04.03.2006 35 °C
It was Sunday, 10:30am on December 26th, 2004.
The Phi Phi Island, in the Andaman Sea on Thailand’s South-East coast, 35km from Phuket and Krabi, was stretching off after the Christmas celebrations.
It was a very hot day and people were already at the beaches, enjoying the white sand and the turquoise waters, filled with tropical fish.
Although the main religion in Thailand is Buddhism, any excuse is good enough for a party and in Phi Phi, counting all tourists and foreigners working for dive centers, more than 40% of the population is foreign.
The 8-meter-long traditional wooden boats, with their prows bearing Buddhist adornments at the front part, were floating indolently in what seemed to be another day in Paradise.
Phi Phi is spindle-shaped; its extremes are mountainous featuring green-covered hills, while the central part is totally flat with two separate 200-meter-long semicircular beaches, where the majority of the population used to live.
The streets were narrow, swamped with shops, hostels, restaurants, travel agencies, markets and all sorts of business.
I speak in present tense, but I should be using the past tense because what shocked me when arriving by boat from Pukhet was not what I saw, but what I didn’t see.
I had visited Phi Phi in 2000 and it has a special place in my heart for its beauty, the people I met, the great times I had and the diving I did, which was one of the best in my whole life.
What I didn’t see was what the tsunami took away.
From the wharf, one could see a row of tall palm trees, many of which were lopped, and the tsunami ground 0, a promenade filled with rubbish and debris, at the same spot where life used to beat.
My eyes got wet and my hair rose.
All of us on the boat remained silent and awed to see what had happened. Two waves or, better said, two 4-meter-tall water walls run through the island from one side to the other, smashing everything in their path.
Boats crashed on homes like battering rams. Most of the homes were ground floor buildings; the ones made of wood were uprooted from their foundation lumbers and even those made of cement were blown up due to water pressure.
Only few 2-floor houses resisted and maintained their upper floor.
Among those who walked around the area or were on the beach, few survived; Phi Phi turned into a floating morgue filled with water, objects that had been piled up on the streets and rubbish.
About 1.500 persons (some sources claim the number is closer to 2.000), approximately 25% of the island’s population, died. More than half of the corpses have not been found.
Faced against a tragedy of such magnitude, people tend to react in one of the following three ways:
Stay in shock for hours or even days, wandering around the streets like a ghost.
Discover the hero that we didn’t know we had inside and organize the evacuation and the rescuing of those injured, despite the fact that everyone said there was a second wave coming.
Take advantage of other people’s misfortune by robbing and pillaging whatever has been left unattended, including taking jewelry off dead bodies.
Severine belonged to the second category. The Nantes-born French dive master who works at the Phi Phi scuba center, was relaxing that day and her bungalow was hardly affected by the tsunami.
She woke up half an hour after disaster had struck, seeing that her bungalow floor has several centimeters of water. When she opened the door she thought that she was having a nightmare and that she would soon wake up, but the nightmare was for real.
She went to the half-destroyed diving center and along with John, the English owner who has been living on the island for 12 years, took the initiative of evacuating the injured with improvised stretchers they made, using room and closet doors.
The first help arrived with the Thai coastguard helicopters and the Krabi and Phuket ferries followed, in order to evacuate those injured.
During the next two days virtually everyone abandoned the island with their few belongings, an infinite sorrow in their looks and their lives broken forever.
Those who were diving were the luckiest.
They felt a strong current and visibility suddenly diminished from 20 meters to less than 1.
All of Phi Phi scuba’s boats were at sea and Monica, another dive master who was diving that day, grabbed the hands of her two clients in order to calm them down, and they went on surface.
The boats were where they had been left, but the captains refused to moor in Phi Phi when they returned, fearing that a new wave would strike.
They spent hours waiting at the bay, until the panic yielded.
Those who stayed were planning to return to normality, which was impossible as the waves continuously brought afloat new bodies and the state of destruction was enormous.
When I saw the pictures of floating bungalows in the Phi Phi bay in the Spanish press, my heart contracted because I imagined that the tragedy was enormous, but it turns out it was much worse in reality.
The Thai government saw the opportunity of turning Phi Phi into a luxurious resort, as up to that time the village was mainly a backpackers’ area, and there are several isolated deluxe resorts surrounding the island.
Phi Phi is much smaller and less famous than Pukhet, and it’s to the government’s interest that people don’t talk too much about the island because this would serve their plans; they believe that silence will finish the island off, along with its lifestyle.
The government repaired the basic services, but they haven’t made any reconstruction efforts or debris withdrawal during these four months that passed since the tsunami, hoping that people wouldn’t return and that thus their land could be bought back for peanuts (Phi Phi is a national park), in order to concede them to big hotel companies.
NGOs were prohibited to take action in order to help the island recuperate.
The Phi Phi hospital, on the seafront, still exposes its halls and beds to the public, as it still has no walls.
Walking around the affected area wears you off, as you come across everything:
Toys, teddy bears, dolls, personal items, clothes hanging still waiting for a customer, a Ronaldinho T-shirt and the one thing that impressed me the most, a box full of CDs half-buried in the sand, which nobody touched.
In fact people prefer avoiding the disaster area, so they walk around it so as to avoid the debris, full of memories of friends, relatives and family.
I took an Enigma CD, because I remember that during my 2000 visit parties used to conclude with music from this group, which is one of my favorites, and I kept it as a Phi Phi symbol.
Although it’s been in the sand for four months and it’s dirty and scratched, I cleaned it and it plays well, just like Phi Phi music and the Andaman Sea will soon echo well, too.
People, despite governmental recommendations, started returning in order to rebuild their houses and lives; the first few arrived in February.
By March, some shops already had opened.
The first diving shop re-opened in April and the boats from Krabi and Pukhet brought in backpackers every day; in many cases they worked voluntarily so as to help and when they left they urged other backpackers to help, too.
Mouth-to-mouth defied the government-imposed silence.
Local NGOs were set up, like HI Phi Phi, Phi Phi Direct and Phi Phi Releve-toi, which are all subterfuges, as they are legally prohibited to reconstruct anything. However, they are able to provide locals the materials and tools so that they themselves can rebuild their homes.
The bungalows where I had stayed at in 2000 were being re-painted and many hostels have re-opened, featuring new or freshly painted bungalows.
Internet works and it’s pretty fast, massage rooms are open and those famous beach parties with the music and fire spectacles are now livening up Phi Phi nights again.
The island’s most prominent bars, “Hippies”, “Carlitos” and “Reggae” have actively collaborated with the NGOs by ceding their premises and they are open for those leisure moments which seem so necessary when your surroundings seem bewildering.
Wherever there was a shop that closed down, as people lost all their merchandise and had no insurance to cover them, a restaurant with 4 tables has opened, or a fruit juice stall, for which all you need is a mixer and Thailand’s delicious tropical fruits.
Public phones are still out of order and ATM machines are covered with sand and destroyed, but there is one working and you can call from the shops.
Gradually, the island is getting its pulse back despite the neglect and the silence imposed by the government.
5 out of 15 diving centers have re-opened, and after almost four months without fishing, diving is better than ever.
I saw thousands of fish, giant turtles, a 3-meters-long eel and the reef hasn’t been affected. Today Phi Phi has recovered at 50% and all deluxe resorts are open.
I was utterly amazed by the dignity of the Phi Phi people, as they ask no alms, just tourists to return.
They smile as if they were being visited by the Thai King, although once you observe them discretely you realize that they are often absorbed and absent-minded, probably thinking of that tragic morning of December 26th, something they will never forget.
Those of us who have indulged in the Thai paradise are indebted to them.
We can pay this debt in many ways; by returning to those marvelous places, suggesting them to our acquaintances, or collaborating with one of the aforementioned NGOs.
To those of you who haven’t been there, I urge you to do so, there are far more chances to have a car accident in the West than to go through another natural disaster like the tsunami.
If we all contribute our two cents, the beaches will regain their splendor, the palm trees will grow again, people’s smiles will turn into laughter and they’ll rebuild to a certain extent the lives that the murderous wave took away from them.
The movie The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, was filmed here.
More detailed report and photos in http://www.vagamundos.com