In the lead up to my husband’s 40th birthday, we have a conversation about what would be his ideal way to celebrate this landmark birthday. It turns out that his dream would be to share Thailand, one of his most beloved travel destinations, with his entire family – his parents, siblings, their partners and kids – who have never set foot there.
And this would explain how the eleven of us find ourselves in the surreal circumstances of hanging on for dear life in a fast-paced tuk tuk on the chaotic roads of Phuket. We squeeze our Western size frames into these Eastern-size modes of transport, our nervous laughter ringing out when we turn tight corners amongst mobs of other vehicles on the main thoroughfare.
The island of Phuket is deceivingly long, ringed by endless sandy beaches and palm trees and a myriad of resorts where you can lay your head. You are spoiled for choice when it comes to beachside towns, some quieter and cleaner, some slightly dingier and busy. For a family-friendly holiday, the coastal town of Kata close to the southern tip, ticks all the boxes. It boasts one of the cleanest beaches on the island (we should know, we’ve experienced most beaches on our previous four trips), a welcoming resort jutting onto the beach, and just the right number of amenities in town to allow for a comfortable stay. It also doesn’t have any of the trashiness that Patong is infamous for. Kata it is.
The village has something to please everyone, and as the days go by, this allows us to break off into smaller groups according to interest: Bill’s brother teaches his 7-year-old daughter to surf on the beginner waves, my mother-in-law parts with Thai baht at the local markets, my niece has her nails painted a coral hue at the local cheap-as-chips spa.
Don’t get me wrong, I had my doubts. My in-laws had never travelled to Asia, and are the types who would rather eat at home than go out to a restaurant “where you don’t even know if the cook has washed his hands”. The children are also accustomed to their comforts back home, and I wondered how they would handle the less than polished life in Phuket.
But my fears are assuaged as each member of the family finds their niche.
There are small but significant moments that bring me to the realisation that this holiday will stay with our family far beyond the time the plane touches down back home. In all my travel bookings and the activity checklist that I had meticulously planned, what I didn’t anticipate was my mother-in-law laughing with a similar-aged vendor as they use universal sign language to communicate. Or the wide-eyed look on my father-in-law’s face when a whole barbecued fish arrives colorfully dressed in chili and lemongrass. Or the look on the faces of the children as they stare at their floating illuminated lanterns, as they disappear into oblivion in the night sky.
It was an eye opener for the younger members of our group to see how what was acceptable in one country, may not be acceptable in another. Growing up in a very structured, rules-driven society in Australia, they are shocked to find that we can buy fireworks on the beach and set them off ourselves. They look incredulously at their parents, as the vendor explains to them how to hold the fireworks carefully. Sensibly, they give it a miss, but are delighted when their grandfather – a man with a little too much experience with fireworks – buys a pack and sets them off with a loud bang and flash of light into the night sky. I don’t know who enjoyed it more, the children or my father-in-law.
I also don’t anticipate the thrill I would personally feel, sharing an experience so close to my heart with loved ones, and seeing the now-familiar country through fresh eyes.
As with most cultures, many of our most memorable experiences happen while tucking into the delicious local fare. There’s something about food that lets you in on the subtleties of the local culture. The delicate balance of sweet, sour and salty in Thai cuisine, the vivid colours in each dish and the fresh-as-can-be produce are testament to the importance of food in the Thai lifestyle. And this goes for our cheery local, Mali, with its fresh seafood displays on ice, as well as the upscale Baan Rim Pa with its white linen tablecloths and piano playing entertainment.
A fair share of local tour offices enlighten us to the variety of group tours beckoning us to other parts of Phuket and its surrounds – excursions for snorkeling, 4-wheel driving, cooking classes and more. A family visit to the elephant park is a welcome chance to partake in an activity that bonds us all – the uneasy laughter while riding a cumbersome elephant at eight feet off the ground, and the respect we gain for the beloved pachyderm for delivering us safely to our destination. We all feel a thrill to be in such an exotic location, participating in something completely foreign to us, and sharing the experience as a family. Feeding bananas to the elephants afterward was a laugh, as one of our nieces was practically chased down by the trunk of the elephant sniffing out its snack.
At the end of the day, it’s a fun holiday. It can be spontaneous because bookings don’t need to be made far in advance. You can do as much (or as little) as you like. The interactions with the welcoming locals are priceless and you can take joy in the simple things. We get so much pleasure out of drinking directly out of coconuts on our beach chairs, that when our huge party arrives every morning, we clean the vendor out of his daily supply.
On our last day, something happens that makes me realise the trip is an irrefutable success. On my way to quench my thirst with an iced coffee, I see my mother-in-law sitting by herself in a favourite local restaurant called Mali. She wants a quick meal before that afternoon’s flight out. I ask her what she’s ordered, thinking she’s probably made some terrible mistake, and she replies, “I just asked the waitress to put in an order for whatever she thought was good”. If I had wanted to share with someone how travel brings down walls, enlightens us to new ideas and closes the gap between cultures, well then, job done.
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