Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Phuket Tsunami History

The State of Phuket

Simon J Hand, editor of Asia-Pacific TROPICAL HOMES and a long-time resident of Phuket, reports on the remarkable resilience of the island following Sunday's tsunami and the speed with which those areas worst hit are recovering.

It is now the fifth morning after the tsunami – which locals are calling the “Andaman Wave” – struck the beach resorts and fishing port of Phuket Island and many areas on the west coast of Thailand.

Rescue workers in Khao Lak, north of Phuket, and returning from the popular island destination Phi Phi, to the south, speak of unparalleled destruction and loss of life. It will be many months, indeed years, before these places recover.

However, things on Phuket are returning to normal at a remarkable rate. Much of the island's administrative and emergency services were untouched by the devastation along the coast and it is likely that this is one of the chief reasons why the island has been able to bounce back so quickly from this terrible ordeal.

Since the afternoon after the tsunami, I have been touring the areas of the island hit by the wave, to check on friends and report on what I have found there. Below is an area by area breakdown compiled from these reports. Artasia editors will continue to update these as the days pass and new information comes to light.


Though seawater did breach the protective wall and initially flood the runway at Phuket International Airport when the wave – in fact waves – hit, airport emergency crews quickly brought everything under control and it was re-opened by early Sunday evening and receiving flights from Bangkok, including one carrying Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who came to personally supervise the early stages of the rescue and clean-up efforts.

I have visited the airport on several occasions since then. There are no signs of the chaos and madness some news agencies have been reporting. There is more an air of mild perturbedness and it's a little busier than usual for a high season. It's as busy with people arriving as leaving. While some of these are people here to search for lost relatives and friends and the rescue workers arriving from Bangkok and international agencies, many more are holiday-makers who have checked with their hotels and found them to be fully operational.


Nai Yang Beach, just south of the airport, is decimated. I was up there the day after the wave and, along the road closest to the beach, there is not a single shop, bar or restaurant that has not been destroyed – some are simply not there anymore. However the two major hotelsCrown Nai Yang Suite and Pearl Village – set some way back from the beach – have received only nominal damage and will be back in full operation with a week or two. I revisited Nai Yang on Thursday and the clean up operation was in full swing. Some places have even started rebuilding.


I visited Andaman White Beach Resort the day after the wave and was amazed at the recovery. Staff from the hotel had returned the beach to its usual pristine condition. When the wave hit here staff had already removed all of the guests from the beach and they were safely back in the hotel, which is set fairly high up the hillside. The only damage was to the resort's dive centre and new beach bar – both at beach level – the latter, ironically, only having opened on Christmas Day.

I have heard reports that the new Trisara resort received only nominal damage to its beachfront buildings.


While there was significant damage to the beach area – with seawater surging back some 400 metres from the beachfront, there is little development on or near Layan Beach and so, fortunately, little damage except for the downing of a few electrical poles. Layan Beach Resort is set well back from the beach and received no damage whatsoever.


Despite claims that it was totally destroyed in some TV news broadcasts, the internationally renowned Laguna Phuket complex, which fronts onto the centre of Bangtao Beach, has reported that only fifty of its 1100 rooms have been put out of action by the wave. One guest was killed when the water hit the resorts.

The five hotels are reporting that they will be fully operational in less than a month with damage restricted to ground floor rooms close to the beach and a number of their beachfront restaurants and pools. When I visited Laguna Beach Resort the day after the wave, many guests languished not in misery but upon sun-loungers, baking beneath the clear blue skies.

The south end of Bangtao Beach was not so lucky and took a huge hit. Bill O'Leary – an Aussie who runs the famous Aman Cruises operation from here – reported a surge of two metres plus, that did not withdraw for well over an hour. Everything is damaged, much beyond repair. To describe the power of the wave at Bangtao, after it had smashed across about 200 metres – through trees, holiday bungalows and hotels – it ripped layers of tarmac off of the road and flung great chunks of it into the shops and bars behind. Eddying waters did further destruction, eroding large sections of the waterfront and causing further property damage and loss of life. Many of the bungalow operations and hotels in this area will not be fit for tourists for several months. Some may never re-open as they are just not there anymore.

Fifteen of the bungalows at the Chedi Phuket resort were damaged, management believe they will be able to re-open these to guests in about two months. While Rydges Beach Resort had water damage to between 10 and 15 of its rooms closest to the beach that will require a weeks work to repair.


By complete contrast, Surin Beach is back to business as usual. On the day I visited – two days after the wave hit – the detritus on the beach had been neatly swept into large piles and the quaint rows of wooden bars, restaurants and food vendors were open to a busy stream of tourists.


Kamala received the heaviest and most widespread damage of any of Phuket's beaches. Much of what was there isn't anymore and the central beach area – once filled with happy bars, restaurants and shops – is today barely recognizable. Only the police station stands relatively undamaged at the centre of a crushed community. The waters destroyed virtually everything as far back as the main coast road, with flooding reported in the Phuket Fantasea compound. The roads closest to the beach are still closed to traffic and crews are working hard to restore basic amenities.

Many people died at Kamala, and accurate figures are not yet available. Thai locals and some tourists, seeing the tide go out over three hundred metres very quickly, ran onto the beach with buckets to collect the fish that were flopping around on the sand. Though the wave did not come for over fifteen minutes, many were caught out on the sand when it did and were lost.


Here there was serious damage to two major real estate offices and the local school, which sits across the beachfront coast road. There is also some damage to the road itself, but – as of Thursday this was under repair.


Patong beach road is still closed to traffic today (Friday) as crews work hard to bring back some semblance of normalcy to this once vibrant street. There is not a single business along this stretch that has not been very badly damaged. It will be several months before all the scars have healed. The premises of major chain stores and name businesses – among the many others – that are now just shells, include McDonalds, Starbucks, Watsons, KFC, Molly Malones and countless restaurants, jewellery stores and tailor's shops.

However, by 150 metres up the famous Soi Bangla things are getting pretty much back to normal. Even the well-known Kangaroo Bar has re-opened, though bars on either side have been badly damaged. By the end of Soi Bangla and onto Rat-U-Thit Road, all the major nightclubs and restaurants are still open and busy. Standing at the Bangla Junction at midnight, just three days after the wave, you would not even know that anything had happened. Music booms, lights flash and the party is very much still hot.

We have so far not been able to make contact with those hotels nearest to the beach in Patong and are unable to comment at present on their status. However all hotels set further back, beyond Rat-U-Thit road are still fully open.

Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort – on the small bay between Patong and Karon – has been evacuated and closed. The hotel is reporting damage to its pool and beachfront restaurants and plans to re-open by January 15.


The layout of Karon saved it from receiving the same level of property damage as other beaches. Almost all of the big hotels here are set well back from the beach and on fairly high ground. Some shops and bars along the beach road – including the small local market – received nominal damage, but as of Thursday most were under repair and the market was back in action. There was serious flooding at the stadium at the south end of Karon. All hotels we have contacted have reported that they are fully operational.


There was significant damage to the south and north end of Kata Beach, with restaurants and bars smashed into rubble. Club Med – which dominates the central stretch of the beach road – was inundated at one end but untouched at the other. For safety the hotel was evacuated. We have not yet been able to contact anyone from the hotel to confirm when it will be ready to re-open.

At the south end, the famous beachfront hotel Mom Tri's Boathouse was also badly damaged. Over 3000 bottles of wine destroyed, and the grand piano blasted 100 metres up the street. The entire ground floor restaurant and lobby washed away. I met with owner and architect Mom Tri Devakul, who was touring the scene of the damage yesterday (Thursday). He reported the hotel rooms will be open again before this weekend and that he will take this opportunity to remodel the restaurant. “It was due for a renovation anyway,” he said with a wan smile.

The Kata Thani Hotel and resort on Kata Noi Beach received damage to its ground floor and swimming pool.


At the southern tip of the island, Naiharn Beach was also badly hit but, with little waterfront property, damage was limited. The same cannot be said for Ao Sein Beach (on the northern tip of the bay and Yanui Beach, a tiny inlet at the other end. On both guest house bungalows and private homes have been wiped out. The damage to Yanui stretches several hundred metres inland.

To try to describe the power of the wave here, about fifteen metres above sea-level on the hill road from Yanui to Naiharn and about forty metres inland from the beach, the road was partially blocked by a log about the size of a small car, that I recalled had previously rested on the beach just in front of Leone's house


There was moderate but extensive damage along the sea wall at Rawai and several boats were destroyed. The well-known Nikita's Bar was also damaged, but was back open for business two days after the wave. The Sea-Gypsy village did not fare as well with significant damage and loss of life.

The Evason has announced that it is still fully operational, though there are reports that the hotel's jetty was washed away.


A heavy wash ran up the lower east coast of Phuket, Chalong Bay, making a bit of a mess and leaving large chunks of boat propped up along the beach wall, but only a few light injuries. There was water damage to a couple of the beach front bungalow resorts, including Friendship Beach, but this has since been cleaned up and the restaurant is operating on an almost complete menu as of Friday. Chef Charlie says everything will be back on in the next few days. Guests were returning to there rooms just three days after the flooding.

The wave went on to hit Ao Yon hard, but caused only moderate property damage, mainly to the premises of CoralSeekers, which bases its tour and yachting operations from there. The clean up there was well underway the day after the wave hit.


The island's business and administrative centre received no damage whatsoever. The city's fishing port was not so lucky. A huge swell roared up the channel past Rattanachai boatyard, dragging dozens of large and small fishing boats off their moorings and thrusting them into a tangled mass against the bridge to Sirey Island.

The Sea Gypsy village on Sirey was also hit hard, with many homes destroyed. One lady from the village reported to me that, fortunately – and surprisingly, considering the damage – there were no dead or missing, only a few injuries.


As of yesterday (Thursday), Royal Thai Army engineers from Ratchaburi, staff from many hotels and villagers from both seafront and inland communities had completed total clean ups of many of Phuket's beaches, including Kata, Karon and Naiharn. Others are expected to be finished before the weekend is out.

Conservative local estimates put the loss of rooms on Phuket in the low hundreds – rather than the several thousand claimed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Most of the hotels and resorts that were damaged are reporting very minor damage – averaging between 15 and 20 rooms each. Only a few have been completely closed down. All that we were able to contact claim that full service will be returned in just a couple of weeks. It should also be noted that damage caused by the tsunami on Phuket has directly affected less than ten percent of the island.

The weight of human loss and loss of livelihoods that it has wrought, and that which is still yet to come to light, is of course immeasurable. To all those people affected, we send out our most heartfelt condolences. We know you are many and we hope that we can be as strong as you and stand beside you in the months to come.

It is the Thai people who, in what would be considered overwhelming circumstances for many westerners, are quietly, stoically, cleaning up and beginning the rebuilding work on Phuket. It is a scene repeated up and down the coast. There are no scenes of wailing desperation, so beloved of CNN and BBC, despite the enormous tasks that face them. Where foreigners have fled the “terror”, the Thai people are still here. Despite their immeasurable losses – and that's not just a few suitcases of clothes – there are no mercy flights to whisk them away. They will be here throughout all that is to come. The Thai people of Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga are the heroes here, for it is they who have lost the most and they will be the ones who take on the task of rebuilding the Pearl of the Andaman.

With additional reporting by Kerrie Hall, Scott Murray and Hayley Windsor


No comments: