Welcome to Club Med, Thai-style
"Participate. Earn your lunch. This is not the Holiday Inn." This is what shrieks out at 12.30pm every day while you are lying on the beautifully arranged sun-loungers by the pool at Club Med, Phuket.
It's the clarion call of Greg, a diddy South African geezer with dot- to-dot freckles and an unnerving little grin. The fact that his tan starts from above his ankles gives away the fact that he's the golf instructor - but unfortunately for him his duties don't end there. Every day he has to stand by the pool with a loudhailer and try to get an international factor of sunbathers - if that is the right collective noun - to get off their gently bronzed backsides and do something in the gently blowing breeze of the Andaman Sea.
I have a problem with organised entertainment, especially if there aren't serious "price is right" five-door saloons up for grabs. And on day one I definitely did not want my poolside reverie disturbed by lots of people doing the conga in the pool. I turned the other bikini-clad cheek and put my stuffy little British nose in the air. On day two my thought process ran along the lines of "I'm an international traveller who likes to explore strange regions of Bhutan ... but ... mmmmm, this is fun to watch in a patronising kind of way." And, you've guessed it: by day three I was preparing my dive at the start of the International Club Med Olympics Race alongside Valerie from Nice (I won the silver). I had also fully entered into the spirit of the packaged world of Club Mediterranee - pioneer of all-inclusive activity holidays in 130 "villages" around the world (in poor financial shape at the moment, and guilty of overusing the word "participate").
But though you may want to hate it at the start, I bet you a bag full of beads that by the end you're having a good time. And let's get the bead thing sorted right now. Your package at Club Med includes all accommodation, sport, food, and drink at meals; if, however, you want a drink from the bar, you have to buy it with beads. These aren't romantic little cowrie shells collected from the beach at dawn. They are plastic orange and yellow things that you can stick together to make necklaces. I think they are just a careful way of disguising how horrendously expensive the bar is. Get into the Nineties and give me a smart card.
Club Med also has its own language. Greg - as an employee - is a GO, and I as a passing guest was a GM. All Gentils Officiers have to eat, drink, mingle but not sleep with Gentils Membres - though you do get the feeling some of them may have taken hospitality to horizontal levels. Meals are at certain times, a "sun dance" takes place round the pool in an early Pan's People style at midday every day, and you need a secret code to make an international call out-of your room. Cult Med may be an apt first impression.
We were lucky to be given the tour of the "village" by Grinning Greg, who kindly informed us that the elephant ride was a waste of time and that the sports centre was right at the other end of the resort - but since we didn't look as if we'd be needing to tee off at 8am or play a quick serve and volley before lunch, he wouldn't bother showing us that. It was a lovely pinch of reality salt on the side of an all-too-effusive plateful of unpalatable bonhomie from some of the other GOs.
Participation turned out not to be our forte; slobbing out on Kata Beach we were much better at. Kata Beach is that stretch of white sand that you hope Thailand will always have: bobbing longboats; sunsets to die for, all pinky and dusky; and a tarpaulin under which a dozen smiling massage ladies ease away your troubles with tiger balm, baby oil and some vertebrae-crunching hand techniques. You can have a massage in the spa at Club Med, but it costs seven times as much and you have to listen to piped music. Which would you rather: the sound of Thai girls giggling at your bumpy European thighs, or Michael Bolton classics?
Most of our bumps were caused by the food in Club Med. This reflects the clientele, who range from Japanese, through South Korean, Italian and French, to us. The Harvester help-yourself principle works here, and your selection of cuisine ranges from Japanese through South Korean ... By the end of a week our choices were positively surreal: one tiger prawn, two slices of pizza and a bowl of Thai soup. My favourite was sushi with mashed potato and the ultimate hangover cure: three types of potato - fried, mashed and roast. So we ate and slept, and marvelled at how smooth everyone else's thighs looked, for seven days - until we had almost lost the power of speech.
On our last night in Phuket we wandered back from Kata town to find something akin to hell being enacted around the pool. It was a funfair, complete with greasy pole, coconut shies and roulette tables with fake money. At first we thought that was going a bit far. But everyone else was having such a good time. That's Club Med for you; it just keeps on going. You can help yourself to as much as you like, or just pick and choose, and you'll only really hate it if you do turn your nose up at everything. Apart from anything else, that is a bad way to sunbathe; you'll get a nasty Judith Chalmers turtleneck effect by the end of two weeks.
I would personally recommend doing three things before going, though: make your own bar beads out of melted plastic, rent my mate Cath out for her late-night cabaret action, which she performed to tumultuous applause after the funfair had packed up and gone - and check that Greg is still there before you go. Do try that mashed potato and sushi combination. You know you want to.