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May/June 2005 | Phuket Update

May/June 2005 | Phuket Update

The gayest beach town in Asia brushes itself off after last year's devastating tsunami

It's early 2005, and I accept an invitation for an on-the-house drink at the Flying Handbag, a gay caf? in Phuket run by Ray Jevons. Jevons is a limey with a thick northern British accent and the gift of gab--which is perhaps why some locals call his place "The Flying Windbag"--making it a must for barhopping gossips. The walls of the caf?-cum-bar are adorned with, you guessed it, handbags brought in by customers from all over the world. From the seats in the open-air establishment one can freely catch another cabaret revue across the alleyway, with drag queens lip-synching, gyrating, and sweating under a ton of makeup, sequins, and feathers. "'Tis a pity, isn't it?" rues Ray, nursing his drink, "Only a week after Christmas, and the 'girls' wiggle their tits off to empty seats--thanks to the bad press from the tsunami." Well, the seats weren't totally empty--but it certainly wasn't as crowded as it should have been in winter, usually peak season.

Yes, the T word, or rather TS word, was on everyone's lips, painted or otherwise. Although the gay community suffered little during the actual tsunami--because, as I was told, most gay establishments are far from the beach, and most gay tourists are late risers (the tsunami struck around 9 a.m.)--gays turned out to lend a helping hand. The tragedy galvanized the community, and many businesses opened their doors to those in need. Miss Watermelon, who works at the drag bar Tangmo, proudly informed me that she and her "girls" had selflessly collected over 300,000 Thai baht (about $8,000 American) in the 10-day period after the tsunami. They sent 200,000 to Patong Hospital, 50,000 to a wat (a Buddhist temple or monastery), and 50,000 to a police benevolent society. After the tsunami struck, many of the go-go boys either went back to their villages or moved onto unscathed Pattaya or Chiang Mai in the north, I was told. Overall, it's the "economic tsunami"--the lack of tourists--that hurt the gay establishments the most. Having written a gay guidebook on Thailand, and being a contributor to a Thai gay Web site and newsletter, I was no stranger to Phuket. But I had never seen the usually bustling Patong Beach area so empty in high season.

I had come for a post-tsunami inspection tour of the island regularly voted by Cond? Nast Traveler readers as among the top 10 resort islands in the world. When I arrived at Phuket's airport, I felt like I'd entered a war zone. Makeshift signs Scotch-taped to the walls directed various foreign nationals to tables set up to expedite the hasty exodus of thousands after tragedy struck the day after Christmas, 2004.

The drive into town may surprise first-timers with its sparsely populated and undeveloped terrain. However, Phuket's appeal as a tourist destination soon becomes more apparent as you pass billboards advertising various tropical attractions such as Fanta Sea, an apparently typical family theme park--except with drag shows. Later, you pass a statue of the twin patriotic, mannish-looking Siamese lasses who helped fight off the invading Burmese, then there are cashew factories and rubber plantations. Although tin-mining and rubber once represented the main wealth of the island--drawing in many Chinese laborers--the tourism industry is now the major source of the island's income.

As you near Patong Beach, shopping malls mushroom in the middle of nowhere, as does advertising for KFC, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, and even Hooters, the trashy U.S. restaurant chain. Thailand, as Thais proudly recall, is one of the few Asian countries that has never been colonized by Europeans. But judging from the number of American fast-food franchises found here, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the island of Phuket is somewhere just east of Honolulu. (Phuket, by the way, should be pronounced poo-GET, rhyming with coquette--be sure not to make the common mistake of saying "fuck it.")

Remarkably, Patong Beach has reverted to its former self--a placid cove dotted with colorful sails and beach umbrellas. The damaged beachfront resort businesses have been busily buzzing and whirring back to life, getting new windows and interiors refitted. The latest reports are that things are quickly returning to normal, with the Beach Road area nearly restored. Signs announcing we are open or opening soon appear in front of beach establishments such as Starbucks and Holiday Inn. Each day more bars, shops, and restaurants are reopening, with only the larger premises taking longer to refurbish.

The reappearance of noisy Jet Skis means that the chartered flights from Scandinavia have resumed, pumping kroners and euros back into the battered local economy. With the Tourism Authority of Thailand airing testimonials on satellite TV of ordinary folk enjoying themselves on Phuket, savvy tourists are beginning to realize that the inaccurate media reports, plus exaggerated "Calamity Jane" government travel advisories about alleged disease, pestilence, and plague in Phuket, are "just a crock of BS," as Siam Palm and Jungle Boyz nightclub owner Khun Allen puts it. "It may apply to certain other areas affected by the tsunami--like Aceh, which never had much tourism anyway--but definitely not here." Even in January, Allen's Siam Palm reported 50% occupancy--mainly from returning gay guests who weren't scared off, and new ones who wisely enquired ahead.

In the Paradise Complex, the main concentration of gay venues, things continue to pick up. And with more gay tourists, the boys are gradually returning. Club Tangmo has acquired new stallions in its stable of go-go boys, now numbering over 60 of all shapes and sizes.

On my last day in Phuket, Ulf Mikaelsson, owner of the gay guesthouse Connect, took me on the back of his motorcycle for a ride over the hills into town to show me around the island, noting parks and discos popular with local gays--and the world-class Bangkok Phuket Hospital, which offers everything from Botox to braces to sex-change operations for only a fraction of what such services would cost in the West.

"Many annual gay visitors will return," muses Mikaelsson hopefully. "They know there is no reason to stay away, but new arrivals may not understand that the island paradise known the world over is alive--and kicking its high heels."

Haber is a journalist who lives in Asia.

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.


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