My Tsunami Story
I returned from Thailand last week and have finally got to writing about my experience with the tsunami disaster. This is not a story of heroics or a first hand account of the actual disaster. It's just a story of one lucky, drunken, too cheap for a beach front room, regular visitor to Phuket, and a trip I will never forget.
I am flying the Seattle to Tokyo leg of my flight. I'm reading a magazine article about Iraq and see pictures of death. The thought comes across my mind that in all my 41 years I have never seen death. Not once have I ever even seen a dead human. Quite amazing considering my family once owned a funeral home. There was never a need, so I never did. For some reason I ponder this thought for some time. I wonder how I would react. I really don't know.
I remember sitting at the beach with my TGF when I hear a loud Canadian behind me speaking about all the development on Phuket. I can't help hearing everything he says. If you have been to Phuket recently you will have noticed all the development. I met several Americans on this trip that are there developing property. They all told me their success stories. Stories of building homes and condos only to realize more profit than they ever anticipated upon completion. The Canadian says the same thing, then says, "These people are crazy. This place is a bomb away from being a ghost town!"
I go out for yet another night of drinking on Soi Bangla. I remember having a conversation with one of the regulars I know. I remember telling him that this was the most uneventful trip to Thailand I have been on. Strange in that most trips are filled with something eventful. Amazing Thailand! Maybe it's all just getting old.
I wake up with yet another hangover. I swear off drinking. I come to the conclusion drinking just doesn't do anything for my life. Why spend all that money for a pounding head in the morning. That night, even though Soi Bangla will be a great Christmas Eve party, I go to Kathu with my TGF for a movie at the new mall.
I wake up felling great. My TGF sleeps like a log and never gets up before noon so I head to the beach alone. 9:00 and the beach is beautiful. All the early risers are out. I think how much better this life is than the drinking one. I walk the entire beach and go to one of the beach side restaurants on the north end for breakfast. That night I break my promise to myself. I'm a weak man at times. Booze and women have been my downfall in life. I figure it's my last night in Patong so I go back to Soi Bangla to party at my regular spot with all the regulars. I try to hold back but I can't. Back to my room late, drunk as ever.
I wake up with another hangover. I need to pack so I do. I hear a rumble that sounds like an airplane. I don't remember the time but I go back to bed. Everything can wait, I don't feel like going anywhere. I think about how much better it would have been to be able to go to the beach like yesterday. My TGF's mobile won't stop vibrating, I can hear it buzz on the nightstand. Damn her cousin! They are Siamese twins, never can they be apart. A little bit Siam, but mostly joined at the hip. Then mine starts to go off. It's her cousin. Then the noise outside…people…motorbikes. I start to curse Thai people. So damn loud! My TGF finally wakes. It's a miracle, not even noon! She answers the phone, speaks some Thai then turns to me, "We must go…water come!" WTF???!!! She is in panic mode. I don't even know what's going on.
I go outside and the Swede next door is watching all the people running by the hotel. I ask him what's happening. He doesn't know. My hotel is on Sainamyen, up the street a bit past the hospital. The stream of people going by gets larger. We run downstairs and I jump on the motorbike. My TGF says, "No motorbike, must walk". Never heard that before. We go up the hill a bit. The day before I had taken the steep road up the hill to explore. I remember a small restaurant at the top. We go and find a TV with CNN. The worst part now is the lack of information. No one really knows what is going on. CNN just reports of a large earthquake and there have been deaths. Most of the people we speak to know about as little as us. Most of the talk is about the wave that is coming not the one that hit. A woman tells me about how she woke up and fish were swimming around her bed. I see no tragedy just humor in that. We spend 6 hours on that hill. Time spent doing nothing but searching for food and water, sitting and waiting. At about 4:00 I decide I've had enough. I never thought we needed to leave my room in the first place. No wave known to man had ever been big enough to reach my room. My TGF keeps asking how I know so much. She is scared. Keeps talking about how the people for years have been talking about a big one coming. I look around and notice all the westerners seem to have gone, only Thais seem to remain. My scientific mind finally wins over her superstitious one and I decide to go for a look myself. I tell her I must go and I leave her and her cousin. I make my way to the Rat-u-thit, the second street, and see nothing but a little mud on the road. What's the big deal? I make my way to Soi Bangla and start walking to the beach. Many people walking around. I see one of the girl's from the bar. Standing in the middle of the road dressed in a spotless white dress, beautiful as ever. Surreal at this point. Her Thai smile and white dress and amidst a background of mud and debris. We speak and I continue on. At this point it sinks in. Jet skis parked on the street, Soi Katoey is a disaster area. The closer I get to the beach the worse it gets. I go to my regular bar and all I see is the door rolled down. I worry about the girls even though I was just told they were OK. I see people digging with knives in the mud outside the gold shop. I see one Thai guy open up the cargo pocket on his shorts and it's about two inches deep in gems and gold. When I get to beach road I am blown away. World Sport is blasted out. Patong Market is as well.
Even the large fridge inside the market is gone! How did that get sucked out? I walk to the beach. The fluffy white sand…gone! Packed down or stripped, I don't know. Beach chairs…gone. Boats ripped in half, debris everywhere. I walk up and down beach road and take pictures of the carnage. Buses overturned, boats smashed into buildings, cars on tuk-tuks. I hate tuk-tuks but not this much. I worry about all the people but see no signs of death.
I meet my TGF back at the room and show her my pictures. She says, "See, I tell you.", over and over. Later, we go to the Patong hospital. She is worried about friends and so am I. The front of the hospital has a board with names of the dead
and injured. Many people with small injuries are leaving. Beach chairs that must have been used as stretchers sit out front. My TGF asks a hospital employee something and she points around back. She takes me around back and it finally hits me.
Caskets and bodies are everywhere. About 60 pictures on the wall of the dead. More being processed by a worker at a desk. One young Thai girl, three young Thai men, a baby, the rest are Farang, most are older or heavy set. Probably those that
could not run, I think. I look through them and see no face I recognize. My TGF sees none as well. Two rooms filled with death, doors open for us to see. More bodies outside and even more being delivered by pickups. I see a big Farang on a stretcher
that looks like someone I know. I want to pull back the cover and look for a tattoo but I can't. I'm in shock. Several Thais try to pick him up but can not, they drop him, cover comes off, no tattoo, I sense relief. I never thought I
would ever see anything like this. I admire the hospital workers and all the volunteers for how they are handling this. I remember my thought on the airplane two weeks ago.
I get up fairly early. My TGF is back to normal, sleeping like a log. I need money and a ticket out of here. I go down and find a ATM. It works! I pull out 10,000 and head to the travel agent. I'm not alone. One ticket left that night and I take it. My TGF needs to stay a couple days so she can go later. I walk past the ATM on the way back. There is a line down the street. Again, I find myself lucky. I give my TGF money for a flight and tell her to meet me in Bangkok. We walk the streets again and see more death. Basements are being pumped out and more bodies found. Screams of "pu chai, pu chai" (young man) when a body is pulled out. That night, I go to the airport and it's chaos all over again. It again hits me what has happened. Many people walking around with white gauze covering injuries, most still wearing bathing suits. I see two women that were in bad shape emotionally, shaking out of control. Amazingly, no crying, most people are silent. My flight is two hours late but I finally make it to Bangkok. At my hotel I feel like some sort of celebrity. Word was out that I just came from Phuket. People, guest and staff, coming up to me wanting to know what happened. I use the word "lucky" many times.
As the days went by I learned more and more via the net. Phi Phi wiped out, Kao Lak as well…wow. Luckily again, I have been able to locate all of the people I have met over the years. I feared for many of them.
I'm now back home in the US. Even though I suffered no real hardship I still have to deal with what I have seen. Most of the time I am OK, almost like it didn't happen or it just doesn't seem real. There are times I do struggle with it. Laying in bed at night is the worst time. I think of all the people I saw on the beach the day before. The children playing in the water. I think of all the faces I saw those two weeks and wonder. I even found myself getting a bit emotional when typing this. I feel guilty at times. Guilty for being so lucky. Guilty for being a healthy male sitting on the hill when people needed help below. Guilty for going out for pizza that night like it was nothing. My TGF reminds me that we just didn't know.
I just bought a ticket to return in a few months. I figure just going back is helping out. I can't wait to go back. I just want to see my beloved Phuket back to normal. I may even buy one of those condos for my TGF and I.
I bet there will be plenty of people who shy away from beachfront hotels from now on…