|After we decide the necessity of staying in Bangkok is, well, unnecessary we make plans to head south.
We were in Nicaragua on December 26th, when the Tsunami came ashore along the coastal lands of the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Coast of southern Thailand. Our original travel plans had always included Thailand and it was instantly apparent to us that although we would surely still go, it would not be to the Thailand that we had first envisioned. Khao San Road is as we imagined her, but the areas directly hit by the tsunami are, of course, not the places they were on Christmas day.
At one of the tourist offices in Bangkok that our tuk-tuk driver had brought us to we were told that 'volunteers no needed there.' They told us we should go to Chiang Mia, in the north and go trekking. Besides, it's raining down there. He wasn't going to tell us how to find a reliable volunteer organization, and I didn't expect him to, but after a few smiles and courtesies we understood that he wanted us to buy bus tickets and mini-van transfers, but not for us to worry about getting our hands dirty.
But our idea is that we don't mind getting a little dirty and if we can, we'd like to help someone, or something, that needs help. The internet helps us determine that maybe the coastal area around Khao Lak is in need. An overnight bus ride gets us there, and at 8 oclock on a Wednesday morning we are dropped off, a bit dazed, in the middle of a town that had been difficult to spot on the map. Khao Lak is north of Phuket and a couple hours south of the Burmese border. A little know tourist beach area, famous for its access to great diving sites, but mostly frequented by those-in-the-know divers and wealthy Thai vacationers un-thrilled by the idea of spending their holiday with the farangs (foreigners) on the beaches of Ko Phi Phi and Phuket. Growing, but not grown. Popular, but not too much perhaps. Beautiful, but destroyed, and the pain caused by the destruction is not something that can be easily written about. Not by us anyway, and not yet.
We arrive and, blaming the essentially sleepless night on the bus, realize I have left the papers I had printed about where to stay and who to contact on the seat in front of mine. We spot a group of foreigners sitting outside a market and engage them to see if they can point us in the right direction. As it turns out, they are also volunteers and can easily tell us the direction of the Tsunami Volunteers Center as well as some helpful hints about how to find a place and what to look for.
Getting ourselves a place to stay proves easy and before heading up to the center we look for breakfast. Walking back up the main strip of the town, for that is what the town now is - a strip built close to both sides of the highway that brought us from Bangkok. Most of the stores and restaurants on the ocean side are still closed and it is these storefronts, though basically intact that block the view of the couple kilometers that lead to the beach. On the opposite side of the street, those which face the ocean and received the least damage, are mostly rebuilt and open for business, but you can't help but notice the ominous closed doors on every fourth restaurant or every fourth dive shop. Those doors are still closed and no one looks to be opening them soon.
Our search for breakfast is halted by two ladies standing beneath the dark shadow of a palm thatched roofed restaurant and waving at us wildly. We wave back. There shapes are visible and then, yes, big smiles, too. We can't refuse and march across the sandy front drive way and into the restaurant. They make us 'whatever you like' and win us with their immovable smiles and broken English. We feel welcome. We feel a deep welcome that is beyond courtesy, and we recognize the smiles are not those fake smiles that any good waiter can produce, but a smile produced by joy, strength and also, heartache overcome.
Jah and Nong were one month from opening their beach front bungalows when the wave ripped them from the ground and tour apart the dream she had worked so hard to build. Not one customer ever stayed in the rooms and not one dollar was earned to pay for the devastation enacted. The two sisters had lived the previous four months in a camp just north of Khoa Lak and only in the week previous had moved fully into the new restaurant they were lucky enough to buy from the previous owner who decided to take what she could and move back to Europe. As we eat breakfast Jah tells us this story, complete with many of the details I could not capture through her eager English phrases and deep, deep breaths. She says how strong she will be for her sister and the other two young woman she has brought in. She says that she will open this restaurant and hope that the people will come back to Khao Lak. She says that she has been held up by those others who have come to help, but that now, she can try to stand on her own. She says that she can smile again and be not so sad again.
She shows us pictures. She shows us pictures of the blue toilet bowl that is all that remained of her bungalows. And she shows us photos of the flattened beach area that is hard to see from the main road where cars lie atop houses and are bent around trees. The photos are impossible to see. She shows us the photos of the body bags laid out for identification and we cannot look and she cannot help but to cry a bit and Mandy is able to hold her, I close the photos and this is an intense introduction to being here.
We tell the sisters that if we can help them we will help them. Hopefully we can do something. Their courage is contagious, I imagine, and as we continue to meet volunteer after volunteer who planned on staying for two weeks and are now going on four months, I assume there is much here that is contagious.
We are humble in what we hope to do here. We are meager in our resources and in our abilities, but I envision this experience of Thailand vastly superior to the one we may have had one year ago. I imagine that Khao Lak will do more for us than we can possibly do for it.
Mandy and I hope that our presence here can help a people and a village that need some help. We will see.
If anyone is interested in learning more about what is happening in Khao Lak you go to: