Phuket: Afternoon Ride

I gingerly climb onto the elephant and snuggle into the seat precariously perched on the creature’s back. Abie follows suit, aided by our driver who’s one of those masterfully guiding tourists on an elephant ride along a path on a hill. A young lady ties a loose strap on either side of our seat, acting arbitrarily as our seatbelt in place of the broken metal clamp. The pachyderms’ size betrays their calm demeanor and amazing intelligence, gentle giants that have come to symbolize wisdom in the region. Our guide – I never get his name – motions for his elephant to move. And just like that, our ride walks down a steep, muddy slope as we begin our fifteen-minute ride.

“Where you from?” our guide asks us.

“We’re from the Philippines,” Abie replies.

“I love the Philippines!” he yells. His sweat-ridden face turns towards us. “I love Manny Pacquiao.” Another elephant carrying two American tourists pass us by; I take their picture while Abie holds on to our rainbow-colored umbrella. On the sides of the road are chicken digging through large elephant droppings like pigs in the mud. Not far off, around three more elephants, each carrying a pair of passengers aside from their respective guides, are about to conclude their journey as well.

Welcome to Thailand, where elephants roaming the streets is so common that the situation is almost literally, well, an elephant in the room.

It’s not the first time I’ve been to Thailand but this is the first time in almost five years, and the first time in Phuket. The country is an alluring place, accounting for most of tourist arrivals in Southeast Asia. Never mind the tsunami that struck the Andaman coast in December 2004, the economic crisis for much of the last decade, or the series of prolonged political unrest that crippled Bangkok last year; Thailand received almost 16 million foreign visitors in 2010, up by around 12 percent. And it’s not hard to see why: lively cities, equally interesting countryside, great cuisine, and warm people.

It was those things that I had in mind as we tendered from the ship and made our way to Phuket’s town center on board a private van. We have less than a half day to exhaust as much as we can from this hedonistic slice of Thailand, and as we pass by roads and unspectacular buildings punctuated with posters of the country’s beloved monarch, I feel glad to be in the comforts of an air-conditioned vehicle, shielded from the sun’s mighty rays. A sight just ahead of us reminds me of why Southeast Asian streets can be a dangerous place: a group of men are trying to help two motorcyclists – one a pregnant woman – sprawled on the pavement after getting involved in a road accident.

There’s not much drama on the road after that – unless you count a shirtless Caucasian dude on a motorbike – and the drive feels just like going to one of the Philippines’ provinces, except we have churches instead of wat and water buffaloes instead of free-roaming elephants.

Phuket, where the rich and famous come to play, is Thailand’s largest and most-visited island, featuring limestone cliffs jutting out of turquoise waters. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming into the island without wanting to see (and be seen in) one of its postcard-friendly beaches, but the town itself offers a few other excursion opportunities for those who want to wander off the beaten path. Phuket isn’t much of a beauty outside its beaches but it makes for a welcome introduction for a time-strapped visitor. It has the urban comforts one can get from a touristy city but it’s not as hectic as Bangkok, although the gregariousness of the locals can be a hit-and-miss affair unlike in other parts of Thailand.

Halfway into the ride, our elephant makes a detour from the main road into a narrow trail that leads into a cliff.

“It’s a dead end,” I mutter to Abie. She stares ahead for a few moment, then asks our guide. “Where are we going?”

Our guide turns to us, pulling his hand towards his mouth to gesture eating. “Elephant hungry,” he says. I look at the elephant, whose trunk pulls a handful of leaves from a fallen branch and shoves it into his mouth. The guide then gives the animal a can of cola, which it throws out into the cliff. And then the elephant carefully retreats into the main road.

Abie and I let out a laugh, relieved that we’re not the can.

Before foreigners started flocking its pristine beaches, Phuket Town had been a trading hub, drawing merchants from different parts of the world. The kingdom managed to stave off attempts by colonialists to annex the island to their territories but the constant interaction with neighboring European colonies led to a multicultural mix typified by the Sino-Portuguese architecture in various streets across the town.

Around a third of Phuket’s population are Muslims, but this being Thailand, Buddhism still holds a firm grip. The island has 29 Buddhist temples, with the Wat Chalong in the Mukeang Phuket district being the best and most famous of them. Inside the three-storey pagoda are Buddha statues in different positions, while across the compound is a house containing wax statues of monks in a meditation. The place gives a religiously calming vibe, especially when the faithful come to pay their respects, but is routinely disrupted by fireworks that probably has something to do with Buddhist rites; I’m not sure.

The hours begin to blur into each other – watching people offer incense at the temple, walking along the market where vendors prepare to sell cheap food for the evening, haggling for souvenirs, buying fruit juice at the sidewalk. And then I’m in front of a video store, trying to fight the urge to buy a DVD of the Thai film “A Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

The fifteen-minute ride has concluded and we’re back at the hut. Our guide once again turns to us, his palms clasped together in a mock display of begging. “Please tell my idol Manny Pacquiao to visit us,” he says. I manage to let out a laugh. “I will… if I meet him.” Our guide tries to sell us some necklace, citing some random astrological mumbo-jumbo, but we excuse ourselves for having no baht. Eventually our guide gives up. Abie alights from the elephant and I get down seconds after her to meet with the rest of the group.

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