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Sawadee

     With 40 hours, three countries and 10,000 miles behind us, we finally arrive in Phuket, eager but exhausted. Thailand’s largest island, and perhaps most notable for the December 2004 tsunami that decimated its coastline, Phuket lies in the Andaman Sea on the Western coast of Southern Thailand.
     As we walk along the beach a full three years after the tsunami, there are no visible signs of damage – either in the hundreds of bodegas, bars and massage parlors lining the busy streets, or in the revelers who fill them.
     We had arranged for a ride into town from the airport a few days before arriving. The driver from our guest house in Karon Beach, just south of Patong, picks us up in a brand new Toyota Corolla and we soon discover that he only knows English in clips and phrases, and communicates mostly with smiles and nods.
     He makes a right turn onto the two-lane road surrounding the airport, embarking on the 45-minute drive, and immediately encounters a sea of scooters, some carrying an entire family where, at most, two people are meant to ride.
     The lush vegetation encroaches on the winding pavement, forcing the scooters into the car lane. Rach, the driver, who is now constantly swerving and alternating gas with hard brakes, narrowly avoids the little two-wheelers but crosses over the center line, peaking his way into oncoming traffic. It’s a rough ride and a constant battle but Rach maneuvers perfectly and reassures us with a wide, sincere smile that we’ll make it through.
     We get dropped off and, after sleeping through the night’s New Year’s Eve celebration of shattering liquor bottles, long festive cheers and fireworks whose shells, we discover the following morning, are as big as cantaloupes, we stumble back down to the cozy, open-air lobby of our guesthouse that also serves as the dining room.
     The proprietor of the guesthouse, a Thai woman in her mid-thirties, is placating her young son, who is no more than four years old.
     When his mother turns her head, the precocious youngster immediately endears himself to an elderly Australian couple when he sneaks behind the two, steals the old man’s hat and scurries throughout the maze of well-appointed tables, chairs and sofas that appeal instantly to a desire to rest after a long day exploring.
     With the guesthouse owner chasing after the boy and the hat, the Australians are laughing to the point of tears, taking in the scene before them as if they had wagered their entire lives together on this one moment, and it was paying off.
     The boy’s mother finally corrals him and returns the hat to the Australians, though they would gladly return it to the boy if it meant another dash through the sitting room furniture.
     We decline an invitation for afternoon breakfast, opting instead for a cold beer. I go for the Singha and, at 6.3 percent alcohol by volume, it’s twice as strong as the American beer I’m used to drinking.
     The guesthouse owner, now doubling as a bartender, presents the native lager in an ice-cold, frosty bottle, accompanied by a coozy to keep it cold. In a couple minutes time, the frost is gone and the water left behind drips out of the insulated sleeve onto my leg. It’s refreshing in the heat and humidity that besets the island.
     Later that evening, a stroll down Bangla Road in Patong Beach reveals a sinister side of Phuket and a part of Thai culture that plagues the nation. The sex industry is thriving and, down the sois on either side of the main avenue, Thai women offer their bodies to anyone who will pay.
     We are approached by a man in the street who asks, “You want puffing pussy?” and then hands us a laminated menu of countless sexual performances we can see if only we will go to his club and tip the women.
     He tries hard to sell us on the puffing pussy but recommends the fireworks and ping pong shows as well. I feign interest, taking a look at the menu, but Katie, my girlfriend, and the more graceful and respectable of the two of us, politely thanks the man, resisting his salesmanship, and returns the menu.
     On the main half-mile strip of Bangla Road, each side of the street is lined with bars where go-go dancers on tables entertain the masses.
     The ladyboys, high on their perch, look so much like women, and attractive women, that before we know what they actually are, Katie light-heartedly teases me when I tell her I want to enjoy a cold beer at a bar across the street from one of the shows.
     Naturally I deny any interest in watching the dancers. I just happened to find a couple of seats at this bar.
     An older American man and a younger Thai woman sit down in the two open stools at our table. Katie has seen this before in our short time here and is put off by the arrangements.
     The men, wealthy white foreigners, pay the women’s expenses throughout the year in exchange for a couple weeks of entertainment and sex while in Thailand. I ask Katie if we need to leave, but we stay so I can “watch the dancers,” she says wryly.
     The man strikes up a conversation and tells us that every dancer we see, in every bar, is a man.
     “Are you sure?” I ask.
     He insists his claim is the truth, and his Thai concubine eagerly nods her head in agreement. I turn to Katie, confused and embarrassed, looking for answers but she simply returns a smile and takes a sip of her drink.
     A few Singhas later, we grow weary of the bright lights and imposing sexual deviance on Bangla Road, so we walk back to the hotel along the beach, to the sound of the lapping sea in the moonlight.
     The next morning on the beach, we haplessly sit down beside a European couple well into their sixties. The woman, topless and tan, gets up to cool off in the water and reveals a thong bikini below and surprising perkiness above. As she lumbers back from the sea, through pockets of pot-bellied men and surgically enhanced women lying beside them, we decide that it’s time for us to move on.

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