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Kata Noi beach days after the big wave struck, changing Phuket forever

The Tsunami: Phuket's Week One Recalled

Sunday, December 16, 2007
IT WAS LIKE being a day-tripper to hell. I could leave the comfort of my office, drive for 20 or 25 minutes, take in enough carnage or horror to last a lifetime, and be back at my desk before lunch.

Adequately explaining the scale of what has happened on and around Phuket this week is no easy task.

It's as though a mapmaker sketched a teardrop of an island -- they call it the Pearl of the Andaman Sea but for me now it will always be a teardrop -- and then ran a smudgy finger down one side, the West side, erasing the coast.

Most of the odd mix of about 500,000 permanent residents on the island have not been affected yet by the awesome savagery of this week's wave-wall, although inevitably they will be.

The bloated waters simply washed in and then retreated, like some over-fed tourist. Along a strip of once-perfect beaches and stretching back half a kilometer or less in some places lie the desolate remains of solid structures and the flotsam and jetsam that once held together Phuket's main industry and income.

Luggage-tag holiday destinations redolent with laughter, suntans and a good time are barely recognisable today. Seaside Patong, Kata, Kamala and Kalim have been bashed beyond recognition.

Yet on Sunday, people going about their business just a few streets back from the shore did not know of the life-and-death struggles that were taking place within meters of their windows. While hundreds struggled for life in the foaming torrent, their near-neighbors worried about the mundanities of human existence, what to eat for lunch and how to settle next month's rent.

Eventually, the cries and the commotion seeped through. The holiday island's curious daydream-nightmare had begun.

LIKE MOST of you, I watched this week's horror unfold on televison from my cosy living room. At close range, human bodies in considerable numbers are every bit as confronting as you would imagine.

Your first instinct is to look for movement. You wait for it to happen and when it doesn't, recognition and sympathy sink home. There is almost a sense of relief, a "glad-I-live-another-day" feeling.

Survivors seem energised: the closer to death, the greater the buzz. The Canadian who was out snorkelling when the wave struck and the Sydneysider who tried to outrun the surging liquid mass both sparkled with life once they were safe.

Yet being able to see Phuket's tragedy each day did not equip me to cope with the television images beamed from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. It is possible to multiply those feelings about death by two or three or even a dozen or twenty, but by 10,000 or 100,000 or more . . . no.

Like infinity, that amount of pain and suffering becomes too large for a single human brain to contemplate. It is always going to be the Asians who die in great numbers.

And however strange it may seem, it is magnitude more than anything else that symbolises the essential difference between Asia and the West.

SIZE DOES matter. The large hotels on Phuket's beachfronts withstood nature's assault by saltwater. They were battered but most of the people inside them lived. Others, away from Phuket, were not so fortunate.

Many expat residents who once enjoyed Phuket's natural charms grew to resent the rapid development of the island that came over the past 10 years with the tourist boom. So they moved north, to a beautiful spot a short drive up the coast called Khao Lak.

There, it was possible to live or take a holiday in simpler dwellings, often just made of timber, and close enough to the shore to hear the sea lapping at night.

Guesthouses, dive shops and boutique hotels soon sprung up, turning the place into a pleasant haven for those who wanted to get away from it all. As with the victims in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, lack of protection cost them their lives, in vast numbers.

While Khao Lak's holiday zone is perhaps one-tenth the size of Phuket's strip, at least four times as many people perished there as on the teardrop island.

When I made a day-trip to Khao Lak on Tuesday, the center of the resort looked like Ground Zero. No terrorist's bomb could have razed the place more thoroughly.

The mapmaker's smudgy finger had swept away every sign of habitation across hectares and hectares, where a lively, thriving resort once stood. All that remained were concrete foundations.

Scores of dead, many of them Westerners, were still being removed by Thai volunteers who had come from neighboring provinces to help. A European in bathing trunks, whose body was suspended from a pole, must have been enjoying an early-morning swim just before his fun in the sun came to a premature end.

I wondered about his last happy memories. Other bodies, coarsely wrapped, were being carted on pickup trucks to the local temple, where hundreds of nameless dead awaited identification.

Perhaps 3000 or more remain missing, presumed dead, along Thailand's holiday coast.

A taste of the desperate last seconds of the residents of Khao Lak came when a woman yelled out a warning that another wave was coming. Before long, everyone was running.

Even though you know it is probably a false alarm, it is against human nature not to run, just in case. Before long, hundreds of us were in a mad scramble for higher ground. Natural disasters, it seems, will always sort the quick from the dead.

I look on now at images of those Khao Lak bodies, both overseas visitors and Thais, in simple coffins. Somehow, the words "Get away from it all" will never have quite the same meaning.

ON WEDNESDAY about 10 o'clock, I arrive in Patong, holiday capital of the island's West coast. The waves swept through about this time some 72 hours earlier. What I see shocks me.

It was the old, familiar Patong. Just a few meters back from the beach, drinkers pack the Kangaroo Bar before noon. Local tarts walk the streets, escorted by visitors of assorted shapes and sizes.

It is business as usual for the raunchy and the randy, even though the remains of some bargain-hunters who had the misfortune to be in the basement of the Ocean Shopping Mall when the water swept downstairs are still being removed.

A couple of Europeans in bikinis wander the beach, stepping over fallen palm trees, negotiating a couple of washed-up boats. One or two swimmers are in the water.

Somewhere out of sight at the crowded local morgue, the desperate process of speedy identification continues. Only along the beach road is there large-scale evidence of destruction and death.

The foreshore "beautification walk" project, completed with pride by the local council early this year, will have to be started all over again.

The familiar smattering of genuine-copy T-shirts and real-Gucci handbag stalls have been smashed to smithereens. Somewhere under the rubble are zillions of pirate-copy CDs and DVDs.

But ever-ready Patong, always full of surprises, is open to take your dollar, euro, yen or baht. Commerce rules and resurrects itself, ok?

AN EARLY MORNING telephone call from New York wakes me up. It is a producer from an American television network, wanting to know if I can help her to trace the missing friend of a person who has a minor regular role on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

She expects me to recognise the name, but it means nothing. Our ignorance is mutual: until this week, the producer had never heard the word ''tsunami.''

It strikes me then how great the contrast is between East and the West. Across Asia, volunteers in a dozen countries are toiling to bury one disaster of cataclysmic proportions before another big wave, in the form of disease, strikes down thousands more.

But of course, tsunamis are an Asian problem. In New York, half a world away in distance and lightyears removed in other respects, the hunt is on for the friend of a minor celebrity, not so the story can be related but so the audience can relate to the story.

Beyond the relating and the ratings, there are hundreds of thousands of heartbreaking stories to be told. But this is Asia. Individuals do not matter much. Magnitude is what Asia does well.

As for Phuket, well it will probably always be torn between two cultures. The best and the worst of both East and West can be found here.

There's an energy about the place that rivals that of the tsunami and it springs from the constant friction between its once-unspoiled nature and those who believe they can build a 10-million-dollar home on a headland and imagine that nothing else will change.

Some people will huff about this week's events and comment that the old Phuket was already destined for destruction, slowly being strangled by suburban sprawl, by traffic lights and shopping malls.

But Phuket's future now really rides on the speedy recovery of its natural treasures, the beaches and the reefs. In some places, the glorious white arcs of sand have been spread all over the land.

Murky water may also choke out the sunlight that the reefs need to grow and thrive. The fishing and diving industries will need time to recover.

The last boatloads who headed off to swim alongside the whalesharks of the Similan Islands or enjoy the waters off Phi Phi never came back.

Most of those who live on this teardrop today are Thais from other provinces. Each year they migrate in pursuit of Western visitors and their spending cash.

After carrying on as if nothing has changed this week, thousands among the waiters, boatboys, hotel maids and massage parlor girls will face the loss of their jobs when the planeloads stop coming. Their daydream existence will be over.

UNLIKE THE Indonesian holiday island of Bali, which has a special place in the hearts of Australians made more intense by the terror bombings of 2002, Phuket's passionate adopted residents also include Germans, Britons, Swedes, and of late quite a few Russians, among many others.

It's a small, fragmented population, numbering perhaps 30,000, united by a love of the island and entertained by the strange goings-on. Life is never dull and every day is different.

Political correctness hasn't reached here yet and probably never will. The gossip when expats gather is usually about whether the number of incoming tourists are rising or falling, the foolishness of laws that force bars to close at 1am, the cost of buying off corrupt authorities, or how some local expat managed to escape a charge of murder by fleeing the country.

That happens with surprising frequency. Now the expats will have a whole lot more to talk about.

And they will be united in grief. Contrary to widespread myth, only a few of the long-term foreign residents are randy old men with a predilection for young women or katoeys (ladyboys).

This is no time for jokes, but an evening in Patong's bar zone trying to separate the misses from the near-misses can be fun at any age. The transvestites and transsexuals are, like most Thais, pleasant and tolerant people to live amongst.

Yet there is life after death. Any minute now, Canadian Lana Willocks, 31, an island resident for five-years now married to a Thai architect, is due to give birth.

She hopes her boy holds off until after the overcrowded hospitals return to normal. She figures that Phuket has seen enough water break for the time being.

Mrs Willocks first visited Thailand in 1995 and ''was struck by the humanity of the place.'' ''I love how people's lives are carried out in the streets and in the open fronts of their homes, how you can see people chopping veggies for their home-cooked meals or hard at work building/repairing/cooking/selling in the little shop fronting their home,'' she says.

''It's alive, unlike Canada where the climate and the culture encourage people to shut themselves in more.''

THURSDAY MORNING, and the disaster coordination center at Phuket City, the island's East coast capital, is a busy place, with representatives from 25 or more countries sitting under a large tent and processing tourists for repatriation.

''If you are a German citizen, there is a flight leaving direct for Frankfurt today,'' the loudspeaker announces. ''If you need to make a telephone call, there are free calls available.''

Noticeboards line both sides of a pathway. On one side are gruesome photos of the bodies. On the other are photos of the missing.

Beautiful young daughters smile out from under beads and braids, couples hold hands at celebrations, a toddler crawls across the sand as his proud mother smiles in the background. There are messages in Japanese, Chinese, English.

''Irish citizens, please tell us you are safe . . . '' says one. I take a call from a Thai friend. She is diving today into a casual pool of water near a resort in Patong.

It's too dark beneath the surface to see far but they know there are cars in the pool and they know there are people in the cars. They just don't know how many.

In technical schools throughout the country, students are hammering to build coffins. Buddhists, Muslims and Christians are burying and cremating the dead as fast as they can identify them. Material for shrouds is in short supply.

ONE TOURIST from North America complained on Monday that it took Thai rescuers three hours to reach him in the rubble.

It has to be said that with a disaster of this scale, that was about as fast as anyone could have expected.

The Thais have coped and are continuing to cope every bit as well as the New Yorkers of 9/11 or the Balinese of 10/12.

When the time comes, 12/26 will be remembered as much for their courage, generosity and compassion as for the dead.

On New Year's Eve in Soi Bangla, at the heart of Patong's bar zone, the girls and their stubborn stay-put customers will have been enjoying a good time.

The 1am closing rule has been extended to 6am, for one night only.

Many will have friends to mourn and stories to tell of lucky escapes. It would be hard to imagine any such joy in Khao Lak, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India.

That is perhaps what makes Phuket such a strange, compelling mixture of East and West. It is also what makes the magnitude of Asia's sorrow, and its ability to survive, so astonishing.

This article was first published in newspapers in Australia, Asia and Europe the weekend after the tsunami struck on December 26, 2004. Morison, a desk editor, returned to reporting on the day the big wave arrived.


Comments have been disabled for this article.


Reading this story took me right back there on that fateful day Dec 26. We felt the earthquake at 8am but thought nothing of it, we (myself, husband and three teenage children) were waiting to go in to breakfast at an hotel on Patong Beach, when all hell broke loose, loud noises that sounded like gunfire and bombs to us, not knowing what was coming, not knowing the damage and destruction that water could do, or the power of it. Cars and bikes driving through the lobby, the screaming,the look of sheer terror on the faces of people running for their lives. The total feeling of helplessness. Wondering not if but when we were going to die..... We all survived, we were lucky but it's been a hard road, and we still go back to The Land of Smiles every year, though it will never quite be the same, you can forget the date but not the memories.

Posted by Sue on September 30, 2009 22:34


I am appalled at your thinly veiled contempt of "over fed tourists". You should go back to journalism school and relearn the meaning of non biased reporting, jackass.
Tourism puts food on the tables of Phuket, and not all westerners are deserving of hateful thoughts and words. Using a tragedy to mock and spew your contempt is disgusting, if I was your boss, you would be fired immediately , with extreme predjudice.

Posted by Anonymous on December 26, 2013 15:06

Editor Comment:

You're the first person in nine years to give us a laugh about something as tragic as the tsunami. What a pity you lack the courage to put a name to your scurrilous piece of ratbaggery. We really do have to put up with an astonishing amount of nonsense from the brainless and heartless minority.


Article choked me up mate never read it back then.
Was anchored off Patong beach on morning of Dec 26 2004..... bad dreams but still here.
Had my Xmas lunch in the Holiday day gone..everything gone.
Was also up driving thru Kao Lak on 28th..doing a visa run. Never forget the scene of devastation ,the smell and the rows of victims and being piled into pick ups...never never forget it.

Posted by David on December 27, 2013 14:13


I was in BKK when the tsunami hit, due to fly back to the Island that afternoon. After re-opening the airport that afternoon I did land and the Island felt deserted. Driving down the main thoroughfares it was unlike ever before. Nothing. Nothing to acknowledge the tragedy that had happened earlier that day.

I went home and slept, feeling strange. I can't explain it, but it was not right.

The next day I was in the office with the team and we decided to help. We locked up and we listened to 90.5FM radio in the car, which I have to say was amazing. They were directing people all over the Island to places where they needed help.

We went to the deep sea port where they needed people and pick-ups to meet the ferries full of bodies coming back from Phi Phi. We were there... as were hundreds of others. So many people had responded to the calls for help. We were not needed.

We tried, but we were not needed. We then headed to the Governor's office in the Town where they needed people, pretty much anyone, who could help speak different languages.

Between my team and I we had English, Thai and Dutch covered. We got there and the place was packed with good-hearted people. Again, we could do nothing.

It was a very frustrating day... I say that selfishly, but accurately. We tried to help, and we couldn't. That we couldn't was a huge credit to everyone who was out there, doing their bit, doing anything needed at that tough time.

My team and I went through no personal loss. We suffered no personal injury. We were lucky and I consider us lucky to see with our own eyes the power of good that people do possess.

It's so easy to forget that, to jump on the mud-slinging band wagon about this issue and that, we have all done it, but those days in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami reminded me how wonderful people can truly be.

Posted by Duncan on November 21, 2014 09:39

Monday February 26, 2024
Horizon Karon Beach Resort & Spa


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