66. This Love – Maroon 5
After a pleasant couple of hours spent in the dimly lit opulence of the swishest new bar in Phuket Town, our waiter friend from the Banyan Tree decides to take the three of us clubbing at the joint up the road. We enter the compact, packed venue to the sound of Wild Cherry’s 1970s funk-rock classic Play That Funky Music, with a six or seven-piece live band “performing” in the middle of the main floor to the right. The guitarists are striking poses; the keyboardist is pounding away; the crowd are whipped up into a frenzy… but the music itself is actually coming from the DJ booth. Hiring a full live band to mime to records? OK, that’s weird. Is this common practice over here?
We squeeze our way up the steep open staircase ahead of us on the left hand wall, past more jiggling revellers (roughly 75% Thai to 25% European/American/Australian), navigate through the grinning crush of dancers on the balcony above the band, find a table at the back, and order our drinks. As the waiter returns, K and I realise that although the tune playing is still Play That Funky Music, it is no longer the recorded version; somewhere along the line, the band have picked up the beat, joined in with the record, and have now seamlessly taken over the performance. What’s more, they’re cooking up a storm.
With each successive number, the players swap places and instruments accordingly, with vocalists coming and going from a extended pool. On a huge video screen above the performing area – and thus level with us on the first floor – a classic rock video channel is playing with the sound turned down, giving rise to some odd juxtapositions: the sound of Enrique Iglesias’ Bailamos to the visuals of The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, for instance. K is convinced that someone behind the scenes is carefully matching up the sound and the vision (“that’s so clever!“) – but then, the Long Island Iced Teas are kicking fairly effectively all round.
At the opening bars of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, our collective Pavlovian response is not to be resisted. Within seconds, the three of us are chugging away at the front of the balcony, clinking glasses and bottles with the merry throng around us. The comparatively tall and burly Thai fella on our left – a serial clinker and hand-shaker, and lead candidate for the post of K’s new best friend – has, for reasons best known to himself, decided to hoick his T-shirt up above his chest, which he is now proudly slapping with the palm of his hand. Ours not to reason why. Down below, a broad-shouldered, homely looking chanteuse, whose innate campness puts me somewhat in mind of Nadia from Big Brother 5, is belting her way through the track with beaming, eager-to-please enthusiasm, repeatedly flapping her elbows against her sides as she does so. Meanwhile our impeccably groomed companion-cum-guide has cast aside his leather jacket, rolled up his sleeves, loosened his top, and is busily reconnecting with his inner Disco Bunny: all sideways shimmies, coiling gyrations and lingering, provocative strokes of the torso. It’s mental. It’s great. I love it. We all love it.
Living La Vida Loca gives me a chance to shove my way downstairs for a slash. Next to the urinals, and away from the other wash baisins, a single bowl is marked with a sign, in English and Thai: Vomit Station. Hanging on the wall at a wonky angle, a corpulent, squiffy-looking dame in a scarlet frock (think Beryl Cook does Bangkok) reclines awkwardly on a chaise longue, leering down at the tipsy micturators, a couple of whom are loudly declaring their respective sexual agendas for the night in the most unequivocally detailed terms.
The band’s range is impressive, ranging from recent pop hits to disco classics and rock standards. Back in our seats, I recognise the strains of Maroon 5’s This Love: a hit from a few months earlier which I had enjoyed well enough at the time, without exactly being overwhelmed by it. I hadn’t realised that it was so popular internationally. In this context, it sounds fantastic. It’s one of those instant flips that you sometimes get with seemingly inconsequential pop songs. Give them a context, an association, a memory, and you imbue them with a poignancy that can sometimes last for decades.
The DJ set which follows is even more eclectic, the dancers responding with equal enthusiasm, regardless of what is played. Although we cope manfully with the rinky-dink 200bpm happy hardcore bonkers nosebleed toytown techno, Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’ tips us over the edge, firmly nudging us downstairs and out onto the street.
On the Saturday night, we’re back in Phuket Town, celebrating our friend’s promotion at a cheerfully bustling downtown restaurant, with a ever-shifting assortment of his colleagues from our resort; throughout the evening, they appear on motorbikes in dribs and drabs, whenever there’s a break in the stormy weather at the end of their shifts. The meal unfolds episodically and informally, with new dishes being ordered whenever anyone feels like them; then pooled, passed around, and left on the table for whoever wants them next. It’s a form of extended grazing, which we had spotted – with some degree of envy – at neighbouring tables of Thai diners during the week, at our favourite independently-run beachfront restaurant. It’s a style of dining which suits the food, and us, well.
Once the slight shock of our presence is overcome, our dining companions happily absorb us into the general banter, back-chat and gentle ribbing which dominate the table. On the giant video screens, live UK soccer is being shown; a national obsession, and ideal for everyone’s Saturday night entertainment. Time and again, people arriving at our table look at K, and make the same observation: you look just like Alex Ferguson.
As you may be aware, K and I don’t exactly follow the football closely. We therefore haven’t the faintest idea who Alex Ferguson is, or what he looks like. As luck would have it, one of the teams in the second match turns out to be Manchester United. Eventually, Ferguson appears on screen.“Look, look! Alex Ferguson!”
We roar with appalled laughter. Guess that “they all look the same to me” stuff cuts both ways, then.
Around the table, there is much talk of the paper birds. In certain areas of southern Thailand, newly emergent outbreaks of sectarian violence are threatening the peace, stability and economic well-being of the country. Indeed, with tourist numbers slightly down on last year, our companions are already worried that this might be taking effect. (We are quick to reassure them; after all, how often does the western media ever report on south-east Asian affairs?)
In response to this situation, the Thai government has devised a novel approach. Instead of sending the troops in, the country’s entire population has been asked to construct folded paper birds, containing messages of peace, to be dropped on the affected areas by the air force on the King’s birthday – which is tomorrow, as it happens. The original aim was to collect around 60 million birds – one for every citizen. However, in true Blue Peter Christmas Appeal fashion, the total number has soared beyond that, to an estimated 120 million.
I try to imagine the sight of 120 million paper birds fluttering through the air, bearing peace slogans. It’s an undeniably powerful, beautiful image. We canvas our companions’ opinions on the initiative. The feeling is unanimous: they, and just about everyone in the country, are solidly behind it. Back at the Banyan Tree, staff have been as busy as everywhere else, assembling and gathering their stock of birds. Slightly confused by the timelines, K and I resolve to make our own when we get back to the villa; we think it would be a nice touch if at least a couple of guests could add their own.
Sometimes, when I am a little tipsy, I can err on the side of overly sincere over-dramatisation. But then it’s Saturday night, and we’re all a little tipsy. Leaning across the table, I make my pronouncement. “If this mission is a success, then the people of Thailand will have taught the world a valuable lesson! I mean, imagine if the Americans had dropped birds on Iraq, not bombs!”
Oh, will someone please just slap me, before I turn into Yoko f***ing Ono?
This is also the last night of our holiday in Phuket. Everyone is asking whether we’ll be coming back. Having already made our decision a few days ago, we make a solemn promise: same week next year, hopefully in the same villa if possible. We have enjoyed a perfect holiday – the stuff of fantasies – and these affable, welcoming people have helped to make it possible. In all the conversations we have had about our resort during the evening, it has become abundantly clear that everyone takes a great pride in creating and maintaining such an idyllic environment (and such a prestigious one; for ever since it opened, the Banyan Tree has been repeatedly garlanded with awards). We would have sniffed out the bullshit by now, or the cynicism, or indeed the desperation; there is none.
“You should all take a real pride in creating such a perfect environment!” We are, as I say, a little squiffy.
“You must let us know when you plan to come back! We will create a special welcome for you!”They are, as I say, a little squiffy. We take our leave – somewhat earlier than we would have liked, but it’s a long day tomorrow – amidst smiles and handshakes, and warm hugs from our newly promoted waiter-no-longer friend.
That was close.
Boxing Day morning. Why has J texted me with this cryptic message?
What do you mean?
Sorry darling, but I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.
Weren’t you staying near the tsunami area in Thailand not long ago? Must have knickers in a twist.
Tsunami? I’m straight onto the laptop … f**king poxy 56k dial-up … and into Google News … what the f**k? … and I’m searching.
“laguna beach tsunami”
“banyan tree tsunami”
Not a bean.
On the TV news, all the talk is of Patong beach, 30 minutes south on the same coast. Devastation. But at this early stage, still numb and near-tearful from the shock, all I can think of is the people I’ve met. The guys who work at the resort’s beach restaurant, where we took lunch most days. The nice couple from that Saturday night, who run the “reggae bar” next door. Our favourite independently run restaurant further down the beach, where you choose your own freshly caught seafood from the tanks. Whole livelihoods potentially destroyed.
In between bulletins, I’m combing the news stories on the web. Malyasia? Nah, skip it. Indonesia? Yeah, whatever. Sri Lanka? Come on, come on, next paragraph. I’m dimly aware that this is vaguely shameful, but I really only have one thing on my mind. Our hotel was maybe 200 metres back from the beach, with a network of three large lagoons immediately behind. If Patong is any guide, then prospects aren’t looking good.
Strangely, there’s very little “there but for the grace of God go we” about all of this. Funny. Would have expected that.
Late that night, a story comes up via a search on Google News: an eye-witness has described the Laguna Beach Resort (a large complex of five hotels, including the Banyan Tree) as “completely gone”. That’s it: just two bald words. I go to bed feeling flattened.
The following morning, another site has followed up the story, by speaking to contacts at the Laguna Beach. The story is false. A headland at the south of the bay has broken much of the force of the tsunami, causing the rest of the bay to experience more of a “major swell”. No casualties. A few minor injuries. Some rooms flooded in other hotels. Some damage to the Banyan Tree’s beach restuarant. Clean-up operation already in progress. Gratitude to staff and guests for their efforts. Beach to re-open on December 28th. Please focus attention and efforts elsewhere, to where they are most needed.
Strange to think of holidaymakers lazing on the beach, just thirty minutes away from such carnage. Finally, the “what if” scenarios start up. Would we be lazing along with them, or would we be lending a hand down in Patong, and would it even be a useful hand, or would we just be like the awkward dinner-party guests who insist on helping with the washing up without knowing where anything goes, and would it be best if we just confined ourselves to splashing our cash around, thus helping to re-establish swift normalcy to the tourist industry? Do your bit for disaster relief! Buy expensive cocktails! Utter, utter head-f**k.
But more than anything else on the morning of December 27th, what I felt was an immense sense of relief.
A pity it turned out to be so short-lived, then.
Woefully, pitifully, horribly short-lived.