This May, I returned to Phuket for the first time in a few years. It was also the first time I’d been there over the summer, when the tourist season is at its lowest. The atmosphere was strangely unfamiliar for a place I’d frequented since childhood. On the last day of our visit, my family ventured out of our resort bubble and drove a rental car to an area of Phuket called Kamala. We used to look forward to day trips out of our comfortable haven on Bang Tao Beach, but this time felt different: the street vendors grilling smoky kebab skewers from metal stalls were nowhere to be found. The lengths of luscious Thai silks that blended the string of tailor shops into a neon-lit rainbow were no more; storefronts were reduced to unclothed mannequins behind locked doors. The beachside, once teeming with colorful umbrellas under which locals sell temporary tattoos, handmade souvenirs, ice-cold lollies, hair-braiding and massage services, was eerily absent. These businesses, I learned, generally operated on illegitimate payments to local mafia groups and under-the-table agreements with corrupt police officers, only to be eventually shut down for encroaching the beachfront.
The waves were choked with the grimy residue of poorly-drained building activity. Villas, budget hotels and apartments were being erected with a total lack of planning, eroding the natural landscape. In true Phuket fashion, half of these projects sat abandoned under enormous blue tarps, brick skeletons of a luxurious dream destination that would never come to fruition. For every lavish tourist development in Phuket, there is a half-built shamble of uncertainty — and an accompanying faded poster of the imaginary beachfront property with its price per square meter. When infrastructure is planned poorly and construction lacks any official governmental cooperation or authorization — such as is the case in some parts of Phuket — what’s left are these coastal ghost towns, their only sign of activity a heap of fresh garbage bags.
I can’t decide if it is depressing or uplifting that so much of my country’s economic welfare rests on the sunburnt shoulders of tourists who flock in and out of Thailand’s airports for a temporary tropical escape. While I know the chaos of December in Phuket all too well — the prosperity that tourism brings to the local economy and the humid streets buzzing with crowds and life and color — that seasonal burst of life could not feel further away from my experience here in the height of the monsoon season. Abandoned fields flood with rain, and the absence of drainage systems leads to further water pollution. Stagnant water becomes a breeding ground for mosquito-borne diseases.
For me, spending time in Thailand has always posed a bit of an internal challenge. It forces me to examine my place in a culture that comprises half of my biological identity, but little of my lived experience and even less of my linguistic capability. When I order my favorite, lesser-known Thai delicacies off the menu in Thai and confidently navigate Bangkok’s BTS system on my own, I feel as if I am in place. But what far outweigh those fragments of belonging are photographs from every childhood Christmas spent on Phuket’s beaches, when I am gap-toothed and grinning with beaded braids in my hair and sand everywhere. The fact that our annual vacations to the most tourist-saturated part of Thailand are usually in the company of our extended Irish family makes the English-speaking group of us indistinguishable from every other Caucasian clan traipsing through Phuket for the holiday season.
I don’t consider myself a local just because I have a Thai mother, nor do I expect to be treated like one. But there is a level of self-consciousness that accompanies this glaring lack of belonging: a jarring sense of being both within and without. When Thais find out my brothers and I are half-Thai, they identify our mixed backgrounds and the spectacle of “Eurasian-ness” that Asia is fascinated with, instead of perceiving common ground in the side of us that is just Thai: just like them. As long as one’s Thai-ness is combined with another foreign identity, — “farang,” as Thai people call it — perhaps she will always be perceived as a foreigner.
Once upon a time, day trips to Kamala were highlights of more than a decade of family memories made here in Phuket. Today, returning from the dismal reality of Phuket Town to the resort-filled sanctuary of Bang Tao beach was a relief only tourists would feel. Examining my own reaction was alienating and disappointing: do I really get to consider myself a part of this culture if I only participate in its manicured, lucrative, tourist-friendly façade? If I fail to understand and therefore retreat at the first glimpse of Thailand’s imperfect reality? I am half-Thai, yet the bulk of my experience in Thailand has padded me from this country’s truth. Maybe the label of farang isn’t too far off.