Monday, February 6, 2012


It was December 12th, 2011. I woke up choking in the dark. I couldn't breathe and Darren was frantically searching for my inhaler. I was delirious with fever and thought we were still in India. Darren snapped me out of it. We left India weeks ago. We were in Vietnam and now we'd been in Thailand for about 4 days already. This was the longest we had stayed put in over six weeks. In fact, we hadn't stayed in one place for more than three nights in a row since we were in Turkey in October. When we finally stopped moving Darren got sick. Darren only gets sick once a year and the illness lasts a total of three hours. I wasn't as fortunate as my husband to be born with a super-human immune system so the next day I fell ill with malaria or dengue fever, or maybe it was just a bad cold. Whatever it was, I was too sick to go anywhere so we had no choice but to stay put. Its times like these that I want to go home but then I remember we don't have a home anymore. We gave up our apartment and everything we own is in storage so we keep moving like gypsies.

Darren kept paying our host, Bim, for two more nights every two days until two nights turned into two weeks. We were staying at a really nice, clean, family-run hotel with just 8 rooms called Jinta Andaman on what we're convinced was the quietest street in Phuket, Thailand. Bim gave us a good deal on the room. She liked us and was really thrilled that Bim rhymed with Kim. Aside from that, it was Christmas time and most hotels were all booked up. We were lucky to have a room anywhere on the island.

I was hacking and wheezing and just when Darren decided he was going to take me to a hospital, my fever broke. Until I was completely better we followed a schedule of sleeping in the room, then walking to the beach and sleeping on the beach all day, then going back to the room again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. When I finally woke from hibernation, my skin looked unnaturally brown and my hair had turned blonde despite the shelter of a large umbrella every day. Darren was resentful of this since he was still the same shade of white as the day we arrived.

Now that I was well again, I was getting restless so we rented a motorbike for just 200 baht a day (about 6 USD) and rode around the entire island.

We rode on our motorbike from beach to beach. The beaches there are gorgeous with white sand that's like powder. The Andaman Sea has crystal clear warm water and is abundant with sea life. For 20-50 baht (roughly 1 US dollar) we would buy ice-cold coconuts. They would give us a spoon and a straw so we could drink the coconut water and then eat the meat. This was a great bargain as coconut water is really popular in the US and costs about $4 for 8 ounces.

When we ran out of fuel there was no need to find a gas station. Many of the locals sold gasoline on the side of the road. All we had to do was pull over and a three-year-old would come running up to our bike with a funnel and a whiskey bottle filled with gasoline. Cost=40 baht.

At that time of the year, Phuket was overrun with Russian tourists seeking their annual one or two weeks of warm weather and sunshine. So much so that many of the signs and menus in the restaurants were written in both Thai and Russian. This is a disadvantage for those of us who can't read or speak Thai or Russian. For example, we wound up unknowingly purchasing salt flavored toothpaste. Trust me when I tell you it is NOT good.

There was construction going on all over. The men worked all day and all night. They were still rebuilding after the tsunami that devastated the island on December 26, 2004. The buildings were going up so fast that one was nearly started and completed in the short time we were there. We were happy to see this and also to be able to contribute by visiting Phuket. Tourism is its main industry. Bim told us that business came to a standstill after the tsunami hit. No one wanted to come to Thailand after that but gradually the tourists have started coming back. Seeing the construction everywhere made us feel hopeful and optimistic for the Thai people.

Another booming industry in Thailand is massage. Every other shop is a massage parlor. The scantily clad young women would sit outside giggling and flirting with your husband even when you were holding his hand. They would try to coax people in with "you likeee masaaaaage? Hehehe" We heard this all day long and it made me cringe every time.

There were single middle-aged white men everywhere with underaged Thai girls fighting for their attention. The only thing they had in common was their desperation. Prostitution was rampant there. There were so many young girls selling themselves and there was also a fairly large amount of transvestites mixed in with the competition. We saw a few unsuspecting young men enjoying their company but were too drunk to realize what they were getting themselves into.

Little girls would wander the streets selling handicrafts and flowers. Darren became enchanted by one adorable little girl in a red dress wandering alone. She was about 3 or 4 years old and she was selling roses. She deviated from her work when she spotted a fish tank and became mesmerized by the fish. He wondered what would happen to her. Would she wind up selling herself like so many of the other girls there?

The Thai also adore karaoke. One night, Thai Elvis was serenading us outside our hotel. If you're in Phuket he is hard to miss. He is booked up every night of the week and has a really flashy van that takes him to all his gigs. He sings karaoke Elvis tunes and goes by the name Mr. Delvis!

If you're into boxing, it also won't be hard to find a Thai boxing match. Thai boxing is as much a part of their culture as massage so you should try to see a spar or a fight if you can.

We rode to Chalong Temple which was more like a courtyard with several separate structures, each more magnificent and ornate than the next. They were filled with statues of Buddha in all different poses.

When in Phuket, it would be hard to miss the "Big Buddha". No matter where you go he can be seen. He sits at the top of a very high hill looking down over the island. We rode up the hill to pay him a visit. He was still under construction but he was mostly finished. Admission was free but they did ask for donations to help with the building project. They also gave me a skirt and shawl to cover up in the temple. Darren visited the monks and they gave him a bracelet and a good luck blessing.

On our way back down the hill, we stopped to go on an elephant ride. Our elephant's name was Beyonce. Our guide would steer her by sitting on her neck and putting his feet on her ears and using them like a steering wheel. I was a little bit apprehensive about riding the elephant. I wanted to make sure she was treated well and felt unsure about climbing on her back. Our guide seemed to really care for her though and I could tell they had a bond. The guide got down from his cockpit and asked for my camera to take some pictures of us. Beyonce took advantage of this moment to try to grab a banana from a tree that was located on the side of a cliff. I had taken over the guide's position on Beyonce's neck and was starting to fall off as Beyonce was teetering ungracefully on the edge. Her feet were slipping and Darren and I were panicked as she started to slip over the edge. Then I thought maybe this was an act that she and the guide were performing for us. Surely he had it under control. Then he started yelling, "Oh my god! Oh my god! Beyonce No!" My faith in his control of the situation vanished. Beyonce bent the entire tree down to the ground and it snapped back as we flew back in the opposite direction. She had her banana and our guide grabbed her by the ear and pulled her back from the edge. We returned safely to elephant camp headquarters and I played with a baby elephant. They had him chained up in order to get tourists to buy bananas for him and pay to have their pictures taken with him. We were not happy about this but unfortunately, it's pretty common in Thailand. People would walk with baby elephants on a leash through the streets of Phuket charging 50 baht to feed him bananas. Elephants used to be considered Gods in Thailand but it didn't appear to be that way anymore.

Seashells have sort of been a running theme of my past few posts. We collected them in South Africa and then gave them away as gifts to new friends in Nepal and India. When we found out the Phuket Seashell Museum was nearby we were very interested in seeing what it was all about.

It really exceeded my expectations in that it had a surprisingly large and well-organized collection of shells that were immaculately displayed according to species, then size and color. The collection consisted over of over 2,000 species including one of the rarest golden pearls, the only left-handed Noble Volute, giant clams, and fossils dating back 380 million years.

While the displays were very organized and well categorized, Darren and I both found it to get a bit tedious. Most of the visitors got bored and left before going through the whole museum. I would have liked to have seen some information about how shells are formed and their anatomy. The exhibit was a bit too scientific and dry and I think they could have touched on some interesting history about shells such as their use as tools, instruments, or currency. However, if you have even the slightest interest in shells, you will be very impressed. I had never seen in person most of the species of shells they had and it was a beautifully displayed collection.

Then we visited the Phuket Aquarium, located on the water at scenic Cape Panwa. It was a little aquarium with a big message about protecting coral reefs and endangered species. It had a clever interactive coral display with the names of many different types of coral. When the visitor pushed the button next to the name, a red light would go on next to all of the corresponding types of coral. It was simple and much more effective to see it illustrated in real life than on a computer screen.

There was also a Deep Sea exhibit that had on display some dead but well-preserved fish which still have yet to be categorized. Some of the fish looked more like aliens to me than fish. Creepy but very cool.

Scuba diving and tourism are major industries in Thailand so there was a lot of focus on protecting the reef and local fish by using safe diving practices. It also had a message to tourists about not polluting the waters. I liked that their topics were relevant to their community. They also had a display about tsunamis. It explained what they were, how they were caused, and what measures were being taken to keep people safe in case there are future events. They had a display of photographs of the tsunami and its aftermath that hit Phuket in 2004. I easily identified the very beach where we were staying. By the looks of the destruction, it was no wonder they were still rebuilding 7 years later.

The aquarium was established as part of the Phuket Marine Biological Center, a research and monitoring station within the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. Outside there was a nature trail that connected the aquarium with the spectacular Cape Panwa shore and the research facilities of the Phuket Marine Biological Center. There was a hatchery where they bred and raised creatures from the ocean like seahorses and cuttlefish. Visitors could climb aboard their 38-meter long research ship and talk to the crew as well as visit the sea turtle pool where we viewed turtles recovering from injuries and watched adorable baby turtles in their nursery.

They also have a reference collection of over 100,000 specimens and an endangered species museum where you can learn about whales and dolphins.

I mentioned earlier that Darren had been blessed with good luck by a monk. I didn't sit with the monks to receive a blessing and none of Darren's luck seemed to be rubbing off on me. We had gotten into the habit of washing our clothes in the sink every night since laundromats can be non-existent in some countries. Our balcony even had a handy clothes rack so we'd hang the clothes to dry overnight. Phuket, for some reason, would get extremely windy at night and despite the high balcony wall, somehow my clothes (and not Darren's) would fly away. I'd look over the wall and see my underwear scattered in the trees. Some would never be recovered.

Travel tip: If you find yourself in Thailand with disappearing undergarments you can go to an outdoor street market and buy new ones. There will be no sizes on any of them and you will have to sift through a pile of loose miscellaneous styled and sized underwear but for 30 baht your new underwear with cartoon characters will be a real bargain.

Another day we were walking down the street and a woman approached us with scratch-off cards. It was a promotion for a tourism company. I won a tote-bag and Darren won a week-long dream vacation for four at a five-star beachfront resort in Phuket. Of course, it couldn't be used for the week we were there which would have been handy because the airfare was not included. They required 45 days advance notice and the trip had to be booked within two years from that day. We had already traveled all over the world and didn't have plans of taking yet another big trip within the two years required time period but we could give it to immediate family. So that's what we did.

If you visit Phuket, Thailand make sure you visit the Big Buddha and get a good luck blessing from the monks. I have, however, been getting a lot of use out of my new tote bag.