After thirty-seven hours of travel, I arrive at a “luxury” budget airport hotel in Bangkok delirious from sleep deprivation. From my window, dogs and chickens scurry across the litter-strewn dirt road into a field of overgrown grass. A woman sits in a folding chair beside a barreled fire seemingly oblivious to the ninety-nine-degree heat. Cars come and go and I imagine she’s selling food, like so many others along the roadways.
Ninety minutes into my stay, I taste blood.
At first, I convince myself it’s drainage from the hour spent waiting outside the airport, my lungs filling with the thick polluted air and exhaust. But then I go to the bathroom and spit, coating the sink in crimson. It continues. I google, spit, google, and come up empty. With no idea where the blood is coming from or what to do, I’m rattled. Terrified of even American emergency rooms, there’s no way I’d step foot in a developing country’s ER. I say a prayer and wait for the bleeding to stop, which it eventually does.
The reality of my vulnerability plagues me. I am halfway around the world. I don’t speak the language. I am alone.
Hours pass and the bleeding returns. This time it runs outward from my nose which brings solace. Three long flights, and dry cabin air makes sense to me. I’ve got this.
The following afternoon, I arrive on the island of Phuket and make my way via airport bus to the quieter Kata Beach, at the southern end of the island. Two and a half hours later, I’m dropped in front of Two Chefs, the place I’d shown the driver on a map. Only problem is it’s the right name, wrong location. Normally I wouldn’t mind a thirty-minute walk but with a lack of sidewalks, dodging cars and mopeds while carrying a heavy backpack in one-hundred-degree heat makes for an unpleasant trip.
The staff of the small Kata Inn greet me with a chilled washcloth and fresh squeezed juice and lead me to my room above the open-air restaurant. I spend the next four days downing coconut water straight from the hacked open fruit and picking at food. My body resists adjusting to the eleven-hour time difference, so my appetite is almost non-existent. Heat and constant assaulting smells don’t help. Streets here are lined with raw displays of seafood baking in the sun, fruit and garbage rotting below hundreds of haphazardly hung wires. Exhaust from mopeds, cars, and trucks hangs in the air.
Phuket is ugly and beautiful at the same time and leaves me unsettled and afraid. Terrified really. Of everything. My room is an individual concrete structure, segregated from the others. The door opens outward with only a loose knob and flimsy lock protecting me from the imaginary midnight monsters lingering outside. Food is served with unrecognizable bits. The water, the ice. Is it filtered?
Each day, I dodge my way through traffic, down narrowed streets. Loose blocks shift beneath my feet. I grow a little braver each time, eventually joining the cars and mopeds in an unsynchronized dance. A ten-dollar massage as a reward makes anyone brave. My first Thai massage takes me by surprise. I am given a man and a set of thick pajamas and sent to a room with several mats lined up. He waits behind a curtain while I change, uncomfortably. My body yields beneath his feet and hands and elbows as he stretches and pulls and twists me in unnatural ways. I’m relieved when others come into the room. I sample different spas and masseuses settling on my favorite all female shop called Darin’s.
I spend a day at the beach floating weightless in the Andamon sea. The water is clear. Colorful fishes swim beneath me. To my right, a group of oversized Russians stand in chest deep water belting out tunes I don’t understand. Behind them a young Thai boy casts his line from the rocks. To my right, longboats with Thai words wait by the shore. In the distance, a tall mountain with a white painted Buddha faces away. The unsavory smells and chaos of the ugly streets are meters and worlds away.
Thai cooking, taught by a Bangkok-born Indian, occupies a few hours of my third day. We take a trip to an open market with smells as pungent as the streets. Raw whole chicken and seafood sits unrefrigerated. I watch curiously as a sweat-soaked-shirtless man with a cleaver chops the toenails from chicken feet.
“Pedicure time.” VJ says with a smile.
Back at cooking school, I’m taught along with a Midwestern couple, using a mortal and pestle to grind whole spices and herbs into a thick green curry paste that tastes a little like heaven. We whip up some Tom Yum soup, pad thai, and a mango sticky rice that leaves my shriveled stomach happily overstuffed. VJ, the instructor, accommodates my request for vegetarian.
On the fourth day, I board a crowded converted fishing boat for an afternoon of snorkeling and sunset. Out at sea, I breath deep noting the absence of smells and nausea. Colorful tangs, clowns, and box fish swim in thick schools between my legs and fingers. Anemones and coral line the sandy bottom. It’s as if swimming inside a saltwater aquarium. A lone octopus makes his way beneath me before scurrying to shelter. Jelly sandwiches and fried chicken is served. The staff brings me a special vegetarian meal and sans nausea, I’m able to eat. Groups of Brits, French, and Swedes converse throughout the day as I take it all in. The lone solo passenger, a quiet observer. As the sun sets, couples and families hand me their phones asking for photos.
As my last evening on Phuket nears an end, I struggle with the decision to visit the notorious end of the island- Patong Beach. I don’t expect to like it but decide it’s something I should see. Five minutes into the taxi ride, I regret my choice, even more than my former marriage. The driver has no patience for traffic and weaves in and out, illegally passing mopeds and cars as we make our way up and down around the mountainous road. He whips the car into the dirt shoulder more than once when an unexpected vehicle rounds the curve towards us. He forces a moped off the road and into the grass when there’s no room to pass. I pray. I arrive in Patong Beach at 9:30pm with sweat-drenched palms shaking, so afraid if I didn’t have an early flight out, I would rent a hotel in this Thai Vegas to avoid the taxi as long as possible. Instead, I follow the crowds to Bangla road where I squeeze my way through the dozens of sign holders advertising ping-pong shows. If you don’t know what that is, look it up. I had to. After walking the length of the “Red-light” district, I order a beer and observe high-tops of solo middle-aged men and young pretty Thai girls playing games, laughing, and chatting, their hands and bodies lightly grazing the men as they talk. Across the street, beneath neon lights, skimpy-dressed young woman or maybe ladyboys dance and swing around poles on bars. Next door, a sign advertises European women who take turns dancing in the second-story window. Toto’s Africa imprints the chaotic seedy scene in my brain.
Once the beer adequately settles my nerves, I reluctantly make my way back to Kata Beach, then in the morning to the airport, both via taxi convinced I am out of prayers. With reluctance and nervous anticipation, I bid Phuket and it’s sensory overload of contradictions farewell.