“That’s where I nearly drowned like a trapped rat,” Hank said, pointing to the two-story cottage at the corner of Patong Beach in Phuket. “That’s where Pen and I were staying. We’d been out at a friend’s party that night and slept in the next morning. The next thing I know, I’m woken up by this angry unstoppable force of water rushing into the bedroom. What I remember was how surreal it was. I was thinking, this isn’t happening, this is a nightmare.”
December 26, 2004 dawned bright over Phuket, Thailand, promising another day of sun and fun and leisure. Behind the blue sky the gods of doom smiled slyly.
First there was a mild earthquake, shaking people still asleep in their beds, or already at work, or enjoying their breakfast.
“I don’t remember that,” Hank said. “I was sound asleep.”
Then things went calm and the gods rubbed their hands in glee.
The tsunami roared in from below the horizon. Those who saw the first of the giant waves weren’t sure what they were seeing.
In the space of few mid-morning hours, Patong and other coastal areas and islands turned into an aquatic hell.
“Pen and I had to fight against the water to make the stairs. It had an incredible, almost malevolent, force. We rushed up to the second-floor terrace. The water still came. We had to climb up on the roof. All the time I’m thinking, this isn’t real, this is a nightmare.”
Ten years later, Phuket has recovered, and is once again a tropical playground. The tourists enjoying the beaches, or the food, or the elephants, or the night-life, don’t think at all about the tsunami.
The same is true at Khao Lak, approximately eighty miles north of Phuket, a low-lying area where the largest number of deaths occurred, including many Europeans.
“Who blames them?” Hank said. “It puts a bummer on their fun. But there is something to realize, when the tsunami hit, it made everybody the same, the rich tourist, the poor beach sweeper, the Baptist minister, the prostitute. But even the locals don’t like to remember. Still, it did happen, and it could happen again.”
Hank and his lovely Thai wife Pen were the hosts of the Phuket villa I’d booked through Roomorama. He had rebuilt higher up on a hill, with a lovely and safe view of golden beaches. After few days of getting to know them, Hank took me on a tour, including stops at a couple somber memorials. The Wall of Remembrance, in Mao Khai near the airport, was particularly moving. In the aftermath of the tsunami, the authorities erected a wall of particle boards near the temporary morgues, and the wall became an impromptu bulletin board for families and survivors posting pictures of their missing loved ones.
“There’s a memorial service every year,” Hank said. “Sky lanterns and lit candles on the beach. The tenth anniversary is coming up this year, 2014. Ceremonies are already being planned for December 26. Phuket is lovely, it’s my home, life is good here, but we need to remember.”