A good friend of mine, Diane Edwards, is currently in Thailand. Di runs a company based in Greece, Seascape, that runs a small fleet of charter sailboats.
Early in the year she also organizes a great trip to Thailand which I went on in 1999.
Anyhow, this year they went ahead with the trip to Thailand - in most part due to the people she knows there communicating that the worst thing that could happen now is that tourism should drop off and deprive the region of the income they need. In Di's words:
Before Di left for Thailand she sent out some email to "the old salts" asking if we wanted to receive updates - sure!
So here, unedited and with permission. is Di's first email after arriving in Thailand.
From: Diane Edwards
To: Steve Lacey
Subject: Here in Phuket
Hi everyone.... thanks heaps for your notes and great words of support - so nice to hear from so many of our "old hands" again out there ! If we haven't gotten back to you directly as yet, sorry 'bout that... been a tad hectic here of late!
So here's the latest, From-The-Front report !
Our first impressions are how amazingly "normal" everything seems. Knowing the geography of the area, and the Thai people - we were already optimistic that Phuket would be significantly better than the mass media have been portraying it.
"Better" doesn't even begin to describe it. If one had been disconnected from the media for the past 2wks, there would have been no clues whatsoever that anything was amiss on our taxi ride from the airport in the north, to Kata Beach in the south (apart from our taxi driver, who had lots to say ! :>).
As we drove along Kata beachfront, we saw the shops on the beach road all open for business as usual, and as far as we could see, undamaged. Our first view of any tsunami damage was our favourite little right-on-the-beach cafe, at the bottom of the hill where Kata Delight sits. There were dozens of people working on it, a new roof in progress... and open for business again already. So the tables are makeshift plastic ones, but who cares - the food is just as superb ! It was heartening to see several other "farangs" (=foreigners) come in for dinner last night from their boats anchored at the bay - there seems to be an unspoken consensus that the construction noises going on late into the night should not be allowed to intrude. Similarly with many westerners leaving extra-large tips in these little places. It's good to see.
We were exceedingly happy to find that not only was our favourite Kata Delight hotel perfectly fine - but that all the staff there too. Apart from the place being abnormally quiet of course!
So after a quick wake-up dip in the pool, we got in our jeep, and set out for the beaches we'd seen on the news reports. The hotel guys told us that the worst hit beaches were Patong (the major "touristy" beach) and Kamala, the next one north - so off we went to see for ourselves.
Patong is the beach from which many of those shocking first pictures came - probably one of the few tsunami-hit areas where there were so many tourists around with cameras to hand. Even with our optimism, we were still expecting this particular area to be pretty wrecked for a couple of streets back (tho we suspected that stories of the water extending almost a kilometer inland were geographically unlikely!)
We can't know how it looked even last week; we can only report on "now" - and the "now" is that the beachfront is looking amazingly clean and organised already. Many of the buildings which were sitting right ON the beach are being completely demolished and rebuilt. Those across the road fared much better - who knows why some are still looking quite "as normal", and why some were taken out badly; but even so, it is not a scene of total destruction AT ALL. Again, if one did not know better, it would easy to imagine that there were just major renovations going on along the waterfront. On average, it looked like about 70% of the buildings/shops/bars/hotels on the road opposite the beach are ok, many of them re-opened for business again already.
Go just one street back in Patong - and it is like stepping into some time warp where no tsunami happened. Everyone is open as usual, and it's super-*busy*! - much to our surprise !! It looked just like the packed-out Patong of old, with all the street vendors, the girlie bars... the only major difference immediately noticeable to us was many less westerners than usual.
We had lunch at a little plastic-table locals' place on Patong Beach. The women there greeted us with lots of smiles and "sawadee's" (welcome!). Later we bought coconuts from a beach vendor - we got a big "thumbs-up" sign from the guy, and an even bigger smile from him and his buddies sitting around when we told him that we'd be sending the photo to friends back home.
These reactions - and many others similar - have quite put our minds at rest about one niggling doubt; that there might be some uncomfortable element of being "gawking tourists". We'd read the opinions of some who thought it a ghoulish, stop-at-traffic-accident thing to even consider still going to Thailand; how thick-skinned us westeners must be to consider still basking on beaches when so many people have suffered such personal tragedies - all of which are valid points of view. However.... they don't seem to be the locals' point of view. We have not so far gotten ANY sense of resentment at our presence; in fact it has been absolutely, totally the opposite. These people are happy to see us, very happy. They know that in many ways, they were the luckier ones..... so many in Khao Lak fared so much worse.
They also know very well that even for those who lost nothing in the tsunami, that the secondary economic crisis could spell disaster for them - the Thais we have spoken with have very much echoed our expat friends' frustrations at the mass media of late. The first person we encountered on our arrival - the very talkative taxi driver ! - told us at great length; everyone equates Khao Lak with Phuket. For them, it is as if some natural disaster happened in eg, Vancouver, yet everyone is being warned off going to Seattle.
So - as far as Phuket is concerned; statements that we have all read in the press that the island has "been devastated" are just wrong, plain and simply - wrong. There is no more or less risk of disease here than on Dec 25th; the vast majority of the island is just as it always was. There are no bodies in streets or on beaches, no change in the sanitation/water infrastructure, the beachfront damage is being repaired amazingly fast.
This is the good news. Now for the not-so-good.
The two areas of which the massive destruction reports ARE true are Phi Phi Don ("big" Phi Phi) and Khao Lak. The latter is about 2.5hrs drive north of here, on the mainland. It was the up-and-coming-Phuket-to-be - many new upscale resorts, many, many tourists. The majority of the deaths reported in Thailand were from this area. Much as we can see the Phuket locals' frustration at the mass media - we can also understand better now how these generalisations have come about. Even we - knowing the geography of the area - did not realise till now just how localised the tsunami effects were; how it picked out certain areas to devastate, others to leave almost untouched.
Khao Lak and Phi Phi Don shared two unfortunate geographical similarities. They both have west/nw facing beaches with long, shallow sands stretching back for 100s of metres, giving the tsunami so much more chance to build those horribly destructive wave heights. For Phi Phi Don - add the fact that most of it was built on a flat sand-spit of land between two pinnacles - and you have a perfect path for such a wave to wash right over to one beach to the other side.
Khao Lak is out of bounds to visitors right now; we hear that relief organisations and the Thai military are there and doing a great job; we'll not be able to report directly (even if we wanted to .... which, re the gawking tourist comments! - we probably wouldn't anyway).
We ARE hoping to get out to Phi Phi Don - this is the home of Wolfgang's cook, Joy; she and her husband ran a dive shop there. They and all their family are fine, but their shop/home is not. We've had several offers of donations, etc, from past sailors, and we are hoping to find a worthwhile project there to help support. We've been told that the gov't is throwing a lot of resources at the island to help them rebuild, and that they are even hoping for an "opening day" of Feb 1st - on which they will offer free accommodation to encourage visitors back ! Wolfgang thinks this date is optimistic; but still.... hope is on the horizon to get tourists back this season.
Getting the tourists back is the main concern of Phuket and most of the surrounding southern islands now. This may sound callous and uncaring towards those in Khao Lak who have lost so much, and have no hope whatsoever of rebuilding their homes/livelihoods in any near future. But what good is it going to do those people who survived up north, if they don't even have any hope of moving down to Phuket to earn enough to feed their families? The locals in Phuket who were already living on a shoe-string are losing their jobs daily - no tourists = no income = how on earth to survive the coming 6 months of the rainy season ??
As one of the local papers noted today - whilst the generosity of people around the world in donating to relief funds has been wonderful; the sad fact is that there's a whole lot of secondary - and unnecessary ! - damage going on right now in Phuket. Media over-generalisations, our own governments issuing blanket advisories to stay away, without any attempt at geographical differentiation. Unsafe? Tell it to our smiling coconut vendor on Patong beach, or the sunworshippers and swimmers behind him. Relief funds? Our beach cafe family won't get any, they are working their butts off from dawn till late at night to get back on their own feet. Disease? Tell it to the local girls we were talking to last night, who are about to lose their restaurant jobs. Guess what they will end up doing instead, to survive ??
I should pause here and add a small disclaimer: I am talking ONLY of what we have witnessed ourselves in the past few days. I am not in any way including Khao Lak, nor "big" Phi Phi island; nor am i trying to minimise the awful destruction and the thousands of deaths that the tsunami caused here. We are just the tiniest tiddlers in this Thai pond, and even less significant in the bigger asian picture of this tragedy. Sending back word to our western friends is just something we hope we can help with *right here and now*, to help minimise the "economic aftershock". Other parts of Thailand, and even more so, other parts of Asia desperately need the aid that has been so generously contributed. The people here just need the chance to get their normal livelihood back.
We hope that you guys will spread this email around and let other people who were unsure of whether to continue with travel plans to Phuket know that IT IS JUST FINE - AND JUST AS BEAUTIFUL!! - and for sure, your visit will be totally appreciated by the locals.
More updates to come - moving on from Phuket to some of the people here who *were* badly affected - we're planning a somewhat novel "seascape mini-relief effort" for locals in Phi Phi (stay tuned, win a vacation for two to the Greek isles ! :>).
all the best from us, from a still very lovely Kata Beach...
Diane & Ray
PS the attached photos aren't the greatest, i'm afraid.... just a few snaps from our first pretty jet-lagged afternoon! We'll do better .... :>