Jet-skis and prostitutes return to Phuket

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The Independent Online

What a difference a fortnight makes. Along Patong Beach in Phuket, where sunbathers, tourists and locals were swept away on Boxing Day, a pair of middle-aged male tourists in tight-fitting swimming trunks are jogging beside the jade-green water.

What a difference a fortnight makes. Along Patong Beach in Phuket, where sunbathers, tourists and locals were swept away on Boxing Day, a pair of middle-aged male tourists in tight-fitting swimming trunks are jogging beside the jade-green water.

The Andaman Sea laps gently at the shore. Jet-skiers swerve to avoid a snorkeller searching for gems on the sea floor. Roads are cleared and the infrastructure is functioning.

There still is a stomach-curdling stench coming from the basement of Ocean Plaza mall, where hundreds were trapped and drowned. But a Thai construction crew has hauled away most of the heavy debris, although the hulks of wrecked cars still litter the streets.

Tsunami memorabilia is already doing the rounds. A black-market video of a seaborne police car hurtling into Ocean Plaza is available in Phuket's backstreets. A digitally manipulated poster shows a jet-skier on the point of being swept away. But just a 100 yards inland, a seedy normality is beginning to return.

Mini-skirted prostitutes parade along Bang La Street, Patong's "fun zone", where not even a window pane appears to have been broken. Some tourists happily flirt. Others, still numb after all that has happened, stare glumly at their Chang beers or concentrate on their pool shoots.

John Tinlin, a labourer from Newcastle, has been to Patong Beach for the past five years. The catastrophe has not deterred him from making it six. Having established that his room was still standing , he arrived on a pre-paid two-week package on 3 January and took his first dip on Thursday.

As he towelled himself dry, Mr Tinlin shrugged off the idea of joining the search for the estimated 2,000 missing Britons who may still be lying tangled in mangrove roots or sea caves. He intends to enjoy his holiday, although, for the moment at least, Phuket is not like it was.

Men are outnumbered 10 to one by bar girls, but the usual masseuses and hair-plaiters are nowhere to be seen. "Most of the girls here are gone," said Mr Tinlin. "They are too frightened to stay."

Neil Satterwhite, from California, said he almost preferred the town this way: "It is as if God wiped the slate clean and started over. It's so pristine: no touts, no parachutes, no sun-loungers. Like going back 20 years in time. Only, for now, the mood is so sombre."

Eddy Torremans, a pet products salesman from Antwerp, is another frequent visitor to Phuket. The beach bungalow where he has stayed three times a year for 15 years has been totally flattened. "I am a night owl, and certainly I would have been inside," he said.

Mr Torremans was diverted to Bangkok on 27 December. After four days in the capital, he felt pulled to the place where he made so many friends. Many of them are now dead. Pacing pensively along the beach, Mr Torremans said sadly: "I don't believe in anything, and I don't know why I changed my flight."

Until yesterday he stayed out of the sea and still avoids eating seafood. "I'm not into that right now. I prefer pizza or spaghetti." Sales of shrimp, fish and lobster have plummeted due to the fear of pollution caused by broken sewage lines and the fear that the fish had fed on human remains.

Nevertheless, the huge open-air Savoey Cafe, famed for its live seafood, reopened for the weekend and celebrations which had been postponed due to the tragedy are now being tentatively resumed.

Tim Rusten, a north London lawyer, and his new Thai bride, Kanlaya, had planned a celebratory post-wedding dinner at the Savoey with 25 family members last week. The party has only been slightly delayed.

"I wouldn't want to stay right on the beach now, but will keep a bit further back. It seems safe enough," Mr Rusten said. "Hurricanes did not stop us from going to Florida last year. Our money helps the local people. They are very welcoming."

At Kata Beach, where the Club Med's ground floor was gutted by the raging sea, a sunburnt Danish family walk along the seafront, wheeling their two-year-old daughter in a pushchair. They are full of praise for the local response to the tragedy.

"Thai authorities were tremendously quick in reacting," Mrs Moos said. "Ten people went swimming just 36 hours after the tidal wave." Her husband added: "It doesn't bother me to swim in the sea where corpses have been. And another tsunami is extremely unlikely. After all that, why would we go home now?"

Travel agents say: Don't go

As travel agents face a slump in bookings to south Asia after the tsunami, The Independent wondered how far the industry was prepared to go to shore up what interest remained. We contacted travel agents asking whether it would be possible to book a cheap holiday in some of the worst-hit destinations.

Thomas Cook Advice: "You are aware of the situation over there at the moment, aren't you? A lot of places are completely washed out, some of our hotels in the Maldives have been completely destroyed."

Conclusion: No holidays to Sri Lanka at least until the end of January. "I wouldn't advise you went anyway."

STA Travel Advice: "There is nothing cheap and you will struggle. A lot of seats are fully booked and a lot of airlines have cancelled flights."

Conclusion: After searching flights and accommodation, the operator offered flights from Heathrow to Phuket, flying out 14 January, returning 28 January, with Thai Airways for £612 per person including tax. Accommodation at the Orchard Acea Resort on Phuket, a three-star resort, for £444 for the room for 14 nights. Total: £834pp.

ebookers Advice: "Why Phuket particularly? Do you know it's been a bit devastated? There's a lot of people flying out there at the moment to look for their relatives. Sri Lanka will be worse; it has pretty much been wiped out. I wouldn't recommend going to Sri Lanka."

Conclusion: Flights from Heathrow to Colombo, flying out 14 January and returning 28 January, costing £519. No accommodation offered.

Thomson Holidays Advice: "All Thomson companies have cancelled tours until the end of January, and that may be extended."

Conclusion: First available holiday to the region is to the Maldives, from 7 to 22 February for £3,890.

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