Phuket: Thailands Capital for Tourism and Its Devoted Son

Phuket: Thailands Capital for Tourism and Its Devoted Son

Burdened down with its three hundred passengers, the aircraft bore us towards the Far East. My mind was full of still pictures of Thailand copied from the eyes of others, until they accumulated and became two opposite extremes: one party criticized it for being engrossed in extreme vulgarity, while the other praised it for the low prices of its commodities, anything and everything. Thailand eats from what it grows and wears from what it weaves. It is one of the most famous places in the world for imitating and copying. What is called copyright is a bad joke that they are tired of hearing. I hesitated a great deal before I went there, and I hesitated again on board the aircraft, for fear of what I would see. But one thing that made it easier for me was the wisdom of a friend who told me, "A copy of a picture is always weaker than the original. Go and try, it won't be worse than anywhere else."

The aircraft landed in the early morning after a seven-hour flight. We were met by a downpour of tropical rain with its warm drops, and every spot of land was covered with green. Broad smiles surrounded us, and raised clasped hand greetings, for which Eastern Asian peoples are known, promised us a happy and enjoyable journey. The security measures were a fantasy. We took a taxi which very gracefully conveyed us through the streets of the capital Bangkok. It was clear that the suspended serpentine bridges and roads which we followed were recently built, which helped us to arrive early at the place where we were staying. The first thing to attract my attention in that quick tour in that capital which suffers from severe environmental pollution was the obvious discrepancy between the Western style of building represented by glass fronted skyscrapers and the Oriental Thai style represented by houses and ancient pagodas. After that came the motor cycles, which were everywhere, and finally the famous Thai taxi known as a "tak tak". This is a three-wheeled motor cycle which pulls behind it a canopied carriage with seats for three people only.

I entered my room exhausted, and arranged my belongings hastily and prepared to take a bit of rest. I opened one of the drawers below the main mirror and my eyes fell on two books, the Bible and a book of the teachings of Buddha, and a sticker with "Direction of the Qibla" written on it in Arabic. What a coincidence that brought together the main religions and creeds of the world in one drawer, united by tolerance and a human respect for humanity.

In the evening I preferred to go to one of the forgotten wonders of the world, the "Night Market". This is a market without beginning or end, where shopping starts after 9 p.m. and ends at the first signs of dawn. The vendors come at 7 p.m. and set up their shops on the narrow pavement. People wander around among them contemplating, examining and buying. In the morning all these shops disappear as if they had never been there.

All kinds of goods are displayed in the Night Market: statues of Buddha, imitation Rolex watches, medallions, clothes, copied compact discs, licentious materials of all sorts even human beings, the penetrating smell of Thai cooking oils which cause catarrh to foreign tourists who are not used to them, local people eating pieces of fish and cockroaches in rusks in pleasure and intoxication, hours and hours of slow walking among the vendors and their customers when all that is heard is voices bargaining over Bahts, the official Thai currency, quick smiles indicating agreement, the conclusion of a deal. The tourists quickly learnt the game of bargaining, as usual fascinated by the magic of the East and the wonders of its legends. Everything, to them, deserves to be tried and photographed.

There are some golden rules about the Night Market that must be learnt and remembered continually. One of the most important is: buy what you like immediately, and do not think of coming back to the same place. The second is: do not enter a narrow alley unless you want to, and this is not a warning against robbery or harassment, but a single man usually receives special attention when entering alleys full of massage parlors, which in fact are disguised brothels. This is a deep-rooted profession in Thailand at which young girls aged under 18 usually work. They are sent from the villages and poor quarters to make money and help the head of their family.

Prostitution of minors in Thailand is a moral crisis for the state. They account for etween 14,000 and 40,000 out of 70,000 to 200,000 working in prostitution. This led the Thai government, in the person of Minister of State Dumsak Tibsutin, announced that it was determined to put an end to sexual tourism and free the tourist industry from all forms of exploitation of children. To this end the Thai Ministry of Tourism launched a propaganda campaign for tourism by women and families in an attempt to reduce the importance of tourism by single men.

Since we were obliged to follow a clear route in the main streets for fear of "getting lost", we continued the process of exploring the market, until we almost forgot the appointment for our trip to Phuket Island in the morning.

The internal trip between Bangkok and Phuket Island did not take more than an hour and a half. Through the window of the aircraft I tried without success to count the green islands surrounding Phuket. They are thousands of small islands, some of them smaller than Al-Arabi magazine's main editorial room. The landing of the aircraft relieved me from this amusement. As I headed towards the exit gate, my pockets and the pouches of my rucksack were filled with dozens of small information leaflets: hotels, one-day sea trips, huts for rental on small islands covered with rubber trees and enclosed by coconut palms and other trees, and other enticing offers.

Perhaps because the rain in Bangkok was not enough, the rain in Phuket welcomed us with unprecedented hospitality. For a whole hour from the little airport to the hotel district, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful verdant scenery devoid of urban solidity and its skyscrapers which closed off the sky in our faces and even shut off the rays of the sun and fresh air from us. Flat, watery rice fields and rubber forests surrounded us on all sides. The sun above us looked down on us shyly at times, and disappeared many times behind the clouds. Along our slippery road would appear to us from time to time a mosque for the Muslim inhabitants of Phuket followed shartly after by a pagoda for the Buddhists. These houses of worship number a total of 38 mosques, 29 Thai temples and 16 Chinese temples. The rain began to diminish little by little, and with increased movement of people and cars I realized the we had arrived at Batong tourist beach.

Phuket Island is an equatorial forest full of rubber, mango and coconut trees. More important, it is rich with mines of copper that does not rust and needs no great effort to extract. The status of copper to the Thais is like that of fire to the first human beings: it is his source of warmth, nourishment and protection. They have used it to make war arrowheads for hunting. As usual, since these copper mines were discovered they attracted invaders and greedy people to Thailand, particularly their Burmese neighbors who tried to invade Thailand four times in the period between 1782 and 1812. But each time they were unlucky, either because of heroic Thai resistance, or because of internal instability in Burma itself. Perhaps the historical paradox here is that Thailand is one of the countries in the Far East which was never subjected to European colonialism, although its neighbor Burma was occupied by British forces in 1824, and its dealings with Thailand from that time on were peaceful with regard to the copper trade!

Raw Thai copper extracted from Phuket is 70-75% pure. This is not good enough to obtain excellent copper, but in a chemical mixture with some other metals, it becomes almost as valuable and as good as gold. All industrialized countries use it to manufacture electronic connections. Europe owns most of the copper mines. Because of increased demand and a shortage of labor in these mines, thousands of Chinese workers migrated to that small island, until there were about 25,000 workers there in the middle of the nineteenth century. An English observer, Dr. D.P. Bradley, describing the condition of these workers, wrote: "The immigration continues to increase, and now there are about 25,000 Chinese in Phuket. They are divided into different factions and are continually at variance with each other. These men during the SW monsoon find plenty of employment in the tin mines, but during the NE monsoon numbers of them are idle being out of employment owing to scarcity of water for washing tin. Gambling predominates much more than in Bangkok, and is the principal cause of so much trouble on the island."

I arrived at the hotel, took the key to my room, entered it, threw my suitcase onto the bed, took out my sea clothes and went out running to the sea. People were armed with cameras to record these rare moments. The beautiful thing about the beaches of Phuket Island is that they are not long and extended so that it is difficult to see the whole of them with the naked eye. All its beaches are crescent-shaped or U-shaped, which means enjoyable swimming without the violent waves of the Indian Ocean. The more small islands there are in front of the beaches, the calmer the water and the better the conditions.

I became more and more convinced that tourist areas come to be controlled by the habits and frames of mind of the majority of their visitors. For example, in Latin American countries we find that the American style is prevalent in general in their resorts and shops. The same thing happens in former French colonies. In Phuket the scale tilted towards the Australians with some share for the Japanese, the Germans and the Indians. I saw this every day. Some of the shops were named after different places in these countries. This has a magical effect in attracting tourists. Most cafes and bars are packed with Australians when the time comes for a rugby match or an English football match to be shown. With the changing seasons the balance of forces changes in favor of new groups. In the summer months stickers with the words "Al- Salamu Alaikum" and "Halal" begin to appear on shop fronts and "tak tak" vehicles, indicating that Arab tourists are coming.

The movement of tourism on Phuket Island is concentrated only in the Batong crescent. There are also hundreds of shaded deck chairs for hire at a low price for indefinite periods all over Batong Beach. Visitors to that beach usually do not leave it until shortly before sunset. Everything needed for rest and pleasure is available on that beach: tropical cold drinks, massage sessions, parachutes, jet skis, African-style hair plaiting for long-haired women who want to be free of the trouble of letting their hair down and rinsing it, and to avail themselves of more hours of enjoyment.

My attention was attracted by a persistent movement that occurred every day in front of the open seafood shops, which began at 4 p.m. and lasted for about twenty minutes. Small trucks loaded with crushed ice and others with fish would stop, and workers would dismount from them and stroll over to these shops, and quickly come out of them again. A few moments, and then some workers would begin bringing boxes from which the whiskers of protruded, together with other varieties. They would arrange these carefully on a plaster base in the shape of a large oyster to attract customers, and then pack them with huge quantities of crushed ice except for small parts of them. . Finally a small sign would be planted beside each type, indicating the type and the price per kilo. Lunchtime had come.

At sunset shopping activity began, and the streets became crowded with hundreds of reddened and browned bodies going to and fro along Batong Street. On their right were the shops, restaurants, cafes and sellers of copied films, while on their left were the sands of Batong Beach which they had left a few hours ago. Live music played with "globalized" songs, and all birds of a feather flocked together, the Australians with fellow-Australians, the Germans with fellow-Germans.

Shops in Batong Market were divided into three types: permanent fixed shops built with cement, temporary shops like those un the Night market, and finally tiny shops crammed into side alleys off the main street. Al of them are concerned with protecting their wares from the rain with pieces of transparent plastic covering.

As I wandered around among the people and the scattered shops, I remembered in spite of myself old people's stories about the legendary safety that Kuwait's old markets used to enjoy. At that time a shopkeeper used o be content with a piece of cloth to cover his wares before going to the mosque. In the Phuket markets I saw what I had heard about the markets of Kuwait, with some differences in the types of goods displayed and the vendors. After 10 p.m. I was able to obtain free goods which I wanted and had bargained over before, and the price had not suited me.

Out of dozens of shops which mostly sell artistic objects and attractive souvenirs, I stopped at one intending to buy some artistic objects. I searched and searched until my eyes fell on similar statues of a bald, fat man with his paunch showing, who was constantly laughing and holding a book in his right hand, but in a different pose in each statue. Frankly I liked the look of him, and asked the vendor who was called Muhammad (a Thai of Indian origin) about the price. He answered, "This is Buddha, do you want him?" But since I knew well what Buddha looked like, particularly the one with serpents found in India, I asked Muhammad, pointing to the one in my hand,

" And who is this? "

" This is a Chinese Buddha," he told me.

Then I realized that this subject would not stop at this point, and in fact Muhammad went on, "And this one is Thai, and this one is Indian," and Japanese, until he came to six Buddhas distributed among East Asian countries, some of which worship one of them, while there is general agreement that all six are the same Buddha. I bought one of each type of Buddha, by way of research and verification.

Buddha who was born about 400 BC in India was not originally a god, but a sage. Indeed he was the first who was bold enough to attack the Hindu creed, and regarded prayer to its deities as "stupidity and nonsense" because they did not have the power to change anything. The temples, priests and haloes of veneration for Buddha, which appeared hundreds of years after his death, range between deification and respect for him and his reasonable teachings. The strange thing here is indeed that temples and statues should be erected for someone who fought against them!

To remain in the Batong Beach area for the whole period of my stay in Phuket would mean missing a lot of unforgettable trips in and around the island. The most important of these were two trips that must be taken: a tour of the island by car and a visit to Fi Fi Island. Each of these lasted an entire day. In the morning I booked the tickets and prepared myself for the first trip which was an individual one, with only me and the driver. It began at twelve noon that day.

To my misfortune, the sun shone all day, which is unusual. We arrived at our first stop, which is a place which hires out elephants for a ride among the rubber trees. At the beginning the idea of riding an elephant did not appeal to me, for fear of wasting time on az slow and very jolting trip. But I overcame that feeling , got out of the car, and the sun ordered me to get back into it again. This in fact is what I did. In the distance an elephant, which a worker was spraying with water in order to cool it from the heat of the day, was looking at me as if advising me to leave.

After going a short distance for not more than twenty minutes, we arrived at a rubber forest with elegant trees aligned with great care. We stopped by it to take a walk in it. While we were going along the narrow road between the trees, local inhabitants passed by us indifferently on their bicycles. Not all the rubber trees had been exploited, but we saw selected groups which had been cut with precision, and a receptacle placed below each cut to collect the rubber sap. On the way back we saw some workers emptying the sap out of these receptacles and collecting it in a small barrel. In the island there are many rubber forests like the one we visited.

On the way I was a crescent like that of Batong, but without buildings and shops. It was full of islands very close to the beach. As a result some people found work taking tourists who wanted to explore these places in their narrow boats at a very cheap price.

At the following stop, we halted at a very high place known as the photographing point, which had been built specially for those who liked photography and looking out over wide areas of Phuket Island from above. In fact the view of the virgin beaches and the dense trees from above was unforgettable. In the same context, I learnt that there is another point for photographing at another place which is devoted solely to viewing the beauty of the sunset in Phuket.

As the harshness of the sun's rays abated and the temperature dropped, the last parts of the exploratory tour of the landmarks of Phuket seemed more attractive and enjoyable, particularly in the only zoo in the island. There trained elephants skillfully scored goals in a football display, while cheerful monkeys responded to their trainer's instructions and the warm applause of the audience. Phuket Zoo offers various types of shows. It also contains several aquariums, massive cages for birds, and last but not least, a closed garden for butterflies which one can enter to see the butterflies close up among many trees and plants, and an artificial waterfall. I spent most of the time among these rare animals until the time came to go back to the town of Phuket which was empty of tourists and hotels to receive them, and from there to Batong Beach where I was staying.

All that remained on the timetable for trips away from Phuket Island was a sea trip to Fi Fi Island, which is one of the trips available within the programs of all the travel agencies which I consulted. The reason why this trip is famous is that it passes by an island where Di Caprio, the star of the film Titanic, filmed some of the scenes of his last film on one of its beaches. Before that film was made, it was a routine trip like so many others. But who today can resist the magic of the stars of Titanic wherever they went?

The program for this trip begins from the early morning. The bus from the tourist office collects those going on the trip from wherever they are staying and delivers them to Phuket harbor where a speed boat for twelve passengers (apart from the four-man crew) is waiting for them. Before embarking, each passenger is handed a diving kit consisting of flippers, a mask and a breathing tube. The speedboat set off with us through very shallow yellow water mixed with earth and mud. Then the situation changed gradually and we entered deep blue water. On the way we passed by some small boats heading towards the territorial waters of the neighboring state of Burma. The captain of the trip told us that Thai fishermen are allowed to enter Burmese waters where lobsters are plentiful. After two hours of cruising round scattered small islands, we entered a group of rectangular and square shaped islands, which acted like walls: the further in we went, the calmer the water became and the lighter were the sun's scorching rays. The most beautiful thing we saw there was the huge quantity of colored fish which greet every visiting boat with great insistence, as if they know that their livelihood depends on it. Suddenly we found an open space of water in which there were several small boats full of tourists and diving enthusiasts, everyone diving in. The captain of our boat announced that we had arrived at "Di Caprio Island", and we could now dive and swim to our hearts' content for a whole hour. Thus we suddenly swam. Were we not going to anchor at "Di Caprio Beach"? The answer was no, because it was forbidden to visit that beach. This was in fact the first time that I swam from a boat directly into the water.

The hour finished and we left "Di Caprio Beach" and headed for Fi Fi Island which is full of Muslims. After four hours of embarking and disembarking and being on board the speedboat, thanks to the increased movement of the waves and the great speed of the boat, we arrived at the quiet Fi Fi Island: pure white sands with cocnul trees and forests of rubber trees behind them, shaded chairs by the beach and a lunch prepared by Muslim hands awaited us. It was in fact a delicious hot meal in which we did not suffer from the penetrating smells of Thai cooking. Even the foreigners who were accompanying us were happy because the meal which they ate was to a great extent "normal".

Fi Fi Island is one of those islands where those who want to isolate themselves from the world can stay. It contains a number of small huts prepared with comfortable amenities and at fantastic rents, no more than several metres from the sea. The exploration of Fi Fi Island this time was done barefoot. Its virgin skies encourage one to abandon all urban methods of life even for a few moments. This is what I tried to do throughout the two hours that I spent on that wonderful island. We tried hard to persuade the captain of the trip to delay the departure, but our pleas fell on deaf ears with a guide who did not know more than the language of the weather bulletin.

Perhaps history will bear witness to the legendary love of Thailand and its people for peace, their rejection of wars and expansionist conflicts. This is what made the Emperor of China Kublai Khan to evacuate a group of his people who enjoyed these characteristics. This group which was exiled to the south was the nucleus which later formed the Thailand of today. It suffered from repeated migrations to the south whenever its mebers faced a savage tribe on their way, until they arrived at the coast. Here their situation stabilized until they were able to establish their kingdom, which remains to this day.

What led me to relate this this summary is the violent game which the Thais, of all people in South East Asia, invented, namely Thai wrestling. You will seldom find Thais fighting or raising their voices in the streets and markets, so that one almost believes that they were created without any inclination to violence and revenge. So how could they contravene what they had been accustomed to for hundreds of years and invent wrestling that is not satisfied with punches with the hands only, but also kicks with the feet!

But when Friday night comes, these illusions rapidly disappear, and one discovers how much Thais love what is known as Thai wrestling. The Span Hen ring is near Phuket town. Who ever arrives late returns home early because of the intense overcrowding and heat of those making bets

The Thai love of wrestling is not only confined to human beings, but has also reached the cocks, for whom special wrestling rings have been established which are attended by a large crowd in order to bet on the strongest one. This crowd was following the cockfight entranced and excited and hardly saw the blue-eyed people slipped into their midst. In general Thais do not bother tourists with curious and astonished gazes, however great the degree of difference in their features.

On the last day in Phuket, I felt an urge to find out the news of my homeland and the world from Arabic letters which I had not seen throughout the length of the journey,. apart from the word "halal". There was no other way than that spider's web information network, the Internet. The idea of reading Arabic newspapers in Phuket (even outdated ones) was impossible. Fortunately there are Internet cafes almost everywhere in Phuket, and in Thailand in general and cost very little. This encourages users to avoid the idea of buying a personal computer. Internet cafes are a successful business in tourist countries because it is difficult for a tourist to take his own computer with him on every journey. It is also a successful business in general in all areas where only a few people own personal computers.

the first question is: can a Thai computer read Arabic script? I pressed buttons in search of an Arabic website, which includes all the sites of Arabic newspapers on the Internet. I waited for a few seconds and was surprised when incomprehensible letters and sshapes appeared which were unreadable, accompanied by a message in the middle of the screen asking me in English asking if I wanted the computer to be upgraded so it could read Arabic script. Of course I answered in the affirmative. It took only five minutes for a support program to be installed to read Arabic script on the Thai computer. My joy was indescribable when I was able in this completely different environment to read Arabic newspapers and news easily. It was an indescribable feeling of warmth, nostalgia and yearning for my country.


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi