Reflections Upon The Waves – Kamala and Patong
Anybody who knows Phuket will at least have an idea where Kamala Bay or Kamala Beach lies – it is the second established beach to the north of Patong, about five km north, up on the Andaman Coast. How I chanced upon this place is the most roundabout of ways.
In about 1990, just after Songkraan my Thai wife (or fiancé, back then) was having some serious difficulties with some huge amount of unpaid rent on an apartment in Krung Thep which had resulted in the landlords seizing a suitcase of her stuff as well as making threats and problems, all the while allowing her to remain there in the offending room (thus accumulating more unpaid rent – search me??) Among this stuff was her Thai passport.
I figured it was best to call a meeting with these guys and try to mediate the situation but realised I was in deep with her and was looking at parting with some serious cash to get the document back. After some attempts we managed to get an audience with the building owner who, for all the world was playing his role as Chao-Poh (godfather) and had his stooges sitting around him, cracking their knuckles and giving the both of us death-stares which had my missus petrified. To ensure our welfare I entered this meeting and produced a large wad of traveller’s cheques along with my own passport and then asked him if I could at least just view all the contents of the suitcase; the deal being if everything was in order I could whip off down to the bank and obtain the large amount of baht needed.
The evening before my fiancé and I had carefully discussed what was in the suitcase and produced a list. I had told my lady that I intended to cross off everything and if it was in order I would buy out her rental debt.
But bugger me if I intended to give these Teow-Chiu scallywags one satang – I made a conscientious show of carefully checking every item on the list and ticking it off. When I got to her passport I opened it and discreetly jotted down all the details (number, date of issue, etc), made a few more checks on my list and then politely excused the pair of us:
“…no worries please wait, five or ten minutes we come back, have all the money for you, must go sign travellers cheque at bank for now, not too long, come back very soon, thank you so much…”
We got up and left them waiting; we never returned and decided to skip town because the amount this gent demanded would have paid for three months in Phuket or Saint Tropez for that matter. It was a vast sum of rent! Getting a replacement passport from Krasuang-Prathet was easy as all they required was a quick police report that my wife had misplaced it with all these details. Cops didn’t even ask her for a fee to type up the report. The heavy guys had seen me coming but I sure knew they were waiting – Thai mind games, but I wasn’t hanging round. That part of town was then and still is a dump, anyhow.
Which brings me to Kamala – this was a place I had only read about and in 1990 had few visitors. I had figured Patong was a little too much on the beaten track. This was before the ring-road was constructed so we arrived there on a song-thaew after an 18 hour journey on the blue bus which in retrospect shows how keen I was to get us out of the capital. Any person without their own transport was stranded there after mid-day because that was when the public run to Phuket Town ceased.
We set up in a bungalow which was more like a double storey Swiss chalet and this cost us about 300 baht per night. There were generators which switched off at about eight or nine in the evening which coincided with the only eatery closing so we used to return to the bungalow and find other things to do.
I was immediately struck how the structure and appearance of the beach was similar to beaches in Northern New South Wales around Coffs Harbour as was the very wild surf at that time. Being an avid body surfer and keen swimmer I appreciated this although I was warned the ocean there does swallow up its fair share of victims. The only real “development” (oxymoron!!) was some vacant bungalows, a semi-derelict and expensive resort occupied by a few middle class Thai honeymooners and apart from that a local moo-baan complete with its very own little mosque.
What also struck me was, for the first time in the Kingdom, being in a place where Thai Muslims were of the majority, about 60 – 70 % of the local populace in that little section of Phuket. In subsequent years I have come to be very fond of the southern Muslims. Their culture and dress is quite distinct to the neighbouring Malays – indeed more similar to the rural folk of Sumatra. With the Muslims, be they of Malaysian or Pak-Tai origin I have found them conservative and much more reserved, but when an outsider actually gets to know someone over a period of time they will become the closest to a friend one may have in this part of the world. If a Thai Muslim says they will do something they will usually stick to their guns, if they give their word they mean it. Occasionally I’ve bumped into other Falangs who have become hitched to the Pak-Thai ladies; they are by far and away the most serious and faithful and they generally do not succumb to the silliness of gambling, borrowing money and alcoholism which often upsets marriages. The extended families seem to have-their-shit-together a bit more or so it seems to me.
I came to appreciate how the Muslim villages are laid out – free of stray rabid dogs, clean and a notable absence of the terrible drinking-sessions with resultant domestic disputes, so common in other rural parts. They seem not to be under the thumb of loan-sharks; if they require cash they approach the local Imam who will arrange for borrowings through the relevant Islamic benevolent society. I have a great affinity of the makanaan-halal which I find tastier and more nutritious; even my missus is with me on that one… I enjoy the call to prayer in the mornings and evenings as part of the existence in that part of the world.
Over the decades however it appears the Pak-Thai from the coastal areas are being outnumbered by settlers from other parts of the Kingdom as well as tourists and retirees from the rest of the world, at least in Phuket this may be the case.
In 1990 we resided between Kamala, Penang, the village in baan-nok and occasional forays to the capital and the embassy. When we departed Thailand at the end of 1990 the sheer beauty of outlying Phuket had cast an indelible stamp upon me. The quieter areas had a style and grace about them in those days which was absent in other areas such as the up-and-coming trendiness of Koh Samui and Koh Phan Ngan.
In January through to April 1998 after many years of hauling-ass and paying taxes back in the west I took leave and we returned as a family; me, wife and two kids. We stayed at Kamala for about seven weeks, remainder up with the tribe. This cost me the same (all-up everything inclusive) price as a ten day stay at Noosa Heads. I would never recommend a “family holiday” in my own country, ever. We went to Thailand straight after the 1997 economic crash and for one week we were getting 41 baht to the Australian dollar.
Kamala was on the beaten path by that stage with the ring-road in place and the Phuket Fantasea excavations had begun. Still it had a charm of its own and being early in the year was calm and perfect. The series of bungalows near Soi Tham Ruat was the best place – we befriended the family who owned it, paid peanuts for the rooms. We used to eat and cook seafood with them in the evenings and explore the area in the day. The papa-san, Saak would take our kids on forays along the beach at night and the kids would collect buckets of hermit crabs “…no, we’re NOT taking these back to Oz with us…” I’d sit down by the water’s edge and chat with him in the late evenings and we’d imagine life on the Burmese trawlers bobbing out on the horizon and he’d tell us all about the history of the place.
They were a really nice family, not rich, not poor but took great care of us. On other evenings I’d first go up and clear it with the peelers then buy hundreds of baht worth of the most spectacular and high-powered fireworks one could imagine. We’d spend selected evenings having all manner of fun with those; long since banned in the nanny-state back in Oz. I taught my two kids how to shoot at the Phuket firing range up near Kata – my eldest still very proudly keeps a photo of herself at age 15, brandishing a black Colt Python with the six inch barrel.
So impressed with this holiday I scraped and saved and we all returned some years later. Another fantastic time had by all only that time we returned with some friends of the wife and their kids as well. By July 2000 it still looked the same except Saak had left and gone to live and work in Surat Thani but the rest of his family still ran the place. The Muslim villagers were being slowly overtaken as newcomers were settling in from elsewhere and some had chosen to sell up and move out. By this stage the wheel of progress was truly on the move but it still had much charm and whilst Patong had surged ahead Kamala was the place to get away from it all. Being mid year that second holiday cost even less.
Any given night we could all enjoy ourselves in the hustle and bustle of Patong but we always returned to our peaceful bungalow setting by the waves on Kamala’s shore.
I remember the day I strolled down for my morning swim and bumped into the good wife:
“…where’s the kids?”
“Oh daaah-ling, guess what – the jet-ski boys have taken them.”
“What the…?!? Aaaaargh….”
“No problem darling, jai-yen-yen, they’ll be back some time today or tomorrow…”
Sure enough they both returned in one piece at five o’clock in the afternoon on a powerful speedboat. My thoughts were racing as I slouched toward the boat to collect them. I wondered how we would survive the certain ensuing ransom negotiations. The jet-ski mafia didn’t want anything, not even one baht – I was floored. They thanked me for letting the brats go out with them…
I did not return again until July 2005. Kamala, even six months after the event, was still ruined – it was as if a hydrogen bomb had been detonated offshore.
I found Saak’s bungalow which looked like somebody had reversed a D 4 through the place along with all the neighbouring rooms. Most of the foreshore and surrounds were like this and being a horse-shoe-type-bay would have felt the wave keenly. Whilst I was not there that Boxing Day I know very well how these things work having been raised up in the islands as a young bloke – at high school in Lae we used to have earthquake-drills and flood evacuations regularly.
The only structure in the area which seemed to be unscathed was the so-called Fantasea. The beach itself was a muddy wash which appeared to be knee-deep going hundreds of yards out. Chunks of rubbish and corrugated iron were deposited a long way offshore, glass shards were on the beach itself and I noticed the door of a car stuck in the fork of a tree. A barbed-wire fence prevented access to much of the beach entrance.
I approached a yaam who was sitting under a Casuarina tree in a forlorn manner outside the remains of the old resort, offered him a krong-thip and spoke with him for a while. Only he was miserable and very shell-shocked; he was a young local chap and the look on his face and demeanour reminded me of the old black-and-whites of the German kids in uniform captured during the fall of Berlin… He informed me some human remains inside a vehicle had been retrieved the week before. He had no idea what had happened to Saak’s family, nobody did as the Thais tend not to pry into the misfortune of others. I did not wish to pry either.
Along the foreshore I bumped into a Scotsman, an engineer based in Brunei walking with his partner. He had been there that morning and recounted his narrow escape, how he had seen the tide withdraw and how he had run along the beach yelling like a madman at everybody to get away.
When the really big one formed far out on the horizon he bundled his wife and teenager into a song-thaew as the groups of tourists and locals wandered down to collect stranded fish and crabs. He told me how, by the time the vehicle made it to the top of Laem Singh hill the flood had hit. He had returned that July for R and R and was attempting to make sense of what remained. They were staying high up on the headland but the daughter was refusing to leave the room…
Imagine – if Patong had been the rowdy and world-wise big sister, Kamala was always the younger and quiet one, in her unspoilt state the prettiest one in the family and awaiting her debutante at a suitable time and age. But she had been overpowered by something, assaulted then trampled into the mud – a survivor but left for dead and never quite the same again.
Such a sight I could neither deal with nor could I change. There was not much point in hanging around so I moved onward to Patong which was always the way I remembered it. I was told that Patong was quickly cleaned up such is the investment there. But not so, in the case of Ao Kamala. The days all we remember are gone along with all those great folks and I will never have any idea what became of them. As time goes on the bay will be dredged out or repaired, construction will resume, visitors will return and it would be logical the place will be reborn as a new identity. I must go and visit again some day but I doubt it will have the sheer and utter charm it did way back when me and the missus stumbled in there in 1990, on our way out of big trouble in the City of Angels.
From your description, paradise really was ruined that day.
I like the minor point you make early in the story about the success Western guys who get involved with Southern Thai women have. I could not agree more with what you say.