the waterproof bag story. The day of our jungle trek, we had borrowed a waterproof bag from our guide. We were totally sold on the utility, and sometimes necessity, of having one of our own. But we didn’t have an occasion to use it immediately, so we put off buying one until we thought we’d use it. On Friday night, after we decided to do the kayaking excursion, we decided it was now time to buy a bag. We figured we could buy one at the “night market” and if not, there was a regular mall next to it that would probably have a sporting goods store of some kind. I had not done any research on what I should expect to pay for the bag, so we were a little bit at the mercy of the stores in terms of whether it was a reasonable price. (Also, since Patong Beach is a very touristy area, I completely expected an elevated tourist price, rather than a reasonable price.)
In Thailand, and apparently in many parts of Southeast Asia but not in KL for some reason, shoppers are expected to bargain. Bargaining culture is very foreign to me. To me, the price is the price. If I don’t want to pay the price for that item, I just don’t buy it. It would never occur to me to try to bargain for it. (Sidebar: I have asked my mechanic to work with me on a high estimate repair before, but I can’t imagine wanting to buy an item in a store and offering less than the price marked. Also, negotiating seems different than bargaining. Negotiating on a high estimate repair, for example, requires something on my part, I feel. I am entitled to negotiate because I have been a loyal customer and will continue to be a loyal customer. I wouldn’t try to negotiate if it was the first time I had been to the shop. To my mind, anyway.)
So as we walked through the market, we saw that all of the shops in the market carried the waterproof bags we were looking for, presumably for tourists who need them for these types of excursions. I felt pretty confident that they would all be priced similarly. We chose one, and also a koozie with the logo of one of the Thai beers we had drunk. The shopkeeper quoted us a price of 600 baht, which was around $20. That seemed reasonable and matched up pretty well with what I thought the value of the bag was. Most importantly, I felt really uncomfortable bargaining, even though I know it’s culturally appropriate. If I feel the price is a fair value, aren’t I accusing the shopkeeper of being greedy or something if I offer a lower price? I couldn’t do it. So I handed her the 600 baht and her face lit up like she had hit the jackpot. She recovered her poker face quickly though, and then tried to sell me anything else I glanced at. Because now she knows she can tell me any price she wants! Definitely a tourist faux pas, but I still feel OK about the value for the cost, even if I could have saved $5 or something. Considering that the bag had now protected our camera three times (once on the kayaks, once when our towels got swamped, and now in the pouring rain), 600 baht seemed like a great value! (Sidebar: Looks like I can get similar bags for $15-$20 USD. Given the fact that we were in a tourist area and should expect to pay more, I still feel OK with the price we paid. Or maybe I am just trying to justify not bargaining.)
After our walk in the pouring rain, we arrived back to our hotel with about an hour and a half before our cab was scheduled to pick us up. Our timing was absolutely perfect. Any longer to wait and we would have been bored, any less time and I think we would have been stressed. We showered, changed into dry clothes, and sat in the lobby with one last beer and our books, listening to the rain on the metal roof outside. It was a fabulous way to end our Phuket adventure.
Or we thought we were at the end, anyway. The hour drive back to the airport was…eventful. The roads are twisty and people drive too fast, plus the weather was still terrible, we both felt very uncomfortable. I didn’t think the driver was reckless, per se, but I also wished that the conditions and/or his speed were better for those roads! It also got very dark, very quickly in Thailand. Even though it was only about 6:00pm, it was just as dark as if it had been the middle of the night. Allegedly this is true all along this latitude, including in KL, but because we are in the middle of the city, with all the ambient light we aren’t really aware of it very much. We arrived at the airport safely enough, and with plenty of time to find where we needed to go. And then we remembered the lack of signage at this particular airport and the lack of food at the KL airport. We found a kiosk, printed our boarding passes, and then got some terrible airport sandwiches.
Getting from the check in area to our gate was easily the most frustrating thing we have experienced since leaving Texas, including our unexpected 12-hour layover in Hong Kong on the way over. With our boarding pass and our passports we expected to be able to enter the international part of the terminal so we could go through customs again. We were physically stopped (quite literally- hands on shoulders restraining us) at the doorway and told we needed an international stamp to pass through. Really? The fact that our boarding pass has us landing in a different country isn’t enough to indicate that we need to be in the international terminal? Fine, I have no desire to end my trip in a Thai jail controlled by the military government. Now where do we get a stamp? They made a vague “over there” gesture. Awesome. We found an information desk and that person was much more helpful and directed us to the specific counter and line we should stand in (counter 17, 18, or 19). Stamp acquired, we made our way back through the well-guarded doorway into the terminal.
This airport was the reverse order of Kuala Lumpur. First we went through security, then we went through customs and immigration. At security, my bag got flagged for an inspection. With our patience completely waning, I tried to understand what they were looking for. They said, “Scissors?” Crap. My travel manicure kit has a small set of scissors in it. It didn’t even occur to me to check the carry on rules for our flight back, just for leaving KL. We have been able to carry manicure scissors and nail clippers for the last several years in the US, so when it wasn’t a problem leaving KL I guess I assumed it wouldn’t be a problem more generally. After they found my scissors and consulted on the rest of the kit, I was allowed to keep the nail clippers and tweezers and finally allowed to proceed on to immigration. This entire experience was made much more difficult and terrifying for me because of the language barrier, I didn’t really know what was going on or what rule I had broken or what the possible consequences would be. It was difficult and frustrating for Micah because this was my second offense in having sharp objects confiscated from my carry on, after I forgot a pocketknife was in my backpack on our trip to Massachusetts this summer. Note to self: just don’t carry any objects sharper than a ballpoint pen in the future.
Nothing horrible happened at immigration, fortunately. We had our exit cards filled out appropriately and so other than waiting for 20 or 30 minutes, we went right through. Once through security and immigration, we had about an hour before our flight would start boarding. Micah enjoys trying different varieties of scotch, so he took the opportunity to peruse the duty free store and pick up one from a new region. Also, the availability to acquire alcohol in Kuala Lumpur is limited, and it’s really expensive when it’s available, so taking advantage of the duty free store seemed smart. We each took some time to just walk around the terminal and loosen up after the stress of “the scissors incident.” Our gate got moved, right before boarding, but people had already started to queue up. It didn’t appear we had to check in again at the gate, like we did in KL, it just looked like they were waiting in line to board. So when we got to the new gate, we stood in the line too. Boarding was a free for all and the least efficient way to board a plane I have ever experienced.
The plane took off, the flight was fine, and an hour and a half later we landed in KL. We made it through customs and immigration there with no problem, and I got a new social pass for another 90 days. So yay, the real purpose of our trip was accomplished! When we got to the train terminal to buy our tickets back to the central station in KL, we were informed there was one departing in about 2 minutes. Challenge accepted! We sprinted down the stairs and onto the train just in time. From the train station in central KL, we had to take a cab the rest of the way to our hotel. This ended up being better than taking the subway because it was really late and the cab would drop us off right at our hotel. A really cool moment when we were getting out of the cab was that the night concierge started to tell us how to get to the front desk for check in (front desk is on the second floor), but then recognized us and said, “Oh! Welcome back!” It was nice to be remembered and welcomed; living in a hotel- while very often great- is sometimes very impersonal as well. By that point we were exhausted. It was 1am and Micah’s alarm for work the next day was going to go off way too early.