Seeing The Tsunami Damage In Thailand Compelled Me To Action
Here Is Where My Story Of Experiencing The Tsunami Damage Begins.......
My new friend Pom, picked me up at Phuket Airport at noon on Mon. for the 32 km drive back to Phuket town where they live. Phuket town is in the SW corner of the Island.
The tsunami damage on the island was on the south and western coasts. On the way back from the airport Pom diverted so he could show me Patong Beach first thing. As most of you are aware, this was the area where the greatest loss of life and property occurred. To witness the site in person was quite an experience: dozens of hotels still not operating because of the tremendous damage to their first couple of floors. Also, countless restaurants and other small businesses are out of commission. There is a frenzy of work going on, including many large pieces of heavy equipment in operation such as front-end loaders, shovels and tractors. Most noticeable is the scarcity of tourists. This is their high season and, normally, this beach and the tourist services along the beach area, according to Pom, are usually crawling with people. On a beach where there would normally be 1,000 or more people, there weren't more than 30 or 40.
The home where I am staying with Pom and his wife, Supaporn and their 2 children, Best (8 year-old son) and Jen (12 year-old daughter), has 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, kitchen and living room/den: about 1,000 sq. ft. Place is very modest but pretty decent by Thai standards. They keep it very clean and day-to-day life seems to work pretty well. I'm sleeping on a single bed in the living room which is comfortable. It cools down at night just enough to sleep OK. I've been eating my breakfast and dinner at their home and taking my Canadian-style salmon sandwich and chopped vegetables for lunch. Pom is a musician and normally would be playing (and sometimes singing) at a couple of hotels at Patong Beach. Both suffered seriously from the tsunami so he is out of work until further notice. He looks after the household duties such as buying groceries, taking the kids to school and picking them up, making meals, and various house stuff. He's a great guy...very laid back, a good sense of humour and a happy nature. He's a very good cook...love his Thai cooking.
Mindboggling Tsunami Video
Tuesday was a good day, although a bit frustrating, in my attempt to lay the groundwork in getting some financial help directly into the hands of the very poor most affected by the tsunami. Pom took me downtown (about 10 minutes from their home) to the Federal Govt. Social Assistance office where the volunteer centre is also located. We spoke to three different people, finally working our way up to the Director for all of Phuket Island. I explained to him that I was from Canada and that I wanted to make some donations to some of the poorest people left homeless from the floods and that I wanted to do this face-to-face. He told me that, unfortunately, he couldn't help me as the Government would be concerned that people receiving donations from me could be perceived by others to have received preferential treatment and this could create some ill will towards the authorities. It took us 1 1/2 hours to get this answer. All the staff in the Social Services office were under an enormous amount of pressure with so many people in a desperate state but they appeared, on the outside at least, to be dealing with the stress very well. One good thing came out of the meeting with the Director in that he provided us with a number for a manager who was in charge of the Social Services for the south end of Phuket. Pom phoned him and we got an appointment for 1:30 PM. Went to his office and received a nice reception. Pom did all the talking & explained our mission. We lucked out, he had a group of about 20 families coming in to meet with him at 2:00 PM to make their cases for Government aid. Pom had explained to him that we could provide 3,000 baht (approx. C$95) for each of 11 families so, in his meeting with the group, he and his Assistant took particulars of their individual circumstances and isolated the 11 most desperate ones. We sat in the Director's office for about an hour and then he came back to us and told us that we could come out into the hall and Pom could explain that I had brought some money from several friends and neighbours in Vancouver to distribute to some of the tsunami survivors. The smiles and expressions of gratitude and relief were heart-warming. You could sense these people were urgently in need of help. Government support wouldn't likely reach them for 2 weeks or so and the immediate help that we could provide for them was very timely. Pom explained that he would have to take me to a nearby bank to cash some travellers cheques, and that we would be back in a few minutes. We put the 3 x 1,000 baht notes in 11 separate envelopes and returned to the Soc. Assistance office. The Director and 2 or 3 of his staff invited Pom and I and the 11 people into their board room. Pom stood up and explained the purpose of my mission and the fact I was representing several other Canadian friends and neighbours who were very saddened by the news of the tsunami and that we were wishing to help some of the survivors in recovering from their losses. He then called up each one individually by name to receive their envelope and get a big Canadian hug from me. This turned out to be an extremely emotional experience for all concerned. After the envelopes had all been handed out Pom asked me to stand up and say a few words to the group. No one could understand a word I said but they could certainly read the feelings I had for their despair. After I had spoken Pom did a brief translation in Thai. Next we went with several of the people to visit their homes (or what was left of them). We took three with us in Pom's car and a few others followed in a truck. We drove about 8 kms. on a narrow sand road and arrived at a scene of total devastation along the seaside. The name of this community was Palai. Some of their homes had no walls left...only a roof. Others, it was explained to us, had been totally lost with nothing left but a cement slab. Everything in their homes had been swept away never to be seen again. The waves at this location had evidently reached the tops of the palm trees. There was junk everywhere, including many palm trees that had snapped off like they were toothpicks. The people in this area were waiting for the Government. to bring in front-end loaders and shovels to clean up the heavy pieces of concrete and wood so they can gradually try to get their lives back together. I'm sure the financial aid they receive from the Government will be a fraction of the losses they suffered. Most of the people here were fishermen and a large portion of them were retired, living with their children and grandchildren. Many of them now have to sleep out in the open. It was obvious the grief they were trying to deal with. Pom and I were introduced to a 102-year-old man: very wrinkled but a great smile for us. He still seemed pretty chipper...don't think he's playing
anymore though. Many of the folks we helped offered us bottled water or pop...nice.
Weather has been fine since I arrived, highs in the mid 30s and lows in the high 20s...no rain so far. There has been a breeze every day.
Yesterday Pom took me to view all the rest of the beaches on the west coast from Patong up to the northern tip of the island. Later in the afternoon we drove over the Sarasin bridge which connects Phuket to the mainland. >From the bridge we drove northwards about 1� hours to an area called Khao Lak (prounced cow lack). The beach in this area extends for about 25 kms. and the death toll up there is now about 3,000 and a like number missing. To view the damage was heart-stopping. There were beachside hotels, some up to 5, 6 or 7 stories, with the lower 2 or 3 floors just blown out by the tsunami waves. You were able to look right through the rooms from one side to the other...nothing left in them at all. We saw a car beside the highway that was so mutilated you had look closely to even recognize it as an automobile, worse than the worst highway wreck I've ever seen! The north-south highway that runs past all the resort areas in Khao Lak was about 1 km. back from the beach. On the side opposite the beach we stopped by what I think was a previously a reservoir. It originally covered an area equal to the size of a Wal-Mart Store. On the opposite side of the lake there were 5 enormous pumps drawing water out of the lake. It was 3/4 empty when we were there. There had been about 100 bodies pulled from here so far and they expected to find more, gruesome, but nonetheless, a reality. The Tsunami waves hit this area of Thailand with such force that heavy pieces of buildings, motorbikes, cars, other debris and bodies were carried up to 3 or 4 kms. inland. For the survivors of this devastation, there's not only grief attached to the loss of their loved ones and most, if not all, of their worldly possessions, but there's the obvious concern about finding work.
These areas of Thailand are supported by tourism and they are, for all intents and purposes, just not here now. All the beaches are almost vacant, restaurants and beachside vendors have no customers and, when Pom would talk to these people, they told him they were very frightened and worried about how they were going to make enough to support their families. The situation in this part of Thailand could not be much worse than it is now.
Today Pom drove me down to another part of the beach on Chalong Bay, about 1 km from the area we had been to on Tuesday. This section of beach wasn't hit quite as hard but there was still an enormous amount of damage done to the homes of approximately 13 families that lived there. We had to drive down a very poor sandy trail to reach this community. Several of the people were just sitting around in the shade of trees desperately waiting for Government help. Some of them had nothing left in the world but the clothes they were wearing. Pom, being Thai, was able to ask a lot of questions about what occurred there during the tsunami and he explained to a group of about 12 that I was down from Canada to spend a few weeks helping out. Fortunately one young fellow about 25 years old, married with a small boy, spoke quite good English and Pom agreed with me that this would be a good place for me to spend some time helping in their recovery. I told this fellow that I would be down to see him on Monday morning, at which time I would go with him on his motorbike to the stores, help him buy some necessities and then do any physical work that I could to help his family. All these 13 families are within 300 meters of each other so when I move on to another family it will be helpful having him nearby to translate for me if it's required. No one in the community speaks English so it will be handy having him nearby. Plan is that Pom will drive me down to this place each day in the morning and then pick me up around 5PM. He has given me a cell phone to use while I'm here. I just buy phone cards and load the time into the phone. Having one of these will make it possible for me to call him on his other cell at anytime should I need help.
Although he is trying not to show it I think Pom is troubled by the fact he may not get any more work for a long time. He sings as well as plays the guitar...has a nice voice. When we're driving around on our trips, he can't hold himself from singing a few verses of numerous pop songs. Yesterday he sang, "I just called to say I love You" by Stevie Wonder, one of my favourite songs. Boy, it was great. This is certainly turning out to be a mind-blowing experience. Not speaking the language is turning out to be a much bigger challenge than I expected in finding people that I can work with...seems like I am on the right track now though.
The idea of riding a motorbike around Phuket quickly lost appeal for me when I experienced the volume of motorbikes and cars on the road and the way they drive. I considered renting a small car but Pom has kindly offered to drive me to and from the beach where I'm going to be working. The traffic is so hairy here, my guess is I'd be looking at about a 60 - 70% chance of getting the rental car back without having an accident...Don't like those odds.