For thousands of years the Burma tectonic plate—twenty miles under the ocean floor—had been pushing against the Indo-Australian plate; the forces creating unimaginable pressure. At 7:58 a.m. on December 26, 2004, this pressure was released, producing an earthquake rated 9.3—the second largest ever recorded. Had it occurred under a major city it would have been a catastrophe. Because it happened under ten thousand feet of water the effect was far worse. The pressure of the deep sea, and the incompressibility of the water made what happened next inevitable. As the earth moved, the energy of the crushed plates was transmitted directly into the ocean. The sea level for miles surrounding the epicenter of the quake was pushed upwards violently, triggering nature’s most deadly cataclysm: a tsunami.
The wave of displaced water—now both a harbinger and deliverer of death—raced outwards from the point of the earthquake at almost 500 miles an hour. The first point of land in its path was the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island, an area known as Banda. Children playing near shore, fisherman repairing boats on land, everyone who’s lives interacted with the sea and who were thus near the water, saw a phenomenon beyond their experience. The ocean itself withdrew. Acres of land that had not felt sunlight in centuries were exposed,. The tsunami was withdrawing this water, pulling it into itself, collecting the raw material necessary to dissipate the terrible energy it bore.
And then it did so, hurling the water back towards the coastline at frightening speed. It swelled inland, overflowing banks, uprooting trees, demolishing everything in its path. The seaside village of Aceh was inundated and wiped clean: boats, houses, people and everything else in its path hurled inland. Tens of thousands died in this first contact between the tsunami and the land. But the tragedy was just beginning.
Each area it hit, the effect was the same. Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and even—thousands of miles away—Kenya, Madagascar, and Ethiopia were affected. The death toll would exceed a quarter-million.
On the island of Phi Phi Don, off the coast of Thailand, a tourist village had grown up on the isthmus of sand connecting the island’s two sections. This narrow band of sand, less than 200 yards wide, contained a prosperous and crowded strip of souvenir stands, restaurants, hotels, dive shops, and the infrastructure to support them all. Its name was Tonsai, home to 1,500 people but at the moment—at the height of the tourist season—the population was three times that, swelled by vacationers mostly from northern Europe.
The south side of the isthmus was deep water, and so here the boat docks had been built. The north side was gentle shoaling sand, creating a perfect beach for the tourists.
Several miles to the west, a series of small, uninhabited limestone islands afforded protection for Phi Phi and helped shelter it from fierce winds during the rainy season.
On the morning of December 26, 2004, this formation of deep bay, isthmus, shoaling sand, and barrier islands was to prove catastrophic, creating a “perfect storm” of topography that would spell death for the tourist village.
Rushing in silently from the southwest, as the wave encountered the small barrier islands it split into two branches. One continued almost unchecked, heading straight for the south side, the harbor side, of the isthmus. True to pattern, it withdrew the water away from Tonsai, and then rushed back with deadly force, destroying buildings, sweeping away hotels and drowning people in their beds.
But the other arm approached the sand isthmus from the north where the water shoaled gently. This produced a classic surfer’s wave, a monster nearly forty feet high. The tourist village, already heavily damaged moments before from the wave to the south, now faced an even greater horror: a thundering, unstoppable mountain of water rushing at it from the north. This catastrophic second wave swept over the isthmus completely and washed the remains of the village into the sea.
February, 2005. — I sat across the desk from the young, female travel agent in the lobby of the five-star Shangri-La hotel in Bangkok, and discussed how I might spend the next four days. I was between conferences, and had that much time to consume before my flight to Hong Kong. I was also trying to learn Thai.
“‘Sawadee kaap,’ is how you say it if you are a man,” explained the young woman whose name-tag said Kiko, and who was trying to help me with my pronunciation of the phrase ‘thank you.’ “If you’re a woman,” she continued, “you say Sawadee kaaah.”
“It’s hard to remember that,” I confessed. “When someone says Sawadee kaaah to me, it’s just natural to say it back to them in the same way.”
“But you must never do that in Thailand,” she said, surprisingly concerned. “In this country, if you, a man, say Sawadee Kaaah, they will think you are a…” she paused, unsure of the word in English. A male co-worker walked nearby and she spoke to him in rapid Thai. He laughed, turned to me, and said: “If you say Sawadee kaaah, in Thailand they think you are a lady-boy, a transvestite. That’s how they talk—using the female words.”
Oh, great. It was just the kind of thing my Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t cover. But I’d already learned much from my Lonely Planet guide to “Thailand’s Islands and Beaches.” Specifically, I’d learned that southern Thailand contained some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. The photographs in the book featured untouched white-sand beaches, stunning limestone cliffs, idyllic, seemingly-uninhabited islands, and more. Yet I wasn’t sure where to go, precisely, or how to get there—which is why I needed help from the Tour Desk.
The geography of Thailand is as bizarre as the language. There’s the main part of the country, sort of a normal shape, and then falling off to the south like a drooping tail is the hundreds of miles long “Isthmus of Kraa”. At least that’s what the mapmakers call it, but I don’t know their gender. Perhaps men say it as “Isthmus of Kraap” or something. Continue down far enough and it has a new name in any case: Malaysia. Most of Thailand’s beautiful beaches and islands are down on that southern Isthmus, the most famous tourist destination being Phuket.
Useful trivia: when you see that “Ph” combination in Thai, followed by a vowel, you ignore the “h.” Phuket is pronounced “Poo-kette, emphasis on the second syllable, and thus does not sound like the common and obscene expletive found in English.
I turned back to the business at hand. “What I’m interested in,” I explained to Kiko, “ are these beautiful scenes here in the guidebook. These cool limestone rock islands, untouched beaches, and so forth.” She studied the book carefully, flipping through a few places.
“And I’m trying to avoid the tourist scene,” I explained further. “The more isolated and remote the better.”
“You don’t want Phuket then,” she advised. “Even after the tsunami, it’s definitely the tourist scene. Actually these pictures are from an area quite a bit away from Phuket, called Ao Nang Beach, near the town of Krabi. It’s a lovely area, very beautiful, and it was not hit too heavily by the tsunami.” She found it for me on a map. Krabi appeared to be about fifty miles southwest of Phuket, across a large bay. Roughly in the middle of that bay, I noticed, was the island of Phi Phi.
There had been a lot of news coverage about Phi Phi and the tsunami. It made for a good story, because a few years ago Leonardo di Caprio had made the island famous as the setting for the movie “The Beach”. Phi Phi (remember, no “h”, so it’s “pee pee”) was reputed to be the quintessential tropical paradise—utterly lovely and exotic. So when the only town on the island got heavily damaged by the tsunami, the media gave it full play with the “paradise-turned-disaster” angle.
In truth, one of the reasons I wished to visit southern Thailand was to see for myself what had happened. It wasn’t ghoulish. There was something about this catastrophe which had touched me emotionally. Watching the increasingly-horrific images and spiraling death-counts on television, my mind rebelled and I didn’t want to just sit in my living room and watch it all dispassionately. I wanted to do something—although it was unclear what one does about a tsunami.
This urge may have been triggered by long-slumbering tectonic forces of my own. Throughout my life I’d provided for my family, kept my small business growing through difficult times, donated to charities not infrequently, employed dozens of people and thus indirectly provided for their families in some way—and of course sent appalling quantities of money off to the IRS, the majority of which (based on statistics) goes towards welfare, social services, and the like. Clearly I was no net drain on society. Yet I’d rarely done pure volunteer work. I’d never helped out in a soup kitchen on Christmas eve, never picked up trash along a highway, never served in organizations like Rotary to raise scholarship money—or anything similar. With no volunteer work to my credit, I worried that there was a small gap in my life. Maybe a large gap.
Perhaps this dormant guilt about volunteer work was awoken by the endless news coverage of the tsunami disaster. Or perhaps the fact that it was Thailand—where I would be in a few weeks—made it seem more real. But whatever the reason, I wanted to do more than send off a donation to a tsunami fund. Although I did that too.
Yet all thought of going to Thailand myself and helping out as a volunteer was crushed when I read a Wall Street Journal report indicating tsunami regions were awash in unskilled volunteers—causing more problems than they were solving. What the area really needed, according to this article, was for people to come back as tourists. “The first wave,” explained the article, “was water. The second wave was cancellations of all the tourist bookings.” And it seemed the second wave was doing the most damage. Only a relatively few areas in southern Thailand suffered heavily from the tsunami itself, with Khao Lak (a town north of Phuket) and Phi Phi island being the worst hit of all. In most places it was business-as-usual, or at least trying to be, and desperate for the tourism which was its lifeblood. The Wall Street Journal made it clear that the best thing any Westerner could do to help would be to go there as a tourist.
Well I certainly had the skill set to do that. I could go to Krabi and be a tourist. Yet as I sat at the travel desk in Bangkok, looking at the map, I found my eye increasingly drawn to that remote island in the Andaman Sea, far from either Phuket or Krabi.
“Can I go to Phi Phi?” I asked, on impulse. If southern Thailand was desperate for tourists, then the hardest hit regions would be the most desperate.
The young travel agent looked up and shook her head decisively. “Phi Phi completely gone—wiped out!” She swiftly ran her arm through the air sideways, as if to simulate a giant wave washing over a village. There was a chilling finality to the gesture
“I thought maybe the news reports had exaggerated.”
“Phi Phi destroyed. There is nothing left.”
So we settled on Ao Nang beach, chose a hotel, and organized a booking for next day’s evening flight to Krabi. The cost of this excursion, even including airfare, would be less than the cost of me staying at the expensive Bangkok hotel, between conferences. It was a buyer’s market in southern Thailand. I booked only two nights at the Phra Nang Inn. I’d get in late, and wouldn’t want to have to check out immediately the next morning, so that meant two nights. But beyond that…well, if I liked the place I could stay longer. The resorts were at 10% occupancy in the midst of what should have been their high season. If I wanted to go somewhere else, I could do that too. One thing I’ve learned about traveling to weird places: stay flexible.
And, despite Kiko’s remarks, I found my thoughts still drawn to Phi Phi island—far off shore, remote and isolated. Perhaps it was “Bali Hai syndrome”: a mysterious, inaccessible place of infinite delights.
Now it contained only horror.
Or did it?
In any case, I was ready for this break, whatever it might hold. For three days I’d been doing the “pampered-businessman-at-a-luxurious-conference” thing. The event was the International Colored-Gemstone Association bi-annual Congress. You stay in a fabulous hotel, have elegant meals three times a day, discuss lofty industry topics, give and listen-to intriguing speeches, and then everyone goes out to an exotic soiree each evening.
Here in Bangkok, the first night had been spent on a dinner-and-dancing cruise boat on the Chao Phraya river. We sat up near the bow and were served dinner while watching the beautiful and elegant Buddhist temples pass by—lit up at night for the benefit of the tourists despite their presumed ascetic purpose.
Then there was the Thai “cultural night,” where we were all given authentic Thai dress (simple, yet embroidered cotton shirts for the men, elegant Thai gowns for the women) and were taken to kind of an outdoor cultural museum, with open-air buffet dining, and the requisite Thai dancers. The last evening was the gala dinner and fashion show, featuring Thai models this time, not dancers.
You almost can’t go anywhere formal in Bangkok at night without Thai dancers showing up and doing their “twisting-hands-with-fingers-outstretched-while-accompanied-by-hideously-irritating-music” thing. So the models were a nice change, although for this fashion show they’d dressed them like gun molls from 1930’s Al Capone days. It wasn’t the best look for slender and elegant Asian women. Perhaps it was a private fantasy of the guy who had choreographed the spectacle.
Arriving at Bangkok airport, I was thrilled to have escaped all of it. I didn’t need any lavish conference centers, exhibition halls, or elegant meeting rooms. I was not interested in listening to speeches. I’d quite lost whatever desire I might have had, to discuss trade topics with industry dignitaries. I was satiated with formal cultural events. And if I had to attend another soiree with Thai dancers I would scream. I knew that in less than a week it would all start up again in Hong Kong.
But for now I was on my own. The Thai Airways jet accelerated down the runway, lifted off, and turned south towards Krabi and the Andaman Sea: tsunami country.
In the seat-pocket was a copy of the Bangkok Post, which contained a piece about “The Ghosts of Krabi,” or rather, the lack of them. Apparently rumors were spreading of people encountering ghosts along the whole Andaman Coast of Thailand, where over 10,000 deaths had occurred.
Not needing another shock wave of negative publicity to damage the tourist trade, officials had organized a camping trip to Maya Beach on Phi Phi Lay island (The smaller of the two Phi Phi islands, and the exact location of Leonardo Di Caprio’s “The Beach”). Camping here or anywhere on Phi Phi Lay—a national wildlife sanctuary—is normally prohibited. But the officials made an exception to enable a group of local travel writers to visit and spend the night. The idea was to then get some “puff piece” articles written about how there were in fact no ghosts at all.
Of course Maya Beach at Phi Phi Lay is uninhabited wilderness, and is a completely different island from Phi Phi Don where the destruction of Tonsai occurred; and where over two thousand people died. How an overnight campout for travel writers at Maya Beach could be considered a legitimate “ghostbusters” expedition was unclear. Yet I was sympathetic to the folks in the tourism department. They’d been handed more then their share in the last few months. When rumors of ghosts started flying around—further frightening the tourists away—they were no doubt desperate to try anything.
The resulting puff piece in the Bangkok Post was titled: “Don’t be scared, it’s just the wind and the stars”. It started off with: “In spite of rumors of ghosts in Krabi Province, tourists are returning to the beauty of its exotic beaches.” The story continued in this ilk, waxing eloquent about the beauty of the place: sand, stars, waves and so forth. “Under the starry sky at Maya Bay, no one worries about ghosts,” concluded the writer.
OK, then. I guess they settled that question with incontrovertible scientific research. And I bet the tourist officials had plenty of Singha Beer to distribute as well, just to ensure everyone really did sleep soundly and undisturbed.
“Kinaree,” Thai Airways’ domestic in-flight magazine, carried an article about tourism in the Andaman Sea coast, subsequent to the tsunami. It was written by the president of Thai Airways, giving the words a certain authority. On the other hand, Thai Airways had an obvious vested interest in seeing tourism return to normal. I read with interest while, out the window, the sun set majestically over the Gulf of Siam.
“Khao Lak and Phi Phi island,” said the article, “are the only two areas in the entire south where tourism services are on hold until beach rehabilitation is accomplished and properties are rebuilt.” I found the syntax curiously benign—conspicuously un-alarming. “Tourism services were on hold,”. I contrasted that to Kiko’s “Phi Phi island—gone.”
There’s a big difference between “on hold” and “gone.” I wondered which was correct.
It was late when I arrived at Krabi airport. “Krabi”, pronounced “Kraw-bee” (emphasis on the first syllable) is the name of the province, as well as the largest city in that province. Krabi Province encompasses most of the resort area along Thailand’s Andaman Coast, including Phuket, Phi Phi, Ao Nang, Khao Lak and so forth. I could see nothing of Krabi, as the taxi drove in the darkness to the Phra Nang Inn at Ao Nang Beach—half an hour away. Yet the road was awfully twisting and turning, and the terrain seemed mountainous. Lush vegetation, no doubt deep green in the daylight encroached on all sides, as if frustrated with the fact that a highway had been cut through, and determined to reclaim the land.
I wasn’t too impressed with the Phra Nang Inn. It was a two story affair, and used imitation materials to try to create the look of a Swiss Family Robinson tree house—made of thin logs and such. If it had truly been an isolated property, surrounded by jungle, this minor deception might have worked. But Phra Nang Inn is utterly cut in half by the main road going through the bustling resort village of Ao Nang. It wasn’t quite like placing two halves of a log cabin on opposite sides of 5th Avenue in Manhattan, and expecting people to think they were in the wilderness. But it was kind of like that. I was too tired to worry about any of this, but not too tired to worry about the fact the air conditioner in my room didn’t work. I watched it suspiciously for ten minutes, and realized it was blowing air like a fan, but the air wasn’t cool. I insisted on a different room, and was moved to one where the air conditioner was just slightly better. I wasn’t very happy about this and was starting to get an attitude about the whole place. The town was noisy. The Phra Nang Inn, which had looked beautiful in the professional photographs at the travel desk in Bangkok, was cut in half by a highway, and was made out of fake plastic logs. The air conditioners were pathetic. Where was all the take-your-breath-away beauty of Southern Thailand that Lonely Planet was so excited about? Why had I come here in the first place? Maybe I could leave and…
Wait a minute. What was I doing? This morning I’d been desperate to flee urban five-star luxury and escape to the real Thailand. Now I was here, and all I could do was whine about creature comforts, like a spoiled tourist from New Jersey? Pathetic. This room was merely a place to sleep, and right now that’s all I needed. Everything else could wait until morning. OK, the air conditioner was below par. The bed was a bit soft. And the hotel architecture was embarrassing. But I’ve successfully gone to sleep under worse conditions. Probably the very worst had been camping on the banks of the Caprivi river in Zimbabwe, during a canoe expedition. I’d had to go to sleep while, outside my tent, a family of baboons tried to find a way in. They were mere inches from me. All night: scratch, scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch, scratch. I’d known how to deal with that situation: two sleeping pills. If a baboon attack could be rendered blissfully unimportant with two sleeping pills, I figured one was sufficient for my first night in a plastic-log, would-be tree house in Thailand. Sure enough, a small dose of Halcion™ took care of the air conditioner, the architecture, and the noisy street. And if there were any ghosts about, it took care of them as well.
* * *
Not surprisingly, I woke up late next morning, but still in time to enjoy the Phra Nang’s Inn buffet breakfast, included with the room. While they might not have thought of it on their own, Asian resorts that cater to Europeans learned long ago they would offend their guests mightily if they did not include breakfast with the price of a room. Truly, it is such a sensible custom that one wishes it could cross the Atlantic as well. Everyone needs breakfast, and for travelers it’s a terrible nuisance—that time of day—to get one’s act together sufficiently to go out and find a place to eat, be seated, handed menu’s, make decisions, wait until it’s served, etc. By contrast, when the hotel provides its own buffet, you just walk over there, dish up some things on your plate, and if you’re still half asleep it matters little. Speaking of being half asleep, a custom that needs to spread from North America across both the Atlantic and Pacific is providing continuous and automatic refills of coffee.
At the Phra Nang Inn, to even get to the breakfast I had to return back across the street to the hotel’s other half. But once I’d done so I was well rewarded, for the breakfast was served on a small terrace overlooking the bay. The scenery brought me awake faster than any coffee could have. First, there was the bay itself, spread out before us in even more than 180 degree splendor. It seemed we were on a slight promontory and the water wrapped slightly behind us in either direction. Defining it all was a lovely, broad beach perhaps fifty yards wide. Waves lapped against this beach with only the mildest of energy, as if still a little embarrassed about how they’d behaved six weeks ago. On the inland side of the beach was a several yard high brick seawall. Back from this a broad, paved walkway had been built. If this had been California such a thing would be thick with rollerblades at this time of day, but in Thailand it was mostly pedestrians—about half tourists and half Thai’s it seemed. One’s eye was caught next by the plethora of boats anchored far out from shore. To someone modestly experienced in such things, this implied the sand beach shoaled gradually, and deep water was found only far out from the beach. Like pawns set up at the beginning of a chess game, the boats closest in were the long-tails, their bows pointing inland, some anchored and rocking with the waves, some apparently hard aground on the sand, and not minding being so. Beyond the band of long-tails, and farther out in deeper water, I could see more substantial vessels, in the fifty to one hundred foot range—obviously intended for carrying passengers longer distances.
In truth, it was the noise of these long-tail boats which had finally overcome whatever remained of the sleeping pill and forced me out of bed. I could see them now, racing around the bay, or roaring from shore out towards deeper water, their engines deliciously uninhibited, enjoying a culture in which noise pollution, apparently was not deemed something worth regulating.
But far more impressive than the ocean, the sand beach, or the fleet of boats laid before us were the mountainous islands rising vertically out of the Bay. Covered in soft, green vegetation, these were the spectacular, other-worldly shapes that had so captured my imagination when I saw pictures of them in the Lonely Planet guidebook. They seem geologically freakish, as if they’d occurred when God was practicing creating the world, and as such should never have survived beyond the first draft. Everyone knows what islands in a tropical sea should look like. They should be mountainous, if possible, at least those of volcanic origin should be. And they should slope downwards and outwards from their highest point to the water’s edge. Such shapes are familiar to the eye, and relaxing to the soul. One thinks of the soft, steep cones of Bora Bora, or the very gradual slopes of the Hawaiian islands, even today renewing themselves every few thousand years with more lava flows to prevent erosion from making them steep. Or perhaps that most famous mountain of all—at least to the eye—Japan’s Mount Fuji on Honshu Island, with its perfectly symmetrical and utterly graceful slopes. Fuji is not tropical, of course, but it least it knows how a mountain rising out of the ocean is supposed to look.
These strange shapes in the Andaman Sea violate all tradition. Some of them are actually broader at their tops, and skinnier at their base. The tops themselves are often flat as a football field, and the sides as steep as the cliffs of the Grand Canyon. It’s almost as if they were a form of trapezoidal mushroom that had grown up out of the bay just this morning, and erosion had not yet had a chance to convert them to properly-shaped mountains.
Some of the cliffs on these islands—or islets—are so steep that vegetation simply can’t grow on them. So it was typical to see an islet covered with fuzzy vegetation and most sides, yet in one direction be bare limestone. Not surprisingly, those with an interest in such things have noticed all this steep, bare limestone, such that the entire area around Krabi is known as the best limestone rock climbing in the world.
I have no interest in rock climbing, but was happy to enjoy these pretty islands and the surrounding bay, and all the boats buzzing around, merely as scenery while I ate my breakfast and—with the help of the coffee—began to develop a much-improved attitude towards the Phra Nang Inn and the whole area. I found myself ashamed to think that last night I’d been willing to judge the whole area fake, merely on the evidence of some ill-considered plastic log architecture. In truth, this was perhaps the most beautiful, the most spectacular, place I’d ever been.
Sadly, I was not yet able to enjoy it. This wasn’t vacation. It was Friday morning, and I had hours of work ahead of me: sending and receiving email. I’d gotten way behind with all the non-stop activities in Bangkok. Today was my opportunity to catch up. Like a survival expert able to start a fire in the wilderness under any conditions, one of my skills these days is the ability to establish an Internet connection from any hotel room, anywhere in the world. An hour later, I stumbled out the door of my room, frustrated and angry. Obviously, the Phra Nang Inn had been designed by telecommunications engineers determined to prevent anyone from reaching the Internet in any way whatsoever. They had stopped even me. So I set out to explore Ao Nang Beach—not in search of sand and sun, but on a quest for an Internet café.
Internet café’s aren’t especially useful in the United States, where every hotel, every airport, even every Starbucks, boasts a “hot spot” which allows my built-in wireless laptop to connect at breathtakingly-fast broad-band speeds and make short work of my email in basket. Yet everywhere else in the world they are a Godsend.
It was mid afternoon before I’d found one, downloaded my email, and typed out the necessary replies. Although Friday had barely begun back in Colorado, I was ready to declare the weekend officially underway. It was only 3pm, and there was plenty of day left.
Like most seaside resort villages, a broad boulevard ran parallel to the water—open in one direction, and blanked on the other with an endless procession of sidewalk-cafe restaurants, souvenir shops, convenience stores, tour desks, and the like. It was into one of these that I stopped and chatted with the proprietor. There was quite a bit to do around this area, according to the brochures and flyers. Sea kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, rock climbing, jungle safari, long-boat rides, and more. Certainly scuba diving was something I should try. Thailand is all the rage on the scuba circuit, and it would be good to experience Thai diving as well as Thai dining. Yet one notice up on the bulletin board behind the desk caught my attention: Ferry Schedule to Ko Phi Phi. (“Ko” means “island.”)
“There’s a passenger ferry to Phi Phi?” I asked the tour desk woman.
“Oh yes. It goes once per day. It stops at Phi Phi Don for an hour, then it goes to Maya Beach for snorkeling. Then back to Phi Phi Don. And then back here to Ao Nang.”
“So Phi Phi Don is still in business?”
“I mean, I know it was destroyed and everything. I’m just surprised there is regular ferry service there.”
“They are trying to re-build Phi Phi Don.”
“Can tourists go there?”
“Yes, certainly if you want to. That’s why the ferry stops there for an hour, so people can visit if they wish. There are still one or two little shops—souvenir shops—that kind of thing. You can walk around if you want to. But it’s not really a very good place to go.”
“You can’t stay overnight there. The hotels are all gone, right?”
“I think maybe there are a couple of hotels that are still operating. I’m not sure.”
My interest perked up immediately.
“Could you make me a reservation?” I asked
“I’m sorry. I have no way to do that. There is no telephone service on the island, and also I have no idea which hotels might still be open. It was just a rumor I heard, that there were a couple still operating.”
She must have noticed the look of disappointment on my face, because she tried to suggest some alternatives.
“Let me show you this jungle safari trip. That’s very popular. What you do is…”
I smiled and nodded and was appropriately enthusiastic about everything, but ultimately I thanked her and implied I’d be back.
Still trying to get my bearings and see what there was to see, I walked back to the hotel and continued in the other direction. I knew all this walking around was crazy. It was too hot. Occasionally I would slip into a souvenir shop or convenience store not because I needed any souvenirs or conveniences, but just to bask in their air conditioning. In one of these was a newsstand, and these tend to draw me to them, if only to read the day’s headlines. Many of the papers were in Thai, of course, but I glanced over the stack, looking for papers in English. Here in a tourist resort, there would be many in English. I was wrong. There were no papers in English. Yet there were papers in…I studied the language more closely. It was Swedish! And now that I realized what I was looking at, I spotted several others in Swedish as well. Perhaps ten papers in Thai, another six in Swedish. Total in English: zero.
Were they nuts? Didn’t they know that English is the official #2 language all over the world? You have your own language, and you have English. And your newsstands should reflect that. I’d heard the Scandinavians were fond of Southern Thailand, but this was ridiculous!
Walking further down the street I came across a PADI 5-Star dive shop. PADI is the primary scuba licensing organization, and a PADI 5-star is like a 5-star hotel: certain to have everything: instruction, equipment, dive-trips, all of it. I walked up the steps, to where three blond twenty-somethings were sitting and chatting, a sun umbrella providing shade for what would otherwise be an unbearable activity. Two men and one woman.
I opened with “Good afternoon!”
They all three nodded pleasantly and one—perhaps the dive shop owner—stood up and responded as a good salesperson should:
“May we interest you in some diving?”
And of course the answer was yes. I much preferred dealing directly with one of the dive operations themselves, rather than have something like this booked by an agent.
I also knew that whatever my activities, I should get the diving out of the way first, so it would not interfere with the flying. The rule is: No diving within 24 hours of a flight.
The facts came out quickly enough. His name was Karl and he owned the shop. Karl was actually German, but he’d been here long enough to speak fluent Swedish.
“You have to, if you want to do any business in Ao Nang.”
“The area seems quite popular with the Swedes.”
“Totally. Those two sitting out there on the table, they’re both Swedish.”
We were inside the air conditioned shop now. Karl was handsome, tall, and well built. So was the other guy. The woman had movie star looks, and wore only a bikini top. Did I mention they all were blonde?
Jumping to the chase, I learned there was a dive scheduled for tomorrow. It was their large dive boat, built for fairly long-distance dive trips.
“We’ll be going to Phi Phi Ley. You’re welcome to come along.”
“You’re going to Phi Phi?”
“Phi Phi Ley, that’s the smaller island, the uninhabited island.”
“Is it good diving there?”
“It’s considered one of the best dive sites in Thailand. Takes about two hours to get there. We leave at 7:30. Two dives. We’re finished by 1pm. Back here by 3.
I gave him my credit card and as he was writing up the forms an idea was growing in my head. It wouldn’t hurt to ask.
“When we go to Phi Phi Ley, how close do we come to Phi Phi Don?
“Oh we cruise right by it. Tonsai’s been destroyed you know.”
“Yes. I’m wondering—I have a crazy idea.”
“Well, this may sound a little weird, but after the diving I’d prefer not to return to Ao Nang. I want to try to stay overnight at Phi Phi Don. Could the dive boat drop me off there?”
Karl raised his eyebrows, and started to speak, but I cut him off.
“I know Tonsai’s been destroyed and all that. But I’ve heard rumors there are still one or two hotels operating although no one knows which ones and apparently there’s no phone service or anything. But I would guess there’s vacancy. Worst case, I sleep on the beach, and take the ferry back here the next day.”
“But why would you want to go to Phi Phi Don? It’s a disaster area. It’s no place for tourists!”
“Everything I’ve read says that what these places need most is for their economy to continue, for tourists to start coming back. I don’t have any skills to help with the relief work, but if I can contribute by just being a tourist, spending money, I’ll feel I’ve done something.”
Karl accepted this and the plan was made. I had one more question.
“I’m just curious. I don’t see any damage here at Ao Nang. Was this area affected by the tsunami?”
“Not too badly. There’s a resort around the headland out there that was completely unprotected and they’re having to rebuild. Quite a few of the long-tail boats were destroyed, and there was some loss of life here, but not like other places. That sea wall really made a difference.”
I’d noticed the brick wall earlier, rising up from the beach about 15’. And the terrain kept climbing from there, such that this PADI shop was a good 20 feet above the top of the sea wall.
“So your shop wasn’t affected at all?”
“The water came up about two feet here in the shop, before receding. It caused a big mess, and ruined a lot of our records. But it wasn’t dangerous. I was here at the time. Totally freaked me out. No one understood what was happening.”
I could well imagine that.
“So, is there anything I could do with the remainder of the day?” I asked. Tomorrow was organized, but I felt I hadn’t accomplished much today.
“Sure, you can go sea kayaking.”
“Perfect! Where can I do that?”
“Just keep walking south along the bay. Eventually the street will end, and then the paved bike path will end. Keep walking to the last structure. That’s an outdoor bar, and they rent sea kayaks. You can paddle around past the headland. Lots of cliffs and islands and things like that. It’s great scenery.
He was right. The street ended. And the paved walkway ended as well. As I continued, Thai women—generally middle aged—called to me from little wooden structures: small cabins or open air awnings made of sticks and wood.
“Massage! Good plice! Massage!”
“Thai massage! Fell good. Thai massage!”
“Special plice for you! Good massage!”
These poor women. They had no idea how much I loathe massages. If circumstances required, I would have paid twice what any of them were asking, to not have a massage. But not everyone felt the same way. About one out of ten of these massage “parlors”—for lack of a better word—had a customer. Usually it was some middle aged man or woman, face down on an outdoor foam-rubber mattress being worked on by a masseuse. I hate massages because they tickle me. I’m so ticklish I can’t even have my shoes shined while I’m in them. I shuddered at the thought of what those massages must feel like. For me, it would be an acute form of torture. I would talk. I’d say anything. I’d beg and plead. I’d give up any secret, confess to any act. I hurried by, desperate to get past this massage-parlor forest. Eventually it ended as well, and there was the last bar on the whole bay.
Soon I was paddling out into the surf, my video camera tucked away in what I hoped was a watertight compartment. Ten minutes into this, I was reminded of why I so detest kayak paddles. Whatever paddle is in the air drips water perfectly onto your face. Regular paddles don’t do this, because they stay in the water. Also, it was quite tippy out here. I wasn’t worried for myself. If I rolled into the sea it wouldn’t matter. I was wearing nylon shorts and a quick-try t-shirt. But the camera made me nervous.
Paddling as quickly as I was able, I rounded the headland, and was confronted with another dozen of those upside-down little islets, each a couple hundred feet high and some only fifty feet apart. As might be expected of limestone pillars rising out of the sea, these seemed to contain interesting hiding places, small caves, enticing rock formations, and little “paddle-throughs”. I played around in this limestone rock-formation forest for half an hour, pausing occasionally to take video pictures, when suddenly I realized I wasn’t alone. Another sea kayak was approaching—this one a two-seater—and it appeared to contain women. Blonde women.
As two strangers lost in the wilderness would do upon sighting each other, the kayaks quickly converged and soon I was alongside the other kayak. Both women wore only bikinis and seemed awfully young. I’ve noticed this is one phenomenon of getting older. People around me start seeming young. Obviously, they were from Sweden. And that meant it likely they spoke some degree of English.
“Hi, where are you from?” I asked.
“Ve are from Norway,” the one in front said. “Bergen, Norway.”
Well, OK, so they weren’t from Sweden. I guess it wasn’t true that all the tourists were from Sweden.
We chatted awhile, the kayaks bobbing with the waves, held together with a well placed oar, a hand, or a leg. They were students on break from University. They’d been here two weeks, only four weeks more to go.
Europeans! You have to wonder how they can take these endless vacations. Don’t they ever work? We had fun taking pictures of each other—no easy feat in a tippy kayak—because it was obvious to everyone that we were quite photogenic out here: brightly colored sea kayaks, late afternoon sun, and spectacular limestone rock formations rising out of the water.
Eventually the girls said goodbye and paddled off—probably looking for hunky Swedish guys to flirt with. They’d have no trouble finding any.
From my perspective out among the limestone rock formations I could look back and see a secluded section of beach invisible from where I’d rented the kayak. It was apparently a private bay, and it looked like it contained some sort of resort or condominium. Yet as I paddled closer I realized I was looking at ruins. This was the area that Karl had said was heavily damaged. I pulled the kayak up onto the beach, rescued my camera from its watertight compartment, and went for a closer look.
It was a beehive of activity, with workers swarming over the ruined structure, whatever it had been: either a resort hotel or up-market condominiums, obviously. At least three tractors scurried about, one engaged in removing a broken off palm tree from the beach—it’s trunk nearly thirty feet long. The tractor nudged close up against it, workers manhandled the thing onto the lift, and soon the vehicle was driving down the beach holding it’s palm tree in front like an eager dog recovering a stick for its owner. To reach the main part of the town, the tractor had to clear the very rock outcropping which gave this beach it’s privacy, and I wasn’t sure how he could do it. But it wasn’t difficult. The driver merely steered out into the water, and rounded the rock outcropping with ease. Truly this was a strange site: a tractor driving through the ocean, carrying a palm tree as its cargo. You don’t see this very often in Colorado. Once past the outcropping he turned inland and I saw him ultimately deposit the tree in a junk pile of debris. Then he went back for another one.
Approaching the ruined condo more closely, I found some Thai workers—a couple of them women—who seemed friendly. At least they were taking a break from the work.
I greeted them ritually, with the hands placed together in front, and a micro-bow. They reciprocated.
Unfortunately, they spoke no English, so we were reduced to hand signals. I asked them if the tsunami had done all this damage, which had to have been the stupidest question ever asked in the history of Thailand. But they nodded eagerly, as if to confirm my clever deduction. One woman used her hands to show how the wave had entered the bay, how it had flowed up and over the condos, and—by pointing to a spot up on the hill—how high it had gone. They smiled enthusiastically throughout this, and it seemed that the tsunami was the most exciting thing that could have happened around here. They appeared well fed, enjoying their work, and desperately eager to gossip about the big wave. I sensed no heartache, no recent memories of lost loved-ones, no emotional or financial damage that might take decades to heal. These workers had probably been brought in from other areas, and the tsunami clean up—for them—was a financial windfall.
They waved good bye to me, smiling and enthusiastic. I was glad the CNN cameras were no where nearby. One shot of these happy people and the aid donations would dry up cold.
Walking back to my hotel, after returning the sea kayak, I spotted something interesting happening out in the bay. A long-tail boat had arrived, grounding itself on the sand a couple hundred yards out. This was as close as it could get, because of the shoaling. It carried a surprising number of people, and these began climbing awkwardly out of the boat into the shallow water. Then large bags—maybe bags of rice—were handed down to them. These were Thai men and women, not a Swede or Norwegian among them. Yet what they were trying to carry looked quite awkward and heavy. The sun was just moments from setting, and the entire coastline was bathed in a lush, humid glow. The bright reds and yellows and greens worn by the native Thais, simmered with luminescence. A delicious breeze came blew in from the ocean, redolent with spices and ocean smells and tropical flowers. I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to participate. Quickly untying my shoes, I left them just off the pathway and climbed down the steps of the seawall to the beach. Hurrying across, I raced into the water and soon was besides the long-tail boat disgorging it’s cargo. Two middle aged women were struggling with a large, heavy bag of something, while trying to maintain their footing in the tricky wave conditions. They needed to somehow carry the thing between them, and this was going to be anything but easy. I moved in as close as I dared—not wishing to be rude—but then caught the eye of a man handing down cargo. I used hand signals again to indicate I would carry the large bag, for the women. He smiled and called out to them, and they eagerly handed it off to me, letting me haul the whole thing up and onto my shoulders. Smiling with gratitude, they twittered around, bowing heads and giving me the full benefit of their sparkling eyes. Women everywhere know that men do stuff like this to bolster their own sense of masculinity. It was no different than opening a peanut-butter jar lid, or picking something off a high shelf. And they equally knew how to play their role, which was to twitter around me, and bow their heads and smile with gratitude and give me the full benefit of their sparkling eyes.
I could imagine what they were thinking: “Men! They are so easy to manipulate!”
They got that right. Yet I’d gone only a few yards before I began regretting the whole business. This was one heavy bag. Yet now all kinds of self-esteem issues were on the table. I couldn’t fail in front of the women. That was obvious. I was the only Westerner among the Thais, so I of course had to keep my end up—from a hemisphere perspective. Most of the men here were young and well muscled, and that created a natural competition, at least in my mind if not theirs. Taken together, there were enough motivating factors here to ensure that when the flesh faltered—which it did almost immediately—the spirit kept me going. Finally I was out of the water, my neck and shoulder muscles screaming in desperation. Hobbling across the beach, I now realized the worst part of the ordeal was to come. We’d arrived not at a section of the beach where there are stone steps up to the road. No, here there was only the sea wall itself. I watched in horror as the Thai men and women deftly climbed this obstacle in their bare feet, grasping on to whatever they could, and using little cracks and irregularities in the surface. In truth there was a bit of a fissure in the rock here, and it did afford a few strategically positioned footholds. It would be easy to climb if unencumbered and wearing sneakers. Barefoot and with a hundred pound bag of something from Hell on my shoulders, it would be excruciatingly painful.
But it was a mercifully short distance to climb. Well, there was nothing for it. I sent a signal down to my feet asking them to please turn off all nerve endings, and then took kind of a run at the wall. My momentum—all the more unstoppable carrying the heavy bag—propelled me at least a third of the way up. Then I simply forced myself to keep going, each step more painful than the last. The nerve endings in my feet had not obeyed the mental command. Quite the contrary, they were doing everything in their power to notify whoever was running this body that things were seriously amiss.
But seconds before I’d have had to drop the bag, I reached the sidewalk, and a couple of Thai men took the burden from me. The women were still flitting about, bowing and putting their hands together and saying “Tank you. Tank you. You friend. You ar friend!”
“Wait a minute,” I said to the guy who was getting ready to load the bag into a small truck parked nearby. “I have to see what’s inside.” I also communicated this with hand signals, and he immediately understood. Unzipping the top of the polypropylene container, he let me peer in. One of the women came over, knelt down, and begin deftly pulling objects from the bag, holding them up for my inspection. What she was showing me was colorful cotton clothing: beautiful gold-threaded robes and garments: the kind soft things those Thai dancers wear. Gold-laced clothing. No wonder the damn thing was so heavy. Everyone was still bowing and smiling and thanking me and I soaked that in until even the bottoms of my feet were beginning to feel properly compensated. Then I bid them good evening and disappeared mysteriously into the night.
At least I hoped it was that kind of exit. More likely they were snickering as I limped off painfully, one hand rubbing my neck and shoulder muscles, trying to restore circulation. And I bet they were saying to each other: “These Swedish guys are even wimpier than they look!”
In any case I felt I’d at least burned enough calories to justify the lavish dinner I ordered that night—choosing again the Phra Nang Inn’s verandah overlooking the now moon-lit beauty of Ao Nang bay. I began with a calamari salad—seasoned to an excruciating, eye-watering intensity—and liked it so much I followed it up with a calamari and rice dish, plus other ingredients I could not identify but which I’m certain were quite exotic and, hopefully, pulled directly from the sea.
That night I prepared for tomorrow’s adventure, filling my daypack with the things I might need to survive on Phi Phi Don. The list included sunscreen, Band-Aids, antibiotic cream, a sunhat, a spare t-shirt, hiking sneakers, a pair of socks, a paperback book (it might be my only form of entertainment on the island) and, most importantly, a large bottle of water. I didn’t really expect a wilderness survival experience. I was fairly certain I could find a place to stay, buy food, etc. On the other hand, once the boat dropped me off, it would be almost five pm the following day before I could catch a ferry back to the mainland. If Phi Phi were truly “gone” as the tourist agent had insisted back in Bangkok, then water might be important. I stuck in a second bottle as well, just to be safe.
* * *
Awaking early the next morning I managed a bit of free breakfast, checked out of my room, and arranged to store my primary pack with the front desk staff. I explained that I might be back tonight, or maybe tomorrow night, and they assured me they would keep my bag safe. It was a heart-wrenching decision, but in the final analysis I decided to leave even my laptop computer as well—buried deeply out of sight in the main pack. Someone with more common sense would have had less of a struggle with such a decision. Even if I could stay overnight on Phi Phi Don, the place didn’t even have phone service. What did I expect to find, a wireless hot spot? And was my email over the weekend expected to be all that important in any case? The answers were obvious, yet separating from my laptop, and leaving it in the dubious care of these “natives” in a fake-log tree-house hotel, violated my every instinct. From deep inside myself I heard a low voice of reason: “Jacques, it’s OK. Let it go. Let the laptop go.”
Fine. I did. But if I came back and found the hard-drive wiped clean, I was going to have something pretty severe to say to whoever that voice belonged to.
Ao Nang Beach is quite developed in terms of hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and the like. Throughout the day, there is a bustling traffic in long-tail boats and larger vessels, cruising back and forth on the horizon, and approaching the beach to take on or offload passengers or cargo. Oddly, with all this maritime commerce, Ao Nang Beach has no dock or pier. It’s just a beach. So among the other tasks performed by the long-tails is the transporting of people out to the larger vessels offshore, such as the passenger ferries and dive boats. But the long-tails themselves can’t get to the beach either. They run aground at least fifty yards out. That’s what had happened to the cargo boat I’d helped off-load yesterday evening.
Departing passengers are therefore required to walk from the beach, out into the water, and climb into the long-tail boats from the sea, as it were. A long-tail boat is not designed in a way to make this convenient. It has no boarding ladder, for example, or break in its topside section to afford easy entry. To enter a long-tail boat from the water, it’s best to first toss your belongings into the boat, then hold on to the gunwales and try to lift a leg over the side. Once accomplished, you can use the leverage to kind of pull yourself up, and then sort of roll indelicately into the boat itself—typically landing on whatever you’d tossed in previously. It’s impossible to retain one’s dignity throughout this maneuver, but it’s encouraging to note that everyone else has lost theirs as well—most of them being too consumed with their own challenge to notice how poorly someone else did.
When fully loaded or disembarked of cargo, the long-tails are pushed out to deep water, they’re engines are fired up, and off they go: heading either to the larger ships or to other destinations.
And so it was with our dive party. Assembling at the Five Star PADI facility, we got checked in, sorted out our gear, and then walked sleepily down to the beach. The sun was not yet up, and Ao Nang was draped in shadow. I was the only one carrying actual sneakers, and I had to tie these on to the daypack itself, to keep them clear of the water. Everyone else was barefoot or in Tevas. We boarded the long-tail boat in the aforementioned manner, and soon—with a roar—were heading out away from the beach towards deeper water.
Now that I’d collected myself off the bottom of the long-tail boat, I took stock of my fellow divers. Not all were young and blond. Some were middle age and blond. Karl was here, as were the two others that had been at the PADI facility yesterday. He’d introduced them as Sven and Gretta.
Each boat contained half a dozen divers, and I could see several converging on the large craft which was our obvious destination. It was a motor vessel, perhaps sixty feet in length. The name on the bow was a mouthful: Rung Warawan Sip. Our own long-tail boat circled around to the leeward side of the Rung and hooked on to a small ladder which reached down from the aft deck. Soon all six passengers were successfully off-loaded. The little shuttle craft headed back towards shore, the bright red ribbon which was tied around it’s bow piece flapping only a little in the damp morning air.
I noticed that these “ocean long-tails” were quite different from their Bangkok cousins. The latter, designed for the calm waters of the rivers and klongs, were of very shallow draft, dangerously (in my mind) low freeboard, flat bottomed, and with no bowpeice to speak of. Here in the Andaman Sea the long-tails were much bigger in every way except length. The hull shape was a large, deep V to cut through the waves, freeboard was high (more’s the pity, for getting in and out), beam was almost three times the Bangkok version, and each vessel bore a stout bow piece that—like the dragon head on a Viking longboat—extended upwards three or four feet from the very front of the boat—obviously an extension of the keel timber itself. Most of these ocean long-tails had large, bright-red ribbons tied to this bowpeice, adding a touch of elegance and festivity. With everyone on board, no time was wasted getting underway. The anchor windlass on the foredeck came to life, and the clank-clank-clanking of the hawser cable signaled imminent departure. The slight vibration of large diesel engines could be felt coming through the deck plating. The vibration increased and soon the miniature ship had reached cruising speed, heading southwest into the calm, island-covered, waters of the Andaman Sea, while a newly-risen sun baked the tropical humidity into an opaque stew.
They gathered us together, perhaps 20 in all, on the upper deck which was generally open save for a hard fiberglass awning that provided shade. A long table was set here, bolted to the deck, and we all took seats around it. Karl gave us the standard briefing: where we were going, how long it would take to get there, rules onboard, how to use the head, procedures for abandoning ship, and other useful information. Then he invited us to relax and enjoy the two hour journey to Phi Phi Ley.
About half the passengers were young women in bikinis, and these favored the open foredeck where they now took station with their sunglasses, suntan lotion and paperback novels. Scandinavians get so little sunlight during the winter that they are very serious about worshipping it when they have the chance. Others sat around the table and carried on light conversations. The crew, about five of them, were down below sorting out the dive gear, attaching BC’s to air tanks, setting out weights for the weight belts, and tasks of this nature. I was most interested in the scenery. With help from my guidebook, I’d come to learn that much of this area had been designated a national marine park, and was a favorite of Hollywood film makers. What was so unique here were these crazy limestone islands, sticking vertically out of the water, soaring into the most fantastic shapes, yet each softened by a moss-like blanket of vegetation.
In the James Bond film “Man With The Golden Gun” there is a scene where Bond himself is piloting a sea plane through an infinity of moss-covered rocky islands, searching for the one containing the secret lair of the villainous Scaramanga, who has kidnapped Bond’s fellow secret agent, played by the lovely Britt Eckland. In the movie, this was supposed to be somewhere off the coast of China. Yet in reality, it had been filmed here off the coast of Thailand.
The 1999 release of “The Beach,” featuring Maya Beach at Phi Phi Ley, added to the region’s fame. And the TV series: “Survivor: Thailand” was filmed here as well.
Karl joined me at the rail.
“Chicken rock,” he said, pointing to one of the more curious limestone formations. Sure enough, as we drew abreast of it, the island took on the appearance of a two hundred foot tall chicken. Yet with its mossy vegetation it was cute and cuddly, not terrifying.
Karl drifted away, but here was a middle aged couple, sitting at the table and looking accessible. I joined them, finding myself curious about who the others were, who had decided to go scuba diving at Phi Phi Ley.
“Where are you from” I asked, suspecting I already knew the answer.
“Ve are from Sveden!” exclaimed the woman
“Well, of course. But vhere in Sweden—I mean where in Sweden—are you from?”
“Ja? Vhere in Sveden? We are from Malmo.”
I knew the name but couldn’t recall where it was. My knowledge of Swedish geography is limited. I changed planes once in Stockholm. Thirty years ago I’d taken a night train from Denmark to Norway—which was mostly through Sweden. That was my only experience with the country. I could have done much better with Finland. So I changed topics.
“How long are you in Thailand?” I asked.
Being Europeans, I was certain it would be measured in weeks, plural.
“Three months,” said the man.
“Three months!” I exclaimed.
“Ja,” said the woman. “Only one more month and then we have to go home.”
To their credit they’d been using the time wisely, and had done the whole tourist thing: Bangkok, Ayyuthaya, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Ko Samui, Phuket of course, and now Ao Nang and Phi Phi.”
Although an experienced traveler, I felt like I’d barely ever left home compared to these two. Next year they were planning to “visit” Indonesia. I was curious how they could afford such trips, but it seemed impolite to ask if they were independently wealthy. And anyway, all Europeans and Australians travel like this.
“How about you?” they asked politely.
“Four days,” I confessed.
There was shocked and embarrassed silence.
“You came all the way to Thailand for four days?”
“I was attending a business conference in Bangkok. I have another one in Hong Kong this coming week. I had to spend the time somewhere. This seemed like as good a place as any.”
“So, you’re on a…business trip?”
“Well, yes, but not right now of course. Now I’m on holiday.”
“For four days?” They seemed confused
There was nothing for it. The idea of a pocket vacation was entirely outside the experience of these northern Europeans. To them, holidays were measured in months. Perhaps it was a cultural thing. Maybe northern Europeans just can’t “unwind” as easily as Americans. Maybe they spent their first month just trying to forget about the office.
We chatted a bit and they were pleasant enough. But when they headed downstairs to check on their dive gear I knew they were shaking their heads thinking: “Four days! He’s crazy.”
There seemed something a bit preposterous about everyone onboard behaving as if there had never been a tsunami; going about their business seemingly oblivious to the fact that six weeks ago the greatest natural disaster of our time had occurred in this area. Was this not obscene: young women decadently lying around in bikinis, focused on suntan lotion and paperback novels? Then I remembered that behaving as tourists was precisely what we were supposed to be doing. It’s what all the local Thai people desperately wanted us to be doing. The posssibility that we might stop doing it was—if possible—even scarier to the local population than the tsunami itself.
It was all quite confusing.
In any case, remembering that I was specifically here to play tourist, it was time to study my Lonely Planet travel guide in anticipation of being dropped off at Phi Phi Don.
There was a long list of hotels to consider at Tonsai and Lo Dalam, but I suspected it would be futile to study this list. It was mere rumor that any hotels still existed. Yet one caught my attention: The Phi Phi Viewpoint Hotel.
“PP Viewpoint Resort. A bit of a hike uphill, but worth it for the views. PP Viewpoint has vast wooden bungalows on stilts overlooking the bay. The verandas are great for a sundowner cocktail.”
A “hike uphill?” Uphill, as in: maybe higher than the tsunami? It sounded promising.
The first hour passed pleasantly enough. The Scandinavians were friendly, if not gregarious. Of course it was still quite early in the morning—not yet nine o’clock. Hardly cocktail hour.
One of the bikini-clad women had overheated on the foredeck and was now up here with me, hiding out under the awning. A large landmass could be seen directly ahead, no doubt an immense island.
“Is that Phi Phi, do you think?” I asked her.
“Yes, that’s Phi Phi Don.”
She joined me at the rail, and begin pointing out other sights of note. “Over there is what’s called Bamboo Island. It has one of the most delightful reefs to snorkel on, and as you can see the sand beach is perfect.”
Certainly it looked to be so. It also seemed uninhabited.
“So, how long have you been in Thailand?” I asked, now mentally braced for the answer to be measured in months.
“Year and a half, almost,” she replied.
“What! That’s ridiculous! It’s simply not possible to go on a year and a half vacation.”
She laughed pleasantly. “No, no. You don’t understand. I’m not on holiday. I work here. I’m with the dive crew!”
Oh. So the bikini was actually her working outfit. Nice work if you can get it.
“Well were you in the area when the tsunami came?”
“Yes, I was actually in the water. I was actually on a dive when it happened.”
The Rung Sip (I forget its middle name) was now cruising along the east coast of Phi Phi Don, nearing the southern tip of the island.
“Can you tell me what happened?” I asked, with some degree of awe.
“It was the most amazing thing. We were actually diving right up there, just off the tip of the island. Our captain in the boat had heard about the tsunami on his radio. It hadn’t hit Phi Phi yet, but it was going to any minute. He was frantic. When we surfaced, he began screaming at us and waving his arms and signaling to get back on board. We were like “What? What’s the problem?” And he kept saying something about waves or a wave or something like that and we were all in the water looking around and the waves weren’t that bad. But we did what he said and we got on board. He immediately hit the throttles and headed out away from the island into deeper water. I think if we’d been maybe three minutes later we would have all been killed.
“So did you see the wave coming?”
“It was the strangest thing. We couldn’t feel it at all, in the boat itself. We’d made it to deep enough water. But when we looked out at the horizon—you know, the horizon that is always a straight line—we could see it just rise up and settle down again. An amazing sight—it’s just something you never see. And then we could see the wave hitting those cliffs over there.”
We’d cleared the southern tip of Ko Nai (Inner Island) by now, and could look across at Ko Nok (Outer Island). She was pointing at the eastern side of Ko Nok—a high, mountainous peninsula.
“You see those cliffs there. We could see the water just rise up and smash into those cliffs. The spray went like a third of the way up the sides of the mountains. It was an unbelievable thing to see. Even in a storm, the waves never go higher than where you see the white limestone that’s exposed. That’s how high the waves normally can get. This one went a third of the way to the top.”
“So if you’d still been in the water…?”
“Like I said, I don’t think we’d have survived. The wave would have smashed us onto the rocks there.”
“You were very lucky.”
“Yes, as were other divers in the area. We’ve heard amazing stories about what happened to other divers. One group was actually underwater on their dive, and they got smashed against the sea bottom by the wave. But that’s all that happened. They were OK. Of course they were terrified, and confused as hell, but they were OK.
“One of the best stories was our friend Dave. He runs a dive boat out of Ao Nang—one of the speedboats. His radio was out that day. Couldn’t receive a thing. He’d picked up his divers and had just left Phi Phi—heading away from the island—when the wave hit. But he was already far enough out he didn’t feel the wave. And he had no idea it had happened. He just kept cruising on back to Ao Nang. When he got there he couldn’t believe it. All the long-tail boats were smashed into kindling—but that’s all he could see. When he finally got ashore he found out what had happened and what a close call he’d had. But he had no clue…”
I suddenly realized she wasn’t speaking English like a Swede or even a Norwegian. She was way too fluent.
“Where are you from, by the way?”
“Me? I’m an Aussie.”
Well, that provided room for more conversation. But we had to cut it short. Ao Tonsai was now open before us, and we could see the peninsula itself—where the tourist village had been. It was a mile or more away, although I brought it closer with help from the digital zoom on my Sony video camera. Hmmm. I could definitely see buildings. At least they looked like buildings. Maybe two story condos or something. It certainly wasn’t “wiped clean”.
“Rachel,” (that was her name), “what am I seeing exactly? Is that a building? Does it look different than it used to look?”
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
“There used to be a town there. Look, you can see across the peninsula. You’ve got line of sight to the cliffs on the other side of Lo Dalam.”
“You couldn’t see that before?”
“No way. It was solid buildings. I think that white one you’re seeing that’s still left, I think it’s a ruin. I’m not sure.”
“You haven’t been ashore since it happened?”
“Ashore? At Tonsai? You think I’m nuts?”
“Is it that bad?”
“I hear it’s like a war zone. Dead bodies everywhere. Disease. Garbage. It’s one big trash heap. The whole place smells disgusting, I’m told.”
“I’m hoping to stay overnight there, tonight.”
“You are crazy. Don’t do it! Why would you want to go to Tonsai?”
“Well, their economy could really use some tourists don’t you think?”
“Their economy? They don’t have an economy. The town is gone. Like I said, all that’s left is one big garbage heap. You couldn’t pay me enough money to go there. Why would you want to go someplace where they’re still finding dead bodies?”
“Actually,” said Karl, joining us at the rail and overhearing the conversation, “I’m told they haven’t found any new bodies for a couple of weeks. I think that’s over.”
“OK,” said Rachel, “body parts then.”
Another member of the staff joined us, and he had an opinion as well.
“It’s been several days since they’ve found any body parts,” he noted. “You know they brought in those Norwegians with their dogs…”
“Norwegians with dogs?” I asked, confused at the turn in the conversation.
“Yeah, apparently the Norwegians have these expert teams that specialize in recovering victims from a disaster. Their dogs are trained to find bodies and body parts. So the Norwegians sent some of these teams over, and they’ve been operating on Phi Phi.”
“Jacques wants to spend the night there,” noted Rachel.
“Hey, someone’s got to help get Phi Phi’s economy going again!” I protested.
“But the hotels are all gone,” noted the newcomer.
“I’ve heard there might be a couple open. I’ll sleep on the beach if I have to. I can’t believe a tourist can’t find something there to spend money on.”
“Well, you could probably find someone to give you a Thai massage,” grinned Rachel.
“No. I won’t go that far.”
“I don’t mean sex! The Thai massages are real massages.”
“I don’t mean sex either! I despise massages. If I have to, if it’s the only way I can help, I’ll pay someone not to give me a massage!”
They thought that funny, but suddenly the captain was signaling we needed to get ready for our first dive. We’d been cruising down the eastern side of Phi Phi Ley—the uninhabited smaller island just to the south of ‘Don. Soon we’d be at it’s southern tip, and apparently that’s where we’d anchor and dive. On a large boat with twenty divers and four staff members, this caused an explosion of activity. There were masks to defog. Weight belts to organize. Fins to don. BC’s to climb into. Pressure gauges to check. Regulators to test. And so forth. We all knew what we were doing. No students on this dive. And we set about it like a crack team of Navy SEALS. Plus one out-of-condition, middle-aged office worker. Yet I find I look much sleeker once I’ve donned my wetsuit. And if I, and my wetsuit, weren’t quite enough to catch the eye of any of the bikini-clad Scandinavian super-models that comprised half the passenger list, it was only because they were too busy with their own equipment.
While all this had been going on, the boat crew had anchored the vessel in what must have been fairly deep water, judging by the landforms all around us. There were two rocky limestone outcroppings of rock here, just off the southern tip of Phi Phi Ley. There were no other dive boats about, so we had this venue all to ourselves. We paired off into buddy teams, entered the water with giant strides off the back deck, and with little ado disappeared beneath the waves.
I don’t remember much about the diving. The water was moderately clear. The coral was pretty good but not spectacular. The fish were quite nice, but hardly Caribbean class. Our maximum depth was 65 feet, and I managed to keep my air supply going for 45 minutes. Soon we were back aboard and heading to the next dive site.
The Rung Warawan Sip now cruised northwards up the western side of Phi Phi Ley. More boats had appeared on the scene: dive boats like our own, plus the usual complement of long-tails that appeared ubiquitous everywhere in Thailand.
Karl joined me again at the rail. “Notice how there are almost no long-tails about?” he queried.
“What do you mean. They’re everywhere!”
“No, there’s only a handful. Like right now there are only maybe, what, two or three in sight? Before the tsunami, there would have been twenty or thirty.”
“Were they all destroyed?”
“Many were. But that wouldn’t stop them. They’d come in from other areas. The problem is that they serve the tourist trade. And the tourists are all gone. No tourists. No long-tails. They must have all gone to Phuket or something.”
For the second dive, we anchored just outside the entrance to what seemed to be a small cove. On this side of the island the cliffs rose up almost vertically out of the sea. A narrow gap guarded the entrance to the cove, which appeared to broaden out once past this headland. A sliver of white sand beach could be seen at the far end of it. A few boats were already anchored in this cove, and long-tails roared in and out of it as well.
“That’s Maya Beach,” said Rachel, joining me at the long table where a light buffet luncheon was being served.”
“Oh, you mean, as in…?”
“Right. Maya Beach is ‘The Beach’. Leonardo di Caprio and so forth. I haven’t seen the movie, but that’s where it was filmed.
“I haven’t seen it either. I guess I need to now.”
“That whole area was just trash,” noted Karl who was walking past and overhearing our conversation. “Milk cartons, debris, it was terrible. The tsunami cleaned everything out. Apparently the same thing happened all over southern Thailand. There used to be trash everywhere. Not any more. “
“Where did it go?”
“Who knows? Maybe the tsunami sucked it back into the sea or something. But everything is now clean again—back to nature.”
After lunch, and an appropriate interval for resting, we donned our equipment again and made our second dive—this one just outside the entrance to the Maya Beach cove. I don’t remember much about this one either. It was similar to the first in terms of coral and visibility and fish and so forth. But in fact this was an important dive for me. This was my 82nd dive—and as such it filled up my dive book. The pride that comes from filling up one’s first dive log book is no doubt misplaced. By any objective measure it’s less meaningful even than getting a Cambodia passport stamp. But I did feel pride. My first dive logbook. I’d purchased it in Portsea, Australia, back in 1989. And now—sigh—it was filled…
I needed to get a life.
* * *
It was 1:30 p.m. when I was deposited on the dock at Tonsai, Phi Phi Don. I had my daypack, my two bottles of water, my Lonely Planet guide to Southern Thailand, and not much else. Not even my laptop. My first challenge, obviously, was to try to find a place to collect email. No, no. That was in a prior life. Here, my first challenge was to find a place to stay.
A young Thai woman came rushing down the pier, seeing that “Hmmm, where should I spend the night” look. She recognized a tourist when she saw one. They used to come here frequently.
She came up to me smiling and said “You need hotel? I find you good hotel. Good plice!”
We were at the end of the pier, which reached far into the bay. Behind this young woman was utter devastation. It’s true that the condo-like building I’d seen from a distance was simply a ruin. The plaster walls were still there, but everything was hideously canted, and there were so many big cracks I wouldn’t have wanted to stand near in fear lest it disintegrate. And there was nothing other than walls. Everything else, from front to back, was gone. You could see through it—right out the back. This structure was the main thing visible to the right of the pier, looking towards shore. To the left of the pier there was simply…nothing. Even some of the palm trees were broken off. And all along the beach it was merely trash and debris.
“You need hotel? I find you hotel, good plice!” she assured me again.
The first thought in my mind was that I was dealing with some kind of mental case, a victim of the tsunami who’d lost her mind and was now delusional—totally in denial. She was offering to find me good hotels, and good prices. And behind her—plain for anyone to see—was a town utterly demolished and most of it completely swept away.
But then I noticed she was holding up something for me to see. It was a large square of cardboard on which little hotel brochures had been taped. It was a prop that had predated and somehow survived the tsunami—an easy means for one of these ‘touts” to communicate with the tourist. Each brochure showed little pictures of the property, along with gushing comments beloved by advertising copyrighters. What gave the whole thing instant credibility was the fact that of the dozen or so hotels showcased in this way, ten of the brochures had large X’s over them—crossed off with a black marker. These, apparently, no longer existed. But there were two remaining—two not crossed off. One of these was the Phi Phi Viewpoint that I’d noted previously in Lonely Planet. The other I didn’t recognize.
“Phi Phi Viewpoint hotel—it’s open?”
“Yes, is open! Good plice!”
Right. I’d braved every hardship. Overcome every obstacle, to arrive at this tropical island disaster area, and this young woman was of the opinion that I was looking for good value in a hotel selection? Was she nuts! Did she think I was going to start haggling with her on the spot? If I’d done so it would have been like a scene from a Monty Python movie: Western tourist haggling price for a hotel room with a young Asian woman, on a pier, while behind them was nothing but a destroyed village.
“I want to stay in this hotel,” I said, pointing to the PP Viewpoint. “Can we go there?”
“Yes. Can go there. You come with me. Where is luggage?”
“No luggage. Just this.” I turned slightly, revealing the small daypack.
“Yes, but where you luggage?”
“This is all I have.”
“No luggage? That all? That you luggage?” This obviously competent and enthusiastic hotel reservations agent could handle a tsunami. But a western tourist arriving with so little luggage was almost debilitating. Finally I convinced her it was all I had, and she began leading me down the pier towards the shore. She was probably thinking: “How can he stay here for three months with no luggage?”
Apparently I wouldn’t have to sleep on the beach tonight afterall. Like a few hidden embers remaining from a campfire doused with water (an apt simile), a fragment of Phi Phi’s tourist industry was still smoldering, refusing to be snuffed out. Most everything else had been.
A few, heavily-damaged buildings were still standing. Many more were rubble—like something out of the German blitz against London in the ‘40’s. The whole western half of the Isthmus seemed to be just clear sand and small pieces of debris. Didn’t there used to be a town there as well? About half the palm trees were snapped off. Piles of refuse and debris were all along the waterfront. The beach itself was a mess: looking like a tornado in Kansas had picked up an entire house and frappe’d it into kindling and then strewn the pieces evenly over this stretch of sand. Thai villagers scurried about, carrying things, going places, obviously employed in an infinity of tasks.
It was difficult to know the etiquette of the situation. On the one hand I was a tourist, just off a boat, being escorted to a nearby hotel. A very normal situation in other words. Yet all around me was utterly calamity. Was I supposed to ignore that fact? Make a brief mention of it? Ask a stupid question?
If, for example, I’d arrived in a town where the streets and sidewalks were all wet, it might be appropriate to say: “So, looks like y’all had some rain today, huh?” It would almost be impolite to not do so, just for conversation. What was I supposed to do here?
“So, looks like y’all had a tsunami come through here recently. How about that?”
Which would be idiotic. But anything I said would be idiotic.
“Wow, looks like a lot of damage!”
“Ya know, this place is a mess, ain’t it?”
“Having a good day?”
I considered and discarded these and many more, until finally realizing I didn’t have to make conversation. I could appear aloof and mysterious. If she wanted to discuss the weather, the tsunami, whatever, I was happy to oblige. But damned if I’d open my mouth first and put my foot in it.
The problem of making conversation resolved itself neatly. When we reached solid ground—one might say, solid sand—she handed me off to a young Thai boy with a strange motorized contraption. It was a motorbike with a side-wheel. And on this side-wheel was a kind of wooden platform, about three feet square, and obviously used for hauling luggage for tourists. He spoke no English, but was very fluent with hand signals. Motioning me onto the platform, he indicated I could sit on the fender. He started up the engine—put-put-put—and immediately we were moving away from the pier. In general it appeared that to our left was mere sand and debris. To our right was the collapsed condominium, and—it seemed—more such structures in a similar state. The Thai boy headed us to the left, into the sand area, apparently with an eye to skirting around the ruined and collapsed buildings. But in doing this he immediately became stuck in the soft sand. There was no road here, that was the problem. We both hopped off and pushed the three-wheeled scooter to firmer ground, and started off again.
At first we headed north, across the Isthmus itself. After leaving behind the collapsed and ruined buildings near the dock, we emerged into a broad area where there was simply nothing but debris strewn randomly on the sand, and broken off palm trees. Had this part of the town truly been vaporized—swept out to sea? Perhaps so. Nearing the opposite shore, which I knew was Ao Dalam Beach, we turned east. Our motorbike was now on a road of sorts, but it was really just heavily indented tracks in the sand. So much traffic had come here that it had compressed itself down to serving as at least a navigable artery, if nothing more.
This northern half of the Isthmus was entirely empty. A pair of small tractors were bustling about, perhaps doing useful work but it was difficult to see what, exactly. Maybe they were just trying to level off the sand, or something. The demarkation line between this empty sand, and the reamins of Tonsai on the southern part of the isthmus, was marked by utterly ruined structures—usually two stories—in various stages of destruction ranging from completely collapsed to broken in half to missing two or three of their outer walls.
I was very glad the Thai boy didn’t speak English, as it would have been another awkward conversation.
“Used to be a town here, huh?”
“Tsunamis come here often?”
“So, I guess now you have a water view in both directions!”
I don’t mean to make light of it. I was just finding it an “emperor has no clothes situation.” I wanted to grab these people and shake them and say “How can you just carry on as you’re doing—offering hotels to tourists, escorting tourists to their hotels, as if nothing has happened—when all around you is utter chaos and destruction. You should be weeping, or in shock, or be totally unable to cope, or…most anything except this macabre ‘normalcy’.
Yet then I remembered why I was here, and the role I was supposed to play. I was here to help get the tourist economy going again. I was here to be a tourist. It was altogether right and proper that I be met at the dock and offered a choice of hotels. (OK, only two.) My luggage was now being regally carried for me. I was being escorted to the hotel, where I would no doubt tip the one doing the escorting.
If I was specifically here to be a tourist, how could I possibly find fault with them for trying to cater to my needs and behave normally? That’s what they were supposed to be doing. They certainly knew their roles. Why was I having trouble with mine?
Of course the emperor had no clothes. Of course the whole place looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it. Of course it was ridiculous that someone had offered me a choice of two (remaining) hotels and had emphasized “good plice” to try to clinch the deal. This was what they were desperate to do. This was what they had always done. This was their first step back on the road to recovery.
Yet it was going to be a long road. The place was pitiful. As a tourist destination it ranked somewhere below the typical town dump. But by ignoring this, by studiously considering the hotels and then choosing one, by allowing oneself to be regally escorted in a motor vehicle to this hotel…I was—on some modest level—helping them get back their dignity, or at least their attempt to return to normalcy.
Maybe the Wall Street Journal was right. They don’t need aid. They need economic activity. Then I looked around again. No, this place needed aid. Maybe aid plus economic activity. But they needed aid most of all. Of course I had not the benefit of knowing the “before” picture, so I didn’t really understand how bad it was. But from what I’d seen so far, it appeared that approximately one fourth of the town was heavily damaged possibly past the point of salvage. Much of it would have to be torn down and rebuilt. One fourth.
Three fourths of the town had been wiped off the face of the earth.
We’d reached the end of the Isthmus of sand, and from here onwards the eastern part of the island rose up in mountainous terrain. This was the beginning of Ko Nai, or “Inner Island.” A little stream, with steep banks, formed the demarcation line, and this was our next obstacle to cross. No doubt a bridge of sorts had once made this crossing easy, but the bridge was gone. A crew of half a dozen Thai men were hard at work creating a new bridge out of concrete blocks and timbers and such. On an interim basis, a precarious little walkway of 2×6 planking spanned the small chasm. Obviously the motorbike could go no farther. We climbed out, and my young guide insisted—insisted—on carrying my lightweight daypack. It probably represented five percent of my body weight, and hence was undetectable once slung over my shoulders. Yet it probably equaled a fourth of this young boy’s body weight, and hence no doubt represented a terrible burden. It was one he insisted on bearing, and so I let him. As we climbed up from the ravine, the walkway itself became better established. Clearly, we were rising above the highest reaches of the tsunami. As we emerged on to the PP Viewpoint’s grounds themselves, true normalcy did reassert itself. The terrain was still very mountainous, such that the entire property was perched on almost a forty five degree slope. As the guidebook had said, there was no large structure here. Rather there were bungalows on short stilts, doting the hillside over a couple of acres. The “check in desk” was no more than that: a desk, under an awning, not otherwise connecting to a building of any kind. There was a small pool here, and an outdoor bar right beside it. Yet no one was using either
An elderly Thai man appeared from somewhere, eager to play his own role in receiving a hotel guest. In broken English, he explained my options. The standard bungalows were 600 baht per night (about $14.00). If I wanted air-conditioning, it would be 800 baht (about $19.00).
Were they crazy? Now far above the tsunami damage, the PP Viewpoint resort totally lived up to its name. If one gazed out to the west, the view was utterly magnificent. There was Ko Nok (outer island), rising up from the sea even more mountainous than the terrain we were on. The beach itself was laid before us like a Thanksgiving feast. And the lovely Ao Dalam bay was breathtaking—especially with the inverted mushroom islands rising out of it, coated, as always, in their soft velvety-green vegetation. The view alone was worth $300. And the surcharge for air-conditioning? Priceless.
The temperature stood at 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity—if there had been a humidity gauge—would have been unreadable because any humidity guage would have exploded.
Well, that’s probably an exaggeration. To a resident of Summit County, Colorado, it merely felt like 130 degrees. It was probably no more than 120.
“I’d like one with air conditioning,” I indicated.
“Would you like to see the room?” he asked, in broken English and fluent hand signals.
Well of course I did. I’d learned how to play the game. The game was “help them re-establish a sense of normalcy.”
He handed a set of keys to young-Thai-boy who now served as bellman, escorting me to inspect one of the bungalows and determine if it was satisfactory. None of these people realized that less than an hour ago I’d not known if I was going to have to sleep on the beach tonight. The idea of an air conditioned private bungalow with spectacular views was as unreal as everything else.
The door was unlocked and I glanced around. Yep. Pretty much what I expected. Modern accoutrements, air-conditioning, breathtaking views, color TV, king size bed, private bath. Yeah, I might just possibly be able to make this work. I asked Thai boy to hold on a moment, while I re-arranged my pack. I needed to leave here the things I would not need for my activities this afternoon. This required only a few moments, and then we’d locked up the bungalow and were heading back to the “front desk”.
The elderly Thai desk clerk had been replaced by someone very different.
“Hi, I’m Evan,” he said, offering his hand. “Is the room OK then?”
Evan was tall, blond, handsome, and well built. I guessed perhaps thirty-something. I couldn’t quite place the accent. But obviously he was Swedish.
“It’s a great room. Do you take Visa?” He did.
“Are you Swedish?” I asked.
“No. I’m from Vancouver.”
“Yes, but I’ve been here over twenty years.”
There was such an infinity of topics here to pursue, that I decided it best to not walk down that road at all, and stayed silent while he ran the Visa. I remembered, again that this was all about trying to re-establish a sense of normalcy. By all means, let’s run the Visa. Let’s see if it’s Approved or Declined. And meanwhile let’s just not mention anything about the fact that down below on that isthmus of sand, an entire town has been annihilated and thousands killed.
“So,” he asked, politely inquiring as a good hotelier should, “do you have plans for what you’re going to do here?”
“I thought I might try to rent a long-tail boat and go snorkeling down at Maya Beach, on Phi Phi Ley.”
My thinking was that even though I’d been diving at Maya Beach, I’d only seen it from a distance—outside the bay itself. Hiring a long-tail boat would pump more money into the economy, plus let me actually visit the beach, which seemed worth doing if they’d named a whole movie after it..
“That’s an excellent idea,” agreed Evan.
“Do you know where I might rent snorkeling gear?”
“We have snorkeling gear right here. It’s free for the guests.
“He produced a large plastic crate filled with masks, fins, and snorkels. I rummaged around a bit and quickly found what I needed.
“Do you want to go now?”
“Yes, I assume I can walk back to the pier and organize something.”
“I’ll come with you. We can ride in the motor scooter.”
Thai boy hadn’t left yet, and he was quite willing to have two passengers on the return trip. Soon we were underway, having crossed the bridge again and crammed all three of us on to the strange contraption. With the added weight, we bogged down occasionally in the sand, and when we did we’d all jump off and push through it.
I was surprised Evan was coming with me, but I’d decided not to question this or anything else—until I was more sure of my bearings. Evan was very polite and very friendly, yet somewhat withdrawn—as if he were trying to be helpful but his mind was elsewhere. Yet it was too long a journey to pass in silence—especially with someone who spoke English as a native language.
I made the first, cautious probings and the story came out quickly enough. He was the owner of the Phi Phi Viewpoint hotel. He had in fact been in this area for twenty years—since he was eighteen. In addition to English, he spoke Thai fluently, as well as Malay, plus another dialect spoken among the natives in extreme southern Thailand, plus Swedish. Well, with all that seasoning, no wonder his English seemed a bit spiced with something.
In addition to the hotel, he had recently opened a PADI 5-star dive facility in Tonsai.
“Right over there,” he pointed. “That’s where it was.” He was pointing towards a section of bare sand, about half way between the southern and northern sides of the isthmus.
Cautiously, I opened up the question of the tsunami, and what had happened exactly.
“Were you here when it happened?”
“Yes, I was down on the beach at Lo Dalang, with some friends. My wife was with me. We were just enjoying the beach. It wasn’t a very good place to be.”
“And what happened, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“No, it’s OK. We were down on the beach. We’d seen all this water start to flow across the isthmus from Tonsai and we had no idea what was going on. Then we looked towards the entrance of the bay, to the north, and we couldn’t believe it.”
“What did you see?”
“It was just a huge wall of water, like a hundred feet high maybe. At least that’s what it looked like There was no way to escape or get away from it. It was coming too fast. My wife, my friends and I—six of us—we didn’t know what to do. We just stared at it, and just held hands. Like that would help. But we didn’t know what else to do but hold hands, and so that’s what we did, while we looked up at this wall of water…”
Our 3-person motorbike was deftly navigating the perils of this sand roadway, bouncing around as it hit irregularities in the surface and causing all of us to have to hold on to stay inboard, while Evan recounted his story. I was mesmerized.
“And then it hit. I don’t remember what happened then. I was under the water and pulled around. I couldn’t control anything. I tried to hold my breath. Finally everything clamed down but I couldn’t get to the surface. I was under some kind of wreckage and everything was dark. I didn’t even know which way to go to get away from the wreckage or get to the surface. I think I was probably only a few seconds from drowning. But somehow one of my arms reached the surface and someone floating on the wreckage saw the arm. He reached under and grabbed my arm and pulled me out from it all. If he hadn’t been there, if he hadn’t seen my arm, I know I would have drowned. But I was OK. I had a few scrapes and so forth…
The power of the narrative was pulling me along, inexorably. I didn’t want to, but I had to ask the question, even though I braced for the answer—physically stiffened my body in anticipation of the answer I knew would be unbearable.
“…And your wife?”
“She survived. She’s still in the hospital, she was hurt so badly, but she’ll be OK. She’ll be getting out soon. She’s fine.”
I could breathe again.
“And your friends…?”
“They’re dead. They all drowned.”
This left me speechless, but I refused to be speechless. Somewhere, from some reservoir of compassion, I found the right thing to say.
“I’m so sorry.”
Well, we’d gone way beyond hotel guest and hotel owner. We both knew the emperor had no clothes, and the façade was now gone. I tried to move the conversation to a more neutral, matter-of-fact level.
“I’ve never before been to Phi Phi so I don’t know quite what I’m seeing. This whole sand area, what was it before?”
“Oh, it was all buildings. What you see there at Tonsai, all those ruined buildings—it was that kind of buildings everywhere, all over this area.
“And so this sand…it was all built up here”? A village?”
“Yes, completely . It was probably overbuilt. Everything on the Isthmus. It’s completely gone. There is just sand now, where before it was hotels and restaurants and dive shops and so forth. My dive shop—there’s not even a trace of it left. Where it was, there is just sand…”
“What will you do?”
“I’ll stay here. I’ll rebuild. Look, I survived. I didn’t drown. My wife didn’t drown. What does a stupid dive shop matter compared to that? Of course I’ll stay. So many of the people here, they lost everything: their loved ones, their relatives, their businesses. I just lost a dive shop. I can manage.”
* * *
We’d returned now, to the dock area, and the chaos and debris were not quite as shocking as before. Evan explained that he’d come with me to help organize a long-tail boat.
“I really appreciate the help, but I don’t mean to impose. You must have more important things to do.”
“It’s OK. I used to do this all the time—help the guests with stuff like this. It’s nice to have a guest at the hotel again. Also, I’ve heard that they’re overcharging.”
“Yeah, they’ve jacked the prices up for a Maya Beach tour. I don’t want you to get ripped off.”
“Well, how much is it supposed to cost?”
I realized I had no idea how much it would cost to rent a long-tail boat for a few hours.
“600 baht. But I hear they’re trying to charge 800.”
800 baht was about $19.00
“Why are they charging more?”
“So many of the long-tail boats got destroyed in the tsunami, those that are left, they’ve jacked the price up.”
I was tempted to give Evan the benefit of an economics lecture about supply and demand, and the fact that if the supply of long-tails was down, and the market would bear it, they of course should increase the price. Duh. And the higher prices would then help encourage new boats to be built or come here from other areas—thus balancing supply and demand. That’s how markets were supposed to work. Evan seemed to think the price increase was some kind of evil profiteering. But I kept my thoughts to myself. I didn’t wish to be rude.
Evan began negotiating with one of the long-tail drivers, in fluent Thai, and then turned back to me.
“Yeah, it’s what I was afraid of. He wants 800 baht.”
Surrounding us was a scene of utter destruction: ripped apart palm trees, demolished buildings, long-tail boats broken in half. And this poor guy was simply trying to charge a couple dollars more than the “standard rate”. Evan was clearly apologetic—as if he’d failed to protect an important guest.
“Tell him I’ll pay 900 baht. Not a single baht less. That’s my final offer.”
“What! You want to pay more than he’s asking!”
“And tell him I tip well, too.”
Looking at me in astonishment, but seeing my determination, suddenly Evan got it.
“I’m just not in the mood to haggle,” I explained, gesturing at everything around us.
“Oh. Of course. Yes, I understand…”
Then Evan turned and explained all this to the long-tail driver. The big smile that broke out on his face, and his bowing and placing his hands together in thanks, was worth a thousand baht just in itself. Yet I felt guilty. I didn’t deserve such thanks. I was only paying a few dollars more than the “standard rate”. It was trivial. Then I realized that the long-tail driver was seeing this as more than a few extra dollars. He understood the gesture itself: coming to this ruined village in the first place, and then deliberately overpaying for services. It was a form of aid, yet it was no handout. It was not charity. It was subtly different. And that is what he appreciated.
The long-tail boat—with me the only passenger—roared out of Ao Tonsai, as if eager to flee the chaos. I’d been on the island barely an hour, yet I couldn’t deny a sense of relief at leaving as well. Rounding the southern tip of Ko Nok (outer island) we headed down the west coast of Phi Phi Ley—retracing the journey of our dive boat. There was only a low swell to the sea, and the long-tail boat cut through the water effortlessly, its bow rising up and crashing elegantly into each wave, the customary bright red ribbon, tied to the bowpiece, flapping violently in the wind. The tall limestone cliffs of Phi Phi Ley, covered in that mossy-green vegetation, rose up almost vertically out of the water, hundreds of feet high, looking like something from another planet. The journey in this direction took only twenty minutes, before we were turning into Maya Bay itself.
I was regretting not having seen the movie. Karl had mentioned something about how, with digital film editing, they’d made the entrance to the bay appear so narrow as to be almost invisible from the sea—the cliff walls encircling the bay, and overlapping at the entrance. In reality the entrance was a good hundred yards wide although, just inside, the bay curved to the right such that the most of the beach itself and much of the sheltered water was in fact invisible from the sea. Hollywood movies aside, Maya Bay had historically been a pirate lair, and obviously a well-hidden one.
The scenery was spectacular. The verticality of the walls continued inside the cove. They were at least three hundred feet high, maybe more, and even a skilled techincal rock climber would find them intimidating. The beach—or perhaps I should say “The Beach” formed a crescent of brilliant white sand at the far end of the cove, and beyond was jungle, rising up more gradually to what might be a “pass” or valley leading away from the water. Truly, a Hollywood film director would have fun with this place.
Anchored just inside the bay were half a dozen other boats: small to medium-size excursion vessels from the mainland. In the water beside the largest was a strange disturbance on the surface which I finally realized was a group of several dozen snorkelers, their fins beating the water, and their heads bobbing up and down. I asked my driver to take me near and soon I was over the side and had joined them with my own snorkel gear. Someone on board their mother ship was tossing bread crumbs into the water which was causing feeding-frenzy explosions of those brightly colored fish known as Yellowtails. Yet on some level it was us snorkelers who were the most frenzied of all, as we swam around and among the fish and got quite caught up in the action.
Eventually tiring of this I climbed back aboard my long-tail and the driver motored to our final destination: the sand beach itself. As I’d noticed at Ao Nang, ocean-going long-tail boats have a deep enough draft that they ground themselves before reaching shore. Thus I had to clumsily disembark by rolling off the gunwales into the water, and then walking up onto the sand. There were only two long-tails here. The other vessels—which had managed to drive up on to the sand—were modern, sleek high-speed motorboats in the 25-foot range. They bore advertising identification on the outside, saying things like “Phi Phi Tours” and bearing Phuket addresses. Each of these had disgorged a dozen or so passengers who now were spread out on the sand, more or less near the boat which had brought them. Yet The Beach was in no way crowded. Perhaps 300 meters long it provided abundant space for the half dozen excursion boats and their guests. Karl had insisted tourism was down over 90% from normal, and I tried to imagine what this now world-famous beach would have been like before the tsunami—a zoo, obviously.
I walked the full length a couple times, took pictures, explored the jungle a bit that rose up behind the beach, read my novel for a few minutes while lying in the sand, and then decided I’d done all one can do at Maya Beach. Perhaps Leonardo di Caprio had been more creative.
Climbing back into the long-tail, we were soon off again.
For scenery, I’d rate Maya Beach a 10. For sand, a 10. For snorkeling, a 10. But the real problem with Maya Beach is that there are no waves. Trick cinematography or not, the opening to the cove is fairly narrow, and the shape of the bay ensures that any waves that do come in will never make it to the beach itself. Thus the water is as gentle as a small pond on a windless day. And to my mind, the whole point of a beach is to be able to play in the surf, including building sand candles and watching them get destroyed. A beach with no waves at all? I could not abide it.
Before departing Tonsai, Evan had explained that when one rents a long-tail and is taken to Maya Bay, the standard trip includes circumnavigating all of Phi Phi Ley, and making a few other stops as well. This was similar to what I’d already done in the dive boat, but I was in no hurry to return to the despair of Tonsai, nor did I have the ability to communicate to the Thai-speaking driver any agenda change.
So as we emerged back into the Andaman Sea we turned left. Our first stop was near the south end of the island, where the driver produced another very hidden cove with beautiful scenery, beautiful beach, etc. Yet this one had never appeared in a film and so no one cared about it and I had it all to myself. I snorkeled a bit more, since it was so obviously expected of me, and then it was off again up the east coast of Phi Phi Ley.
As we cruised past the soaring cliffs which guard Phi Phi Ley in all directions, I’d occasionally see—high up on the rock walls—what were obviously caves, and rickety, primitive ladders leading up to them. These were nothing more than sticks tied together obviously with some local material, perhaps palm fronds. It was frightening, thinking of actually climbing such a precarious device, but on the other hand it was probably not dangerous. If one slipped, or if the ladder broker (both highly likely events) one would simply fall a hundred feet into the ocean.
One cave we passed was actually just above water level, and apparently people lived inside this cave. I could see a great deal of infrastructure, all of it built with that same stick-and-palm-frond technique. A few elderly women gazed out with minimal curiosity, but most of the population was apparently off working.
The long-tail driver tried to explain to me who these people were, and what the caves and ladders were all about, using hand signals. But it was too complex a subject for hand signals. Fortunately, I’d already read about these people in Lonely Planet, so was able to nod my head and confirm to my driver that I understood perfectly everything he was saying. Specifically, this was Viking Cave, and the people who lived here and had built these ladders were the collectors of bird nests, used in Birds Nest Soup, a Chinese delicacy. As we drove back to Tonsai, I re-read those sections.
“The other important sight on Phi Phi Ley is Viking Cave (Tham Phaya Naak), at the northeastern tip of the island. The cave takes its name from the primitive images of Asian junks and other ships on the walls, painted by chao naam fishermen over the last 400 years. The cave walls and surrounding cliffs are covered in rickety bamboo gantries used to harvest sea swallow nests for bird’s nest soup. (See inset box, page 53) Viking Cave has some dramatic limestone structures, including a towering three-tiered crystal cascade and a vast stalagmite, worshipped as a phallus shrine. But the smell of guano is pretty strong so you may not want to linger.”
The inset box provided much more detail:
THE MOST VALUABLE SPIT IN THE WORLD
It may not sound the most appetizing dish, but soup made from nests of the sea swallow (also known as the edible-nest swiftlet) is a popular Chinese delicacy. The nests are formed from strands of saliva secreted by the male swallows, which harden on contact with the air and are woven into cup-shaped nests on the walls of limestone caves and cliffs. To make soup, dried nests are boiled in chicken broth, causing the strands to separate and soften, the end result is a little like bean thread noodles.
Although there is no real medical evidence, the saliva broth is widely believed to increase the sex drive…
Those Chinese men are just always trying to increase their sex drive. If they can’t get rhino horn, apparently, the next best thing is swallow’s nests. Obviously it works. The Chinese population is soaring.
“…improve the skin, and reduce the risk of lung disease. Because of this, the market for nests is huge and harvesting the nests has become a multimillion-dollar industry. A single kilo of nests—also known as ‘white gold’ – can sell for US$2500 and Thailand exports around 9,000kg of nests every year, collected from caves and cliffs in Phang Nga Bay.
Collecting the nests is a dangerous business. During the harvest season, barefoot villagers mount precarious scaffolds of bamboo canes lashed together to collect the nests from the walls of caves and cliffs. Few use safety equipment, relying instead on offerings of incense, alcohol, and tobacco to the phii (spirits)( who protect the caves, and there are several deaths every harvest season.
OK, I was wrong. Apparently it is dangerous.
Many nest companies employ armed mercenaries to scare off anyone who threatens their profits, including government officials and tour operators. Turf wars between nest-collecting cartels and village poachers are common. With all this money at stake, overharvesting is a growing problem, and the swiftlet has been considered for inclusion on the Endangered Species list. In response, several nest companies have established bird’s nest farms, where swiftlets are lured into abandoned buildings using taped recordings of waterfalls and birdsong.
It was yet another reminder that the world’s economy is a vast and complex thing. I would never have imagined that there were people who—for a living—tricked swallows into building nests, by playing recorded sounds of waterfalls. I mean, you never hear kids talking about what they’re going to be when they grow up, and hear one of them say: “To heck with being a fireman or astronaut, when I grow up I’m going to trick swallows into building nests by playing waterfall sounds.” But clearly some had done just that.
* * *
Back at Tonsai, I tipped the driver another 100 baht, and set out to explore on my own. From what I’d seen so far, here was the situation. The 200-yard wide Isthmus which separated the two bays, had been heavily built up, covering an area that approximated a square. On the northern half of this square, the half facing Ao Lo Dalam where the giant wave had hit, there was nothing. This was the area we’d motor-scooted through on the way to the hotel. There was sand, and there were palm trees. Half the palm trees had been snapped off and were just forlorn sticks about ten feet high. Any sign that it had once been inhabited, let alone built up, was gone.
Of the remaining half of the square, the southern half, it’s reasonably accurate to say that the western part, in other words the southwest quadrant if we divide the square into fourths, was also wiped clean. So, three fourths of the town were truly, as Kiko said back in Bangkok…gone. But the remaining piece, the southeast quadrant was very much not gone. It was merely in ruins. No, that’s too strong. Some of it was in ruins. Other parts were “heavily damaged.” So might the area look had a category six hurricane come through here recently. Predictably, structures facing the water, the southern bay, were most damaged. One two-story hotel (I guessed it had been a hotel, but that was just speculation) had it’s basic concrete structure still standing, but you could see right through it. It was like a honeycomb, with all the honey removed. And the whole matrix was tilting about ten degrees off vertical. The wave had clearly swept right through and everything not part of the concrete frame had vanished. For a moment, I tried to visualize what that must have been like for the people inside the rooms—but finally gave up. It was too far outside my experience to even form a mental image.
Some buildings had sustained much less damage. Some seemed almost unaffected. At least one was completely gone. A small bulldozer was busy at work in a half-acre plot, and the plot was almost completely cleared of debris. But—surrounded as it was by other buildings—obviously there had once been a building here. It was a small brick street I was walking on, which paralleled the south bay approximately one block inland. It was about twenty feet wide, probably not big enough for cars, and in fact cars would have been of no use on Phi Phi Don. 99% of the population and infrastructure had been located on this small isthmus of sand. The three-wheeled motor-scooters were probably all that had ever been needed for transportation—and those only for when it was necessary to haul cargo, such as suitcases for tourists. For most other purposes, you could easily have walked everywhere.
So these narrow brick streets were entirely sufficient—in fact quite lavish for pedestrian traffic which is what they carried now. Surrounding me was a beehive of activity. Everyone was either walking somewhere, hauling something somewhere, pushing a wheelbarrow or cart, raking up debris, driving a bulldozer (there were several on the island), or—and this was rarest of all—standing in a shop that was open for business, and waiting for customers.
It was quite eerie. 95% of the structures were heavily damaged and whatever businesses they’d housed were either obviously closed, or totally vaporized (like the hotel.) Five percent were either not damaged, or whatever damage had occurred had been fixed and the business was open again. Most of these were small open-air shops, with no wall facing the street. I wondered if they’d always been open-air shops, but they were certainly so now. There was a small convenience store, selling water, bread, and items like this. Farther down the street was a t-shirt shop. Another was a swimsuit store, apparently specializing in bikinis—with the little mannequins out front sporting sexy bikinis, and a couple of sales girls sitting inside, ready and eager to help any customer who walked in.
But the whole thing was ridiculous because of course there weren’t any customers. I was the only tourist on the island. Then I remembered that earlier in the day the ferry from Ao Nang arrived, and passengers had an opportunity to disembark for an hour. Perhaps day trippers came here just to see for themselves what had happened to Phi Phi, and while walking around—much as I was doing—one might buy a bikini. It could happen.
I tried to get a sense of the “mood” of this village that was trying to rebuild itself. Were people laughing and working happily? Were they defeated? Were they angry? In despair? What exactly?
It was very much not a normal tourist-destination scene. No “touts” were running around trying to hawk uninspired merchandise; no aggressive shopkeepers, quick to smile and quicker to take your money; no energetic Asian community racing around in an entrepreneurial frenzy—all of which I’d seen in Krabi, Chanthaburi, and certainly Bangkok. On Phi Phi island, there was only one expression I could think of that described the mood, the overriding ambiance: shell-shocked. These people were stunned and in some ways beyond grief. It was a downcast look. It wasn’t sullen. It was more like they were a bit afraid of facing each new day, each new hour. Afraid of meeting someone’s eyes. Afraid of what might befall them next.
As if to underscore this, I noticed that the samples in the t-shirt shop all sported disaster themes. “Still Alive” were the words on one. “Tsunami Survivor” said another. And a third merely listed the calamities that had befallen them recently:
PHI PHI ISLAND, THAILAND
- Bomb Alert
- Bird Flu
I couldn’t decide if these disaster t-shirts were meant to be funny in a dark humor way, or if they were deadly serious. I decided that their creators weren’t quite sure about it either.
There was something conspicuously missing from the scene but at first I couldn’t place it. Then I realized. Where were the aid workers? Where were the Red Cross officials? Where were the international relief agencies? In Freetown, Sierra Leone, you couldn’t cross a street without one of the NGO vehicles almost running you over. The place was thick with aid workers—they formed a meaningful percentage of the population. Relief agency helicopters flitted about. Yet I’d been on this island a couple of hours now and had seen no formal relief help at all. Apparently it was the native Thai villagers themselves, and no one else, who were trying to put Phi Phi back together again.
Two signs stapled to a nearby telephone pole caught my attention.
One was from the Norwegian Police—the experts who’d been called in with their dogs to find bodies and body parts.
Notice from the Norwegian Police
- If you find body parts, LEAVE ALONE!
- Corner it off
- Leave somebody there
- Call on walkie talkie to base
Police will then attend scene of where body parts are.
Thanks for your cooperation.
And right below this sign was another one.
“Thanks for visiting Phi Phi. But don’t just be a disaster tourist,”
…it said, naming a species I’d never heard of before, but worried I might belong to. Presumably it would tell me how to avoid such an awful appellation.
“You can help Phi Phi in two ways.”
I read eagerly. That was why I was here, after all—to try to help.
The lack of visitors to the island has left the businesses in serious trouble.
Well, that plus having been mostly obliterated, I couldn’t help but say to myself, cynically.
Please buy from the locals. You make a big difference to Phi Phi by being a good tourist. Also, the Help Phi Phi shop has items salvaged from the Tsunami: 100% of the proceeds go straight back to the island and its community.
For all sorts of jobs…Especially long term, but day volunteers can always be put to use! Please see the office in Carlito’s Bar to sign up and give us your skills so that we can best allocate you to the relief effort.
This was followed by directions to Carlito’s bar, which appeared to be only a few minutes away.
Hmmm. So maybe that Wall Street Journal article wasn’t as accurate as I’d assumed. These people obviously weren’t turning away help, or suffering from a second tsunami of unwanted and unskilled aid workers. I walked swiftly to Carlito’s bar, or at least as swiftly as I could in light of the various distractions filling the roadway. Here came two wheelbarrows filled with debris, and I stepped back so as to avoid them. A small cart was piled with a dozen queen-sized mattresses, all in various stages of ruin and no doubt heading for the dump as well. At an intersecting street I nearly collided with two men pushing a large cart filled with piles of rusty scrap metal—twisted, burnt, mangled items sticking out in all directions, ready to inflict tetanus wounds on anyone foolish enough to come near. Scary.
I began to reconsider my description of the mood as “shell-shocked.” On one level, yes. But these people were East Asians, and that means—more than anything—hard workers. I contrasted the scene from what might be found in other cultures, Micronesia, for example, in the western Pacific. In Micronesia, many people just stand around all day and stare. For whatever historical reason, they never developed a work ethic. Maybe living in island paradises do that do you. But Phi Phi island was alive with bustling activity, despite all the justification in the world for these people to just lie down in despair and wait for the relief agencies to arrive. Maybe they’d tried that and realized the relief agencies weren’t coming.
As I continued my walk among the partially-ruined buildings, I was surprised to see how many signs—often crashed to the ground, or hanging precariously by one bolt—mentioned scuba diving. One such office, half destroyed, had once been a mega dive-center. This was a bit like walking through modern Rome and confronting frequently the evidence of an earlier, magnificent civilization—now in ruins: the Coliseum, the Forum, the Pantheon. Here it was places like this large, modern dive shop that provided glimpses into the vast tourist empire Phi Phi had once been.
I noticed a small table at the side of the road, and behind if were a couple of teenage boys selling CD’s and DVD’s. I remembered that one of the ways I avoided the appellation “disaster tourist” was to help out by buying from the locals. I glanced through the DVD’s and didn’t seen any I needed to own. Then I remembered. “Do you have “The Beach”? I asked, and one of them nodded. He found it quickly and handed it over.
I gave him 200 and refused change. No disaster tourist, I! Plus, a DVD movie for $3.00 wasn’t exactly exhorbitant. True, it was probably a bootlegged copy. But this place needed aid workers, not copyright lawyers.
Ah, here was Carlito’s bar. It was “open air” like most of the other shops along this walkway. A large sign hung from the ceiling, setting the tone for the place: “Carlito’s Bar – In Case of Fire, Pay Your Bill And Get The Hell Out!”
Someone had used a black magic marker to cross out the word “Fire” and substitute “Tsunami.” What was that line from the Jimmy Buffet song? “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.” They could still laugh, at Tonsai.
Several attractive young westerners were hanging around at the bar, but these at least weren’t laughing. They seemed quite weary. One young man had his head down on the bar itself, apparently asleep. The others were talking somberly—hardly the raucous good times that Carlito’s had probably once been known for.
Approaching from the street, I refused to let myself sink into their despondency.
“Hi! Is this where we come to help?” I asked, playing the part of a newcomer full of energy.
Several of them turned and looked at me. Two of them tried to smile.
“Yes, absolutely!” said the bartender, in a German or Swedish accent.
A young blonde woman sitting on one of the bar stools provided more information, also in a Swedish accent: “You need to talk to Susan. She’s next door, in that building there.
“Sorry if vee seem a little out of it,” she added. “Vee’ve been shoveling and cleaning all day, and vee never get much sleep at night.”
“I’d think you’d sleep very well at night. Why don’t you get much sleep?”
“Vee party all night. Vee unvind. If vee can’t party at night, vee can’t vork during the day.”
Sounded like another line Jimmy Buffet could use in a song. As if to underscore her point, another guy put his head down on his arms on the bar counter and closed his eyes.
Well, if I hung around here any longer I was going to fall asleep myself. I went next door and found Susan. It was unclear what this open-air space might once have contained, or what business purpose it might once have filled. But right now this was clearly Relief Central for the whole island. Large bulletin boards had been set up, on which had been affixed notices, safety instructions, lists of work-sites with corresponding names of people assigned to them, reference contact information, directions to the health clinic, and other such information.
Around the room were large, hastily-nailed-together plywood tables, creating a very workmanlike, no-nonsense environment. On these had been set cardboard boxes, and crates, containing various tools of the trade for the helpers: a large box of used work gloves, bottles of water, hand tools like hammers and saws, and other accoutrements.
On one wall had been taped various instructions for relief workers, including more information on what to do when finding body parts. The more I read, the less enthusiastic I became about finding any body parts. Not that this had ever been high on my list.
There was also a list of admonishments: Wear gloves, wear a face mask, never wipe your face with your hands, and so forth. Near the bottom it clarified why it was so important to never wipe your face with your hands: “The bacteria is very nasty on Phi Phi at the moment. You don’t want to get any on your face.”
I could well imagine why the bacteria was “very nasty”, and was determined to follow this advice.
Unlike the exhausted workers back at the bar, Susan—a thirty-something, attractive blonde—was Australian, quite enthusiastic and appeared rested. She greeted me eagerly.
“Yes, of course you can help. Thank you so much for volunteering. There is so much to do… Let’s see. Do you have any particular skills? You don’t need to have any,” she hastily assured me.
“I have no skills whatsoever.”
She smiled understandingly. “Most of us here don’t have any relevant skills like being plumbers or carpenters or anything. But I always like to ask.”
“I noticed a sign on the bulletin board asking for scuba divers. I’m a scuba diver.”
“Oh, really? How experienced are you? How many dives have you done?”
“And when was your last dive?”
“A matter of hours ago. Phi Phi Ley.”
“Well they could probably use you. How long are you here for?”
“Unfortunately I have to take the ferry back at 4:30 tomorrow afternoon.”
“No good then. The divers usually are gone all day, and don’t get back until about 6. That’s OK. There’s plenty of other work to do. What’s best is if you could come back here at 7 tonight. That’s when we all gather and hand out work assignments for the next day.”
“I’ll do that, but do I need to wait until tomorrow? Is there anything I could do yet today?” It was after 4, but there was plenty of sunlight left. And Phi Phi was a mess.
“Sure! One of the things we need help with is simply picking up trash and debris. Grab a pair of work gloves from that box over there, and take one of these polypropylene bags. Walk along the Tonsai beach. Pick stuff up and put it into the bag. There are trash barrels and dumpsters all over the place. You can toss the bag in one of them when it’s full. We have plenty of bags.”
“Perfect!” I said, already eager to begin my first job as a relief worker—although I realized that probably the “pick stuff up on the beach” task was the lowest rung on the social scale for aid workers, and ranked far below, say, the scuba divers who, as a group, had sounded very cool. One has to pay ones dues.
“Oh, another thing,” Susan continued. “I have to explain what to do if you come across any body parts.”
“Do you think I will?”
“Probably not. I think it’s been several days since anyone found body parts. And we haven’t found actual bodies for a couple weeks. But you never know…”
“OK, I read the notices, about marketing the spot and not disturbing anything and so forth.”
“Yes, it’s most important you don’t move anything you find. We need to do DNA analysis on everything.”
“I can understand the DNA, but I’m just curious why the exact location is so important—why nothing should be moved.”
“If we can get a DNA match, and a precise location, we can identify approximately where the person was when they died. You’d be surprised how important it can be to the families. They can come and have a special gathering on the spot, a service, maybe create a little memorial or something. It’s part of the healing process. I mean it shouldn’t really matter where the precise location was, but emotionally it does help. It makes it more real for the families.”
“I understand,” I said, trying again to grasp the enormity of the tragedy which had occurred here, and most certainly failing.
“A final thing,” added Susan. “We have a lot of people confuse pieces of coral with human bone. The antler coral, especially, can wash up on the beach and resemble bone. So if you think it’s human, look closely to make sure it’s not just coral. That will save a lot of time.”
I found a pair of gloves which fit, and tried not to think what nasty bacteria must already be on them. All the gloves in the box had been heavily used. I took one of the large bags, walked across the street and down to the beach and…began my 24 hour career as a tsunami relief worker. Susan was right. There was no shortage of things to pick up on this beach—although no doubt much clearing had already occurred. Some of the things were too big for my bag, such as a few cement blocks half buried in the sand, or the several long-tail boats broken into pieces and clearly unsalvageable. Noticing those boats, I realized it wasn’t true when I’d told Susan I had no skills. I used to be a boat builder for heaven’s sake. That meant I was pretty good with wood-working. I could serve as a welder. And I’d once been a terror with an acetylene torch. Yet that had all been thirty years ago and for that kind of thing you needed tools.
Best that I not try to rise above my station as a trash collector, at least for the moment. The more I walked, the more appalled I became at the sheer diversity of non-biodegradable garbage a modern civilization generates. Most of it was plastic. Here were the types of things I encountered on the beach, and collected with my bag: a broken Sony walkman, video tape loose from its cartridge, various wrappers from store-bought merchandise, those multi-circle plastic things that hold a six-pack of beer, plastic knifes and forks as if discarded from a picnic, half of a toilet seat, DVD’s, milk cartons, and so forth. Occasionally I’d find something that gave me pause: a broken doll, a toy truck, or something else obviously once owned by a child. If the toy had been swept away, it was likely the child had been as well. I tried not to think such things; it was too awful. It was easier to raise my head and look up from the beach—across beautiful Tonsai Bay and to the lush limestone mountains rising up from it to the West. Usually there was at least one long-tail boat buzzing about, attending to business, and adding beauty to the scene—not that any was needed. Looking up: a breathtaking view worthy of a picture postcard. Looking down: a broken doll half buried in the sand. It would be too easy to let my mind wander into cheesy philosophy about the extremes of beauty and tragedy on earth, the obvious shortness of our lifespans, the fact that one can be ripped from this world unexpectedly at anytime. But it was way too hot and humid for such musings. To contemplate philosophy effectively, it’s best to be on your second drink in an air-conditioned bar. Rather, I tried to simply turn my brain off, and concentrate on the task at hand: walking down the beach and finding the occasional item to place in the bag. I became very good at it.
There was a fair amount of antler coral washed up by the waves, and I was glad Susan had warned me. The short pieces of just an inch or more might well have looked like human bone. Antler coral is something scuba divers encounter frequently, but I knew I’d never view it the same again. After this experience, I’d always see antler coral as closely-related to human finger bones in terms of appearance.
The bag itself was interesting. It was made of extremely light-weight polypropylene cloth. You see this everywhere in third world countries, no doubt because it’s both inexpensive and nearly indestructible. Every bag or other device made by such cloth endures several careers before ending up inevitably in the water where it floats to a beach and promptly despoils it. That’s the big problem with polypropylene: its so light it floats, and floating isn’t a good thing in these types of places.
I picked up trash along the beach for what remained of the day, but night comes quickly in the tropics. By seven p.m. I was back at Carlito’s Bar and twilight had just ended. As darkness cloaked Tonsai, I realized I’d made a dangerous mistake. I had no flashlight! I knew in approximately what direction lay my hotel, but how would I ever get there? Between Carlito’s Bar and PP Viewpoint was half a mile of unlit war zone: roads that went nowhere; dead ends filled with insurmountable debris; unlikely holes in the ground that one could easily fall into and break a leg at a minimum; sharp, pointy re-bar sticking up invisibly ready to slice into a passerby; and all manner of other obstacles. I’d brought a flashlight but it was back in my room. It hadn’t occurred to me to take it on the long-tail boat because I’d assumed I’d be back long before dark.
Well, perhaps there’d be a full moon or something and I could just walk very slowly and very carefully.
Susan and a few others were here—twenty-somethings, and probably Swedish.
“Hi, Jacques, how’d the trash collecting go?” asked Susan.
“That beach is so clean, you could eat off of it now.”
“Please don’t,” she said, laughing.
I learned that the meeting was not going to occur here tonight after all. It had been moved to a different location. There was a new bar that had just opened today, and that’s where we would reconvene.
“It’s something we always do,” explained Susan. “When a new business, like a bar or restaurant, is able to open up, all of us aid workers go there to celebrate its opening, and be good customers and help them get going again economically.”
I also learned that tonight was going to be a real party at the new bar, including an outdoor BBQ available for only 50 baht. (about a dollar). Susan gestured towards an 8 ½ x 11 piece of paper stapled to a wall—no doubt one of many placed around town—with a printed announcement and invitation. Someone, at least, still had an operating laptop and color printer on the island. Under the one light bulb hanging in Carlito’s Bar, I studied it closely:
Sun Trip Bar
Help us celebrate our opening!
Sunday, 27th Feb.
From 7pm till late…
For 50 baht ONLY we will provide:
And great music!!!
Cheap drinks all night, lovingly prepared by “Toosie”
Spread the word and bring all your friends for a great night!”
Well this sounded good. Apparently there was still a nightlife scene in ruined Tonsai, and it resolved the question of what to do about dinner. Yet I was still worried about finding my way home afterwards.
“Susan, where exactly is the Sun Trip Bar?”
“It’s at a place called the Phi Phi Viewpoint Hotel, about a twenty minute walk from here. I’ll guide the group. We’ve got plenty of flashlights.”
Perhaps the ghosts of Krabi, pleased with my work on the beach, were looking out for me. And speaking for myself, I was quite ready for a cheap drink “lovingly prepared by Toosie.” I liked the woman already. I had misgivings about a “fire show,” surrounded as we already were by so much calamity, but as long as it didn’t involve native Thai dancers, I was up for it.
* * *
We headed off with Susan in the lead. There were eight of us. Three young guys from Sweden, two girls from Sweden, Susan, me, and another young woman named Lisa, from Vancouver. Susan provided a running commentary as we walked.
“It’s wonderful all the progress that’s been made. This street for example.” We were heading away from the water now, north through the one-quarter of the town that remained. “This street just opened up today. We’ve been clearing it for the last week. It was completely filled with debris. See this restaurant? They’re opening tomorrow night. It’s like every day another business opens up again. We’re going to this place tomorrow night for the party.”
The party. So apparently there really was a party every night, like the sleepy woman back at Carlito’s had said. No wonder they were tired. I peered into the about-to-open restaurant. It was on the first floor of a two story building, and like most other retail establishments had almost no walls. It’s floor was of orange brick, and the tables and chairs were wood and covered in decorated tile. The tables themselves surrounded a large rectangular bar in the middle of the room. It was clearly a place both for drinking and eating. Two Thai women were scurrying around, one sweeping the floor, another arranging the tables properly. Truly it looked like a restaurant that could open tonight if it wished. Yet on either side of this restaurant, and across the street from it, the buildings were mere rubbish heaps. It was as if Godzilla had come through here and randomly stepped on buildings, crushing them. Some had little if any visible damage. Others were kindling. Yet the street itself, as Susan noted, was completely cleared.
As we passed, Susan waved to the two women inside. “Congratulations! It looks marvelous.” The women smiled, and bowed their heads with hands held together in front—the ritual Thai greeting.
I pondered the economics. Even though the quantity of customers on the island had been reduced by probably 99% (the tourists were all gone), it was also true that their competition had been reduced by 99% (washed out to sea.) So, economically, for the businesses that could get back in operation the quickest, there was a chance to make it economically.
As we neared the outer limits of the one-fourth town which had survived, the road gave out. Now we were crossing the dangerous “used to be a town here” section of the Isthmus that I’d traversed before in the motorbike. Holes were the biggest threat. Most had been covered over by plywood, or with signs but none of this could be seen in the dark. Susan’s light was useful, and she’d given lights to a couple of the others as well. We stayed mostly single file, to avoid risk of injury. There was no moon, and we’d have been in complete darkness were it not for the flashlights. A light breeze wafted over the isthmus, blending the humid sea air with rich tropical scents from the surrounding jungle. It would be easy to imagine us on some pleasant evening excursion in a lovely tropical resort. The darkness kept hidden all the scenes of chaos and destruction just outside our vision. Finally we arrived at the rickety bridge, but, with help from the flashlights and an admonishment from Susan to be very careful in our steps, we crossed this final obstacle without mishap, and climbed up the path to the PP Viewpoint hotel.
The Sun Trip bar was a large, enclosed square, located on a promontory of the hillside, and commanding what I remembered from my bungalow was a spectacular view over Lo Dalam Bay. Bar stools surrounded the square on four sides. Several rows of tables were set on the terrace facing the water, and down a slight step. The bar itself sported the type of palm frond roof that is de rigueur at an ocean-side resort watering hole.
There was a large crowd here, at least thirty or forty people, and more were arriving. Looking them over, it seemed I was the only one older than 35. About two-thirds were blond, which more or less screamed Sweden. Not surprisingly, they all looked rather slender and athletic.
Lisa and I found seats at the bar and ordered drinks. Her story was surprisingly similar to mine. She’d come here to stay just tonight, and was also leaving tomorrow. After arriving she’d seen the signs asking for volunteers and had become one. It was all part of a month long holiday.
By eight pm everyone was well into their first or second drink, and Susan stood up and called the meeting to order. The aid workers had over-run the establishment, and the bar stools and tables on the terrace were completely filled. Sun Trip was going to enjoy a profitable opening night. We quieted down as Susan began speaking.
“First, I just want to say ‘thank you’ to everyone. You’re wonderful. You’re just fantastic. I just can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done. So…big hand of applause for everyone here.”
And so we dutifully clapped our hands and applauded ourselves, amid a few good natured hoots, whistles and yells. I wasn’t quite sure my brief stint on the beach justified being part of this thanks, but hopefully I’d account for myself better tomorrow.
“OK,” continued Susan, “Here’s the deal. Our biggest challenge for tomorrow is a road that needs to be cleared over to the west, near Ko Nok. We need ten of you for that, and the work will start at 8am. Who are the volunteers? I started to raise my hand, but there were so many hands raised that Susan had the positions filled before even looking in my direction.”
“Fine. That’s great. The rest of you, meet at Carlito’s at 10 am, and we’ll divide up into work crews. Thanks, and have a wonderful evening.”
We all applauded again and that’s all there was to the big meeting. Now it was party time. The BBQ was a very simple affair. What they’d been cooking during all this was a vast quantity of little chicken strips, seasoned in Thai spices, and cooked on little wooden skewers over open coals. They smelled delicious and you could have as many as you wanted. I wanted a lot, but there were so many of us here that a line formed, and I didn’t want to spend the whole evening in a line. Ultimately I managed only four of the little chicken skewers, and they were delicious but hardly a full dinner. No matter. The beer had plenty of calories.
I was getting ready to order another Singha Beer, which is more or less the national beer in Thailand, when I was stopped by the girl seated next to me. Lisa was in the food line, and I was now flanked by two charming young women from England.
“Surely you’re not drinking Singha,” said the one, who’s name was Amanda, and spoke with a delicious British accent.
“Well of course I’m drinking Singha. Aren’t we in Thailand? Isn’t this the local beer?”
“Not at all,” noted English girl #2, whose name I never learned. “Order Chang. It’s the best.” She waved the bartender over and placed orders for three more Changs.
“Thanks, Toosie!” she said with a smile.
“Whoa, that’s Toosie! Toosie’s a guy? I thought Toosie was some sexy female bartender—I mean with a name like that.”
Toosie was a relatively short, thirty-something Thai native, who smiled constantly in a kind of dreamy way.
“Well, I wouldn’t say Toosie’s actually a ‘guy’ in the normal sense of the word,” whispered Amanda.
Sure enough, now that she mentioned it, I could see that Toosie was altogether effeminate in every thing he did. Who knows, he probably even said thank you as “Sawadee Kaaah.”
No matter. He was making lots of money tonight, obviously.
“Do you know this is opening night, and he’s the owner?” asked #2.
“Yes, I heard this was opening night. I’m glad they got everything fixed up and are back in business. Do you know if this place was heavily damaged?”
Here came Evan, who over heard the question. And as soon as I asked it, I realized it made no sense.
“Wait a minute, we’re up on a cliff!” I said to Evan and the girls. “How could this place suffer damage? Why is it just now opening?”
“Well, notice that we’re a bit lower than the hotel. The wave did actually get as high as we are now. But the building that used to be here was the kitchen for my restaurant. It was damaged pretty badly, and so I moved the kitchen to a new spot on the other side of the restaurant. Toosie rebuilt everything as a bar, with a great view. He leases the space from me.”
I was glad someone had come to their senses. Using this unique spot, nestled in palm trees, beside a modern pool, and with stunning views out over the water—using such a spot for a kitchen made no sense. What had they been thinking? It reminded me of the Pizza Hut in Leadville, Colorado. It’s situated on land that has one of the most breathtaking views in the whole state, with the full Wasatch Range spread out like a smorgasbord and Mt Elbert and Mt. Massive—the two highest in Colorado—front and center. This was the view looking West. Looking East there was nothing but a highway and on the other side, a large, ugly pile of coal. So the designers of this restaurant, in the wisdom that can only come from laying out all Pizza Huts from a cubicle at corporate headquarters in Wichita and never thinking of visiting the site itself, the designers positioned the windows on the dinning room at this pizza hut staring into the pile of coal. The magnificent view in the other direction is out of sight, because that’s the “back” of the restaurant where the kitchen facilities are located and the west wall is solid cement blocks so not even the cooks can enjoy the view.
Apparently something similar had occurred on this property. So if the tsunami accomplished nothing else, it had at least wiped out what was presumably an ugly kitchen, and this had resulted in it being replaced with a beautiful open air bar and terrace and probably the best view on Phi Phi island. Sadly, the chance of a tsunami hitting ten-thousand-foot Leadville and causing a similar change was slight.
The Chang beer arrived and it was both cold and good. “So, why are we supposed to drink Chang instead of Singha?” I asked the girls.
“Because Singha is what the tourists buy!” explained Amanda. “Chang is for the locals. Don’t you want to drink what the locals prefer? It’s like Tusker, in Kenya.”
“Oh, I know Tusker. I even bought a Tusker beer t-shirt at the Nairobi airport.”
“Well I should hope so,” noted #2 approvingly. They weren’t impressed I’d been to East Africa. For young Brits, it was the most common holiday imaginable. Kenya and Tanzania are as overrun with Brits as Krabi province is with Swedes.
“I saw a Singha beer t-shirt at a shop in Bangkok,” I noted. “I’m only willing to drink Chang if there’s a Chang t-shirt.”
“Oh there is,” Amanda reassured me. “Drink Chang, get the t-shirt, and then you’ll really be a local!”
I liked Amanda. I knew she would understand why a Cambodia passport stamp was so important.
Amanda’s boyfriend drifted over and the three of us talked in earnest. Amanda wanted to talk about diamonds and jewelry, which she’d discovered was an industry I had some connection with. She was hoping to enter that industry after they returned from holiday, to their home in Birmingham. Probing further, I learned that this wasn’t Amanda’s boyfriend, it was her husband. They were newlyweds on honeymoon.
“You came to Phi Phi Don for your honeymoon?”
“Oh, no. This is just a one-night stopover for us.”
It came out that these were among the very few people here actually on holiday, as tourists. It was part of a three month Southeast Asia tour. Like me, they hadn’t given up on Phi Phi just because the tour agencies said it was demolished.
“Three months!” I protested. “I don’t get it. Everyone I met coming here on the boat was also on holidays measured in months. Don’t you people ever work?”
They explained how the system was set up. It was different from America. For the Brits and presumably other Europeans, holidays were long and in some cases mandated by the government. But they were unpaid holidays. So everyone had to work especially hard to earn the money, and then when they went off, their paychecks didn’t continue. That made me feel a little better, but it still seemed like an awkward system. How could small and medium sized businesses handle what must be a revolving-door pattern of employees disappearing for months on end? Who does their work in the meantime?
Amanda’s husband wanted to talk about president Bush.
“The man’s an idiot! He’s just a total idiot!”
“Totally,” I agreed, enjoying the Chang beer.
“I mean, every time he opens his mouth he sounds like a fool! Oh, actually, I’m sorry. You’re from America. I apologize if you voted for him?”
“Voted for him? Do I look crazy to you?”
Europeans love Bush-Bashing. It’s one of their favorite forms of recreation. And I justify my mendacity in appearing to agree with everything they say by (a) knowing there are no shortage of things Bush should be bashed for, and (b) realizing their level of Bush hatred does not rise to sufficient intellectual standards where actual reasoned conversation could occur. No one in such conversations is ever interested in discussing geo-politics or the various merits for different approaches to, say, dealing with terrorism. So if Europeans are going to be rabidly emotional in their disdain for the man, I can be rabidly emotional in playing along with it.
“George Bush is just deranged. Totally certifiable!” noted the husband again, warming to his topic and obviously resting his case on vast evidentiary material and reasoned analysis.
“Hey, don’t get my started!” I said, which was an appropriate and reasonable-sounding response but—if truth be known, and it wasn’t—was also entirely accurate. I was quite certain I’d have little difficulty debating this guy into the ground, if we’d had a real political discussion, and I was equally certain I had not the slightest interest in doing so. It was more fun talking jewelry with his lovely bride.
While standing in line for the chicken skewers, another interesting person I met was Holly. She was the third Canadian I’d encountered on the island, and the second from Vancouver. A registered nurse, she’d come to Phi Phi to help out, particularly with the medical side of things.
“So, how big is the clinic? How many healthcare workers are here?”
“You’re looking at the whole team. I’m it!”
We were served up our share of chicken skewers, and sat down at one of the tables on the terrace. There were two more seats, and soon Evan and Susan joined us.
I couldn’t believe what Holly was telling me about the medical situation.
“I just got my first batch of supplies in today,” she explained grimly. “It’s a fifty pound box of stuff from the Red Cross. I haven’t even gone through it yet, but thank God I now have something at least. Until today, all we had were band aids and rubbing alcohol.”
“What! That’s not possible. This was one of the two hardest hit areas in Thailand. Hundreds of millions of dollars in relief money has been raised. Your medical needs here must have been unimaginable. I would have thought this place would be awash in aid. How were all the injuries taken care of, if you only have Band-Aids and rubbing alcohol?”
“We won’t see a dime of that aid money,” said Evan. The others nodded their heads in agreement.
“Everyone killed or injured directly by the tsunami was taken to Krabi,” explained Holly.
“That’s where my wife is now,” Evan reminded me. “They evacuated the entire island.”
“They took everyone to Krabi! The whole population?”
“Yes, Krabi and Phuket,” explained Susan. A week after the tsunami, there was no one here. The island was completely evacuated.
“There was no choice about that,” noted Evan. “You can’t imagine what this place was like after the wave hit. There was nothing. No electricity, no water. No one could stay here. It was uninhabitable. We all had to leave.”
“But you came back,” I said.
“It was an interesting story,” said Susan. “The truth is, the government didn’t really want anyone coming back. They wanted to write off Tonsai and Lo Dalang—bulldoze the whole place and sell the rights to mega-developers like Hyatt from America or wherever. In fact, that’s still what they want to do.”
“OK, but if they did that, surely they’d compensate the people who were here, and had businesses and so forth.”
“That’s how it would work in a normal country like the States or Canada,” said Evan. “But it couldn’t work that way here.”
“OK, maybe you could find someone who had legal title to a piece of land. And you could compensate that guy for the land. But what happens to the local business person who ran a business on that land, and paid the landlord rent? His business is washed out to sea. And now he has no way to even start over again. How much aid will he get? None, because his business probably wasn’t even registered in the first place. In these third world countries, it’s not like you always have all the i’s and t’s dotted. It’s not like the U.S. And the guy with his fishing boats destroyed. How does he get aid? How does he even prove he owned those boats? He probably just made them, but they were the way he fed his family. Now he’s probably lost his family and his boats. No money for him. The problem is, no one could ever figure out who owned what in a place like Tonsai, or figure out how to compensate people appropriately.
“So I don’t get it. There are many people here now. Things are getting rebuilt, restaurants opening and stuff.”
“What happened,” continued Susan, “Is that some of the residents came back to try to salvage what they could. They brought water and so forth from the mainland, just to survive while they were here—but not planning to stay. And then another contingent arrived: young kids from Europe, mostly Scandinavia. They came to help the residents put their town back together again. The Thai’s weren’t sure it was possible, but the kids were so enthusiastic and determined to help that the process began. Very slowly and very unofficially.”
“The Thai government’s not happy with what’s happening here,” said Evan. “All the rebuilding and so forth. It’s not necessarily what they want to see happen. That’s being debated by the politicians in Bangkok.”
“Is that why there’s no one here from the normal relief agencies, groups like Doctors without Borders, and US AID and so forth?”
“Exactly,” said Holly, not trying to hide her bitterness. “And even if the government of Thailand approved of what we’re doing here, we’d still never see any of the money that’s been donated.”
“Because the money gets channeled for distribution through the Thai government,” explained Evan, as if that explained it.
“So? What’s the problem?”
Holly tried to explain. “Let me repeat what Evan just said. It has to go thru the Thai government.”
“But why does that stop the aid?”
“OK, Jacques,” said Holly. “Look at me. Focus. I’m going to put this on a level where even you can understand it. Listen closely: IT HAS TO GO THROUGH THE THAI GOVERNMENT!”
“Are you saying the Thai government is corrupt?”
Everyone started laughing and Evan spilled some of his beer.
“I take it that was funny.”
“Jacques,” said Susan patiently, “the Thai government is one of the most corrupt in the world. Everyone knows that.”
“Really? I didn’t know that. You mean it’s like the state government of Hawaii?
“The government of Hawaii is corrupt?” asked Susan.
“Are you kidding? It’s one of the most corrupt governments on the planet. Everyone knows that.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that…” said Susan.
“So where’s the aid money going?” I asked, still trying to understand. My wife and I had made a contribution to the tsunami relief effort. I began to worry about where it had gone.
“Most of it is going to cronies of the politicians,” explained Holly, definitely the most cynical of the group. “They’ll be getting lavish contracts to do some clean up work or construction projects at Phuket or wherever. But most of the work will never get done and the money will just get pocketed. That’s how it works.”
“So the whole relief effort here on Phi Phi is unfunded, unofficial, and disapproved of by the government?”
“Precisely,” agreed Susan. “That’s how someone like me could end up in charge. Like the others, I just came to help, and found I could help out best by trying to organize everything.”
“So you guys are kind of like a band of guerillas? Guerilla relief workers? You’re helping the residents re-build, and try to save their homes and businesses and so forth, and the Thai government doesn’t even want it to happen?”
“That’s it exactly,” said Evan
“At least the Red Cross sent me something,” noted Holly. “I don’t know what’s in the box but whatever it is, we can use. What I really need are antibiotics.”
I thought about all the non-stop coverage in the Western media, much of it about Phi Phi itself, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money pouring in—or trying to. Yet here was Holly, the only medical staff in Phi Phi, desperate for some antibiotics, and having to survive on Band-Aids and rubbing alcohol. And the entire relief effort for Phi Phi consisted of this rag tag group of guerilla aid workers sitting around the bar drinking Chang beer. And me.
At that moment the fire show began. It was Toosie himself. He walked over to a relatively level grass area, took out a match, and lit a couple of things on the ground. I couldn’t quite see what they were. Then he lifted these up, and I saw that each was a burning torch, attached by some kind of rope held in each hand by Toosie. In time to the music—and fairly loud rock music had been playing all evening—he begin flinging these about in circular fashion over his head, in front of him through the air, under his legs, and so forth—much as a baton twirler would twirl a baton. As he flung the fire orbs around him, he began dancing with the music, and the whole thing was quite impressive. Everyone was clapping and cheering and there was no doubt this fire show was one of the best anyone had seen in a long time. At least that was true in my case. Toosie kept going for nearly twenty minutes before the flames were finally extinguished or he became exhausted—I wasn’t sure which happened first.
We all milled about some more and now I found myself seated at the bar, alone with Susan.
“Do you mind if I keep asking some questions?”
“Not at all. This is a very pleasant evening. It’s very relaxing. It’s just what we needed.”
“I’m curious how you decide, each day, what to do and where to send work parties. I mean, the task seems so overwhelming.”
“All you can do is just take a small piece at a time. If you had to come at this from a “Let’s rebuild Phi Phi” angle, you’d just give up. But what you have to do is say, “OK, today, all we’re going to do is clear the debris from this street. Or, today, all we’re going to do is help this woman who’s trying to clean out her home and it’s filled with trash and gunk.”
“Do the individual people ask for help, then?”
“Usually they don’t. It’s part of the Thai culture. It’s not in their tradition to ask for help. They’re very generous, but the thought of having to ask someone for help is embarrassing to them. So what we do sometimes, we just go around and notice where someone is working. Then ten of us show up and offer to help. No one needs to ask. We just offer.
“They must be incredibly grateful?”
“Oh, you have no idea. They are so grateful sometimes it makes you want to cry. I think, without us here, they just couldn’t handle it psychologically. It’s not just the work. It’s the despair. They don’t know where to begin. It’s overwhelming. So a lot of what we try to do is help with the psychological burden. We don’t fix everything at once. We go to one store where the owner is trying to bring it back to life. We ask her if we can help. And then we just take over. When one of our work crews arrive, we can do in a day what might take them almost a month. Like in the case of a private house that’s filled with debris and garbage and mud and so forth. We send ten workers there to totally clean it out, retrieve any valuables, haul away the trash, sweep up the dirt and grime, and wash the floors and walls with detergent and disinfectant. Sometimes we’re able to even repaint.
“And sometimes the owners themselves just can’t emotionally do it. Everything they see, every piece of debris, carries memories and stops them from functioning. Many are near mental breakdowns. They’re dealing with the loss of relatives, sometimes whole families, not just a messed up house or a ruined business. But once we get everything cleaned up and sorted out, they see hope and they can start functioning again and they know what they need to do. They have a direction. It sounds corny, but to some extent just by being here, we’re giving them hope. And they’re learning it’s OK to receive help in a case like this.”
I thought about all this. Certainly if I’d had family members die, and my home and business was wiped out, I’d be well on the way to mental collapse. One sees these disasters on television and a mental protective mechanism kicks in for the viewers. It’s not exactly racist, just protective—and subliminally one thinks “Oh, these third world countries and people, they’re all used to these disasters so it must not affect them as it would affect us.” Which of course is stupid, but otherwise the human mind can’t cope with the enormity of the suffering. Now, hearing Susan talk, it was impossible to pretend that these people’s feelings were any different from our own. It was OK to admit one couldn’t grasp the scope of the horror. But it was nonsense to try to somehow minimize it, even as a protective measure.
“It must be very rewarding, helping out so many people like this.”
“You can’t imagine how rewarding it is. Probably you’ll find out tomorrow. Like yesterday we had to clean out a woman’s kitchen. It was disgusting, with the most horrid, grimy, filth everywhere. Even the detergent wouldn’t get the stuff out. We had to use lie, and that finally cut through it. By the time we left, the place was spotless. I think if we hadn’t been there, the poor woman just wouldn’t have known what to do.
“And like I was saying on the way over here, the road clearing has been a big part of our work, and you really feel you’re making a difference there. Once we get another road cleared, it opens up another section of shops that the owners can get to and start working to rebuild. Until the trash is cleared on the roads, most of these places you can’t even get to. You wouldn’t believe how much has been done, just in the last week.”
I found Susan’s world utterly fascinating, and began to regret I’d have to leave so soon. Clearly these aid workers were doing work so rewarding they were willing to do it for weeks on end. There was no unhappiness or despair among them at all. Physical tiredness, of course. But on some deep level they all seemed gloriously alive.
By 11:00 the party was going strong, yet I was ready to turn in. As I slipped away surreptitiously I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Amanda.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Time for bed!” I confessed.
“Are you crazy? It’s only 11:00. Now get back here to the bar.” She took my hand and guided me back to one of the bar stools, not willing to release her grip lest I slip away. “He’ll have another Chang,” she said to Toosie. “And one for me, please”
It was nearly two in the morning by the time I finally got to bed. I was desperately grateful I hadn’t been chosen for the 8am work crew. While I knew such thoughts were probably disloyal and perhaps even wimpy, it didn’t keep me from falling asleep.
* * *
Not surprisingly, I found Lisa that morning in the hotel dining room. We had the place to ourselves, and Evan was there to take our order.
“How about a Thai omelet?” he suggested.
We weren’t sure what this was but it seemed an obvious choice. We ordered two of them, and learned it’s what we might call a vegetable or garden omelet: lots of stuff inside. There were also lots of Thai spices mixed in, and these woke us up perhaps faster even than the coffee. There was rice on the side, which I consumed in full, suspecting that loading up on carbohydrates would make sense today.
Lisa and I were both dressed for hard work in a tropical climate. I had on my hiking sneakers, lightweight, nylon shorts, and an extremely lightweight black t-shirt made of some kind of exotic, newly invented artificial fiber. You can get it wet and it’s dry again in about five minutes. Any breeze at all blows right through it. Certainly I wanted nothing to stand between me and any breeze that might occur. We’d be working right through the heat of the day. Back in Ao Nang, I’d had a difficult time even being outdoors during the middle of the day, needing to surreptitiously sneak into various air conditioned stores and shops, as a lizard might turn perpendicular to the sun so as to control body temperature. Completing my outfit was an industrial-looking sun hat with a sunshade hanging off the back, to protect my neck. I had my work gloves from yesterday, yet I treated them like a toxic substance. I was willing to put my hands inside them, but I wanted no contact with their outside surfaces. Nasty bacteria was much on my mind this morning. And, finally, I had my daypack “luggage”, since I’d be departing direct from the work crew to the ferry at 4pm.
Lisa was much the same, in sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt. She’d have to obtain gloves from the crate, but there were many to choose from.
We stretched breakfast out as long as we could, Lisa and I both being mildly apprehensive about whether we’d be up for the challenges of the day: not the work, but the heat. The hotel restaurant was deliciously air conditioned, and when we finally had to leave, it was with reluctance. We found our own way to back to Carlito’s, following the route we’d been shown the night before. It was much easier in daylight, and we only got lost a couple of times in the ruined village. As before, an incorrect turn at an intersection would send you to a dead end filled with a mountain of impassable debris. Before the aid workers arrived, apparently every street had been impassable.
There were about twenty of us who showed up at Susan’s headquarters. Many I recognized from the night before, even if I hadn’t met them formally. We split into two work crews of ten each. Lisa and I were together, and in our group the other eight were all from Sweden—half men, half women. Everyone was blond except for Lisa and one of the Swedish guys. My hair—normally a dull dishwater color—had turned sparklingly yellow after two days in the tropical sun, and I fancied I was beginning to look Swedish myself. Except that these Swedes were all so good-looking—from the same gene pool, obviously, as those on the dive boat. Handsome, sturdy men; goddess-like women—they seemed plucked from that James Bond film “Moonraker”, where the arch villain has assembled perfect male and female specimens to repopulate the earth after he destroys it. I wondered what the Thai’s thought of them: master race or weirdo’s from another planet?
Heading out, we were led by Johann, a tall Swede who seemed dressed more for a rock concert than for relief work: full-length, white, cottony slacks, a yellow t-shirt, and flip-flop sandals. Wearing flip-flops was just asking to be cut on a sliver of glass or something. Yet I learned that he’d been here over a month, working every day. He knew what he was doing. In my case it was best I dressed the part. Johann had a most serious aspect to him. He was quiet and didn’t joke around very much. Susan had given our group two plastic grocery bags, each filled with a dozen large bottles of water. I carried one, and dark-haired “Freidrick” carried the other. Someone, perhaps the corrupt government of Thailand, had seen fit to at least provide bottles of water to the aid workers. It would be embarrassing were they to dehydrate and start dying of thirst.
“OK, let’s go,” said Johann, and we all followed him dutifully away from Carlito’s and into the mangled desolation of Tonsai
Steering northeast through the streets, we came to a section of the village I’d not yet explored. These were not business establishments, but small Thai cottages—obviously a residential area. We were at the extreme eastern end of the sand Isthmus, and from here the terrain slopped upwards to form Ko Nai, or “Inner Island”. Not surprisingly, those cottages higher up on the hill seemed completely intact and unharmed. There was a relatively narrow band of these dwellings adjacent to the hillside that had suffered minor damage. We turned north west now, following a road that had apparently been opened only recently, and came to an area where the damage was extreme. And beyond this was only open sand—no remaining trace of what had once been cottages.
We made an unofficial storage depot out of the front porch of one of the undamaged cottages, and left our packs, the bulk of the water bottles, various handbags and such. Then Johann led us to what could best be described as a two-story structure consisting of four adjoining town homes in a row. The first of the four was demolished. Mere rubble remained. The second two seemed to have suffered considerable damage but were still standing. They might be repairable. The fourth was much like the first: nothing here but rubble. Yet it was a very large pile of rubble. It was so large that it seemed more rubble than could be accounted for merely by this town home collapsing.
There were three middle aged, and delicate Thai women trying to clear this pile of heavy debris from about a twenty square foot area. We were told that one of these women had owned this house. It seemed altogether likely that it wasn’t just this woman who had lived here, but perhaps her family as well.
After questioning Evan yesterday and hearing his story of survival, in which all his friends had died, I’d simply lost my appetite for asking too many questions. I decided it was both ridiculous and insensitive to ask any of the islanders: “Did you lose any loved ones or close friends here?”
Everyone had lost loved ones and close friends. When half a town’s population is killed—over 2,000 deaths on Phi Phi—you’d best not ask anyone about their own situation unless you’re prepared to hear it, and offer appropriate sympathy. It was too sad to hear. And I had no idea how to offer appropriate sympathy. In any case, most of these local Thai villagers spoke little or no English, and my Swedish was hardly up to the task. So I could pretend that it was language difficulties keeping me from trying to console or express sympathy to anyone on a verbal basis, when in fact it was simply not knowing the right words—which I suppose is also a form of language difficulty. It was much easier to simply be part of the work crew. “Just here to work, ma’am. That’s our job.” Keeping everything coldly professional and not trying to have any deep conversations was easier for everyone.
Yet I noticed that these women—shy as would be expected of them in any circumstance—were determined to make slight eye-contact with each member of the party, and smile and nod briefly. They wanted to express their thanks. We smiled back, as if eager to show they were quite welcome.
“Here’s the situation,” explained Johann. “You’ll see a lot of debris has been cleared from around here.” That was true. In fact we were on the borderline between the “remaining cottages” district, and the vast expanse of sand where there used to be cottages.
“When we cleaned this area up, we carted away a lot, but anything made of metal is valuable. The villagers can use metal. They melt it down or make things out of it and so forth. So we piled all the metal we found onto the ruins of this collapsed cottage. Now the women here are going to try to rebuild the cottage itself. So what we need to do is move the pile of metal to that vacant area over there.” He pointed to a spot about thirty feet away on the other side of the road.
I eyed the pile dubiously. This was a job a steam shovel could have done fairly easily and safely. Doing it with human labor alone looked doubtful. The pile was almost six feet high, and consisted of all manner of nasty, scrapey, dangerous things; burnt, twisted, deformed metal all locked and twisted together. No wonder the Thai women needed help.
“One more thing,” said Johann. “If you get cut it can be very serious. Be careful. Always wear your gloves. If you do get cut the clinic here can provide free tetanus shots. It’s not a problem.”
“OK,” said Johann, and the Swedes from Hell, plus Lisa and I, attacked the metal. The Thai women helped as they were able. After only a few minutes, it became apparent that when you throw this much human labor at something, it makes a difference. We were already seeing progress. In half an hour the metal had been almost completely moved. There was one large awkward piece left, and three of the Swedes were on it. I jumped in to help, and together we got it hoisted out of the debris and over to the new dump. On the count of three we swung the thing forcefully up and let it go.
A small edge of one piece sliced into my leg.
I’d been cut! Blood started flowing immediately.
Dammit! This was just what I’d been afraid of. I had minor first aid supplies in my pack, and I hurried there now, mentioning to Lisa where I was going. First I took some of the water from the bottle in my pack and poured it over the wound—drying it with tissues. Then I applied antibiotic cream liberally, and sealed it off with band-aids. It took three Band-Aids to cover the size of the cut, and they didn’t stick very well.
Johann came to assist, concerned that one of his work crew had been “injured”.
“You can get free tetanus shots, you know,” he reminded me.
I didn’t see fit to explain that my horror of shots was much greater than my horror of tetanus, and that in any case the fact that they were free would count for precisely nothing were I to decide to get one. In fact, free sounded worse. It smacked of a grass-hut field hospital surviving on limited supplies, perhaps having to re-use needles. I was also terribly embarrassed at having managed to injure myself in the first half hour of work, and I was trying to minimize things.
But then the rational portion of my brain took over—it doesn’t get used much and is generally kept tied up in the cellar of my consciousness. But I do let it out occasionally, and I decided to do so this time. Rational brain said: “Look, you’re in a disaster area. Thousands have been killed and injured in various gruesome ways. Body parts were being cleaned up as recently as a few days ago. Very nasty bacteria is coating everything. You’ve suffered a cut, not merely a surface abrasion, and it’s big enough that a single Band-Aid can’t cover it. A particularly vicious and ugly piece of rusty metal made the cut—something that might qualify as Exhibit A in a tetanus research center. If you don’t need a tetanus shot, no one has ever needed a tetanus shot.”
“But I’m pretty sure I had one in ’02, when I went to Sierra Leone,” I responded, worried I was about to lose the argument with “rational side of brain.”
“And you’re an expert, are you, in how many years you can go between tetanus shots?”
There was nothing for it. My fear of shots and my complacency about my three-year-old tetanus booster vanished at the same time. I needed Holly.
All of these thoughts happened more or less instantly.
“Yes, I think I’d better get that tetanus shot,” I said to Johann.
He told me to return to Carlito’s and they’d make it happen. I got the impression that “Serious Johann” approved of me getting a tetanus shot.
At Carlito’s things got more complicated. Susan wasn’t here but her assistant—another woman—explained the drill. Apparently they didn’t have tetanus vaccine on the island yet. Someone wanting the shot, had to “order” it, and the vials would be shipped over on the next day’s boat from Krabi. Your aid dollars at work.
“I have to leave later today,” I protested. “Do you know where Holly is, the nurse?”
“Normally she works in the shop just next door here, but I think she’s having an early lunch. The restaurant’s just up the street.” She gave me directions.
I found Holly eating lunch with another aid worker. This “restaurant” was merely tables set up outdoors, near the beach. I wasn’t quite sure where the food came from.
“Hi, Jacques. What’s up?” asked Holly. “Have a seat.”
I joined them at the table.
“This is a bit embarrassing but it seems I’ve cut myself on a messy piece of iron,” I explained.
She looked the wound over professionally, between bites of a salad.
“I was wondering if I should get a tetanus shot, but I had one ‘in ’02.”
“Tetanus shot in ’02?” she asked, with raised eyebrows. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m positive I had one then. Also, I put antibiotic cream on the cut.”
Holly made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “You’re good to go.”
“I don’t have to worry about it?”
“Not at all. A tetanus booster’s good for ten years, and if you put antibiotic cream on it—you’re in good shape.”
I was greatly relieved to hear this. I’d been stressing out over an injury my imagination had by now decided was going to cost me a leg. To a professional nurse, to Phi Phi island’s only medical staff who’d seen it all—this wound rated no more than a wave of careless dismissal.
I turned to head back to the work crew, my spirits restored.
“Oh, Jacques,” Holly called out. I stopped and looked back.
“You know what they call those kinds of cuts and scrapes among the aid workers?”
“A badge of honor. Congratulations!”
Things were looking up. I’d gone from certainty of impending death to being able to showcase a badge of honor. My head was held high as I walked back to the work crew, conspicuously wearing the heavy work gloves instead of carrying them, and walking with an air of determination and seriousness. I caught admiring glances from the Thai men and women I passed, who themselves were working hard at hauling debris, repairing buildings, or other such jobs. It was obvious to them I was not a mere disaster tourist but an actual “International Relief Worker.” Occasionally, one would nod a head and smile, the women often putting their hands together in the Thai gesture of greeting.
I was beginning to understand what Susan had said about this being so rewarding. So far my contribution to rebuilding Thailand had been limited to an hour picking up trash on the beach yesterday, and half an hour moving some debris this morning. And yet I was being treated almost as a hero by the locals. One could get used to this.
Yet I knew it was inappropriate. They were the ones who’d lost everything—businesses, family members, homes—and were trying to carry on against impossible odds. If there had been a gesture that conveyed my respect for what they had survived and what they were now attempting, I would have given it. Instead, I just tried to follow Susan’s example and project an uplifting, positive attitude. Most of them could speak at least a few words of English.
“Nice road, nice road!” I’d comment, complimenting everyone on the fact that there was now a road here, remembering it was newly opened.
“Oh! Shop very clean. Nice job, cleaning shop!”
I’d say things like this and the words may or may not have been understood but hopefully the sentiment was. According to Susan, a big part of our job was moral support.
By the time I’d returned, the remaining work crew—those who’d managed not to get cut—had finished the task of removing the metal debris and were now engaged in clearing the rubble from the collapsed cottage itself. In some ways this was more difficult as the heavy pieces of masonry had to be loaded by hand into wheel barrows, or the totally crushed remains shoveled into wheelbarrows, and these then were pushed up a slight hill and dumped over into a large hollow area beyond.
Originally this was the town reservoir,” Johann explained to us. “But the wave destroyed it of course, so we’re using it now as a collection point for debris and trash. Bulldozers and steam shovels will come later and remove everything.”
I wondered if he knew that for a fact, or if that was merely a hope everyone cherished: that some day the Thai Government would send serious assistance.
I put in a full hour at this task and it was not easy work. At last it wasn’t easy work in a tropical climate.
A scratchy, static-y voice came from a walkie-talkie, and Johann pulled one from his back pocket. He spoke softly into it—I couldn’t hear the words—and then turned to me. “Jacques, can you check our water supply. They’re asking if we need more water.” I quickly counted up the few bottles that were remaining and suspected that at this rate they’d be gone in another fifteen minutes. “We definitely need more water,” I told Johann, and he relayed this to base.
Our consumption of water was so great it was astonishing we never needed to use the restroom. I was worried I needed to slightly, upon arrival, but that had been the last time I’d even thought about the subject. We were drinking perhaps a gallon an hour each. It was going right through us, but not the normal way. It was coming out through our skin, in sweat!
And that created another problem. When you perspire so heavily, it doesn’t work just to drink more water unless the water also contains the right balance of salts, or more precisely, electrolytes. Whoever was providing the water understood this, and had included packets of electrolyte powder. Johann had instructed that each time we opened a bottle of water, we were to pour in one packet of electrolytes.
“It’s serious,” he explained. “If you don’t add the electrolytes, the water won’t do you any good. It will just dilute the salt in your body and cause water intoxication.”
I was beginning to develop considerable respect for Serious Johann, despite his flip-flops. And I noticed he hadn’t cut himself yet, unlike some of us.
The cleaning of the rubble continued. I saw the three Thai women struggling with an especially large and heavy slab of masonry. They couldn’t even lift it off the ground. But when I added my strength to theirs, we could just manage it. Awkwardly but with intense determination—muscles straining—we got the thing up the little hill and dropped it with a thud into the landfill where it slid most of the way to the bottom. All of us stood there a moment, staring at it sliding down the sand, and catching our breath. Then we all looked at each other and nodded with the grim satisfaction of a job well done.
Two of the Scandinavian girls were using brooms to sweep the last of the sand and debris from the site, and I was encouraged to see that what we’d uncovered was smooth, decorative tile. A few pieces were broken off, but clearly this would form the foundations of a new cottage. The Thai women were already pointing at it enthusiastically, smiling, and chattering away in Thai—no doubt already making plans for the new structure.
It was a good lesson in how one rebuilds a town hit by such a disaster. Aside from the medical issues, there are really two steps: #1: Clear away all the debris and clutter left over from the ruined buildings. And only when that is accomplished can you consider #2: Rebuild.
Apparently most of what this team of foreign volunteers was doing, and had been doing, was #1, the very unglamorous work of clearing away trash. Partially that was because there was so much of that work to do. But perhaps also it was because clearing debris is a relatively unskilled profession. Even us trendy but skill-challenged international aid workers could manage it. The local Thais were no doubt better employed in doing the actual re-building.
It was time for lunch now, and I noticed from somewhere additional plastic bags—like grocery store bags—had arrived. Inside each were several little Styrofoam containers. Johann handed these out and I was delighted to discover a complete Thai lunch inside. It was some kind of chicken dish on rice—very spicy and utterly delicious. In our famished state anything would have tasted delicious, but I found it charming that it was actual Thai food they were serving. On the other hand: “duh.” Perhaps some local restaurant owner was donating this food each day to the workers in thanks for having once helped him get back in business.
We sat wherever we could, most of us sprawled against the wall still standing, and which contained the other townhouses. A sliver of shade could be found, and we clung to it jealously. Each of the Styrofoam boxes contained a set of chopsticks, and in this way we ate our Thai lunch, while drinking our electrolyte-spiked bottled water.
I’d brought my video camera with me, and thought it would be nice to take a few shots here, of Lisa and Johann and everyone having lunch. On the other hand it was precisely the kind of thing a tacky disaster-tourist would do. Sure, perhaps if I’d been working here a month, a few quick snapshots would be in order—purely to record the scene for later discussion with the aid agencies of course, not for any sentimental, souvenir value.
In truth, we were all taking our queue from Serious Johann. This was serious work. There was nothing frivolous going on here. And group photos would be way out of line. Sensing this, there was no way I was going to take my camera out of the daypack. It would be like Zorro removing his mask, and inside would be revealed: Disaster Tourist! No, not going to happen.
“Hey, does anyone mind if I take pictures?” asked Lisa suddenly. “I mean, I feel a little funny about it, but I’d really like to take a few pictures.”
Bless her, Lisa had voiced the very thoughts I was too scared to say.
There was a long, awkward silence as everyone waited to see how Serious Johann would react.
“Sure,” he said, and we all breathed more easily; at least I did. “Ve’re on lunch break. Take some pictures. Not a problem.”
Lisa thanked him profusely, and pulled out her digital camera. She was wise enough not to go for the trite “everyone in a group” shot. But she surreptitiously pointed her digital still camera here and there and carefully recorded everything: the scene, the people, and so forth.
Since the camera policy was already established, and since everyone’s attention was more focused on Lisa, I was able to pull out my own video camera and flip it to “record.” For ten minutes I held it this way, appearing to walk around aimlessly, the camera hanging harmlessly from my right hand. But I was very attuned to where it was pointing. Perhaps this would produce video in the “Blair Witch Project” style—camera jumping all over the place and recreating a sense of frenzy. But it was better than nothing.
“Jacques, could I ask you a favor?” said Lisa.
“Could you, like—well, take my picture? I mean I feel this is so tacky, but it’s my only chance to get a picture.”
And after I took one of her—the standard posed shot with several of the others in the background—I asked her to take one of me. That seemed harmless. I grabbed a shovel and posed for the shot, trying to not make it look posed. I gave Lisa my business card with my email address and she promised to send it to me.
Lisa was taking the 1:00pm ferry, so she said her goodbyes and raced off, leaving me alone with the Scandinavians.
* * *
After lunch Johann put us to work repairing a road. This morning, to get to the cottage containing all the metal debris, we’d had to walk around far to the southeast of our present position, and then use a combination of roads to reach our destination. The road that finally led us here petered out just a few yards beyond the ruined cottage. Then there was a steep ravine. And after that, just sand. A rickety framework of two by six pieces of lumber was spanning the ravine. But no motor vehicle could cross on that, and anyway beyond the ravine the sand was too soft and filled with too much debris to be considered navigable.
Johann assigned Freidrick, me, and another guy to try to clear a roadway from the far side of the ravine, back westward to civilization. The others went to work on the bridge—trying to reinforce it and widen it sufficiently to allow for motor vehicles.
The three of us on the road crew attacked the work judiciously. First we scouted out the situation by walking from the ravine the hundred yards farther where we could see the latticework of completed roadways that had already been restored. We needed to somehow connect the bridge at the ravine, to these existing roads. Once we’d done that, we’d have essentially connected the two halves of the ruined village. You’d be able to take a motor-scooter all the way from Ko Nok (Outer Island) to Ko Nai (Inner Island.) This would become Tonsai’s main artery—a critical piece of infrastructure finally restored.
Yet it was not clear precisely where the road should go. There were a number of options. The reservoir-turned-dumpster protruded quite a ways to the north, so we had to veer past that. The nearest existing road ran north-south, meaning we’d come up against it as a t-intersection. Yet the t-could be placed at any of several spots.
There were also several surviving buildings, or at least cottages, as we neared the existing roads. And a couple of palm trees—one snapped off half way up—afforded additional obstacles. Clearly, the road would need to curve in a few places.
Yet somehow I knew intuitively where the road should go. In my mind’s eye I could see it already. It would be a very graceful thoroughfare. Perhaps someday even a broad avenue. But its origins would be more humble.
“The road needs to go like this,” I explained to Freidrick and the other guy, using hand gestures and pointing, and jogging a little from spot to spot. They studied this and could see no reason to disagree. After all, they’d never designed a road before.
Of course I hadn’t either, but I had a hereditary advantage in the art of road building since my father had once been a State Highway Commissioner of Iowa. I carried previously-untapped instincts in my blood, as no doubt such talents are passed on father to son even if I’d never realized it before.
Being quite certain where the road should go, the next step was to mark it off. We decided the thing to do was to use part of the debris—anything that was like a long stick—as materials for defining the edges of the road. In this way our road was swiftly fleshed out with sticks of wood, bamboo, long pieces of metal, whatever we could find. There was no shortage of debris lying around from which to choose. Soon we had it framed in and the next step was clearing the debris. Now that we could see the road, it was obvious what pieces of debris were lying on it. Before we’d been faced merely with one big plain of sand.
The debris on our road was moved rapidly off to the shoulders. We didn’t want any dangerous things on our highway. Then we went back across the ravine and equipped ourselves with rakes and shovels. We had to clear enough of the soft sand away that a vehicle could actually go here.
Rakes and shovels were at a premium, and while we didn’t quite fight each other for them, they were definitely items to be jealously guarded once obtained. With various projects underway simultaneously, at different times we needed more rakes. Shovels were lying about unused. At other times shovels were in short supply and anyone could get a rake. If the international aid community had wanted to help out Phi Phi at that moment, a dozen more rakes and shovels would have worked a miracle. I wondered how it was going with the aid money back in Bangkok.
Shortly after we began the raking and shoveling we came across our first body part. Freidrick found it, lying in debris about twenty feet from our road. It was definitely a bone, not antler coral. But it was a small bone—a fragment several inches long. As directed, one of us stayed with the bone (me), and Freidrick went to “notify authorities,” which in our case meant Johann. The work crew leader arrived in a few moments and examined it closely.
“Well, it’s definitely a bone of some sort,” he said. “It could be a finger bone. Or it could be from an animal. We’ll have to mark it.” Johann built a little tripod with sticks over the item, with is apparently what one does with body parts, and then went off to report it himself. We scratched around the immediate area with our rakes, to see if there might be more, but it seemed this bone was alone. We returned enthusiastically to our prior job of road building, which I much preferred.
The more we worked the more beautiful our road became—at least to our eyes. I talked about it with Freidrick, who I learned was from Goteberg, Sweden.
“Can you imagine, Freidrick, that we will come back here one day and all along this road there will be tall office buildings, resorts, condominiums and so forth. I mean, it seems impossible now, but one day it will be so.”
“Ja,” I agree. “And you vill be famous, because ve hereby our naming this road Jacques Boulevard!”
“Seriously? Do you mean it?” I was almost overcome with emotion. “Jacques Boulevard?”
“Ja, it is already named. I command it. It cannot be undone.” His friend nodded in agreement, making it unanimous.
If I’d worked hard before, back when this was a nameless stretch of ill-defined sand, I trebled my efforts now that I knew what a prominent and prestigious thoroughfare it had become.
We’d carried away most of the debris, and had dug away most of the soft sand, at nearly the same time the bridge makers finished their work. As if by pre-arrangement, one of the three wheeled motor-scooters suddenly turned off onto Jacques Boulevard, and headed towards the bridge. Our first customer! He smiled and waved to us as he roared past, and then became immediately stuck in the sand.
Fredrick and I rushed to help push the vehicle through, and soon he was on his way put putting towards the bridge itself, which he crossed with no mishap. We didn’t say so directly, yet Freidrick and I were deeply embarrassed that our road’s first customer had gotten stuck.
The problem really hadn’t been our fault. Two others from the work crew had been excavating a PVC water pipe that seemed to run roughly parallel with our road. No doubt this had once been a useful component of Phi Phi’s infrastructure. Now it was vestigial, and no longer connected to anything in either direction. Nothing in either direction existed. Even so, this pipe was clinging to survival, refusing to be dislodged from the soft sand. The workers had already pulled up a dozen yards of the thing, and had finally discovered it was connected to some large bulb-like piece in the sand. It had taken twenty minutes to dig this round PVC object up, and pull it loose, and haul it off to the dumping ground.
Fine. But that’s what had caused the big hole in the ground into which one wheel of the motor-scooter had fallen. Well, nothing here that couldn’t be solved with rakes and shovels. Soon we had the road shipshape again, and were pleased to see that subsequent traffic was having no difficulty. We kept at it, smoothing and shaping and raking our road, and each new customer waved and smiled as they passed, which was highly gratifying.
Phi Phi’s eastern end, Ko Nai, was now re-connected to its western end, Ko Nok, in a single, unbroken thoroughfare, and all because of this new section of road being open. So must the transcontinental railway builders of Union Pacific have felt when they drove in the golden spike that connected America’s East and West coasts. As far as Freidrick and I were concerned, Phi Phi was finally on the road to recovery—literally and figuratively.
Yet while spiritually uplifting, the work was exhausting. It was nearing the hottest time of day, and despite the endless bottles of water and electrolytes we were consuming, our bodies couldn’t keep up with the heat. I was beginning to feel dizzy, and yet didn’t want to show it—not in front of Freidrick and the others. It would be an admission that I wasn’t in the same fitness league as they were, with their slender figures, and well-toned muscles. And we certainly couldn’t admit that.
Finally, Freidrick stepped back from the road, leaned on his rake, and said: “I can’t take this any more. I’m getting dizzy from the heat.”
“Yeah, I’m starting to notice it a little myself,” I admitted, charitably. “If you’d like, we could take a break.”
Freidrick thought this an excellent idea, and certainly I was willing to indulge him. We walked back to the shaded area where we’d had lunch, collapsed with our backs against the cottage wall, and helped ourselves to more water.
Here on this side of the ravine an interesting project was underway. Having finished with the bridge, one of the workers was actually laying bricks on this section of the road. He was paving it! Fifty yards back from the bridge the road really was paved in brick, but the tsunami had ripped it apart at this section. There were large, carefully-stacked piles of bricks at strategic meticulously prepared the sand, laid the bricks into the sand just so, fitted them together with total concentration, and then knocked them perfectly into alignment with little taps from his hammer.
Bricklaying looked downright relaxing compared to shoveling and raking sand. Also, the nearby townhouse cottages were situated such as to provide shade to the entire roadway. I decided my future lay in becoming this man’s apprentice.
At first I merely watched him respectfully. Then I dropped down beside him and tried to help. Seeing he had an interested student, the master began showing me how it was done. The level of the sand had to be perfectly smooth underneath the bricks. This involved two steps: bringing in sand and piling it in the right place, and then smoothing the sand to a level surface. Another worker and I brought sand and delivered it where he pointed. We did this with shovels, yet we were only dealing with small amounts of sand per shovelful, and it was in no way as difficult as the kind of brute road building work Freidrick and I had been undertaking on the other side of the bridge.
One might guess that finding sand for road building on Phi Phi would not be difficult, as almost the only thing left on Phi Phi is sand. Yet our master bricklayer rejected most of what we brought. We tried to bring him typical Phi Phi sand which is that extremely white and porous stuff which has made Cancun famous: “air-conditioned sand” it’s been called, because it is so white that it never absorbs heat.
Phi Phi’s sand is as white as sand can get, yet our bricklayer had no use for it. “Darker sand!” he explained to us. “Dark, coarse sand, vor road!” So we had to work harder, digging deeper into the white sand to find the bad, nasty stuff underneath. I dutifully brought enough of this working-class, road building sand to satisfy our Master, and then dropped down beside him to see how else I could help. Right away I noticed something inefficient occurring. We needed to smooth and level the sand. But doing the task solely by hand—using one’s actual hand—as was presently being done, yielded poor results. A collapsed house—utterly collapsed—stood nearby, or rather had once stood. I poked around among the debris for a few minutes until finding what I needed: a wooden object about a foot long, with a straight edge on one side, and shaped somewhat like a ruler. It was broken off and jagged at each end, and it was anyone’s guess what it had once been, or once been part of, but it was about to become a trowel. I brought the trowel proudly to the bricklayer and held it out—a gift, as it were, from an eager student. He looked at it skeptically, ran his finger along the edge, and then smiled broadly. Immediately he began using it to smooth the sand, and it was obvious to all of us that the work was now going to go faster, and the sand smoothed more evenly.
The actual fitting-together of the bricks was time consuming. These were second-hand bricks, I learned. They had been salvaged from wherever they’d been found, strewn all over the beach, and now piled high alongside this road being reconstructed. Possibly some of these bricks had originally come from this road. Possibly they’d been from other roads. In any event bricks are hardy things, and don’t mind much being tossed about by a tsunami.
They were all the same shape: a modified hour glass, with 45 degree straight edges instead of an hour glass’s typical curves. Thus they fit together not side by side, but one up, one sideways, one up, one sideways, etc. The next row would fit precisely in the same pattern, offset half a brick from the horizontal.
I watched the bricklayer closely, noting how he took each brick, set it in this pattern, tapped it a certain way with the hammer, and then moved on to the next one. I wasn’t quite sure what he was doing with the hammer, but I could copy it. So I tried laying a brick, several feet down from where he was working, just to see if I’d get in trouble. He looked at my work, and then, with a Swedish accent, condescended to explain a small part of his trade: “Must remove all sand, from between bricks. No sand between bricks.”
Of course. Now that he’d pointed this out, I realized that’s what he’d been doing: using his fingers to deftly remove any trace of sand between the bricks. To do this, one needed to make a slight indentation in the sand around each brick, as otherwise when they were pushed together the sand from the base would well up and keep them from touching perfectly. The tap tap with the hammer was to ensure that each brick truly nestled up properly and cozily to the one adjacent. It took only a few bricks to get the hang of this, and soon I fancied the student was becoming almost as good as the teacher. Then I overheard the master talking to another worker: “Bricks have two sides: top and bottom,”
What? I glanced at a few of the bricks from the pile and realized that one side was smooth, one was rougher. Damn! Eyeing my half-dozen perfectly-laid bricks, I realized that four of them were upside down. Conflicting emotions wrestled within me. On the one hand, bricks being laid smooth-side-down wasn’t Phi Phi’s biggest concern right now. I could safely ignore those four bricks and keep going, maybe paying more attention to the difference from here on out. On the other hand, if I left those first few bricks incorrectly positioned, it would haunt my soul forever, plus I would pay a serious price in karma points. There was nothing for it. I ripped up the six bricks and started over again. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing right. This was Jacques Boulevard, after all, or at least an extension of it.
“Ve share hammer,” said the Swede, which was necessary as we only had the one. Soon the two of us were laying bricks with commendable speed, each time setting the hammer down between us, so the other could use it. I continued this work for the rest of the afternoon, and was thrilled to have evolved in such a short time from the lowest of aid workers on the island—one who merely picks up trash on the beach and puts it into a bag—into a skilled worker of sorts, creating roads and laying bricks. No doubt there were higher orders to which one could aspire, but I was satisfied with the station I’d achieved. After all, some of these aid workers had been here for weeks. I didn’t want to appear uppity.
The ferry left at 4:30 pm and I couldn’t afford to miss it. If I missed the ferry I’d miss the one flight per day from Krabi back to Bangkok. And if I missed that, I’d miss the Bangkok-Hong Kong flight the day after tomorrow. For a moment, my thoughts were in a completely different world. Dohee Song from Korea had agreed to meet me for dinner in Kowloon day-after-tomorrow. The whole Hong Kong social schedule would be derailed if I missed this ferry.
With a surprising degree of guilt, I reported to Johann and confessed that I had to leave, and why. Johann had been working here for over a month, yet he was surprisingly gracious about it. “It’s OK,” he reassured me. “Ve are grateful for any help. Even one hour of help ve are grateful. Thank you.”
I searched for the right words, but I couldn’t summon them quickly enough, nor would I have wanted to. I couldn’t explain to Johann that in truth the island had done for me much more than I had done for it. I couldn’t explain how this particular tragedy had touched me for some reason—10,000 miles away. Or my strange need to come here and try to help out any way I could—almost as a necessary pilgrimage. Certainly I could not explain that one of my own insecurities lay in the fact that I’d done so little volunteer work in my life—so little to help others, and that my time on Phi Phi had made me feel a bit better about myself. More importantly, it had made me realize how simply helping others can be a very selfish thing, because doing so truly feels so good. I couldn’t explain that such insights made me yearn for more such opportunities in the future—not particularly because of any generosity of spirit, but because the feeling I got from helping others was almost like a drug, and almost addictive. I wanted more of it. Where else can one be praised for even the mildest of effort, and be thanked so deeply for even the feeblest of contributions? Normally one must achieve something out of the ordinary to be praised so highly, and to feel such a sense of accomplishment. Volunteer work, I now understood, carries no such burden.
There was no way to explain all this to Johann, who’s command of English may have made the subtleties themselves tricky. Or at least there was no way to explain it all, and still make the ferry. So I just said: “It made me very happy to be able to help, even a little. And I will try to encourage others to come here as well.”
“That would be wonderful,” he said, nodding eagerly. “We can use all the help we can get.”
I said goodbye to the others, reclaimed my daypack, hurried across the bridge, and—with the help of the new road—was soon back at the Tonsai ferry dock.
Day-trip tourists from the ferry, who’d been milling about the town for the last hour—buying postcards and t-shirts and perhaps even bikinis, were converging on the dock as well.
A group of Thai natives, who may have been connected with the commerce of the dock in some way, were relaxing together in the shade, men and women both. I looked at them briefly and they noticed me as well. They noticed the work clothes and the gloves and perhaps even the bandaged wound, and they recognized me as an aid worker, not a tourist. As had become common, they smiled, nodded their heads, and the women did the hands-together thing. They were softly and subtly thanking me, realizing I was heading out on the ferry and leaving the island.
I tried to do the same thing, bowing and such, and then discovered that the hands-together maneuver is not something that can be performed well when wearing heavy work gloves.
The work gloves! I still had them with me but they weren’t mine. I’d merely borrowed them yesterday from the big crate. And there wasn’t time to return them. It seemed wrong to simply leave them on the ground, and I had no desire to take them with me—for many reasons.
“Please,” I said, speaking slowly to the Thai natives, and hoping one at least could speak a little English. “I must leave on ferry. Must leave gloves here. Leave gloves with you? Please?”
I held out the gloves, as if to underscore my plight. Certainly these locals would know about Carlito’s bar and know it as the place the aid workers hung out. They’d either keep the gloves themselves, which was fine, or get them to the right place.
One of them understood. “Yes, you leave gloves here. I take back,” he said, smiling in appreciation. All of us bowed again, to each other.
Here on the island, I’d learned how good it feels to help out. In their own way, the islanders were learning that it was OK to receive such help. It was something we’d each had to learn. They smiled to me again—smiles of appreciation—and in my imagination, the spirits of those who’d once lived here, the ghosts of Krabi Province as the Bangkok Post called them, were hovering about, smiling as well.
They weren’t smiling at me, of course. I’d been here less than two days. The ghosts of Krabi were mostly smiling at Johann and Holly, and Susan and Freidrick, and those who’d been working here for weeks. Yet one, I fancied, at least looked down, saw my “badge of honor,” and gave me a wink. He knew I’d be back. If not here, then some place like it.
The passenger ferry blew it’s whistle. I waved goodbye to the little group and rushed aboard.
Yes, I would be back. If not here, then some place like it. I was certain there’d always be a road that needs building, somewhere. And badges of honor can be earned in many ways, not all requiring antibiotic cream. The small ship eased away from the Tonsai dock, and soon it’s bow was splitting the water as it cruised rapidly through the Andaman Sea. Long-tail boats roared about, re-establishing their routines.
The ferry turned to port, cleared the Ko Nai headland and steered northeast as it left Tonsai Bay. The ghosts—I hoped—would soon be able to leave as well.
Life was returning to Ko Phi Phi.