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SOUTH THAILAND IN FULL RECOVERY MODE
It is now six weeks since the tsunami struck Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast. Huge progress has been made along Phuket’s west coast with many businesses and resorts opening again soon. In Pi-Pi Islands and Kao Lak, which were much harder hit then Phuket, the cleaning up is not yet finished but both areas look much more under control now. Obviously, in Thailand we are in much better shape than Sumatra or Sri Lanka.
In Phuket several memorial services were held with people from all religions coming together to pray for the victims. These ceremonies helped people to get closure and now that the shock is slowly abating, all are looking at ways to get their lives back on track. The famous Thai smiles and upbeat attitude are prominent.
Local charity organizations have changed their tactics from immediate emergency aid to long-term recovery. The Rotary Club of Patong Beach, for example, is helping a small fishing community north of Kao Lak with housing and boat repairs. The Club also allocated a more than a dozen scholarships for local students who lost their parents in the disaster.
Much to everyone’s relief, the international media circus has moved on to greener pastures. At one time there were almost as many satellite dishes pointing skyward as there used to be beach umbrellas. Speaking of which, colourful umbrellas and beach chairs can once again be seen on all of Phuket’s beaches.
Unfortunately, tourist numbers are still way down from what is the norm this time of year. Once the image of a destroyed and disease-ridden Phuket was formed in people’s minds it appears to be nigh impossible to make them see what the real situation is like. As a result, only 10% of available hotel rooms in Phuket are occupied. Let us hope this situation changes soon or resort owners will have no choice but to let staff go. This would result in tens of thousands of ordinary Thais losing their livelihood.
HOW ABOUT THE CORAL REEFS & DIVESITES?
At Fantasea Divers – Ocean Rover Cruises our challenge is to combat the many false reports about coral reef damage in the region. We have extended open invitations to dive magazines and photo journalists to come and see for themselves. Well-known publisher Michael Aw has just returned from an Ocean Rover cruise and currently we are hosting American photographer Beverly Factor. Magazines with recent photos of the Andaman Sea will hit the newsstands soon.
THE FACTS AS WE KNOW THEM AT THIS MOMENT:
Similan Islands: Isolated damage to shallow (2-3 meter) reef sections. Only one famous divesite, Christmas Point, suffered real damage. Most popular divesites such as Fantasea Reef are untouched. Some of the deep rock formations lost soft coral due to current.
Richelieu Rock: Zero damage.
Surin Islands: Still under survey but suffered most. Divesites at Ko Torinla are damaged.
Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago: Zero damage. Ocean Rover was there when the tsunami hit Phuket.
Burma Banks: Zero damage.
Ko Tachai: Some damage in the shallows. Twin Peaks undamaged.
Ko Bon: No damage to The Ridge.
Ocean Rover’s dive crew continues to send regular dive site reports from the boat. These reports are posted on our website and we will continue to do this until we have covered every divesite in our area of operation. Click HERE for updated DIVESITE REPORTS. Please return to these pages for regular updates.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
We have received hundreds of messages of support and we are touched by everyone's concern. Many of you have expressed a wish to contribute money but worry that their contribution will simply be absorbed into machinery of some mega aid agency. People want to be certain their donation reaches those who really need it.
There are several reputable organizations in Phuket setting up relief funds. One such organization is the Rotary Club of Patong Beach. The fund aims to supply immediate as well as long-term financial aid (e.g. scholarships) for children who lost their parents in the tsunami.
You can make a donation on-line at:
IT'S ALMOST AS LOVELY AS EVER-BUT WHERE ARE THE TOURISTS?
(Published with the kind permission of eTurbo News)
Phi Phi Island Village on Lo Ba Kao Bay on Phi Phi Island, Thailand surprisingly survived the tsunami that destroyed most parts of Ton Sai and Lo Dalam Bay. It is quite unbelievable that the resort sustained just a tiny amount of damage and today it is ready to welcome guests, despite the mere handful daring enough to come.
Chao Treenawongse, general manager of the resort, is now facing bigger problems than just filling his 104 rooms. His biggest task is assigning work to his staff of 240. He decided to allow half of the staff to have paid holiday, and for the rest to work in different areas such as gardening, maintenance, as well as training. "So, the waiter works as a guard, collecting rubbish at Ton Sai Bay, or at different places on Phi Phi. Some have become carpenters now." The resort's guests may notice that beachcombers at Phi Phi Island Village look nicer and more beautiful than others. In fact they are all spa therapists. Indeed, most hotels along the Andaman coast are doing the same thing. So don't be suspicious if as a spa guest you notice that the hands massaging you are a bit rougher than normal, the therapist probably just finished the gardening.
Karon Beach couldn't have been lovelier. Or lonelier. At this time in the high-season, a thousand or more tourists—most of them European—normally would be playing in the water, roasting on beach loungers under the mid-90s sun, buying Singhas and snacks and souvenirs from vendors, or dozing under the shade of a beach umbrella. But on this day, exactly five weeks after the tsunami hit, only three beachcombers passed by in the hour it took 13-year-old Top Vonganuwong to bury his 10-year-old brother, Guide, up to his neck in the cleaner-than-ever sand. Perhaps another hundred people could be seen scattered along the litter-free, mile-long beach.
That night we had dinner in Karon, a small but usually bustling town with a couple hundred restaurants, bars, 7-Elevens and other tourism-related shops. Everything was open, but at the pizzeria the boys chose, we were the only customers. Except for the absence of tourists, Karon Beach doesn't look like a place that was ravaged by the deadliest tsunami in world history for a simple reason: It wasn't.
Nor, I would learn in 10 days in this area, were most of Phuket's many other beaches, or those in up-and-coming Krabi, on the mainland east of Phuket. Yes, there were waves washing over beaches and roads, and damage—most of it quickly fixed.
But even the hardest-hit areas in Phuket are rapidly rebuilding. Just take a few steps away from the beach road in Patong Beach—the island's epicenter for tourism (and videos of the tsunami)—and the place looks just as it did a year and a half ago on my last visit. Except, of course, for one thing.
Phuket, an island resort that ranks with Bali as the most popular—and beautiful—in all of Asia, does have a disaster on its hands now. But it's what everyone here is calling "the second wave"—a lack of tourists, which has created a wipe-out of an economy dependent on them. During high season (November-March), hotel occupancy is usually in the 80-to-90 percent range. That translates to about 35,000 visitors a day on an island with a population somewhere around 250,000. Now that occupancy rate is down to 20 percent … 10 percent … maybe less.
Naturally, Phuket—and Thailand—would like you to come and visit. They have their ways. . . .
First, they're trying to make the point that reports on death and destruction in most of their Indian Ocean resort areas—especially Phuket and Krabi—were, well, exaggerated by the presence of so many journalists here.
Although the figures pale in comparison to Indonesia's Sumatra Island, and even Sri Lanka and India, a lot of people did die in Thailand, (officially about 6,000—probably higher). But most of those deaths were in Khao Lak (a relatively new destination 45 miles north of Phuket Island marketed primarily to Europeans), where more than 4,000 died, and on Phi Phi Don (an island 20 miles east of Phuket, made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie "The Beach"), where some 600 died. On Phuket itself, there were about 280 deaths, mostly in Patong Beach; on Krabi's mainland, there were none.
Inland, of course, nothing was damaged. So you can still go bungee jumping, visit the historic Portuguese/Chinese-flavored city of Phuket Town or take in a performance of Phuket FantaSea (a surreal, over-the-top Vegas-meets-Thailand spectacle, part cultural, but with big helpings of slapstick and magic, overhead acrobatics, 16 elephants on stage—not to mention the trained chickens).
Even seaside, some things weren't what you've heard. Phang Nga, the peninsular province just north of Phuket, was mentioned often in the news as the most devastated province in the country (Khao Lak is located on its west coast). But Phang Nga Bay on the other side of the province was well-protected by islands from the open sea and is still the most dramatic physical wonder in all of Thailand. Its karst-formation islands (including, of course, "James Bond Island") with their sea caves to be visited in canoes are possibly even more eerily beautiful than ever because right now you have them almost to yourself. (There were only 15 passengers on our boat, built to carry up to 20 two-passenger canoes, and we saw only one other tour boat all day.)
For the geographically challenged who don't know their Indian Ocean from their Pacific, the Thais are also pointing out that beach resorts on the other side of the Thai peninsula—Koh Samui, Pattaya, Hua Hin, et al—weren't affected at all.
Second, they stress that you will not be vacationing in a disaster area.
Thailand, with the best infrastructure—and economy—of any of the hardest-hit countries, is generally given high marks for its response to the disaster. Clean-up was quick. Roads have been repaired. There are no health crises. And most beaches, thanks To tons of extra sand brought in by the tsunami and all the clean-up effort, look better than ever.
In Patong Beach, debris is now long gone from Thaweewong Road, the hard-hit beach road. Though most of the businesses lining it are still closed, reopenings are happening almost every day, and the road now looks more like a construction zone than the site of a recent disaster.
Bangla, the honky-tonk main road into town from the beach, has a few closed shops at the beach end, but within a hundred feet or so everything is operating full-blast, including the open-air, thatched-roof "bar beers" with their, uh, hostesses. By the time Bangla reaches Rat Uthit Road, the main street through town paralleling the beach road, you'd never know anything had happened here.
And, as at Karon Beach, there are plenty of other beaches where there wasn't all that much to clean up to begin with.
Third, they want you to know that you are very, very welcome-right now!
In the first weeks after the disaster, pictures of tourists lolling on the beaches while clean-up crews worked around them did look a tad insensitive. But after the first few days, Phuket had all the help it could handle. So would anyone have been better off if everybody had fled?
If you want to do something for Thailand and its people, the best thing you can do now is come—and spend a little money. Which leads to….
Fourth, they've put it all on sale.
If you're hanging out in Bangkok, you can partake of a "Never Before, Never Again" promotion with budget-carrier Thai AirAsia for 999 baht (that's about $27), per person double, whicH includes a one-way flight to Phuket and a night in a four-star hotel room.
Some of the bargains, like this, are intended for the local (Thai and expat) market. Others are for the foreign trade. But no matter who or what the deal's for, there will never be a better time financially—for both you and the Thais—to come to Thailand's Andaman Sea resorts than the next few months.
Americans make up only about 5 percent of the 10 million-plus foreign visitors to Thailand each year. And unlike Europeans, who come en masse on 10- to 12-hour charter flights just for a long beach holiday, few Americans need to make what is for us almost a full day's journey to find an escape from the cold. When we do visit Thailand, we're more likely to do it for other reasons—like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the north, the culture, find in Florida, Hawaii or the Caribbean.
This year, if you've got the time, Phuket has deals that will make you linger longer.
Every hotel is offering either low-season or lower rates—or some kind of package deal. The most spectacular deal may be at the most spectacular resort in all of Thailand, the Amanpuri, but deals are also being made at places that normally charge only $30 to begin with (see If You Go).
You'll also find restaurants offering discounts or extras, gift shops too. A bookstore in Patong Beach was giving 10 percent off even on the daily papers. And tour operators cut deals (that all-day Phang Nga Bay cruise came down from $30 to $25) without being asked.
Of course, there's another reason to visit the Phuket area now that isn't being officially promoted by the locals. Call it tsunami tourism, if you must, but the events of Dec. 26, 2004, have become—and always will be—part of Phuket's history. It is not a date like 7 Dec, 1941, or 11 Sept, 2001, that will live in infamy. Nature doesn't work that way. But it will live on.
Travellers are curious. Just as they visit New York City's lower Manhattan (and still, after more than 60 years, Pearl Harbour) to see where "it" happened, the tsunami someday will be one of the reasons they visit Phuket. (More than one tourism official I spoke to in Phuket observed, with intended irony, that "at least people know where Phuket is now.")
To a limited extent, that someday is already here. Tsunami videos are discreetly for sale everywhere. A "photo memoir" ("26.12.04: Wrath of the Tsunami"), a joint venture of two English-language newspapers, is due in bookstores this month. At least five tsunami songs have been released, and one has become a national hit (it's in Thai, but I don't need a translator to tell you it's mournful).
And everybody who was here when it happened has stories to tell. Or high-water marks to point to. And, seemingly, a need to talk about it.
A waiter at the Amanpuri demonstrates with a spoon lightly shaking on a coffee saucer how the earthquake that launched the tsunami was felt in Phuket. Two hours later, when the waters quickly receded from Pansea Beach, the staff made the connection—and quickly herded everyone off the beach.
Another waiter tells how his fisherman father—"an old man" (he was 55)—survived by climbing a tree, while two, less agile friends next to him drowned.
A van driver, pointing out a gutted building on the beach road in Patong Beach, says something in Thai. I recognize only the Thai words for "21"—but before my friends can translate, I know this was the site of the basement supermarket where 21 died.
At Kamala Beach, one of the two hardest-hit beaches (with Patong) on Phuket, I talk with Puk Wilaiporn, a young woman who runs the Kamala Coffee House. It stands alone now, rebuilt and shiny, waiting for the tourists to come back. She tells how she got 20,000 baht (about $530) from the government; foreigners helped out too. On this beach, 38 villagers and foreigners died, 4 of Puk's family were among them. She tells me all this, through a translator, while the Thai smile—which can mean so many things—never leaves her face.