Monday, March 24, 2008

Three days ago I left a deserted sandy beach in Thailand for an 18 hour journey home. The time difference meant I left Mai Khao in Phuket at 8.30 am and arrived back in Brighton at 11 pm. I crossed the Himalayas and was knocked out by their size. I lost count of the number of magnificent rivers, endless straight roads and tracts of untouched land passed below me.

It's the first time I've been away from my kids for two weeks but luxury hotels have e mail and wow, that made a difference, certainly to me, if not to them. The mobile phone, too. My travelling standards were formed in my teens when there was neither. So I still set off on a journey mentally preparing myself for cutting off contact completely with anyone I know, with the saved coins for an emergency phone call tucked away. Of course it's not like that. I rang my daughter from Patong to quiz her about the bag she wanted me to buy her! It felt crazier doing that than walking through the lunatic streets of the resort rampant with consumerism and designer knock offs.

Phuket is a great introduction to Thailand. It's a place of resorts and contrasts. You can't pretend to be other than a tourist because of your appearance. You have to accept dual pricing and that bargaining is a myth, possibly shored up to justify the almost European costs. What I loved about Phuket were the glimpses of everyday Thai life - buffalo in the fields, chickens under baskets by the roadside, the minah birds and geckoes, songbirds in cages outside corrugated iron shacks, coconut milk green curry and spicier red curry, the smell of fish cooking everywhere even though I don't eat it, the long tailed boats in every bay and the thud of the sea.

I arrived to work at a conference on hair. The conference hotel was infused with the scent of frangipani. Staff lit an essential oil burner in my room every night. Breakfast was a buffet of fresh fruit - pomelo, pineapple, mango, papaya and a strange polka dot fruit with pink skin. There were three pools, one of which I tried to swim in every day first thing....when I had it to myself. A short stroll away, Nai Yang beach, one of the island's most laid back and least commercial.

The conference was crazy but there were highlights: meeting the hairdresser Andrew Barton, what a lovely bloke, realising humour is an astonishing survival mechanism, witnessing the self-deception of men who would be leaders but are not, being in the tropics and absorbing the light, seeing fire balloons make brief constellations in the dark, meeting people who know how to have fun, realising I can function after 36 hours without sleep, being given the chance to scuba dive and overcoming the terror of pulling myself into nothingness with a rope.

After the conference I stayed on with Sophia, a young woman I was working with who also wanted to see the island. We went to Surin beach, a bit further south. The hotel was equally luxurious but the resort wasn't as quiet. There was a lot more building work. The beach was beautiful and we tried to do some sightseeing - one day taking a long tailed boat to Coral Island for snorkelling among parrot fish, another day visiting Phuket town and not realising it was a public holiday but on the way back, stopping off at a Golden Buddha and wandering around it in the darkness - so much more moving somehow than in searing sun. We visited Chalong Wat, another Buddhist temple and eventually ended up at a beach bungalow at Mai Khao, north of our starting point.

Mai Khao is in the national park and renowned for being a beach where the turtles lay their eggs every year. But apparently they don't anymore....Mal and Koy who run the campsite/bungalows are an Anglo-Thai couple. Mal's from Norwich, Koy was born in the village inland from the beach. Her grandmother planted the coconut plantation and cashew trees that stretched back to the road. It's years since they've seen turtles - according to Mal they're yet another victim of plastic bags.

All around the island are memorials to the tsunami and houses for dispossessed spirits. Sophia and I both picked up on an undercurrent of melancholy. At Mr Kobi's bar in Nai Yang where we had lunch a couple of times there's a photo of him, fat faced and jolly, before the tsunami. He's thinner, more haggard now, although he laughs and jokes.

Then, hours after we arrived at Mai Khao, we were told a Swedish girl had been murdered in neighbouring bungalows and found in the sea by her friend. She'd walked down the beach, towards the airport and Nai Yang at 10 am and been attacked by a man who'd been spotted with binoculars.

Suddenly we were anxious. Arriving at the bungalows after most of our time in resorts had been enough of a contrast between sheltered pampering and real travelling. Both of us, independently, almost asked the taxi driver to stay. We'd been used to phones, concierges, endless people to order a taxi, walls between us and the world. This place was raw. On the beach among causarina trees and coconut palms.

The murder made reality even more extreme. The beach looked different. The basket of bright flowers I'd noticed there, thinking it was a tsunami memorial, became more poignant and desperate. The beach became a place of police and angry villagers, a crime scene.

It may be possible to travel and stay in resorts, remaining untouched by a place and its people other than on the level of daily greetings. Phuket is the first time in my 53 years I've been in luxury hotels of this kind and I can see the lure. They're utterly relaxing, a wonderful abregation of responsibility - I forgot to mention the massage - and truly a holiday from the daily grind. Our experience at Mai Khao provided the flip side of travelling that reminds us to tune in, as the old hippies used to say. If we hadn't been there, I'd never have woken up to the drum of the sea instead of air conditioning, heard coconuts thud to the ground rather like apples do in my garden in autumn. We might not have noticed the corrugated iron shanty homes and taken Mal and Koy's dog, Wrong Way, for a walk on the beach and passed only a couple of loungers.

And new resorts are being planned for that remaining unspoilt stretch. It's hard to imagine them, but half of Koy's grandmother's plantation has already been cut down for luxury holiday flats and a swimming pool.