The Two Faces of Travel and Tourism: Phuket

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There’s a difference between being a traveller and a tourist. Instinctively, I knew that before I started my trip to Thailand, only I couldn’t have explained WHAT that difference was. This is the story of Joy who (without intention) showed me.

With a damaged ankle (the residue of four months snowboarding, in all likelihood) I was forced to change my plans for the start of my trip. I needed to rest and how better to do that than sit on a beach: enter international beach holiday resort, Phuket.

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Aaaaaahhhhh (the satisfied sigh of beach tourist type)

Tourism 101

Now, an intermission, for the briefest of discussions on the debated differences between tourism and travelling. There are a wealth of views and opinions on the Internet, so many, I don’t have time to discuss them here, not yet. But Bryan Grey put it succinctly on Traveller’s Point: ‘The true traveller [is] soaking it up like a sponge,’ they will go anywhere and do anything. And The Colorful Wolf adds a little more detail:


The difference between a tourist and a traveller is that the traveller goes to a place without any preconceptions, whereas the tourist has already decided on how he’s going to experience it. The traveller has an open mind and lets the place happen to him. The tourist brings with him his own environment and expectations, thereby diluting (polluting?) the experience.

So, it’s the attitude, as much as anything. Safely ensconced in my ’boutique guesthouse’and making my pilgrimages to the beach, there was not a huge amount of absorption going on.

Enter Aussie Joy of Karon Beach, who I decided to stay with for the remainder of my time on Phuket – check out her Trip Advisor (my way of guaranteeing or sanitising my travel experience – ever the tourist) reviews.

Joy met me and hugged me with enthusiasm; people meet each other for a reason, she told me. Yes, perhaps it would be my chance to meet people and broaden my experience, I thought. In many ways, Joy did not disappoint.

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This is Joy

Over coffee, Dow Egberts (having first negotiated a sea of chaos, for, as Joy went on to tell me, she was actually closed for the low season and the place was mid-clean), Joy told me about the principles of Buddhism, the lost Euros and her faecal analogy on unhappiness and how to discharge it (unhappiness that is, but you can probably see where that one’s going). She then suggested that the following day we ‘go for a drive.’ I agreed to this, yet not really sure what ‘going for a drive’ would entail.

In fact, on successive days we went for two drives.

Drive #1

An hour later than planned we sat in Joy’s pea-green Mazda as she negotiated the chaotic Phuket traffic; and I still had no idea where we were going. Turns out to Joy’s home; two bungalows in the fishing village of Kokaenod, which looks put over the Chalong bay.

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Looking in on Guan Im

In the Chinese Temple, in which resides female god Guan Im, we paid our respects with incense. I felt a delicate privilege to be part of the ritual. Later, reclining on a crumbling jetty, interrupted only by the laughter of the water, Joy told me that the place was her sanctuary.

As the day wore on Joy insisted I relax on her decking while she tidied her garden. At odd times she stopped to offer me a cold bottle of Coca Cola or whisper of the old catfish, lurking in the depths of the pond. She knows she is safe when I am here, she told me.

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Aquatic Gardening

That afternoon I was invigorated, relaxed and sometimes scared, haunted by thoughts of Cathy Bates in Stephen King’s Misery.

But eventually we did leave the bungalow, heading for the Big Buddha – immense effigy and phenomenal view point between Kata and Chalong – only stopping at street vendors for Green Fanta and finger bananas on the way.

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I found the Buddha himself caused me to question that space between tourism and travel (or pilgrimage, on a more spiritual slant). The road leading to the great monument-in-the-making is lined with tourist rouses; elephant trekking, monkey shows, bird shows. Creatures shackled and bound to perform in the name of profit. At the site it is not possible to move more than a few metres without a request for a donation (the site itself is free to enter). The huge tiled Buddha, the golden effigies, the intricate wooden carvings all (to me) smacked of iconoclasm or at least something that Buddhism is not. And hence I questioned the place; tourist attraction or holy site?

Joy would say, what does it matter how people came to see the Buddha? However they arrive, they leave with just a little more understanding, a reminder of the principles of Buddhism. I remained unsure.

As the sun was setting we drove south down the coast, through Rawai for delicious street food (sweet nutty sago and coconut dessert), to Promthep Cape (a view point with a huge draw for tourists at sunset), then to the quieter Windmill view point, just beyond. Here we picnicked. Then on to Nai Harn beach and homeward bound, where the task of Thai cooking and people watching awaited.

At 23:00 I stumbled to bed, full and intoxicated.

Drive #2

Again, an hour late. First stop on the mystery tour, Methee Cashew Nut Factory. Tourists are bought here by tour guides and this is more of a shop than a factory:

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Virgin cashews.

In fact, they had a young employee with a basket follow each tourist around the shop as they were invited to taste each product (sumptuous, I won’t deny it – cashews with sour cream, cashews with garlic, chilli, honey, chocolate, cashews in cookies, in brittle, juiced even!). The implication; you will not leave empty handed. So, I left with my bag of cashews and hey, I got this for free:

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Yes, a large cashew growing out if my head!

The cashews were good, but I was left with a bitter taste that I tried my best to swallow (not unlike that that lychee stone incident). From the factory, we skirted the coast, heading to Cape Panwa, mounting view points, only long enough to take photographs.

Everywhere, Joy would point something out; the Muslim communities, their speakers for the five-times-daily prayers, the sea shacks of the Chao Leh (sea gypsies), until we arrived at our destination; Phuket Aquarium

I looked tried to look genuinely interested, but I was fighting disappointment; this was a family tourist destination, not an experience.

After lunch at the delicious Uptown Restaurant, Phuket Town – 240THB two meals and drinks – we headed to Khao Rang (Rang Hill), another view point, this one looking out over the city.

By the end of the day I was choked on tourism. Rightly or wrongly I felt I had become Joy’s pet and she had fed me. All I had done was capture images, which, without proper understanding or feeling would ultimately be meaningless.

Later, seated on Joy’s porch, preparing to go for a run, I watched an Australian man arguing vehemently with the tout for Fashion World, the tailors (who only that morning had kindly shared their Thai and Nepalese curries with me) across the street. The tout had clearly offended in his attempts to coerce, flatter or seduce the Australian into the shop. I wondered what the Australian expected; didn’t he realise that Fashion World was there because he was there? Neither of them were indigenous to Thailand, neither had more right than the other.

Along the sea front, it was dark. The bathers long gone, the litter pickers left at dusk. All that was left were the sweet smelling people who strolled the strip. They ignored the painfully thin man who picked through the litter after the pickers had picked it, preserving what he could, and the rats, curling and darting between the bags, raiding the leftovers, making a show of hiding; but equally sure that this was their time.

Later, I paid Joy for her fuel for that day and fought against feelings of having been cheated.

At Phuket bus station,the next day, I had plenty of time to mull it over. Yes, I could continue to feel cheated or I could recognise what I had learnt. I wanted to experience, not just to see and tick from a list, safe and comfortable in the sterile bubble of a tour car, minivan or from behind glass. I wanted the slight, tremulous fear I had on Drive #1, irrationally wondering if Joy would hold me captive in her bungalow, the humble gratitude before Guan Im and the delicate, grateful relaxation of being invited into Joy’s sanctuary. I wanted experience in all its unexpected forms.

Please leave your thoughts on travel versus tourism below, this is likely a subject I’ll visit again…

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