Five Years After the Tsunami
After the tsunami struck on December 26, 2004, we all saw the catastrophic images in the media: resorts crumpled like boxes of matches; blackened cadavers laid out on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Phang-nga province; the hysterics of the victims' relatives; cars piled up in streets; and a body count that eventually bloated to around 250,000 across the region, with Indonesia and Sri Lanka bearing the brunt of the devastation.
Just as often, there were incredible moments of heroism, miracles of survival, and an almost unseen outpouring of compassion. At Wat Yanyao, the famous forensics expert and crime-fighter, Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunan, led a team of volunteers, composed of locals, expats and travelers, who toiled for weeks on end to identify many of the approximately 6,000 victims in Thailand. On Phuket, the story surfaced of a young European girl who had just studied tsunamis in school. She told her mother to warn the other sun-seekers on the beach. That early warning salvaged dozens of lives.
As donations poured in from around the world, the Red Cross, World Vision, and many Thai and foreign NGOs launched Herculean relief efforts to cushion the aftershocks felt by locals whose houses and livelihoods were destroyed. In the backwash of the house-high waves, Thailand won international praise for handling the calamity in such a compassionate way. Memorials were erected and Buddhist ceremonies held, where monks chanted as thousands of balloon-like lanterns (one for each victim) floated across the night sky to honour the spirits of those who perished. In the meantime, pods of volunteer divers banded together to remove tons of debris from the seabed, saving much of the coral, particularly around the Koh Phi Phi National Marine Park, where the main island, with its two horseshoe bays, was caught in a pincer by waves from both sides.
Some of the post-tsunami, humanitarian endeavors are still thriving. On Phuket, the founder of the Baan Rim Pa Restaurants, Tom McNamara, formed the Phuket Has Been Good to Us Foundation, to help rebuild the school at Kalim bulldozed by the tsunami. The foundation then organized English classes at the educational facility, as well as at the school in Kamala, to provide hundreds of young students with a chance to underwrite future careers in the island's tourism trade. Those classes continue to this day.
Although Tom died of prostate cancer last year, his legacy is very much alive. Last year, the foundation started the Coconut Club. The club has been a boon for the 142 orphans living at the Kamala school. Hailing from all over the Andaman coast, many of them lost their families in the tsunami.
Sue Ultmann, who is the Director of Marketing Communications for the Baan Rim Pa Group, and also sits on the foundation's board of managers, says the club is giving these school-bound orphans the chance to explore the island's rich possibilities. "Yesterday, we took them surfing. We've also organized visits to temples and the swimming pool at the British club. Before the club started, many of them had never been to the beach before or seen an elephant," says the former travel writer, who has lived on the island for nine years.
As with many NGOs working in the region, the torrent of post-tsunami donations has slowed to a trickle for the Phuket Has Been Good to Us Foundation. So fund-raising remains a chronic concern.
Perhaps the most positive development in regional tourism - particularly in the North Andaman - is the new wave of eco-tourism. One of the pioneers is Andaman Discoveries. The man who started the tour operator and NGO, Bodhi Garrett, an American born in Kathmandu to itinerant yet industrious hippie parents, had his job and all his personal belongings swept away by the rising sea.
Bodhi and his cohorts looked at what wasn't being done by the bigger relief organizations, like repairing old houses and fishing boats, instead of building new ones, while encouraging handicraft and ecotourism projects that would sustain the local communities after the big donations dried up and the media moved on to other cataclysms. Equipping the villagers with computer, English, business and tour guide skills, he explains, empowered them with abilities that could be put to other uses when tourism fluctuated or floundered. The training programs also imbued them with a greater sense of cultural pride, which had ebbed to an all-time low after the disaster.
Andaman Discoveries has gone on to win many major awards, such as Virgin's Responsible Tourism Award for Conservation of Cultural Heritage, in tribute to their community-based itineraries, home-stays and nature jaunts. One of their pilot projects took off in Ban Talae Nok ("Village by the Sea"), near the border of Ranong and Phang-nga provinces. Walking through the Muslim fishing hamlet, hemmed in by forested mountains ghosted with mist, it's easy to see why these tailor-made itineraries, encompassing everything from mangrove boat tours and forest hikes to studying batik-making and teaching English, are such a draw. (Don't forget to check out the jellyfish farm either.) On the main street, gaggles of schoolgirls in headscarves walk past goats, ducks and cows. Women shell cashews on mats outside their houses, and the door of almost every house is open. Thanks to the tour operator's Thai translator and cultural coordinator, the language gulf is bridged and interacting with friendly locals and the host family proves that a hotel is not a home-stay, and that most Thai Muslims want nothing to do with the radical fringe of holy warriors.
The tsunami taught many locals some vital lessons in ecology. For one, the mangrove forests bearding the village acted as a breakwater against the waves. Parts of Ban Talae Nok not protected by the forests were wiped clean, with 40 deaths among 200 villagers. Ibraham, one of the locals working with Andaman Discoveries, says that after the tsunami the villagers made a new regulation; anyone who cuts down a mangrove tree has to plant 10 new ones.
Other eco-tourism projects are making the North Andaman into a greenbelt. Approaching the tiny yet mountainous island of Koh Ra, on a long-tail boat from the Khuraburi pier in Phang-nga province, as Brahminy kites swoop down to scoop fish from the water, the only part of the Koh Ra Ecolodge visible is a Thai-style pavilion behind a crescent of sand. All of the stylish, bamboo-latticed bungalows are tucked away under a canopy of trees, eliminating the need for air-conditioning or even fans.
Off to one side of the huge wooden restaurant is a solar panel; it provides enough electricity to power the pavilion and computers during the day. When they install another four or five solar panels, the diesel-powered generators fuelling the lights in the bungalows will become anachronisms. Behind the pavilion is an organic plot for carrots, onions, chilli and lemon grass.
A marine biologist and dive-master, Kim Obermeyer is the manager of the Koh Ra Ecolodge. He organises dives, kayaking trips and nocturnal treks to see Malay sun bears raiding bee hives. The lodge has become an incubator for a new breed of sustainable development. As Kim says, "We hope the lodge will be a lesson in sustainable development that will also show other resort owners that sustainability can equal profitability in the long term."
Among the green lights marking the Andaman's progress and resurgence, there have been plenty of stop signs, too. The government's plan to limit the amount of reconstruction, and even the number of visitors coming to the Koh Phi Phi National Marine Park, is dead in the water. Although the archipelago has once again become a sunspot on the equator of globe-wide travel, it's still plagued by many of the same pre-tsunami problems like water pollution, coral grief, and helter-skelter development. But let's not be too picky - it still beats Milwaukee on a wintry Monday night.
Thanks to the tsunami, emergency medical services around the Andaman received a booster shot. Contrary to widely reported myths in the mass media circulating in early 2005, the outbreak of contagious diseases never happened in Thailand. "The Public Health Ministry did a great job in controlling any potential epidemics," says Peter Davison, the manager of International Services at the Phuket International Hospital, adding that there have been many positive knock-on effects in terms of accruing medical wisdom for future emergencies.
In the unlikely event that another underwater earthquake of that magnitude sends shockwaves rippling across the Andaman Sea, the authorities and the general public are much better equipped to deal with the situation. Throughout the region, even on beaches like Krabi's Ao Nang and Satun's Koh Lipe that went unscathed, blue signs indicate that the area is a Tsunami Hazard Zone or Tsunami Evacuation Route.
The early-warning system put in place by Thai authorities is another series of lifelines. Alan Morison, the owner of the Phuketwan.com news portal, says, "Around the major islands and all along 350 kilometres of Andaman coastline are 70 towers to broadcast early warnings in five or six different languages. Level 2 means prepare to evacuate. So far, none of the alarms have gone to the third level, which would call for an immediate evacuation."
Combined with an upsurge in knowledge about tsunamis among the general public, the system would prevent such a tragic loss of life from ever occurring again.
As the teeming-with-tourists season approaches, anticipation runs high that the incredible recovery of the Andaman area will continue, albeit with a drop off from 2007-2008, which saw Phuket, and many other islands on the coast, posting their biggest gains ever. The Phuket Tourist Association expects that the economic doldrums and the country's political quagmire will result in the overall number of tourist arrivals in 2009 dropping by an estimated 15 to 20%. These visitors are also spending less time and less money on the island.
For many travelers, that's good news. It means that all the sweet deals on rooms, tours, and flights will continue. As Sue of the Baan Rim Pa restaurant chain points out, "A friend of mine just booked a return flight from Australia to Phuket on Virgin Air and she paid about half the going rate."
Many aspects of Phuket's tourism industry, like diving, which stars liveaboards to the still-impeccable Surin and Similan islands, remain buoyant. Wolfgang Kneisel, a long-time resident and freelance photographer, says, "My barometer of tourism on the island is the dive industry. Some of the dive shops I know say they were fully booked for the high season in October."
No doubt, some of the new arrivals will visit the tsunami memorials. For most, it's not a morbid fixation. It's more a matter of curiosity and a way of showing deference to the deceased. The most prominent memorial is the police boat on Khao Lak. Twenty-metres long and 50-tonnes huge, the vessel was swept about one kilometer inland.
Other testaments to nature's hydropower are the two fishing trawlers in the sea-hugging village of Ban Nam Khem, which was all but annihilated by the hammering of three successive waves. Both of the massive boats remain dirt-docked in an empty lot several kilometers inland. Also in the village is the Tsunami Memorial Park, where a wave-shaped tunnel leads past plaques, photos, flowers, and other offerings for the dead. Closer to the sea is a museum with exhibits about the hard and fast scientific facts of underwater seismology.
Up, down, and off the Andaman coast, it's tourism as usual. But some of these specters do linger. For those who lost loved ones, and for the survivors who still suffer sweat-soaked nightmares, it would be a grave disservice to whitewash what will likely be the biggest natural disaster of our lifetimes. In his non-fiction work Into the Wild, John Krakauer refers to a mother losing her child as creating a "sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure."
The tsunami is like that too. In the days and weeks following the cataclysm, it was such a shambolic situation that it was impossible to comprehend: Body counts rose by the hour; major news networks created waves of misinformation; elephants cleared the rubble on the beach of Khao Lak or carried sheet-wrapped corpses, tied to their tusks, through the debris; stories that sounded similar to urban legends surfaced, like the Phuket hotelier who told me they found a shark swimming laps in the hotel pool on Boxing Day.
Just as often there were death-defying tales of survival, such as the young Indonesian man found and rescued by a fishing boat after spending eight days at sea clinging to an uprooted tree.
Speaking about the relief effort on Phuket, Sue Ultmann recalls, in the emotional overtones still common among those who were there: "Race and religion, age and wealth, didn't matter anymore. Everyone pitched in together. It was mind-blowing."
Five years later, it's much easier to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy. Yet the tsunami still exerts a primeval pull of tragic and triumphant memories washing in and out like the sea.
Published on 12/19/09