Khao Lak, Pangnga
I am sitting here alone on the veranda of the Khao Lak Bay Front Hotel watching the sun slowly descending into the Andaman Sea. I feel like I am in a colonial period novel— all teakwood, dusk, overhead fans….. As you look out over the beautiful view, a closer inspection tells of darker days past. What was once, I’m sure, a beautiful pool area and gardens about half the size of a football field is now totally submerged in mud and water. You can just discern the outline of the pool itself and imagine how it might have looked last December 26th morning before the tsunami obliterated it and about 10,000 lives up and down these beaches.
A “to-khae” (gecko) skitters across the lattice work of the veranda’s roof as sandaled footsteps approach sliding quickly across the smooth red-tiled floors to turn on the lights— just enough for you to see your way. Small bats do their crazy dance in the sky looking for insects for their evening meal. The air is filled with the sweet aroma of countless tropical flowers. Sounds of croaking and chirping “chinchokes,” geckoes, frogs, and numerous other animal life common to this area, yet unknown to me, remind me that I am indeed a world away from the sights, sounds and smells that now make up my world in the States.
The gentle sounds of the waves are not reassuring. They are beautiful, but not to be trusted. Even sitting here now, you are never so comfortable as this serene location demands of you— paradise to hell in a flash.
Last night I thought I heard a thump and felt a lurch of our train as it was speeding through the night bound from Bangkok to parts south. The attendant confirms this morning that the train had indeed hit and killed two water buffaloes (as if there weren’t few enough of these beasts of burden as it is)! “Sorry for the delay getting to Surathani,” he says with a smile as he touches the brim of his cap. Surathani– a small town that is at the hub of the south — for people going just about anywhere but Surathani.
The train arrives at the station about 7:30 am, and there is an explosion of activity as if the curtain has risen on act one of a play. The taxi drivers and busmen are working the crowds imploring them to take this bus or that taxi– Kho Samui, Phuket, Pangnga to mention just a few of the idyllic destinations. Market people are hawking all kinds of food carried on their heads on wide, round baskets to the hungry and still-sleepy passengers as they alight the train. In the center of all this cacophony is a pirate of a man barking orders this way and that. He is the ticket seller— your passage to paradise! He tries to convince me to take the local bus to Khao Lak– just as long, but a more direct route. I insist on the more comfortable bus to PangNga.
The bus takes me as far as the three corners at Khokloie, another nowhere hub to anywhere else. The foreign tourists on the bus look at me quizzically as I get off— “Why is this guy getting off at this God-forsaken place?” I can see some of them wondering. As the bus pulls away, I get similar looks from the Thais at the small restaurant that doubles as the bus stop. Twenty minutes pass before the bus heading for Takuapa picks me up. The “grapao” (ticket collector) is a lively woman of about 35 years of age. She motions to me to sit in the back next to an ancient monk on his way to a temple 30 kilometers up the road. When she hears that I am going to Khao Lak, she begins reliving the stories often told of the tsunami. Her eyes widen as she talks in vivid detail about the bodies lying here and there. She is aware, as many Thais are, that there are many unhappy ghosts in Khao Lak. There are occasional grunts from the old monk, but I can’t determine if he is agreeing with or admonishing the woman and her stories. I take a deep swig on my water bottle and wonder why anyone would travel down here any other way. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a minute of the past 15 hours traveling here from Bangkok.
The town of Khao Lak is about 2 kilometers along the north-south road running along the beach. Everything on the west side (beach side) was completely swept away. This was the area where many of the hotels and shops were located. Everything on the east side of the road was reasonably in one piece, but it looks as if they needed to do a lot of cleaning and restoring of some of the buildings.
As I walk up the path to the hotel, I am greeted by the receptionist who is equally surprised that I am there. I explain why I have come, and we have a good chat about the hotel and what is or, more specifically, is not available at this time of the year– like lunch and dinner.
I check in and hike back along the road to a small restaurant on the cliff jutting out on a patch of land overlooking the sea. I talk to the owner as I eat my noodles with chicken. He speaks about that day and how he had taken a group of Italian tourists out on an overnight trip. When he got back he could not recognize the place. All the hotels and resorts along the beach were completely gone! He shows me a map of the area— Khao Lak Orchid Resortel, Green Beach Resort, Happy Bungalows– to name just a few of the many places no longer in existence. From our eagle’s nest he points out where various hotels had been, jabbing the air with his finger as if he were painting on a large canvas. His brother, who had been working at the restaurant that morning, saw the tide go out and watched as people walked happily out to collect shells. He then witnessed the horror of the huge waves approaching the beach– catching everything and everyone in their way, and dragging it all out to sea as they retired. The images of that morning are still very vivid in his mind. As tortuous as recounting the events seem to him, the mere telling of the story appears to ultimately have a therapeutic effect.
I spend the next few hours wandering the town. Everyone has a story, and they are eager to tell it. The people you meet are so grateful that you have come. Even with their town in ruins, it is a hopeful sign that things will return to some semblance of normalcy. The hotels will rise again. The tourists will come back. The beaches again will be crowded, and everyone will be working once more.
Back at the hotel, the receptionist informs me that I will be the only guest left that night. He pauses and then inquires, “Glua phi, mai khrap?” (Are you afraid of ghosts?) I laugh a little and tell him, no. Perhaps the ghosts who linger there still are benevolent spirits. One can only hope.
I begin the next day back on the wonderful verandah. As I approach, I see a table set for one facing the sea. In short time, eggs, sausages and toast appear. I feel like it is my own personal villa. Nantaya, the morning receptionist, is close by. After breakfast, she walks with me to the lower level as I am heading for the beach. When the tsunami struck, she had been in the lower level in a room next to the kitchen helping the accountant. All she can recollect is suddenly being underwater and instinctively struggling to save herself. She tells me in her low, saddened, controlled voice that she managed to climb to the upper level and survive, stunned by what was going on all around her. Nantaya suddenly leaves telling me she has business to attend to. I am left to wander freely around this abandoned lower section of the hotel. I enter one room stripped bear of any furniture save a bookshelf. There on top remain paper New Year’s decorations stained from water. It is a poignant memorial to a cheerful, unsuspecting people struck down that beautiful, tranquil morning.
As I walk along the beach toward the town, I see the remnants of that terrifying day. Six months later belts, suitcases, clothing, toothbrushes, and other articles litter the sands still. In my mind, each object speaks a horrible tale. Had the owner escaped or was she dragged out to sea never to be seen again? I stop to sit on the remains of a broken wall musing on the crabs skittering sideways across the beach. They play their little game of tag with the waves, but always know to get out of the way before one catches them. They are also smart enough to build their homes in sand well above the high-tide line. I look at them and then at the reconstruction going on not far away from where I am witnessing this little amazement of nature. I can’t help but wonder why the pitiful perception of our own power over our environment, so arrogantly displayed, is somehow so inferior to that of these crabs. Canute is here still commanding the waves to stop as they continue to lap around him. The irony of the scene does not escape me.