I remember being aware of Russians in Phuket when I first visited six or so years ago. But I don’t recall Kata Beach being quite the Little Odessa that it has become. All signage is in Russian, as well as in Thai and English, and on the beach this afternoon, I was surrounded by Slavic faces and Russian accents, the women buxom, the men rotund and hairy. And so much exposed pink flesh — I distinguished myself by being one of only two women wearing one-piece bathing suits. Even the beach dogs looked Russian, wolf-like animals with different coloured eyes.
Okay, I’m generalising. But not much.
The Thai beach vendors, by contrast, were covered from head to foot in long sleeved shirts, long pants, socks under their rubber sandals, and what looked like a cross between a hijab and a wide-brimmed hat on their heads. I realise they were probably covering up against the sun. But I couldn’t help thinking of their dress as a subtle chastisement — an impression strengthened by the fact that the island’s Giant Buddha, visible on a nearby hill, has his back to the beach.
That said, Kata has a distinctly family-friendly feel. Lots of farang/Russian kids, including babies in prams on the sand (WTF?). One chubby, naked toddler looked so joyful as she staggered in the shallows, I had to laugh. Later, as the sun set, Thai families came out, too. One girl in school uniform, pigtails with bows of white ribbon, sifted sand through a net, though whether cleaning up rubbish or searching for treasure, I couldn’t tell. Her mother, one arm a tattooed sleeve, chased several kids around, feeding them from a communal plate.
I hung out this evening at the beachfront Ska Bar, a place I remembered from the previous visit. UB40 playing in the background, waiters wearing ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ T-shirts, and overhead, a magnificent century-old tree hung with flags, coloured scarves and empty birdcages.
I recognised the nearby Kata Beach Resort, too, where we spent our last night in January 2009 before returning to Australia after a year away. We’d gone for the buffet dinner but the highlight turned out to be the drag show, a low-rent version of Phuket’s very flash Simon Caberet, complete with schmaltzy tunes and wardrobe malfunctions. I might just have to take my characters there…
I’m staying in a very cool place up the hill, a block from the beach. My balcony overlooks an island in Kata Bay, and the garden is full of black butterflies with blue-tipped wings and centipedes as thick as your average biro (see photo). There’s a spirit house, of course, and, judging by the offerings of local cigars, the resident phra phoum is a smoker.
Earlier in the day, I found my way to a roadside stall, directed by a fruit vendor in response to my request for real Thai food. It was exactly what I had in mind: plastic table cloths, Thai soap opera on the TV, and five bucket-sized aluminium pots lined up on the bench at the front. I ate a chicken curry made with pea- and ping-pong-ball-sized eggplants that made all my tastebuds dance, and washed it down with a glass of iced tea, recognisable from its rusty colour as Police Dog Brand. Against the wall of a nearby building, a pair of gumboots had been inverted to dry on the end of broom handles.