On Being In The December 2004 Tsunami

Clark March 17th, 2007

All Washed Away

Over 230,000 people died that morning. By a lucky coincidence, my girlfriend Denise and I were sailing about ten miles offshore when the tsunami passed. We didn’t even feel it. The first we knew of it was that night when my Thai mobile phone came into range and started ringing. With each call I’d smile like a confident grandfather and reassure these friends and family that we were OK. They were obviously victims of a sensationalist news media and overactive imaginations. There was an unreality about it: Tsunamis were something you only read about in books. It took two more days before it sunk in that we had been less than four hundred miles from one recent history’s biggest earthquakes (9.0 on the Richter Scale), and that the tsunami it created would be the defining natural disaster of the new century.

I was in Southeast Asia with my boat and Denise flew down from Tokyo for a month’s holiday. We would sail from Malaysia’s Langkawi Island to Thailand’s Phuket Island, both on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. This passage takes a yacht through a hundred miles of the best cruising in the world, where there are dozens of magical limestone islands that jut hundreds of vertical feet out of the Andaman Sea. These islands also contain many ‘hongs,’ enclosed chambers within the islands that are accessible only through dark tunnels, but then open to the sky once inside. One of our main stops would be Ko Phi Phi, The Island of a Thousand Delights, where we originally planned to spend Christmas, New Years, or both. Phi Phi is always on the way when coming or going between Thailand and Malaysia, and a favorite stop among young sailors. My Swedish friend Sonja had been running a dive company there for five years. Sonja and I tell everyone we’re cousins, but really her cousin is married to my dad’s friend back in California.

When Denise and I first heard the news, we were anchored twenty feet from a thousand-foot cliff on Ko Phetra (Ko means island in Thai). Ko Phetra is uninhabited, and there was no evidence of any disaster, except for a lot of flotsam and jetsam in the water. I’ve often since wondered if an aftershock tsunami would have passed unnoticed, or if it would have swatted my boat against that cliff with all the fury of nature. There were never any aftershocks that caused tsunamis.

We listened to the BBC on the shortwave radio, but only got world news coverage. They talked mainly about the deaths in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and only touched on Thailand.

The next day we sailed to Ko Muk, home of the Emerald Cave. To get into the Emerald Cave, you paddle your dinghy (no engines, because the exhaust will suffocate the bats who live in the tunnel) through an 80-yard tunnel which ends in the most striking hong in Thailand, the only one with a white sand beach inside. We had it all to ourselves for hours. There were no tour boats, when usually there is a nonstop parade. We found out later that two people had died in the tunnel when the Tsunami hit the day before. In the anchorage nearby there were two sunken longtails, traditional Thai longboats. We towed one to the beach, but its side was smashed in too badly to repair.

We made our way to Ko Lanta, where we ran into some Danish sailors who had been at Ko Phi Phi when the tsunami hit. As we mill around the beach on Ko Lanta, they show us a foundation where a house used to be, and whole tracts of waterfront shacks that are just gone. The gravity of the situation finally hits us. They tell us about all the carnage on Ko Phi Phi, and I start to genuinely worry about Sonja. I call her mobile phone repeatedly, but there is no answer. We set sail immediately to find her.

On the way the phone system comes back and Sonja answers. She has been up for three days, digging for bodies and helping the Swedish and other Scandinavian embassies identify all the tourists who are dead and missing. The parts of that conversation that I remember are:

“Don’t come here! Whatever you do, don’t come here!”

“There is nothing left to do but dig for bodies with your bare hands. There is no equipment.”

“All these blond-haired Scandinavian girls look alike packed in this dirty Thai ice.”

Sonja is hysterical and sleep-deprived. She’s watched her entire life—her business, her home, and most of her friends—get swept away by a wall of water. At one point she says, “The medical team had me handing out pain pills on the ferry landing-I’m like, ‘Here kid, take these pills. They’ll be around to sew your hand back on later.’” This was representative of the gallows humor that everyone adopted to cope with the disaster. Sonja ended up with textbook post-traumatic stress disorder: She couldn’t sleep for months, had recurrent nightmares, lost her short-term memory, and couldn’t really associate with people who weren’t on Ko Phi Phi when the tsunami hit.

As we near the islands, night falls. Instead of Ko Phi Phi Don, where Sonja is, we spend the night at Ko Phi Phi Le, a nearby unpopulated island where they filmed The Beach. The tsunami stripped at least two meters of sand from The Beach in twenty minutes, exposing rocks everywhere. We join a Thai cleanup crew the next morning. They tell us that since Thailand is getting only bad press at the moment, they want to show the world that some places are still beautiful and unaffected. We happily pick up trash and move rocks, feeling like real do-gooders. There is a TV crew and they conduct interviews. The tsunami isn’t so bad: it’s just a little mess to be cleaned up.

The next morning we sail into the harbor on Phi Phi Don, and reality comes crashing down on us. It looks like a scene from Apocalypse Now, with flames jumping through the palm trees and helicopters flying through the pall of smoke. Entire resorts and stretches of beachfront are just gone. Sunken and half-sunken boats drift everywhere. Debris, both floating and stranded, covers every bit of reef and coastline. Hundreds of people in rubber gloves and masks pick through the wreckage, dragging bodies across fields of rubble. A stack of body bags six feet tall sits on the remains of the jetty, waiting for the next transport to Phuket. Massive fires burn wreckage and rotting food. Longtails are thrown up on the shore like matchwood. At least 400 dead, many more missing, mostly Western tourists.

Sonja had said the first wave of desperate parents were arriving from Europe to search for their lost sons and daughters. She just tried to avoid them since there was nothing to say or do. We see a chartered speedboat with three middle-aged Scandinavian men, looking distraught and aimlessly searching the coastline. There is no way to know where a backpacking son or daughter might have been at the time of the disaster: One day they might be diving on Ko Phi Phi, the next they might be off to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat.

The view of the shoreline is so transformed that it takes me a minute to get my bearings. Once I do, the horror hits me: At about the middle of the isthmus (everything on Phi Phi lies on a narrow isthmus between two wide bays) there is an open area. I can see clearly from one side of the isthmus to the other, with just a few tall palms still standing. This used to be Backpacker Alley, one of the densest budget tourist areas on the planet-bars, restaurants, bungalows, dive operators, vendor’s stalls, internet cafés, markets, and massage parlors. Now this entire swath, about a quarter mile square, is completely gone, not a visible scrap except for the aforementioned palms and concrete foundations. To the sides of this there are still some standing structures, but in this middle swath nothing could have survived.

At ten o’clock in the morning, when the tsunami hit, dozens of twenty-somethings would have been packed into the bakery and a few restaurants, recovering from hangovers and watching DVDs. They would have been in the Internet cafés, complaining about the slow connection as they wrote to friends back home. The dive operators would have been booking all their afternoon trips. Who expects a thirty foot wall of water—or in this case two walls, one from either side of the isthmus—to erase it all from the face of the earth in a moment?

Denise and I feel a guilty compulsion to get involved, but the choice is simple: Either anchor the boat, put on some gloves, and start digging for bodies, or move on.

We call Sonja to see if anyone needs a ride to Phuket, but she makes a few calls and says no. We decide we’re not going to dig for bodies with our hands and risk getting the diseases that are predicted to break out, so we press on for Phuket, where there are additional dead and the entire Andaman seafront is damaged.

After anchoring at Phuket, we go ashore and into the first restaurant we see. We look at the blaring TV and see ourselves, cleaning up the beach on Ko Phi Phi Le: Our first time seeing TV in over two weeks, and we’re on it. Through the day we see more news on CNN and hear more from other sailors. We had been just a step ahead of ruin for the last week.

Penang, where I picked Denise up at the airport, had the most dead in Malaysia with thirty. Tulaga Harbour Marina, our last port in Malaysia where we stocked the boat, was totally destroyed. The docks all tore away from the pilings and were swept out to sea, along with the boats that were tied to them. Eight boats sank.

Rebak Marina, another marina in Langkawi, where I hauled Condesa out of the water to paint her bottom, had similar destruction. All the docks and boats were torn away and swept out to sea, but only one boat sank. Virtually every one of the surviving boats from these two marinas had major cosmetic damage: When the docks broke away they flipped over, grinding the barnacles and oysters growing on their bottoms into the sides of the boats. You can still see boats in the region with these deep gouges in their sides, and know they were in one of two places when the tsunami hit.

Despite all the destruction, not a single sailor was injured. All-in-all, a boat is a safe place to be during a tsunami, especially if anchored or offshore.

Ko Lipe, where we ended up spending Christmas, the night before the tsunami, survived without a scratch. We thought it had been wiped from the face of the earth since it is a low-lying sand cay, much like the isthmus on Ko Phi Phi. As it turns out, the water is very deep right up until the shore of Ko Lipe, and the tsunami was barely noticeable. Our friend Tin, publican of the Jumping Monkey Bar, is just the way we left him on Christmas, serving beer and selling pot, while Jesse, his alcoholic monkey, drains customers’ beers and deftly picks their pockets.

We stay around Phuket for a day or two, and I go on feeling silently ineffectual and guilty about not getting involved. Denise only has another week before returning to Tokyo, and it’s her annual holiday after all. We remind ourselves that we are still in Thailand spending money: The Thais are telling the media that this is the most important thing that foreigners can do to help. They say they have plenty of doctors and aid workers, but the real damage is to the local economy, with high season passing them by and no tourists.

We decide once and for all not to get involved, and to run away from all this grim death and destruction. We hire a car and plan a trip to Khao Sak, a national forest high above the sea.

We begin our road trip, not knowing exactly where we’re going, but heading in the right direction. We look at a map and see that in order to drive to Khao Sak, we will have to drive through Khao Lak, the worst hit region in Thailand. Thousands are dead and missing. The road runs mostly about a kilometer inland, so we think we will be spared the worst of it.

As we get into Khao Lak, we see that one kilometer inland is still right in the middle of the disaster. In many places the tsunami crossed the road and leveled buildings on the inland side. We can see watermarks two meters high on walls at the roadside. Seaward of the road is No Man’s Land: Trees are left standing, but everything else is ground into a mire of bricks, chunks of concrete, clothing, mattresses, palm fronds and stripped foliage, all coated in black mud.

Another lesson learned: In the event of a tsunami, if you can’t be on a boat, climb a tree. The only trees I saw uprooted were rubber trees, which are plantation-grown and have shallow root systems. All the other trees were still standing proud and healthy.

Over 500 Swedes died in Khao Lak alone. Thailand is very popular with Scandinavians, especially Swedes, who come to escape their cold northern winters. In comparison, there were only thirty Americans killed in all of Thailand. There was one Khao Lak hotel that was completely leveled with seven hundred tourists inside, six hundred of them Swedes. They will never know exactly how many Thais died in Khao Lak—there is no accurate census or even addresses—but probably many thousands.

There were a disproportionate number of Western children lost because of the time the tsunami hit. What happens in the morning with families on holiday?: “Kids, go out and play on the beach. Mommy and Daddy are going to have their coffee and be out there soon.”

As we drive on through Khao Lak, we see more body bags and huge refrigerated containers to hold Western bodies. It is a cultural point of difference that the Thais, being Buddhists, want to burn all the bodies as soon as they are identified. Westerners want to save their dead for burial, thus all the refrigerators and generators in the sticky tropical heat…a waste of resources to the Thais.

Denise is on a quest for an ATM machine, of which there are many with the lights on, but none in service. We stop at a gas station. There is general pandemonium and Denise disappears into the crowd while I wait in the car. She comes back in a few minutes and says she couldn’t find an ATM, but that this is an aid station and we should take a look around. We bring our cameras.

More bodies, more refrigerated containers. There are aid stations representing Sweden and Norway, with their flags flying in front of makeshift awnings. Police and military guard all corners and all manner of emergency vehicles line the streets. We see notices posted on every vertical surface for missing persons: One is posted by a wife who lost her husband and young daughter. They are German hippies, and the photograph shows the father and daughter walking through a mountain stream with flowers in their hair. We see several notices for entire families who were lost: On one flyer is a Czech couple with five children.

Denise and I stand mute, feeling like intruders. Near me is a bulletin board that says ‘List of Dead.’ Other than the heading, it is all written in Thai, and the list is long. My eyes drift to another bulletin board, but I don’t immediately recognize what I’m seeing. It looks like photographs of rotten fruit, like shrunken apple heads with twisted smiles, only black. I realize that I am looking at photographs of dead people who have been rotting in the tropical heat for a few days. There are many of these boards standing in a row and I am just looking at the first one. I see a few Thai people with numb expressions, looking deeper among the rows. Not only am I looking at photos of dead people, but I have the misfortune of looking at the Baby Board, row upon row of photos of dead babies, all of whom are so badly decayed that no one could ever identify them. Nausea wells up in my throat: “Let’s get out of here.”

Denise and I don’t speak for the next few hours in the car. I feel sick and can’t get the images out of my head. We wind our way into the mountains and snake among giant limestone cliffs. I glance at the map to see where we’re going, and at the same time check to see if we can get back to Phuket without driving through Khao Lak. I don’t care if we have to drive five hundred extra miles, there has to be another way.

We rent a tree house in an eco-resort for a few days, eat lots of good Thai food, and join the banter among the German owner and the handful of guests, all of whom came to Khao Sak directly from Bangkok and hadn’t seen any of the carnage. We relax and try to forget what we’ve seen.

We’re just Disaster Tourists.

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Comment by Bardene Allen
2007-03-21 08:48:23


The piece about the Tsunimi is beautifully written and makes you feel as if you were right there going along with you and Denis as you slog through the disaster. Thank God you weren’t swept away in the water. It is an amazing tale.


Comment by Mark
2010-02-22 03:54:51

Now THAT’S a cool boat! :)

2011-03-16 20:48:19

[…] When I got home I saw footage of Santa Cruz, Crescent City, and of course Japan. Many flashbacks to the Southeast Asian tsunami. […]

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