Small Scenes of SE Asia 4

We came to Phuket with no plans but “beach.” Four days, three beaches, all tucked in different corners of the island and each with their own vibe and beach-goers.

There was the first beach, where it didn’t matter that the beer was expensive because we were really paying for the plastic chairs. Vladimir, a pensioner from Siberia, was our neighbor for the afternoon. He alternated between chainsmoking, swimming, and offering travel advice about Thailand. “Because I’m German, each year the government offers me a free plane ticket to Crimea or Sochi – but who needs those places when I can come here to paradise?” he told me. I regret now not asking him more about the connection between his German heritage and a free trip to Yalta.

The second beach didn’t have any free chairs, so we made do with the sand, which let out a weird squeak with each footstep toward the water. A man came by selling corn, but he left before it was clear that the corn needed salt. A second man came by, selling watermelon, but he also carried a saltshaker in his fanny pack.

The heat was particularly oppressive for the afternoon we spent at the third beach. We sought refuge on a shaded hill that overlooked the whole stretch of sand and sea. From there, we watched newlyweds pose for their wedding pictures while a small drone floated around, at first moving fast over the water, then hovering ominously over the wedding party. The pilot could have been anyone, in theory, but my money’s on the old man rocking a thong and a braid that reached halfway down his back.

We took songthaews to and from the beaches, a mix between a tuktuk and a minibus. Most days the songthaew was empty, except for a handful of backpackers and locals heading to work. On the third afternoon, the songthaew left the beach as soon as we hopped on. The bus was full, at least with the personal space appropriate for tourists from Germany, France, and Canada. The French tourists thought it was funny when the number of passengers hit 14: one man filmed each person for a second, counting out loud to his camera; his companion laughed and laughed. No one was laughing by the time the passenger count hit 19, though.

Even though flying around SE Asia is cheap, we opted to make our way from Phuket to Bangkok over land. In all, the trip took five hours on a minibus, an hour on a local bus, two hours waiting in a cafe, and thirteen hours on the train. It may have been a day in transit, but I don’t count it as a day of vacation wasted. We played gin rummy in silence in the dining car before moving back to the air-conditioned sleeping cabin for a few hours of hangman with Kyrgyz words. I struggled to find sleep until the sun was rising, the cabin attendants transformed the beds back into chairs, and we were reaching Bangkok. Despite the rain that greeted us at the station, I knew I liked the city right away.

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