A child’s tiny pink shoe peeks out from beneath a heap of rubble. It is a sobering reminder of the gigantic tidal wave that crippled large parts of Asia on 26th December 2004. Several months later, I visited the province of Krabi on Thailand’s south-west coast to see how the area was recovering.
It was the tourist high season when the tsunami struck Thailand, and the impact of this natural phenomenon was catastrophic. Not only did thousands lose their lives, but businesses, homes, and livelihoods were destroyed. Six Andaman provinces were affected, with over 5000 lives confirmed lost and thousands more injured or unaccounted for, presumed dead.
Krabi is a province encompassing the mainland and 130 outlying islands, including the popular backpacker haunt of Koh Phi Phi. The area was only just waking up for the day when the huge wave, triggered by the area’s most powerful earthquake since 1964, hit at around 10.30am.
People on parts of the mainland, such as Ao Nang, were given some warning about the impending disaster via a phone call from Phuket to hawkers on the beach. But people on the islands were not warned, and the death toll for the Krabi province is not far short of 1000 people.
The damage at Ao Nang was relatively minimal, and most hotels, bars, and restaurants were able to quickly re-open for business. But even months after the tsunami there was debris and rubble lying in the streets, alongside chilling photos of the approaching wave for sale on market stalls.
There was also a distinct lack of tourists. It took a long time for people to return. In the months following the disaster walking the streets of Ao Nang could be an eerie experience: empty bars pumping out loud music to no one, restaurants with more waiting staff than diners.
During that time I spoke to the owner of a local tourist information shop and internet cafe, Mr Chanpp, and asked him about the knock-on effects of the tsunami for local businesses:
“Business is bad at the moment,” he told me. “There are hardly any tourists here in Krabi and it’s a contrast to how it would normally be at this time of year.”
He also told me that Koh Phi Phi, one of the worst affected islands in the area, was recovering even more slowly. During my visit there was still an open appeal for volunteers to go and help with the cleanup operation on the island. Some backpackers had chosen to get involved with the efforts.
Lost but not forgotten
Mr Chanpp losts his brother in the disaster. “Koh Phi Phi was my home for 10 years and my brother was still living there when the Tsunami struck,” he said. “After the first wave hit, he went to help his friend who was injured on the beach, but then the second wave came and he has not been seen since. Everyone has suffered in one way or another – one of my friends lost 32 members of his family and hundreds of my people are missing.”
Another man I spoke to, Noppa, was working in a bar on the beach in Krabi at the time the Tsunami struck. “My friend shouted and pointed at the sea and I saw a huge wave coming towards us. I didn’t know what was happening and so I just ran as quickly as possible into the mountains,” he told me. “I stayed there for days – I was just too scared to come back down.”
There were personal tragedies around every corner – walking past Nopparat Thara beach, the next beach along from Ao Nang, the damage to buildings and land was more evident. The wave struck a concrete wall on the beachfront and the weight of the wave and debris ploughed through buildings behind. An elderly man was sat on a barren patch of land and, as I passed him, he pointed around him, shrugged in disbelief, and shouted, “Tsunami, tsunami.”
Back from the dead
It’s hard to imagine having to rebuild your entire community from scratch, and it’s testament to the resolve of the local people that the area has returned to much the way it was before the disaster struck.
Krabi’s beaches are as picturesque as they ever were. Golden sand and clear, turquoise sea are bordered by jagged hills draped in thick green vegetation. Water clarity has improved hugely, making the area popular with divers. The tourists returned and it wasn’t long before Krabi bounced back.
Many of the outlying islands and beaches of the area only accessible by boat were largely unaffected by the tsunami, and while you’re visiting the likes of Hat Rei Lei – the closest to paradise on Earth you’re ever likely to come – you would never know that anything so terrible had befallen it.
But although Krabi has recovered, the people here will never forget what happened on that terrible morning ten years ago.