TCS Daily

Lucky to Be Alive

By Craig Winneker - December 30, 2004 12:00 AM

KOH MOOK ISLAND, Thailand -- Bang lives in a tiny fishing hamlet on the leeward side of this small island, a few kilometers off the coast of southern Thailand on the Andaman Sea. He works on the other side of the island, at the Charlie Beach Resort, where my wife and I are spending our holiday.

"Whasssuuuup!" he says, with a typically Thai grin, when I meet him at the edge of his village and introduce myself as an American. "Whassup!" I reply politely, throwing in a Thai greeting perfected after a week in the country.

What is up is that Bang's little village and most of his earthly possessions have completely washed away by last weekend's tsunami. Little is left of his house but some sticks, a floor covered in mud, some torn clothes strewn about. Bang's troubles are only a minuscule part of the very big disaster that has caused death and destruction all around south Asia, from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka on the other side of the Indian Ocean, to Malaysia and Indonesia, just south of here.

Bang is lucky. He is alive, and so are his wife and children. In fact, except for four people everyone on this island is safe and the damage to property is minimal; aside from the one small village most of the buildings are intact. The Charlie Beach Resort, where I'd pre-booked my stay weeks ago (we were up north, away from the coast, when the wave hit), is almost miraculously untouched -- even though it sits on the western side of the island, perched on a pristine cove, directly in the path of the tsunami. The same enormous wave that consumed resorts directly to the north of here in Phuket and Krabi, killing hundreds of western tourists and reducing luxury hotels to rubble, was blocked by another island just off of Koh Mook's coast. When it got to Charlie's beach, guests here say, it was only a few meters high -- scary enough but not catastrophic. Its main force, however, was deflected by the other island and swept around to the mainland-facing side of Koh Mook. It turned Bang's bamboo and wood house, and a dozen others around it, into piles of garbage and driftwood sinking into a low-tide mud flat. The villagers had retreated to makeshift camps on higher ground.

So even though life is pretty much back to its idyllic normal state here on Koh Mook and at the Charlie Beach Resort, my wife and I decided to try and help the island's residents to recover. We hiked through rubber tree plantations to the other side of the island, where we found Bang standing in front of what remained of his house, chatting happily on his mobile phone.

When he finally hung up, we asked what we could do to help. Nothing, he replied. Instead, he asked us to sit down for a cup of cold, sugary coffee, and along with a few of his friends we talked for a while and minded the chickens and goats in the muggy morning heat. But he would not start cleanup work on his house, he said.

Not yet.

"Government is coming to take pictures," Bang told us.

He wanted relief officials to see the full extent of his losses. Of course, he'd lost everything, including a new computer for which he'd spent his life savings, the equivalent of $1,000, only a few months ago. "We have to pray to God," he said. "Pray for a wonderful life." And, of course, wait for the government. We told him we'd come back the next day to see if he needed help then. He was still grinning when I saw him later that day, and he'd even prepared a little joke:

"Life is like the ocean," he said. "It has its ups and downs."

The government, I expect, is going to take a while to get to Koh Mook, and Bang is going to have to wait several days in his tent up on the mountain. There is plenty of food, shelter and water here. The devastation is far worse elsewhere in Thailand. But officials will eventually get here, for at least this country seems to have an efficient infrastructure and disaster relief system. (That evidently is not the case in other Asian nations hit by the tsunami. The pictures from India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, which we are watching on CNN, via Charlie's satellite TV, tell what must be only part of the horrific story. Tens of thousands are dead in Indonesia's Aceh province, and even days after the tsunami CNN was reporting that relief efforts were minimal to non-existent. Many more deaths will come from disease. A government spokesman denied that Jakarta was taking its time helping out because Aceh is fighting for its independence from the country.)

What will happen when the authorities finally do show up? Will Bang's troubles be over? "The government is fucking gobshite," he says with another chuckle -- using a phrase no doubt picked up from British or Aussie tourists. He repeats the words, liking the sound of his broken English. "Fucking gobshite." That may very well be, although it is always at times like these when the government, which has just helicoptered in drinking water and food and spiffy blue nylon tents, doesn't look so bad, after all.

Nevertheless, I suspect Bang will have to start rebuilding his house before the government cameras arrive. I'd like to think we could give him a hand -- so far my personal relief efforts have amounted to helping some fishermen get their longtail boat back across the beach and into the water -- but most likely we'll be long gone by then, lucky to have not had our vacation disrupted in any major way. The tourist ferries are already landing again on Charlie's beach several times a day, full of slightly wary vacationers. I hope it won't take Bang too long to save up for another computer.


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