The Spontaneous Order of Phuket
A Place That Does What It Wants
Strolling through the streets and alleys of Phuket is a constant stream of stimulation. It’s hard to know what to look at with the barrage of color and smells, dodging amateur photographers who find most objects the most enthralling subject. Nobody would plan anything like this—and thank goodness.
Aside from the smell, that strange mixture of fish sauce and sewage, there is no consistent pattern. The pavement slabs, arranged willy-nilly, stick up and threaten to send you to a dodgy hospital with every trip to 7/11. On lamp posts, you’ll find hanging bundles of exposed wires, just because? Half chopped iron beams protrude from the ground—this may have been intended to be part of a building at one point in history, and once that was given up, nobody thought to get rid of that one piece of metal.
There is no hard and fast etiquette for crossing the roads. The best you can do is wait for a reasonable gap and go for it. The zebra crossings are more of a suggestion. The pavements have no consistent elevation. The phone lines are out in the elements and seem awfully low. Broken wires sprout from the ground. Neighboring Chinese temples will live next to bare steel frames, or piles of bricks.
Shops are often vague about their purpose. Perhaps they’re just general all-purpose shops—“We have a bunch of stuff. Come on in and maybe you’ll find something you like.” Even if you don’t know the language, it is usually possible to discern what a shop is about via signage or observing the goods. Here, you’re expected to know what it is beforehand. They resemble warehouses more than consumer goods stores. Adorning the shelves are piles of somethings and other things. An unimpressed impresario sits fanning himself, looking at you through a frown.
Some cafes are suitably modern, run by the younger generation with the tourist class in mind. Glass fronts with trendy decals. You could expect these in any western city. Next door might be a white-tiled room with plastic tables and chairs, and a woman with a one-button coffee machine.
The same general rule applies for eateries. You have “normal” looking restaurants where the ritual is self-evident. Then there’s street food, which is beautiful in its simplicity—point at what you want and then you get it. Cheap, invariably good, but you kind of have to eat it in a dirty alleyway. Sometimes you’ll have what appears to be both—a plastic chair restaurant with a food stall in the entranceway, where you essentially have to walk through a kitchen to get to the seating area. At least you can have a good gander at what you’re going to be having beforehand.
There is a protocol for restaurants. You sit down, someone gives you a menu, you point at what you want and before you’ve even figured out how to connect to the wi-fi, your food is sitting in front of you. Plus, condiments on condiments. Fennel, chili sauce, raw unpeeled garlic, a small bowl of greasy water, and pots of pickled everything. What you’re supposed to do with all of that is an open question. No salt and pepper though.
The meal costs all of one pound fifty, and it’s immensely nourishing. Maybe it’s not the healthiest thing in the world, the egg is a tad overcooked, and God knows what they did to that pork, but dang it’s good. All food in Thailand seems good to me. I’m British, and I’ve just spent the best part of a year in New Zealand and Australia, where the food culture is essentially non-existent. Unless you count pies as “local cuisine.”
Maybe what it’s I’ve been eating so far is not considered great food, but it’s almost always tasty with a variety of flavors and fills me up. Plus, the low price and the ubiquity of eateries is perfect for a guy that can cook but can’t be bothered to.
I passed a small market. One lady had a stall of what looked like flattened fruits. I asked her what they were and she simply said: “not food.”
The overriding theme I’m getting from my first exposure to Phuket is that there is no overriding theme. Each individual in this array is working to their own aims, and what comes from all that is a cacophony of noise and splendor. There is a lack of unity of vision. It’s what happens when you get 300 people to compose a symphony together with an equal fraction of creative responsibility.
I overheard some Canadian backpackers discussing how Thai cities seem to lack what we call a “downtown,” an obvious central hub from which the city spreads out. The points of interest are spread out willy-nilly. One wouldn’t have designed it like that.
Some might say that that’s a negative. However, I’ve seen what happens when a city council has decided that there must be “the area” where everything of interest is, and where people must be drawn to. What you get is Darling Harbor in Sydney, a pleasant place but lacking in soul. You have a zoo, an aquarium, Madame Toussaud’s, Cafe del Mar, the immense convention center, the IMAX cinema, the maritime museum, and a Ferris wheel. Okay fine, but there is a sense of compulsion there. It’s been constructed by some genius planner to get tourists caught up in a money drain.
It’s a spiritual dead-zone. Australians, in general, don’t go there. Veteran Sydney-siders have their favorite districts where some character has had room to develop on its own. Take Surry Hills, whose architectural aesthetics aren’t to everyone’s tastes, but in the nooks and crannies of those streets, you’ll find niche restaurants and cafes that will only be known to insiders. You have Surry Hills as the hipster, and then you have Newtown, which is hippy—think Che Guevara street art and a huge LGBT community. Newtown was not intended to be that way; once upon a time, it was a working-class neighborhood, the furthest thing from hippy.
Western cities are like mother brains that span out from aesthetically pleasing centers, financial districts, and then on to suburbs and dodgy parts of town. Thai cities have no such logic. Dodgy will rub shoulders with aesthetic. If the human condition is the balancing act between chaos and order, Phuket seems like life is balancing on a slimmer plane than you thought possible. It’s hard to believe that society could function with all of this mess, yet it does. I love it. It does what it wants. Give me this over the uniform, singularly planned CBDs of western cities. It’s evidence of real life.
Some people have a thing for the idyllic vision of The Venus Project, inspired by digital renditions of smooth, white dome structures, glass elevators, and monorail. For me, that evokes dystopian clinicism. It’s a robot’s idea of a functioning society. It’s what some brain box imagines the world would be like if their wildest despotic fantasies were realized. It’s a construction designed to flatter their sense of internal order. Essentially, these conceptions are meant to show off how clever a person is.
Cities like Phuket trigger the central planner because it’s what happens when society is left to its own devices. Simply by permitting individuals to pursue their self-interest, order is produced, but in a way that no individual could have come up with on their own. The emergent order ends up becoming more beautiful than any one mind could design. It’s a testament to human co-opetition—pity the society that ignores the stunning potential of spontaneous order.