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Going Topless in Phuket, Thailand

It’s happened to us all at least once. You know the drama. Maybe you realize it on the flight over, or on the way to the airport, or maybe just far enough away from your house that it’s too far to turn back. You definitely realize it when you open the suitcase after an agonizing trip, longing for the first plunge into the cool azure sea just a few steps away.

Then comes the denial. No! It can not be, you insist. It must be here somewhere, as items frantically pulled from the suitcase blanket the hotel bed. Not your favorite, perfectly-fitting, most essential beach companion, your swimming suit: forgotten. Or maybe even lost forever. And if it’s not your suit, it’s the go-with-everything tight white camisole or the favorite black bra. As far as bosom-enhancing and concealing garments go, any woman can confirm that shopping for one in your own country is bad enough, but while on vacation? Forget about it. Like a good friend, a real keeper could take years of trial and error to find. But, once found, she brings out your best assets; she is supportive and reliable under pressure. The trauma of just the anticipation of the dreaded search must be just about the worst way to start a holiday.

As I scan the beach longingly from my hotel window I see I could follow the example of the more conservative Thai women who are swimming fully clothed. I consider how my revealing black, backless dress will look with a farmer’s tan and decide that this is not an option. Vanity demands an even coloring.

When I finally accept the bitter truth and go to the beach in a mismatched swimsuit substitute consisting of exercise shorts and a sports bra, I see I’m not alone. Several other female tourists have created makeshift bikinis from undergarments. Many of them seem to have forgotten their tops altogether. Now I am teetering on the border created by my cultural sensitivity on the one hand and vanity on the other. After all, do I really want two bright white headlights hanging down from my pleasingly brown shoulders?

Alas, it is cultural sensitivity and the risk of a hefty fine that temporarily win and, with the will of a soldier, I set off on the daunting quest for a new best friend. The first attempt finds me sweating profusely behind a series of Patong vendors’ minute, curtained-off “dressing rooms.” Futile. Out of desperation I then let myself be carted around on the shopper’s tour by tuk-tuk through a maze of stores with the quality and selection of K-mart clothing and sizes seemingly more suitable for children.

I ride up the escalator in a major Phuket department store. Excitedly, I approach the women’s apparel section. I have hope. Swimming suits are draped from racks covering every available inch of floor space. One of several lingering saleswomen glance at the region of my chest (which would be considered a perfectly normal chest in my own country) and politely but firmly tells me, “No size for you, sorry.” I turn back to look at the sea of swimming costumes, sure she must have misunderstood my needs. “Nothing at all?” Her expression and vigorous shake of the head seem to say, “Of course not, don’t be ridiculous.”

Now, this seems illogical. After all, this is the place to come for resorts and sand and sea and sun. It’s also a place where the authorities would prefer we’d cover them up. So how could the choices of viable breast coverage be so lacking? You can buy thick wool sweaters, African art, and endangered species—all the things I’ll never need on my beach vacation. But not an average, Western-sized cup to be found anywhere.

Months later, my dilemma is now solved. Vanity trumps cultural sensitivity. Which explains why so many of us are topless in Phuket.

MISHELLE SHEPARD is a freelance writer.

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