On Boxing Day, just over 13 years ago, the Asian tsunami hit our television screens, and we watched in horror as we saw the sea retreat, then tower up in massive waves that swept up the beach, destroying hotels, houses, people, cars, boats and anything that stood in its way.
We saw only the video footage shot by those who escaped its power, and about a year later many of us saw the Ewan McGregor film, The Impossible, which told the story in raw, emotional words and stunning photography.
Along the coastline that stretched across six provinces, Phuket, Krabi, Phang-nga, Ranong, Satun and Trang, it took 5,395 lives – among them 2,000 foreign tourists – but Khao Lak, the location for the McGregor film, is the Thai resort that recorded the most deaths in the disaster. The official death count of 3,950 is considered by many to be an underestimate: unofficial estimates reach as high as 10,000 as there were
a large number of undocumented Burmese migrants who disappeared.
I went to Khao Lak a few weeks ago to see how it was faring and I can report that the resort is thriving and the people have (mostly) managed to put this traumatic episode behind them. At the time of the tsunami the area was a peaceful alternative to the brash resort of Phuket, some 55 miles to the south, and so it remains. The villages are renewing themselves and the tourists are returning to occupy the new low-lying hotels that have sprung up in place of the wooden bungalows that used to stretch along the miles and miles of what most people consider to be the best beaches in Thailand.
A small-town atmosphere still prevails in Khao Lak town, a row of shop houses selling the essentials for locals and a few bits for tourists, like hats, sunscreen, flip-flops, snacks and drnks. It is quiet, unlike most Thai villages and towns where there always seems to be noise of one sort or another, there are a few excellent coffee shops and a few bars. It has the atmosphere of old Siam, the Thailand of 30 years ago.
As one would expect, there are tsunami-related Memorials. About a mile inland lies Motorboat 813, the Thai Navy boat which had been providing protection to King Bhumibol’s daughter and her family when the tsunami struck. The princess’s son, Bhumi Jensen, who had been out on a jet ski at the time, was one of those who died in the tsunami: his body was discovered the next day. The 25-metre Naval boat was swept inland for 1 kilometre during the tsunami and after the clean-up it was decided to leave it where it landed, as a permanent reminder of the tragedy which had affected so many people – Thais, foreign visitors and royals.
There is a tsunami museum which shows videos on a loop, but be warned, some of the scenes are distressing. It is impossible to leave this place unmoved, if not to tears, then to deep reflection on the tragedy. A short walk along the beach from here, is the Baan Nam Khem Tsunami Memorial Park, consisting of two long walls curved like a giant wave. One wall is covered in mosaic tiles set with name plaques, some with photographs of smiling toddlers and young children, some with photographs of families, and all with messages of love and heart-break.
Khao Lak today is recovering well and the people are welcoming visitors once more to what is one of the loveliest places in Thailand. One can relax in delightful hotels set just back from the sea, go hiking in green, forested hills, dive in the pristine waters of the National Marine Park of the Similan Islands, or plunge into the nearby rainforest of the Khao Sok National Park!
I found the perfect hotel as well, “Recommended hotel in Khao Lak”:http://www.manathai.com/khaolak The Manathai, set just back from the beach in a quiet area with an open-air bar perfect for taking in the dramatic sunsets that draw everyone down to the beach for pre-dinner cocktails. Rooms were large and exquisitely furnished, with a super-large balcony – perfect for the early morning coffee. The main restaurant served a fine International menu and the Thai restaurant on the beach was just perfect. Service in every department was friendly yet perfect, from staff with a good command of English, the whole overseen by the excellent Australian General Manager, John Gill, a long time resident of Thailand and someone with an indepth knowledge of Thailand and this area in particular.