Return of the (Non) Native

by (Thailand 1974–78)
First published on the blog of on June 11, 2007

JULY 2005

I left Thailand in 1980 after spending four years as a Peace Corps English teacher in a secondary school and three more working in refugee camps. I really don’t know why it took me so long to finally make that journey back to Thailand. I guess part of it was the fear of facing the changes that I would possibly find hard to accept after all those years. The tsunami finally washed all that away, and I found myself needing to return to be reassured that all was well there.

The changes in Bangkok seemed profound to me at first. It was so strange to see tall buildings, a subway and a monorail! In many ways, I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up from a long sleep to find a whole new world! I took a long walk the first night along Sukhumvit Road, a road I had traveled many times in the past. I could not gain a reference point until I had walked about 15 blocks and encountered the old railroad tracks.

Khao Lak, Pangnga Part One

I am sitting here alone on the veranda of the Khao Lak Bay Front Hotel watching the sun slowly descending into the Andaman Sea. I feel like I am in a Somerset Maugham novel — all teakwood, dusk, overhead fans… . As you look out over the beautiful view, a closer inspection tells you of darker days past. What was once, I’m sure, a beautiful pool area and gardens about half the size of a football field is now totally submerged in mud and water. You can just discern the outline of the pool itself and imagine how it might have looked last December 26th morning before the tsunami obliterated it and about 10,000 lives up and down these beaches.

A “to-khae” (gecko) skitters across the lattice work of the veranda’s roof as sandaled footsteps approach sliding quickly across the smooth red-tiled floors to turn on the lights— just enough for you to see your way. Small bats do their crazy dance in the sky looking for insects for their evening meal. The air is filled with the sweet aroma of countless tropical flowers. Sounds of croaking and chirping “chinchokes,” to-khaes, frogs, and numerous other animal life common to this area, yet unknown to me, remind me that I am indeed a world away from the sights, sounds and smells that make up my world in the States.

The now gentle sounds of the waves are not reassuring. They are beautiful, but not to be trusted. Even sitting here now you are never so comfortable as this serene location demands of you — paradise to hell in a flash.

Last night I thought I heard a thump and felt a lurch of our train as it was speeding through the night bound from Bangkok to parts south. The attendant confirmed this morning that the train had indeed hit and killed two water buffaloes (as if there weren’t few enough as it is)! “Sorry for the delay getting to Surathani,” he said with a smile as he touched the brim of his cap. Surathani– a small town that is at the hub of the south — for people going just about anywhere but Surathani.

The train arrives at the station about 7:30 am, and there is an explosion of activity as if the curtain has risen on act one of a play. The taxi drivers and busmen are working the crowds imploring them to take this bus or that taxi– Kho Samui, Phuket, Pangnga to mention just a few of the idyllic destinations. Market people are hawking all kinds of food to the hungry and still-sleepy passengers as they alight the train. In the center of all this cacophony is a pirate of a man barking orders this way and that. He is the ticket seller— your passage to paradise! He tries to convince me to take the local bus to Khao Lak– just as long, but a more direct route. I insist on the more comfortable bus to PangNga.

The bus takes me as far as the three corners at Khokloie, another nowhere hub to anywhere else. The foreign tourists on the bus look at me quizzically as I get off— “Why is this guy getting off at this God-forsaken place?” — I can see some of them wondering. As the bus pulls away, I get similar looks from the Thais at the small restaurant that doubles as the bus stop. Twenty minutes pass before the bus heading for Takuapa picks me up. The “grapao” (ticket collector) is a lively woman of about 35 years of age. She motions me to sit in the back next to a ancient monk on his way to a temple 30 kilometers up the road. When she hears that I am going to Khao Lak, she begins reliving the stories often told of the tsunami. Her eyes widen as she talks in vivid detail about the bodies lying here and there. She is aware, as many Thais are, that there are many unhappy ghosts in Khao Lak. There are occasional grunts from the old monk, but I can’t determine if he is agreeing with or admonishing the woman and her stories. I take a deep swig on my water bottle and wonder why anyone would travel down here any other way. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a minute of the past 15 hours traveling here from Bangkok.

The town of Khao Lak is about 2 kilometers along the north-south road running along the beach. Everything on the west side (beach side) was completely swept away. This was the area where many of the hotels and shops were located. Everything on the east side of the road was reasonably in one piece, buy it looked as if they needed to do a lot of cleaning and restoring of some of the buildings.

As I walked up the path to the hotel, I was greeted by the receptionist who was equally surprised that I was there. I explained why I had come, and we had a good chat about the hotel and what was or was not available at this time of the year — like lunch and dinner. I checked in and hiked back along the road to a small restaurant jutting out on the cliff overlooking the sea. I talked to the owner as I ate my noodles with chicken. He spoke about that day and how he had taken a group of Italian tourists out on an overnight trip. When he got back he could not recognize the place. All the hotels and resorts along the beach were completely gone! He showed me a map of the area — Khao Lak Orchid Resortel, Green Beach Resort, Happy Bungalows — to name just a few of the many places no longer in existence. From our eagle’s nest he pointed out where various hotels had been, jabbing the air with his finger as if he were painting on a large canvas. His brother, who had been working at the restaurant that morning, saw the tide go out and watched as people walked out to collect shells. He then witnessed the horror of the huge waves approach the beach — catching everything and everyone in its way. The images of that morning are still very vivid in his mind. As tortuous as recounting the events of that morning seemed to him, at the same time the mere telling of the story seemed to ultimately have a therapeutic effect.

I spend the next few hours wandering the town. Everyone has a story, and they are eager to tell it.  The people you meet are so grateful that you have come. Even with their town in ruins, it is a hopeful sign that things will return to some semblance of normalcy. The hotels will rise again. The tourists will come back, the beaches again will be crowded, and everyone will be working again.

After a quick dinner, I walk back to the hotel along the beach. Six months later belts, suitcases, clothing, toothbrushes, and other articles litter the sands still. In my mind each object speaks a horrible tale. Had the owner escaped or was she dragged out to sea never to be seen again? I watch as crabs run down to the water’s edge and know just when to retreat up the beach to escape the waves as they wash up on the shore. The irony of the scene does not escape me.

One Comment

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  • Sawadee Paul,

    Thanks for your essay. RPCV 91-94 (MOPH), Crisis Corp 96. Back in the day, fellow PCVs would flock down to Tauka Pa, Kao Lak for the rest and spend our days on the beach and the guest houses. At the time only one dive center was established, Sea Dragon.

    I happened to be back in the states when the Tsunami took place, the places you mentioned I recalled.

    I’ve been in LOS since 96, and about 5 years ago I made in down to Kao Lak. Yes the place has changed, the markers and precautions for future Tsunami warning are in place. I recalled closing my eyes trying to remember the way I remember it.

    However the response and follow up of organization and people to help out during that time was inspiring. That I recall too.

    Choke Dee

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