Right now as I type this I’m sitting on my bed in a lovely palm frond-thatched guesthouse at the Phuket Air Park. Thanks Suchard (Robert) Raksongob, a keen aviator-businessman and the developer of the Air Park who has made this our home from home for the past two days. We really are being looked after like specially invited guests.
Thanks also to John Magee, another aviation lover who is ostensibly a retired banker. John worked much of his life in the East. Only problem is, as a project in his ‘retirement’ he founded a local English language newspaper in Phuket – the Phuket Gazette, now a substantial local weekly publication with associated internet and broadcast television activities. John introduced us to his friend Robert and, thanks to both, on Monday evening we were treated to a fine reception amongst the friends of the Phuket Flying Club. John being John, of course the press and television were there and we hope when we return to SA to read about our adventure in this coming Sunday’s edition of the Phuket Gazette, while sitting back at Tedderfield in Johannesburg.
During the reception we did have to fly ZU-TAF back to the Phuket International Airport, as strictly speaking she doesn’t have permission to be at the Air Park, but luckily we were able to fix the technical problem that had us land here during our engine test flight and we were able to park her in front of the International terminal just as the sun set.
While we’re in the most beautiful place with the most wonderfully warm and generous people I can’t pretend that we’re not a little frustrated at not having been able to get off to Taiwan yesterday. It’s another long flight – 18 odd hours if we have to fly around Vietnam airspace, 16 hours if we can go straight over. We planned to take off about 11pm local time (1400Z) last night, to land in Taipei just before sunset today. But Michelle’s struggling to get final permission from the very ‘paraat’ Taiwanese. The latest problem is that we don’t have a “noise certificate” – something simply not required in SA. Of course we have literally one of the quietest aircraft in the world and they fly Boeings into that place, but that’s the way the Ouma rusk crumbles, l suppose. Just another example of how the application of regulation can serve to frustrate and undermine individual aspirations – I feel my natural philosophical anarchism beginning to rise up again now I’m on the road! Anyhow, we hope we haven’t missed the weather window and, assuming we get the go-ahead, we’ll push off this evening instead.
Meanwhile Jean and I are getting lots of rest, eating lots of great food, including lots of sea-food, and we’ve even started an exercise regimen which yesterday included a run around the air park and four sets of press-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups!
Thailand has about 80 provinces of which Phuket is but one, albeit the most affluent. The population of Phuket is roughly 400 000, of which fully 100 000 are expatriates, mostly from the west. Then there are more than 6 million tourists each year – this year more than 7 million are expected. What a place – gatherings of people are wonderfully cosmopolitan and the mixture of accents is quite mind-boggling. At our Air Park reception Jean and I felt quite provincial! Talking to a group of 7 people I realized that the mix included one Thai, one half Thai half German, one Norwegian, one Australian, one Canadian, one US citizen and a Caribbean citizen from Barbados. Oh yes – and me from SA! Of course from their perspective, now all living here permanently, they’re all Thai! Some of the guys worked for airlines, though not necessarily out of Thailand, so there’s a whole lot of buzzing around this part of the world that’s going on!
Although there’s been a local slow-down with the global economic crisis, there’s no question that it’s less here than in the old world, and the place certainly feels like it’s buzzing. Although having a long north / south span, the land area of Thailand is not big, probably the size of California. But it’s got over 60 million people, so it’s densely populated. Land is apparently getting more and more expensive, but the demographic does seem to be promoting development activity. There also seems to be a strange mixture off authoritarianism and liberal sentiment. Robert explains that aircraft are treated like handguns – both the pilot and aircraft need to be licensed, and that includes investigation of security issues. Permissions are important, foreigners can’t own land outright, but residence visas are easy and so on.
Society seems very permissive – Patong beach, where we spent our first two evenings, is a swirl of hotels, restaurants, shops and nightclubs. Sex-based tourism apparently rubs shoulders seamlessly with family holidays. What a crazy place – straight out of the storms we’d been navigating through, it was like we’d hit the jackpot, finding ourselves at a kind of ’24 hour non-stop rave’. (This was accentuated by the fact that our arrival in Thailand was the easiest one can imagine – we were whisked instantly through the terminal building, didn’t even have to produce our passports, let alone have them stamped, got picked up by John and his wife, Jon-Pen and lifted in his air-conditioned, hybrid Camry to Patong Beach, the centre of the tourist action in Phuket). Anyhow, once there on Sunday and Monday we worked hard on finding the right balance between getting the rest we needed and giving expression to our curiosity.
So now its breakfast time and then I’m off flying with Robert in his Zenair 701, from which I hope to get the classic shots of these paradise islands. We’ll try post those before the day’s out. Meanwhile I can hear some shouting from down the bottom of the garden where the local labour force is engaged in a betting game in which two fish fight it out in a bowl – cockfighting with goldfish – we really are on the other side of the world!
Finally, it does seem strange to be out here so far away having an adventure in the face of the devastating news regarding the two Albatrosses. Our thoughts go out to the families.