Stumbling jet-lagged into the startling tropical sunlight, Phuket greets you like a slap in the face. The blinding sun has you squinting like a near-blind old lady as you stagger from the airport to be surrounded by an army of touts offering a delightful assortment of the sins for which the Orient is infamous.
“Is there a bus to Patong Beach?” you shout into the cloud of cigarette smoke hovering above the greedy grins of the touts. Indeed there is, and before you can say, “How much?” you’ll be jammed into a crowded mini bus with an collection of other novices and their mountains of baggage.
This is mistake number one and should be avoided. This cramped mini bus will eventually get you to Patong, but only after endless detours and unscheduled stops.
Far better is to look for signs for the airport bus to Phuket Town, or catch a metred taxi by turning right as you leave the concourse.
"Look Mom, no hands!"
During your white knuckle taxi ride to your hotel you may be shocked when your driver takes his hands off the wheel and offers a ‘wai’ with palms pressed together, to the statue of two strangely-clad ladies at the Heroine’s Monument. These revered figures are the sisters Thao Thep Kasattri and Thao Sri Soontorn who, according to legend, saved the island by cross-dressing, thereby fooling the gullible Burmese invaders after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767.
And, while in no way connected with the revered ladies, the biggest billboard you’ll see driving from the airport advertises Simon Cabaret, Thailand's famous transvestite show.
Both these celebrations of gender-based deceptions serve notice that Phuket can be a realm of trickery, where duplicity is not only practiced, but actively celebrated. Gullible be warned!
The unseen world
Ancient beliefs are everywhere in Phuket.
Once settled into your hotel, you may be woken early next morning by a huge series of explosions. Investigation will tell you that firecrackers, hung from the prow of a long-tail boat, are being let off to disperse evil spirits before the captain and crew set off on their seaward journey.
In Phuket the supernatural is everywhere and influences everything – so must be placated and venerated at all times.
Zen and the art of road madness
To understand the mania that passes for driving in Phuket, it helps to grasp that Buddhism recognises the inherent one-ness of all things and sees supposed opposites for what they truly are: facets of the unity of existence.
To follow the way of the Thai driver, you too must cast off illusions of duality, such as the duality of two traffic lanes moving in opposite directions.
Are both lanes not part of one road? Are both directions not still expressions of the eternal flow of all things?
When you've grasped this obviously simple concept, you’ll understand why Thais naturally swerve into oncoming traffic to overtake and why they are completely serene as they travel along a road the wrong way!
Roadside wine tastings
A roadside wine tasting?
They appear at dusk, invitingly illuminated along dusty roads, inches from marauding pick-ups. Gleaming bottles of ruby and amber on little wooden tables... neatly displayed wines you might think, so busy husbands can grab a bottle on their way home.
Then you notice the parked motorcyclist enthusiastically emptying a bottle into his gas tank and you begin to wonder.
When you inspect the bottles closely, you’ll find that the bouquet has less of a hint of ripe plums about it than a blast of Saudi crude.
The amber 'vino' is 91 octane and the ruby is 95 – just the thing to make that dinner party go with a bang.
You’re in a bar on Patong's infamous Soi Bangla, enjoying a few beers, and then comes the time when you need to return some of your purchases. So you stagger off in search of the bathrooms, finding them in a pair, one male and one female, as is so often the case.
Back home, bathroom doors boast clear signs alerting you to which entrance is the right one for your gender, but like so much in Phuket this straightforward way of doing things would be just a bit too easy.
You find yourself confronted by two almost identical pony-tailed and pantaloon-wearing symbols on the doors, so you’ve no idea which is yours.
Then a mini-skirted creature breezes through one of the doors. Clearly your gender belongs through the other and so in you plunge... to be confronted by the screams of startled females.
In your haste you forgot that Phuket’s most beautiful 'girls' are often expert gender benders. Quickly saying “goodbye” to your new friends in the girl’s bathroom, you pop next door where you belong with Miss Mini-Skirt.
Herbal sauna... and enema
Deciding to try a herbal sauna, you arrive at the ramshackle establishment feeling rather vulnerable as you change into a flimsy cotton wrap and plunge into the steaming jaws of the sauna shed.
It’s extremely hot and it takes a while for your vision to adapt, so that only gradually do you realise that you’re sharing the sauna with six large Thai ladies sitting around enjoying a huge joke at your expense. About the same time, you notice a blast of furnace-like steam attacking your sensitive parts.
You dash from the sauna and pour lashings of icy water over your toasted backside.
Oops... you’ve learned the hard way never to take the vacant seat in a packed Phuket sauna... that’s the one directly over the steam vent!
Saunas are not the only hot things to avoid as the local cuisine, while delicious, can be positively volcanic. The handy phrase “farang phet” is worth remembering. Say it when ordering food and the accommodating locals will spice up your dishes only to a level acceptable to foreigners rather than to their own terrifying standards.