Blessed to be a witness

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Tuesday, May 3rd

Sodom and Gomorrah

The manner of the catastrophe, which killed 5,000 people here, should not give the town itself the "sanctity of victimhood". During the day it is just a beach town, but after dark, it is like the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah, if you'll pardon the ironic imagery. If Orchard Towers in Singapore perhaps ignited in me a new prudishness, then this compounded it.

The beach itself is thronged with people offering Thai massage (the legitimate kind), henna tattoos, manicures, cigarettes, water, toys, and countless other diversions. The vendors appear to outnumber the tourists, which might make using the beach a little trying. In the middle of the beach is a number of unhygienic-looking food stalls, clustered round a stage proclaiming "Phuket Festival of Food Safety", which was to feature a reggae band - because, of course, what other way is there to celebrate food safety than with reggae? It's how I always do it.

In the evening we ate, and then walked down Bang La, up which the tsunami travelled, but seemingly not too far, because there is very little damage evident, and everywhere is open for business. All up and down the half-mile strip are bars, and some of them would best be described as prostitution theme parks. Extending back from the road about a hundred metres each are alleyways of bars, backed by tall backdrops like Disney rides. For example, Tiger Entertainment, that has a wood-effect backdrop and life-sized models of tigers (complete with breasts, and penises instead of fingers), or Crocodile Show, that features "sexy dancers and live crocodiles". Each alleyway has a row of small open-air bars on each side, all designed the same, sharing the common walkway and the pounding music, and each with about ten bar stools, crowded with scantily-clad women, who grab and try to engage any passing male. Occasionally they are given a signal, and they ascend to the bar-top and dance in a bored and desultory manner.

Strolling up and down Bang La are outrageously camp ladyboys, promoting the Ladyboy Cabaret, and, of course, the ubiquitous large sweating Europeans grasping and groping at the women on their arms. We found a pool hall, and played a few racks. There are staff to put the coins in set up the balls for you, but I suspect that some of them offer more than that, since one of them caught my eye behind M's back, and made a very obscene gesture with her mouth.

The town is bustling but not busy. Low season started on May 1st, but I suspect one reason for the lack of people is the disaster. And though our being here is helping to stimulate the economy, I'd rather stay somewhere a little less "vibrant" on the same island. I have rented a scooter, and later I hope to scout out some other parts of the island that rely less on the sex trade and more on the tourism trade, and try to find somewhere we can actually try to assist with reconstruction, possibly on a different island. Again in the habit of incredible kindness to strangers, the sales manager at the hotel in Singapore put us in touch with a Thai friend of his who lives in Phuket town, who has offered to pick us up this evening and take us to dinner, and show us around the island, so we're hoping she may be able to point us in the right direction.

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