Even an episode like this in Phuket one can be transformed into a good story in the presence of the right sort of company.
“My friend, you pay 3000 baht. My jet ski not work,” the man said in broken English. What had seemed like a friendly smile just an hour ago had suddenly transformed into an all-out smirk. The man turned back to his friend with a smug expression, speaking to him in Thai without even bothering to lower his voice. The sun glared fiercely at our bare backs. Around us, the beach in Phuket was filled with laughter and sunshine as if nothing had changed, driving us further into isolation. It was disturbing to think that the people there did not seem to realize what was happening right before their eyes; did not realize what was hidden behind the mask of hospitable smiles and refreshing speciality cocktails. We had been among the oblivious crowd just minutes ago, and willingly, we would go back if we could. After all, ignorance is bliss.
Earlier that day, a group of eight friends and I had arrived at Patong beach in high spirits. A nation famous for its excellent tourist industry and amicable peoples, Thailand had been one of my top vacations spots from a young age, Phuket a particular favorite. Since we were on a cruise and would only be there for the day, we were looking for a kitschy ‘tropical getaway’ experience, complete with elephant trekking, oil massages and cool jugs of Chang beer. Why not top off the whole experience with some jet-skiing, someone had suggested upon arriving at the crowded beach. Four of us decided to split into pairs and rent two 2-person jet-skis, while the rest of the gang opted for a more chilled out afternoon sunbathing and lounging by the beach.
We rented the jetskis from a group of five men. The men were friendly, giving us a “special discount” for our friend’s birthday. “Just for you,” grinned a man with dreads and a scorpion tattooed down the entire left side of his back. While two of the men went off to fetch out jet-skis, the other three chatted to us good-naturedly, recommending us things to eat and teaching us how to write our names in Thai using sticks on the sand. When the jet-skis were ready, the instructions were simple. The button on the right handle was for accelerating, the other for braking. To stop the machine entirely, pull the key out of the hole in between the two handles. To get the machine to turn, turn the handles and lean your body in the direction you want it to go.
My friend drove first. The jet-ski blasted forward, spewing out a rainbow-colored trail of gasoline and splashing our sunburnt legs with cool seawater. “It’s just like driving a motorcycle!” my friend laughed over the wind and noisy motor, accelerating to full speed. It felt like flying. We skimmed the surface of the water, coming off contact with the water and brushing against it at intervals. The wind whirred in my ear, danced on my skin, rippled through my hair in waves. The entire Patong coastline was before our eyes, in all its emerald greenery. “Lean right!” I clung on tightly and leaned my whole body as my friend did the same, simultaneously navigating the handles toward the right. We were succumbing ourselves entirely to gravity and nature’s forces. For a spilt second, I closed my eyes to feel everything with my body: the smell of the sea, the warmth of the sun my back, the sound of my heart beating a little wildly from that temporary free falling sensation you get when you swivel on a full-speed vehicle. Just when it felt like the ski was on the brink of tipping over, I felt myself leaning to the other side. My movement was in perfect synchrony with my friend’s; our bodies moved on their own accord. Soon, we were driving upright again.
Half an hour passed, we decided to slow down and drive closer to shore. In the distance, we saw the five men waving at us. As we drew nearer, however, it became apparent that they were not waving, but beckoning us. The man with the scorpion tattoo rolled up his cargo pants and waded toward us, motioning for us to get off the jet ski as soon as we braked. Confused, we did as we were instructed. Without a word, the man came towards us and grabbed the keys out of my friend’s hand. “Hey! We haven’t finished the hour!” my friend tried to grab back the keys, but the man suddenly became aggressive and shoved him away. He gestured towards our other friends, who had capsized off of their jet ski some distance from where we were. The man said he would go and help our friends and then give us back our jet ski.
We never got our jet ski back. It turned out that the other jet ski that we had rented had stopped working when the other two capsized. The men claimed that our friends had broken it and claimed a compensation of 3000 baht–the equivalent of 100 USD. Not much for a fine perhaps, but considering that their jet ski had been faulty and unstable to begin with (which is why the two, who were both frequent jet skiers, had capsized within 10 minutes of their ride) and that my friend and I had also been pulled off of our jet skis and been cheated of our full hour we had paid for, it was a price we were not willing to pay. The five men claimed they would not let us leave unless we paid the money. After two hours of heated negotiation, we finally settled for the lowest price we could get: 30 USD. What we had imagined would be a relaxing afternoon was spent instead in anxiety and tension, where the sole positive outcome was the strengthened bond between the eight of us from the effort against a common enemy.
That day, we returned from Patong exhausted but relieved, with the knowledge that while there may be a dark side to any stranger’s smile, every cloud has a silver lining. Even an episode like this one can be transformed into a good story in the presence of the right sort of company.
Article & photos by Chihiro Isozaki.