I arrived in Thailand just over ten years ago. My plan was to complete my Divemaster course and work in the scuba diving industry at the Similan Islands. Little did I know at the time that my arrival in Thailand would always be marked by the Indian Ocean Tsunami, 26th December 2004.
I also didn’t know at the time that I would still be here ten years on. Today of all days I am feeling extremely fortunate to still be here in Khao Lak. On one hand fortunate just to still be here when so many lives around me were lost. Fortunate to have my family here, watching my kids grow up and also fortunate to have witnessed Khao Lak carry on. From utter destruction, the people of Khao Lak first rallied together to help the survivors, then to rebuild their town.
Nowadays little evidence remains of the destruction. Khao Lak has not only been restored but is now thriving more than ever.
In the aftermath of the Tsunami, I sent an email to family and friends in an effort to account what had happened here in Thailand. As life in Khao Lak continues on it is important never to forget. This is my story of events from shortly before Christmas 2004.
For Paula and Andy, who, although I am not in contact with as much as I would like, I am fortunate to still be around as our lives move on.
For Nova and Ben who will never be forgotten.
An edited version of these emails appeared in The Times Newspaper on 10th January 2005. These are the full unedited emails.
24 December 2014 Email
Merry Christmas ! Just wanted to write a few lines to let you all know how it’s going in Thailand.
I arrived in Bangkok fairly tired and met some friends from Munich, a lot of you know them, Paula, Ben, Andy and Nova. Most of the time in Bangkok was spent drinking Chang Beer and generally catching up. We did go to the weekend market which is possibly the biggest market ever! The night train down to southern Thailand (Surat Thani) was eventful. We intended to have a few beers just to make the journey a bit more comfortable but ended up turning our carriage into the train’s party carriage. There’s always people walking up and down the train selling drinks but they ended up just leaving their buckets of beers by us : )
Needless to say the bus journey after the train at 6 in the morning wasn’t too pleasant ! ! ! Anyway we made it Khao Lak. I started my dive course the next day. It was fantastic to be back in the water and I dived one of my favourite sites straight away. Have seen a few leopard sharks and a black tip shark already. The Manta rays will be here in a week or two, it’s the season to spot them. Being a dive master trainee is good fun but quite stressy but very rewarding so far. I led my first dive yesterday and it went very well considering my divers were green with seasickness 🙂 ! On the 27th I will go out to the live aboard boat, that’s where my instructor is based so it will be four or five nights away from the mainland.
Right, I best sign off now, the others are waiting to start the festivities.
Christmas day will go something like this. Meet the others, head down to the beach for some sun and food. It is boiling here today btw ! ! Watch the sunset around 6 and then go to the bungalows where my friends are staying for a slap up feed that the bungalow owners are throwing. BBQ’d fresh fish, prawns and lots of other Thai specialities. What a day ! !
For anyone who knows Nathalie, she is alive and very well and I have passed on your requests that she gets to an internet place soon to send some emails !
cheers everyone (chok dee ! !)
2 January 2005 Email
I think it is time to try and recount what has happened these last few days. This mail may be harrowing but it is something I have to write at some point. Please forward onto anyone I may have missed who you think might want to hear about it. (this keyboard is crap so if i miss out any letters that’s why)
Am not sure what time I woke up. I think it was about 11.30am. I thought I heard someone calling my name, they were calling Richard so i presumed it was someone from the dive shop as all my friends call me Ric. It had been a late night the night before, we had had a wonderful Christmas, Paula, Ben, Andy, Nova, Jessie, Marco (2 travelling friends of A and N) and myself. After dinner we had sat on the beach until around 4. It was such a calm night, the tide was out, the sea completely flat with a bright full moon overhead. We were all pretty drunk when we left, I had even thought about sleeping were the others were staying on one of the massage chairs at the resort.
I felt rough when I woke and was confused about someone calling my name. My room was roasting hot as the power had been cut and my fan was off. Power cuts are nothing new in Thailand so i didn’t think too much about it. There was no phone reception either. I decided to get up and head down to the others. I was staying just off the main road on a slight rise in the land just to the north side of Khao Lak. I passed a medical shop near my bungalows, there were a few people milling about, all dirty with many cuts and bruises. At first i thought there must have been a road accident. Our dive shop is situated right in the middle of Khao Lak so I headed there to find news.
Right in front of the shop there is a police check point, with an open sided tent shelter. There were a few dead bodies lying under this and more injured people. A Thai girl at the shop tried to explain what had happened in German but I still didn’t really grasp the full force of what had happened. I looked down to the beach and was completely shocked to see the sea. There should have been at least 20 hotel and bungalow complexes there. All that was left were the foundations and debris everywhere. I went down to where the others were staying. There were bodies and limbs all over. At this point some Thais raced passed me on motorbikes shouting another, another. I was so confused and joined the few people running away. This happened many times. Every time I got near the sea everyone ran away. I should have realised that the Thais are like this and have stayed more to look for the others but I was so scared I was swept along with the confusion.
I haven’t told Andy about this bit, he’s not ready to hear it yet. I went back to the shop. at this point there were more injured and dead at the police check point. I saw a few people carrying Andy up from the beach. He was in such a bad state and barely concious. His lower leg was severely slashed and he had a huge bump on his head. I almost broke down on the spot. I so wanted to go to him but I think the utter shock on my face would have been too much for him. He was surrounded by people and was being given oxygen and it was hard to get near. There were no ambulances or police but luckily within seconds he was driven away in a truck.
There were stories coming from everywhere about an aftershock that would cause an even bigger wave. Everyone was being sent up a near by hill. I managed to get a lot of water for everyone and some first aid stuff and went up the hill. Reaching the top I saw a girl who had been working at the resort where the others were staying, she was relieved to see me but extremely worried about the others even though her mother, aunt and cousins were also missing. I found Andy and Nova’s friends Marco and Jessie on the hill. I don’t know any of their names, but a few people were getting first aid to the injured and trying to get some supplies organised. They were fantastic and many people owe their lives to these people. I hope nobody forgets what they did that day. At some point later I tried to go back to the beach with Marco. it was going dark. We were both trembling and couldn’t get far. He managed to find his girlfriend’s glasses in the remains of his room and I got some clothes and towels from my room for the people nearest us on the hill. I don’t think many people slept much that night.
Sometime in the morning the people from the dive shop found us on the hill. The boats out on the 26th had not been affected by the wave. At this point I knew Nathalie and her boyfriend were okay as they had been diving (this was not quite the case but am sure Nathalie will be retelling what happened to her). Within minutes of leaving the hill the police drove down the main road screaming at people to run, another wave was coming. This happened countless times, everyone was freaked out. Because the police were involved more weight was added to the fear of a second wave. At this point the dive staff and a few customers decided we had to get away from the scene. I didn’t want to leave without word from the others but having seen Andy alive I knew I had to search further a field.
Driving north we passed through the next town, Bang Niang I think is the name. Khao Lak had been protected a little bit by some outcropping land at the south of the bay. The beach front had been devastated but this next town had been hit by the full force of the water at some points nearly a kilometre inland. Buildings had been washed away or had been left partly standing. Everything was a tangle of trees, power line poles, motorbikes, trucks, rubbish, mud, furniture, washing machines. Most of the bodies had been taken away but we knew in all this mess thousands of bodies must been buried. We passed a bus that had been washed about 40 metres off the road and lay almost completely submerged. Further on there was a large armoured police boat. It had been washed 1 km in land and had been dropped in some trees. It was all so horrific, I could not comprehend the force that must had been needed to do some much destruction. It was difficult getting north, but by this point there were some emergency services trying to get control of the situation.
We made it to Thomas’ house. His kid and mother in law were missing but he still opened his doors to us all. Everyone in our group had people missing. We were all very quiet but just being together keep us together. The girls from the dive shop fed everyone. We knew we would be safe here. It’s people like Thomas who are the heroes. He did so much for us even though his problems were some of the biggest.
At some point in the evening phone reception was restored but it was very difficult to get a connection. I had been so anxious from the beginning to get word out because I knew people would be extremely worried. Luckily I could send SMS within Thailand and my friend in Chiang Mai got word out to Pinky and my family. Later I received word that Paula and Andy were in Phang Nga hospital.
As I knew two people were in Phang Nga (south) I decided to head north to try and locate Ben and Nova. Along the way there was yet more panic. Everyone was again racing away from Khao Lak, this time thinking the naval munitions were going to blow up. Takua Pa Hospital was in relative calm when I arrived although there were people everywhere. Families trying to locate the missing, people in beds and on stretchers in all the rooms, even in the large reception area. I had no luck here and knew it was time to check the morgues. There were two morgues in Takua Pa, both in temples. The scenes here were the worst I have ever scene and I hope never to see again. I would not wish anyone to ever see these places. There were bodies laid down in rows in their hundreds. The stench was unbearable and you had to walk through blood. Because of the heat the bodies had bloated to bursting point. Eye balls were almost popping out. It was impossible to tell the difference between Thais and Westerners. I felt sick to my very core. If anyone I knew was there I would never have known. The smell from these places seemed to linger in my clothes and nose for many hours more and when I hitched a ride south I recognised the smell many times more driving back through the towns near Khao Lak.
All I knew at this point was that I had to get to Paula and Andy, there was nothing more to be done staying in Khao Lak. At a police check point I asked for directions to Phang Nga. The police gave me food and water and drove me themselves to Phang Nga. I arrived late so checked into a room. I decided to reach the others in the morning. I didn’t want to take my body that had been where it had been that day into a hospital.
Phang Nga Hospital was still in some chaos but some volunteers were doing a brilliant job of trying to get people sorted out. I found Paula. She was in such a bad way and until now had not heard any news about what had happened. None of my messages had got through. Phang Nga hospital had been over whelmed. There were so many people in each ward, even some people had beds on the floor. Paula’s account of what had happened and subsequent time in hospital was very harrowing, I’m sure everyone will get to hear her side at some point. She was really relieved to see me with what little news I had. I was unable to find Andy and no one had news about what had happened to him. I can’t remember how but eventually found out he had been moved to Bangkok.
The rest of the day I stayed with Paula trying to make things a bit more comfortable. She felt very lost in the hospital. hardly anyone spoke English and a lot of her requests were ignored. There were Thai people in the beds next to hers and their visitors had done what they could for her, giving her water, etc. Some people came from the embassy, but it just seemed like a token visit. They had no real news about anything and their doctor failed to recognise the seriousness of Paula’s situation. The rest of the day passed in a lot of confusion for me, but I tried to do what I could for everyone and co-ordinate things with Paula’s family back home. A Thai/American girl called Visra came to our ward and was very influential in getting better treatment for Paula. In the early hours of the morning ze German Emergency Team arrived and Paula felt it best they get her out as soon as possible. She left about 6 in the morning after a very uncomfortable, sleepless night. I managed to sleep for a couple of hours next to the ward.
I now had to get to Bangkok to see Andy, I feared after seeing Paula that Andy would be in a similar state of confusion about what was going on. Again the British Embassy did very little to help and I managed to get a lift with a Thai woman and her daughter. They were so kind and drove me to the co-ordination centre in Phuket. They were just one example of the help I have received from the locals here. They would not let me go until they had bought me some dinner and water. There was transport from here to the airport and I was soon on a Royal Thai Air Force Hercules flying to Bangkok. I was so exhausted I managed to sleep for most of the flight. An achievement if anyone knows how loud these planes are.
By this point I had received a lot more info about where they were keeping Andy and made it to him around 11 in the evening. He had had an extremely rough time, having been moved from Phang Nga Hospital to Surat Thani Hospital before being flown by helicopter to Bangkok. I was relieved to see him and to see the expert treatment he was getting in Bangkok. It was a different world from the place they were keeping Paula, although Andy had experienced this too. I couldn’t stay too long at the Bangkok hospital but at least I had made contact.
31st December and Onwards
I am still in Bangkok. Andy has been moved to a new international ward here. He has nurses who understand most of his needs. There is still a very big language difference here. I am doing as much as i can to help out. It looks like he will be flown out of here tomorrow evening (3rd). Nathalie and Jesper are also in Bangkok so I no longer feel so alone. We even managed a few beers on the 31st although our mood was very sombre. I am still in regular contact with all the families of the five of us affected and am busy most of the day and night just doing whatever to try and lighten the load everyone has on their shoulders right now.
Thank you all for your emails and support these last few days. Sorry if I haven’t replied to all of them yet but knowing that some many people are there for us has helped us along.
Also I want to say a bit about the help we have received. At every hospital and emergency centre there has been teams of volunteers doing what ever they can to help. There were so many ex-pats, Thais, students, etc all doing their best to help out. I would not have been able to get this far without their help. I hope one day their respective countries recognised all they have done. If I had left our cases to the British Embassy I would probably be still on the hill in Khao Lak. However my biggest thank you goes out to the people of Thailand. I have been overwhelmed with emotion when experiencing the help and support from these people. A lot of people in the south are left with nothing, a lot have lost people but at every point along my way I have received food and water and compassion. I have been to shops that although without power have been giving out cooked meals to anyone passing by. I have been offered more food and water to last a life time. Even in Bangkok which feels a million miles away if anyone knows you have come from Khao Lak they stop and ask if you are okay, if they can do anything and wish you good luck for the coming times. If anyone is scared away from Thailand after this disaster I beg you to reconsider. Especially in the south everyone is worried that westerners will stop coming. It will be a while before anyone can go to Khao Lak, but word is Koh Lanta will be cleaned up in a few days. Phuket will recover quick enough and there are many places completely unaffected that are worth a holiday. I certainly wont stop coming to Thailand.
I haven’t mentioned much about what has passed between the families of Paula, Ben, Andy, Nova, mine, Pinky and me but we are all doing everything we can for each other. I hope everyone is doing the best as possible at this difficult moment.
I have to go check on Andy now. Will write some more in a few days.
Bye for now
ps. if anyone wants to email Andy, they can at this address, just make the subject: for Andy and I will do my best to pass it onto him. Please keep it brief and simple as he is still very upset and confused.