Thailand Tsunami - My Experience in Khao Lak - 26 December 2004
 
MY STORY 1 Year Later TIMELINE EMAILS PHOTOS PRESS MEMORYBOOK
25 December 2004 27 December 2004 31 December 2004 2 January 2005
 

Hello all,

We arrived in Phuket last night during a torrential thunderstorm and made our way to ALex and Sonja's yacht where we spent the night. The first day of the New Year we spent scouting the Khao Lak area trying to determine how our relief money could best be distributed and whether we could be of any use in the relief effort. The scene had changed little from when I had departed the area a week prior. Remains of completely destroyed buildings littered the entire area. The devastation is so large and widespread it seems that the relief workers barely know where to start. Some heavy machinery has moved in slowly picking through the rubble searching for bodies trapped under piles of concrete and other debris. We saw about 20 large tractors, but the area is so large they are barely making a dent in the wreckage.

Where there used to be hundreds of bungalows, restaurants, markets, internet cafes, dive shops, massage places, there is now only complete and total destruction. The original roads through the area (other than the main road) were wiped out but small tracks through the rubble have been cleared by tractors. Using my GPS waypoint to navigate back to where my hotel had been, we made our way down one of these tracks to the exact spot where my bungalow had previously stood. I expected that I would at least recognize the area by the large trees that had once stood there, but it took me several minutes to realize that I actually was standing in the area where my bungalow had been. The trees were mostly pushed over by the massive wave of destruction. All of the bungalows were gone. The only building that was still standing was a small 2 story cement building which was adjacent to my bungalow. My bungalow looked like it had collapsed in on itself. I searched for any recognizable items that I had stored in the building, but it was impossible to find anything. The few reminders that these destroyed buildings had been the homes to hundreds of tourists were only some clothing strewn about in the branches of the still standing palm trees and some empty suitcases here and there. Otherwise everywhere else was just piles and piles of broken cement, pipes, roofing materials, cracked toilets. I thought I would at least find some hints of what had previously been on that spot, but in reality it was almost impossible. The foundation of what had once been a very popular restaurant was one of the only other visible landmarks. Behind my bungalow were being built many new cement bungalows. I thought that those might have survived, but because they faced the sea, they were hit broadside by the tsunami and completely washed away. A few hundred feet up from my bungalow there once was a small creek about 20 feet wide. It is now replaced by a huge bay about a quarter mile wide. The entire landscaped has been remolded by the wave.

While walking around the bungalows I had previously stayed at, Mai's Quiet Zone, we met two men who had just flown in from Sweden to look for their missing friends. They were attempting to find the location of where their friends had been staying. The only concrete reference point available was that I was sure that were we were standing was formerly Mai's Quiet Zone. Otherwise there was absolutely nothing to indicate where any of the other lodges started and stopped.

I had expected to see some of Mai's Quiet Zone's management looking around, but there was absolutely no one around when we were there other than the two Swedish men. The search and rescue people were still a long way away. We did not see any bodies on top of the rubble, but nothing had been moved or cleared so there certainly will be more bodies found buried under the rubble on which we had been walking. I just kept thinking of the English family I had met the day before the tsunami. The area where my bungalow was located was flat for several kilometers inland. There was no escape by running up a nearby hill. The best chance of survival would probably have been to hang onto a palm tree but that would have been nearly impossible considering all the wreckage that would have been pushed along with the wave. After seeing such little possibilities for escape in the Mai Quiet Zone area, I realize just how lucky I am to have survived. I think back about all the small decisions I made, renting a motorbike, not sleeping in, being anxious to explore the area, and if anyone of those decisions had been different the possibility is extremely high that I too would have been one of the many foreigners killed in this tragedy. Seeing the area again I could tell the options for escape were extremely limited.

Traveling with us in our rented Suzuki 4x4 jeep was another American, Jenny, from San Diego, who was working with a relief organization. Her purpose was to scout the area for the relief agency and determine what supplies, if any, were needed. We left what remained of Mai's Quiet Zone and drove back up to the main road and stopped at what appeared to be a command center and make shift camp. Supplies seemed to be plentiful. Long conveys of trucks were arriving all the time bringing with them boxes of everything imaginable. Local Thai's were picking through mounds of donated clothes. Tables were set up distributing free food and water. We met with British volunteer, John, who was helping with cataloging all the documents retrieved off the dead bodies. His job was to sort the credit cards, passports, driver's licenses, and any other documentation found on the bodies. There were a few other volunteers doing similar jobs. One of the more gruesome jobs was cataloging photographs of the corpses for posting on the internet for possible identification. We had hoped to be of some use as medical volunteers, but all of the injured had already been transported out of the area. The remaining tasks were to continue searching for bodies and then to clear all the rubble.

Across the street from the makeshift command center was where that day's recovered bodies were being stored. We found out that just that day over 200 bodies had been recovered. Lined up in bodies bags under a large tent and surrounded by low white plastic fencing were several hundred bodies wrapped in body bags. I saw all sizes of bodies, including what were unmistakably the small bodies of children who were unable to escape the massive wave. The smell was overwhelming from the decaying bodies. Along side all the bodies were stacks and stacks of coffins. Also around were smoldering fires. Rescue workers were burning gloves and clothing and any other items that might have been contaminated by the decay. It was overwhelming standing in the middle of so much destruction, then seeing all these bodies wrapped up, along with the drifting smoke from the burning rubbish. To top all this off, was a grey 70 foot military boat with a gun turret mounted on the front deck washed up in the bushes behind the center. It looked almost comical seeing the boat laying on its side far from the sea. The wave had pushed the boat had least half a mile inland.

Having encountered numerous media personnel at the other locations we had visited (Bangkok, Krabi), I was surprised at see almost no TV cameras or journalists. This certainly is the hardest hit area of Thailand and the media seems to have hardly even covered it. There were helicopters flying overhead almost constantly, but the majority appeared to be military and relief aircraft.

We next decided to drive 30 km north to the Tauku Pa hospital which is where most of the injured had been initially taken. Jenny wanted to find out if they needed any more supplies or doctors. By this time, about 2p, the main road was at a dead stop with gridlock traffic. Mostly the traffic was relief supplies and pickup trucks full of people and items that people were attempting to salvage. Traffic was also stopping to look at what is now a lake in what was once a low meadow. In the lake were zodiac type inflatable boats and rescue divers searching for submerged bodies. Traffic picked up a bit once we were past the wreckage. During the next 30 km at least 20 km of the drive we drove past destroyed buildings and more wreckage. As we neared Tauku Pa we saw a temple which appeared to be some sort of rescue area. We parked on the side of the road and walked through the gate into the temple complex. I thought we had seen the worst there was to see, but the worst we saw was to come at this temple. Immediately we were hit by the overpowering stench of decaying human bodies. The small here was 100 times anything we had smelled back in the ruins. We were soon provided with face masks which helped to cut the smell, but I still had to cover my face and nose with my hand. I almost threw up many times from the awful smell. At first I could not tell where the smell was coming from. I saw hundreds of coffins piled up but there were no bodies in them. I saw large refrigerated container cases but the smell was not coming from that. But behind the cases was the real horror. Spread on the ground were hundreds, if not a thousand bodies. The entire area was covered body to body with those that had perished in the tsunami. Most of the bodies were naked with the arms spread above the heads and the legs also spread out. All the bodies were extremely bloated, some to the point that they had already burst. Eyes were popped out of eye sockets, faces looked like balloons that had been blown up too tights. Reproductive organs looked like enormous sacks. We did not linger long in this area as it was way too overwhelming. I could not look at the bodies specifically but tried to just see everything in quick glances. In the middle of all this were computer stations where identification work was progressing. the bodies were being photographed and catalogued.

We next stopped at the Tauku Pa hospital. We found out that many doctors had flown down from Bangkok and there was a Japanese medical team at that hospital. It appeared that all the foreigners had been evacuated already. The hospital contained very few injured people. It now was serving mostly as an information center and meeting area. Unfortunately there was not much for us to do at that hospital. It seems that this is the case with all the hospitals in the area. They have plenty of medical supplies and help and most of the injured have left. The work that remains really is just body recovery, then clearing the wreckage, and then possible rebuilding.

Jenny was determined to stay in Khao Lak and volunteer with John the British document cataloger. Instead of taking the traffic clogged beach road back we took an inland route and dropped her off near Khao Lak. I certainly was not up for staying around in that utter destruction and we had already arranged to meet friends with a boat in Phuket. We were also interested in seeing the amount of destruction there and if there was anything we could do in Phuket. We made our way to Alex and Sonja's yacht and spent a peaceful night on board at Yacht Haven harbor in north Phuket.

This morning we set out with Alex, Sonja, and their two children to have a look around Phuket island. I had expected to see the same sort of destruction that I saw in Khao Lak but I was pleasantly surprised to see very little destruction. At Patong Beach, which was the worst hit, all the rubbish had already been cleared to a central area where bulldozers were pushing it all into piles. The beaches were very clean since all the ruble had already been removed. I was impressed by seeing the clean, wide, white sandy beaches. Having never been here before I did not know that these beaches were once packed full of bars, restaurants, massage places, and beach chairs for hire. Now they were completely clean with just a fun sun bathers out. It was a bit incongruous seeing the sun bathers on one side of the road, and then across the street seeing all the piles of debris that had been collected. We then continued on to Karon beach and the situation there was similar but on a smaller scale. Other than the few piles of debris that have been collected Phuket is mostly normal. Almost all the tourist places have survived without a scratch. The infrastructure is intact with electricity, water, phones, all working fine. We spoke with a local bar owner, and Australian, and he said that all the charter flights have left with thousands of tourists despite such little destruction here. Phuket certainly is still capable of handling a big tourism industry as almost everything is standing the same as it was prior to the tsunami. The real attention should have been on Khao Lak area, but from watching CNN everyone would think that Phuket was totally wiped out. This is hardly the case. Hopefully word will get out and tourists will return to this area.

At one beach we met a Belgian couple who are friends of Alex and Sonja's who also are traveling around the world. One of the friends, Thomas Sifner, is a major media personality in Belgium and he has already raised 5.5 million baht through his television program. He donated 500,000B of it to help rebuild a restaurant in the area that was completely devastated. Much of the rest he hopes to donate to other small businesses in the area that were destroyed.

Tomorrow we leave Phuket and head back to Krabi. We still have the relief money we brought with us as it has been difficult to determine how to best spend it. We will go to Ao Nang beach which is where Solomon was when this disaster happened. He met some local families when he was there so hopefully we can help some of them. I will write a further update when we get back to that area.

John

PS: below is a very sad email informing us that the body of the girlfriend of the Austrian patient we were caring for in BKK has been found. Roman was lying next to his girlfriend on the beach at Phi Phi when the tsunami hit. He was swept up under a collapsed bungalow where he was finally rescued some 12 hours later. He was found within 7 hours, but it took 5 more hours to remove the rubble.

>Dear Solomon,
>
>
>
>Tragic news this morning - Saturday 1st.Jan. A priest from the Austrian
>Consul visited Roman at the Hospital to tell him that Sandra's body had been
>identified.
>
>
>
>Roman and his parents are grief stricken. I believe they still plan to
>return to Austria tonight on an Air Ambulance that should arrive early
>Sunday morning back in Austria.
>
>
>
>Much sadness for many people. Roman with his strength and support will get
>through this tragedy. I wish I had something to say that would mean
>something but words escape me.
>
>
>
>My thoughts are with Roman, Sandra and their family
>
>
>
>Give me a call when you are back in Bangkok
>
>
>
>Best Rgds
>
>Brinley


Copyright © 2005 John M. Thompson | Contact jmt@pon.net for photo use permission and questions/comments.