Phuket, Thailand: Mystery Mansion, Taxi Mafia, and a Reflection on Art & Tourism

It’s early afternoon in Bangkok. We have hours ‘til our plane leaves for Phuket so we take our time getting to the airport. A tuk tuk driver asks where we’re going and Sierra tells him,
“We’re headed to Phuck-it.” 

The man is amused as he corrects us, 

“Oh Poo-ket! Haha.”

We had been saying, 

“Phuck-it! Let’s go to Phuket!”

Underground, the light rail station is air-conditioned. We decide to follow it straight to the airport, also air conditioned. Sharing sips of ginseng wine, we catch a passing skyline view of Bangkok. The city is seemingly endless. 

Sierra recalls a dream where the customs agent punches her ticket and says,

“I hope we never see you here again.” She agrees with the sentiment and turns her back on the city.

Out of the scorching sun and into the airport, we find a bit of open space under an escalator near an electrical outlet. Other travelers are laying down on the nearby floor to rest.

We pass the wine bottle back and forth, enjoying the cool floor. Colorful people shuffle about. We wonder what the Thai island life has to offer. The Andaman Sea: sea of bliss. Will it be relaxing and nourishing or will it be a giant tourist trap?

We finish the bottle with some Chinatown snacks and get on with the security checkpoints. They take my refillable butane lighter and suspiciously eye an old three ounce bottle of Kentucky bourbon I have leftover. I consider offering to drink it on the spot but they let it slide this time. They tell me I’ll need to check my bag next time I do that.

Near our terminal gate, we step into a food-court portal and find a Subway, Burger King, McDonalds, Krispy Kreme Donuts, and a slew of international fast food joints. We’re both very hungry and a little buzzed from the ginseng booze. The whole thing feels quite surreal.

McDonalds has a sale on purple sweet-potato taro pies. From the picture, it looks like they killed Grimace and ground him into mince-meat.

We opt for Japanese fast food. The place is called Fuji something. We get salmon fried rice with a fried egg on top and miso soup on the side. The miso soup is the best I’ve had to date. It cost about as much as a large McDonald’s number.  

Most of the asians in the food court are sitting down to their Big Macs while we’re ooh-ing and ah-ing over Japanese fast food.

Good food and a high-tech bathroom break have us ready for our flight. A side note on the bathrooms: they have tiny waterfalls that run inside the urinal wall and act as a slash-guard. Aside from the standard Thai toilet/shower combination, I’ve never been given license to piss cavalier like I did at Suvarnabhumi Int’l Airport . It was liberating.

At the gate we watch a documentary on the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It tells of his conquests and his infallible nature. It goes on to describe the history of the airport we’re in.

Suvarnabhumi is relatively new and still under construction. It is one of the largest and most extravagant airports I’ve been in. According to the documentary, the King funded the project and chose to build this airport on top of an old lotus lake. The name Suvarnabhumi translates as Golden Land. Outside the window, we see the transformation taking place.

 We board the plane and find only economy seats- no first class. For the domestic Thai airlines, most one-way tickets we’ve looked at range from thirty to sixty dollars. It sure beats taking a fourteen hour train or a ten hour bus.

It’s a quick skip over to Phuket, running under two hours. We exit the airport and find it’s hot, humid, and dark. Walking out of the parking lot, we are again harassed by taxis and tuk-tuk drivers. With our packs on, we may as well be flying signs with dollar signs on them. I get uneasy and doubt we’ll find the place.

We booked a reservation at a nearby mansion for the night. I have an image in my head of a villa-style teak mansion with a wrap-around porch and a nice Thai auntie serving sweet tea by the veranda. 

Photo credit: dreamhomesource.com
 
We have the street address and no GPS to guide us. Again, we refer to a cartoon tourist map for a vague idea.

A few taxis stop and gently harass us,

“Where you going? You lost?” 

I wonder, “Is it that obvious?” 

We wave them off and keep walking. It’s dark and we have no idea where this mansion is. Most of the streets are unmarked and nobody has heard of our destination. 

I picture an old western scene: we approach an old legless Thai beggar and ask him how to get to the mansion. Playing coy, he scratches his chin,

“Mansion… mansion… hmm I’ve heard of this mansion but I just can’t remember… a few baht would freshen my memory up.”

Alas, no legless Thai beggar appears to extort us for directions. 

The taxi drivers are ceaseless. Every few minutes a new pulls over for us. I consider some travel forums and news articles I’ve read about the taxi mafia in Phuket. I wonder what happens after we’ve rejected all the taxi drivers and find ourselves at a dark intersection. I wonder if the cabs are “protection” from thieves.

A taxi pulls up and I’m getting more paranoid buy the minute. I talk with him and he has no idea where the mansion is. I decide to take a chance and see what their game us. 

Sierra looks at me like I’ve just let a gypsy hold my wallet while he guesses my weight. After about two minutes the driver deviates from the main road and takes us down a dark side road. 

My stomach sinks and I realize we’re at the mercy of the driver. Well, there are two of us and he’s pretty small but we still don’t like it. I ask him to turn around, trying not to sound worried.. He says us he’s taking us on a loop to look for the mansion.

He reads the name of every hotel we go past, repeating “mansion” to himself over and over.

We slow down and speed up, I consider asking him to stop and let us out. We rear a corner and I see the main road again. Still a bit on edge from the city, I trust that we’re not in a dangerous place.

He brings us around to a 7-11. I pay him in full for taking us further off course. We go in to buy cold water. Nobody has a clue about this mansion. 

A man in a tuk tuk offers us a room at his friends house for a few hundred baht. We say thanks but we’re already booked at this mystery mansion. Maybe it;s haunted.

We walk back and forth, up and down the road where the road should be according to the numbers. There’s a phone number to call but we don’t have a Thai phone and SIM card yet.

 A taller Thai man wearing a wife-beater with rings on his fingers and ears asks if we’re lost. He has a pirate’s swagger with an easy smile. We tell him where we’re going and he offers us a cheap room in his hostel. We tell him no thanks. He motions for us to have a seat and relax while he finds someone to help. 

The madame of the hostel /restaurant is another strong matriarchal Thai women with kind, stern eyes. She tells us she will translate over the phone if we call Mansion.

Sierra reluctantly dials the number of the mansion on her US plan ($1 per minute!). The madame speaks no more that twenty seconds and we’ve got a shuttle en route.

We say “kah-poon-kop” many times and order a tall beer for the wait. Soon enough a minivan rolls onto the sidewalk and we hop in. The AC is on full blast and we’re sigh in relief.

They pull off and make a u-turn, taking us down the road perpendicular to where they picked us. We were very, very close. 

I feel like a dipshit. Sierra seems unphased at this point. We’re both happy to get to a private room with a bed. As it turns out, the road snakes back a couple blocks and hooks left for awhile. With our shoddy directions, it’s very unlikely we would’ve found it without help.

The building is one story. It’s narrow, rectangular, with a few eight by eight rooms. 

Sirikul Mansion

There is no wrap-around porch. It’s more of a mini Motel 6 than a mansion, but we’re not complaining. The room is spotless and the mattress is firm. There may be no Thai auntie serving sweet tea… but there is AC and two ice-cold bottles of water in the fridge. 
Phuket: Day Two

The next day we eat at the Thai hostel / restaurant and thank the owners who helped us last night. We order Thai food and cold drinks while making small talk with them.

We have a couple hours to kill before we shuttle over to the other end of the island. It’s noon and the heat is swelling up. We decide to march our packs down to the beach and cool off. That’s what we came to Phuket for, isn’t it?

A handful of tuk-tuks ask us where we’re going and we wave them off. Hiking & sweating is still cheaper. Less than a mile down the road, we see a gate. The cost is some two hundred baht each to enter the beach park. We decide we’d rather give that money to a bartender or a smoothie blender. We walk back the way we came.

Onward we march absesentmindedly past the shuttle pick-up. We pass a taxi driver holding a yellow umbrella. He hollers to us from across the road. We wave him off ‘cus we think we know where we’re going. We come to a highway on ramp and realize we’ve gone too far. Turning around, we pass the taxi driver again and he just laughs at us. We’re pouring sweat as we get to the correct entrance.

Our shuttle location is inside the airport parking lot. A hundred baht each and an hour later, we find Old Town Phuket. The ride reveals an overdeveloped island. Again, it seems that we are in an urban sprawl dedicated to various forms of industry.

Photo Credit: http://www.shutterstock.com

We find our hostel and check into a small room that reeks of mold and mildew. There is a nice shrine garden outside.

We find a good place for cheap local meals: a few bucks for amazingly spicy fried rice. We wander the town while drinking random booze from different corner stores. The first bottle we open is a 22oz Siamsato that boasts 8% ABV. We found it on the bottom shelf of the cooler. It cost thirty-three baht ($1).

Ratebeer.com rating: 0
 
We wonder: did we just buy the Steel Reserve of Thailand? A quick taste reveals that we did not. This tastes like watered down Maddog 20/20 or Thunderbird. Cheap, sugary booze that begins to taste like vomit after half a bottle. We’re happy we didn’t by more. 
The next bottle is mysterious to us because it has no English on the label. I bought it off the liquor shelf behind the register. I was asking for Thai whiskey and pointing. The clerk didn’t seem to understand my words, so I was curious what my finger had selected. It cost twice as much as the Siam Soto and the bottle was half the size. Perhaps this was some fancy top-shelf beer? 

I open the lid and take a whiff. It smells like a jar of olives mixed with bug spray. I taste and verify that it is very alcoholic. I begin to wonder if it’s moonshine that has been cut with paint thinner. Sierra is reluctant to try some after my testimony. Some research reveals that it’s called Lao Khao.

Lao Khao: For cocktails and nail polish removal.
 
Old Town Phuket is fairly spaced out and devoid of the crowds we’d seen earlier. We find beautiful murals across brick walls, fantastic art galleries from local painters, and a whole bustling night market art-walk. 

We spend a while in one gallery. Its pure magic draws us in. Most of the pieces are inspired by jungle scenes and the experiential side of Buddhism. We steadily grow intoxicated, not from the alcohol but from the art. 

One particular painting has the effect of sobering me up while casting a spell of introspective self-forgetfulness. I am hypnotized while sitting on the floor, nearly in a pile of tears. 

I see the fearsome beauty of human suffering. All of the temptations are like so many serpentine suggestions, constricting and consuming a man shrouded in darkness. The forms of lust & intoxication are like legs wrapping around bodies, pulling lost souls into murky mysterious depths. There are unfathomable forms or terror and abandonment, like scenes from an alien torture chamber. 

Above the endless cravings of darkness there is a transcendent sun in a clear blue sky. Tears are falling as rain from an pair of all-seeing compassionate eyes. The rain becomes vibrant inspiration, growing into strong will to endure the madness of human existence. I see the ability to overcome all hindrances. The man in darkness is looking both downward and upward, striving to find a wholesome acceptance within this very tense moment. Like the tension of strings, the tension of the acceptance of human suffering makes beautiful music.

Man has the ability to perfect himself by the light of some primordial flame. In this gallery, we see cosmic law and the folly of mankind played out in paint. We see the embodiment of universal nature and the wealth of knowledge passed down through human nature and wild nature alike.

I see a glow in Sierras eyes. We acknowledge what has been transferred here as we give a sincere thank you to the in-house artist.

You can find some of the artists’ names and pieces here.

We feel transformed as we float through the crowd like a couple of electrified specters. The market is bustling and we soak it all in. We enjoy the balmy breeze carrying soft sounds from a set of nylon strings. A Japanese man is strumming classical arrangements with the odd clink of change in his guitar case. Here, there is prosperity. Here, there is money & comfort. In the absence of all-consuming toil, art is allowed to flourish.

Something nags at me. Most of this exists because of tourism. We are feeding the machine. So far, the human development of industry causes the destruction of natural habitats. Sure, art is nice but it is often a byproduct of development. Like the paintings depict, this comes at a cost and it feels like beautiful, creative destruction.

Our feet find us home to the backpacker hostel for the night. We think about the idealistic goals of utopia-driven humanity contrasted violently against the realistic condition of large-scale peace long lost between war & poverty. 

We give thanks for the lives we’ve been granted as we drift into sleep like children. Praising the Almighty, we contemplate how lotus flowers bloom so perfectly amidst murky waters.

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