In February 2005, I went back to the beachside resort town of Khao Lak, six weeks after the December 2004 tsunami had all but destroyed it.
8 February 2005, 10 Years Ago This Week: When the tsunami happened on December 26 2004, I was in Kota Kinabalu, on a Christmas trip to Malaysian Borneo. During November 2004 I had been living in the town of Khao Lak, trying (not very hard) to find work as a scuba diving instructor but mainly propping up the bar. I left Khao Lak at the beginning of December. Three weeks later, on December 26 2004, the tsunami hit. Khao Lak was largely destroyed, the worst effected place in Thailand due to so much of the town being beach resorts right by the sea. I still remember switching on the hotel room television after a boozy lunch in Kota Kinabalu on Boxing Day and just not being able to take in the initial reports of what was happening.
I had close friends living and working on Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Phuket and Khao Lak, all places CNN and the BBC were reporting as decimated by the tsunami – well, Phuket and Koh Phi Phi – I seem to remember that Koh Lanta and Khao Lak didn’t get a mention which made it even more scary because I had no idea what had happened in either place. There was simply nothing, no news, good or bad, only silence. Phone calls, text messages, and emails couldn’t get though for the next 2 or maybe 3 days. Everything was smashed – there was simply no mobile phone masts or land lines or internet cables working. I knew several of my friends would have been on diving liveaboard boats around the Similan Islands, several hours journey away from the mainland. At the time, I was ignorant about how a tsunami actually works (the power of the wave is a pulse moving through water, but only releases its massive energy when it crashes into the shore), so I assumed a tsunami was a wall of water like a monster surf break moving across the ocean smashing everything in its path and I was terrified my friends on the board would shipwrecked and lost at sea.
As it turned out, being on a boat was one of the safest places to be. Some people were still scuba diving when the tsunami’s pulse passed through, sending them into a washing machine current underwater which is undeniably scary and quite dangerous but preferable to being where the wave hits on land. The boats themselves simply rode it out and, besides retrieving scared divers from the water, were fine. When the boats came back into Tapla Mu harbour near to Khao Lak, still only sketchily aware of what had happened that morning, the harbour waters were littered with bodies.
Six weeks after the tsunami I went back to Khao Lak to write a story about the impact of the tsunami on the Similan Islands, Thailand’s premier scuba diving destination. By that point, of course, I knew my friends were all safe and sound – but collectively they had lost several friends and acquaintances to the wave. Driving along the seafront of Khao Lak, and neighbouring village Bang Niang, was a unsettling experience – they were deserted, where usually hundreds of people would be going about their day; the buildings themselves had been shattered, doors and Windows ripped out, roofs torn off, and, in the case of the photo above, entire metal grates bent out of shape by the sheer force of the water.
Go back to Khao Lak now and you would never know the tsunami had ever happened, except for the tsunami memorial – a boat which was picked up by the wave and thrown a mile inland. At the time, there were dire predictions it would take Khao Lak years to get back on its feet – yet within a couple of months tourists, mainly divers, were returning to show support for local businesses and within a couple of years most of the resorts were rebuilt
All of those friends who came through the tsunami unscathed are still in my life 10 years on and it’s not an exaggeration to say they’ve each helped shaped me over the last decade. I feel incredibly lucky I didn’t have to live though the tsunami and I feel incredibly lucky that I didn’t lose anyone to it either.
What Is 12 Years Of Travel?I'm publishing a photo each week during 2015 that was taken in the same week sometime in the previous 12 years on my travels. Join me in my journey to combat early senility by trying to remember what the hell I was doing over the last decade.
- Week 1: Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Melbourne
- Week 2: Cannibal Rock, Komodo, Indonesia
- Week 3: Ocean Reflection, Ari Atoll, Maldives
- Week 4: Vertigo Bar Sunset, Banyan Tree Hotel, Bangkok
- Week 5: Talc Alf Sculptures, Flinders Ranges, Australia
- Week 6: After The Tsunami, Khao Lak, Thailand
- Week 7: Drugs Warning, Jakarta Airport, Indonesia
- Week 8: Beng Mealea Temple, Angkor, Cambodia
- Week 9: Failing To Climb Mount Kinabalu, Borneo
- Week 10: Night Diving At Maaya Thila, Maldives
- Week 11: Schwezigon Paya Temple, Bagan, Myanmar
- Week 12: Octopus, Hin Daeng, Thailand
- Week 13: A View With A Room, Bangkok Tree House
- Week 14: Koh Haa, Thailand
- Week 15: Angry Whopper, Singapore
- Week 16: Kuda Gili Shipwreck, Maldives
- Week 17: Model Shoot, Bangkok
- Week 18: Banda Islands, Indonesia
- Week 19: Port Eliot, Cornwall
- Week 20: Exmouth, Australia
- Week 21: Newquay Cliffs, Cornwall