Update 1: January 12, 2005
In the first of his dispatches from Thailand, Asia correspondent ROB MCKEOWN surveys the surreal contrasts of life after the tsunami.
In Khao Lak, a red and black bustier dangles half-torn from a blue plastic hanger in an empty teak bungalow. The room has been emptied of all furniture. Only bathroom pipes remain, torn and twisted in mad forms. Outside, a hammock swings gently.
Two weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami hit coastal Thailand, contrasts and sights are striking. Tennis courts where tourists once played are being used as helicopter landing pads by the U.S. Army and relief groups. The Buddhist temples that dot the lush surrounds of Phuket, Khao Lak, Phang Nga, and Ranong have been pressed into use as temporary morgues. Wat Yaan Yaaw, among the most sacred temples in the region, was once a place where vacationing Thai would detour to make an offering. It now houses some 3,000 bodies recovered since rescue efforts began. Relatives who come here to identify the dead are allotted 38 minutes in the area the corpses are kept. The smell is almost unbearable.
And yet, not far off, life goes on as before. Tourists are visiting the limestone karst formations of Phang Nga Bay and Phi Phi Island, where the water is a brilliant blue-green. They canoe, snorkel, and splash around while nearby rescue divers search for the 3,500-plus people still listed as missing. Those they search for will probably never be found. Patong Beach, once a boisterous spot with beer bars spilling down the sand, is now oddly peaceful. With destroyed hotels looming in the background, a few dozen tourists swim in the now-calm Andaman Sea waters.
The initial rush of chaos has passed. City Hall, an elegant Colonial building with airy courtyards and green lawns, has served as the coordination center for embassies, families searching for loved ones, volunteers, and counseling since the tsunami struck December 26. Four days ago it was swollen with thousands of frantic locals, consuls making announcements, garbage piling up everywhere. Now, the only sign of the chaos is the hundreds of missing-person notices that line the walls. Sleeping babies, grinning honeymooners, diving instructors, entire families -- their photos have become a part of the landscape here. They paper walls from the hospitals to the airport.
This is the first full week that Thai schools have opened. In hard-hit Kamala, where two children and one teacher from the local school died, a Swedish-owned resort has opened its doors to the students until the ravaged school by the beach can be rebuilt. In Ban Kalim, though no one seems to have died, teachers are reporting that almost half of the children are too frightened of the water to come to school.
At Bangkok Phuket Hospital, thousands passed through in the past week, but only a handful of tsunami patients remain. Many are ready to go home, but fear leaving the area. All four members of the De Vries family, of Holland, were within eyesight of one another on Phi Phi Island when the waves struck. It was not until five days later that mother, father, and younger daughter, were re-united in this hospital. They held out hope that their elder daughter would join them. Three days ago they learned of her death. The delay had come from her Indonesian-Dutch features leading examiners to think she was Thai. Today, the three remaining De Vries will arrive at their home near Amsterdam.
Up the coast in Ranong the fishing village of Ban Had Say Kaew lies far from where TV cameras have been trained. No foreigners come here. Some eight villagers died and almost 200 boats were lost. Many fishermen now live in a temporary tent camp near the small wedge of beach from which they once set out every morning to fish. They have enough food and water and a temporary roof, and they say they are grateful. But they do not know when or where they will get new boats. The government has promised some money, but even if they are able to get it, it will be only a fraction of what they need. And even if their boats were whole, sales of local seafood have disappeared along with the tourists.
The devastation the tsunami wrought in Thailand was horrifying and complete. More than 5,300 died here; more than 3,500 are still missing. Scores were injured. But what is left now is in some ways more complex: an incomplete aftermath in which tens of thousands of lives, homes, boats, and livelihoods must be re-assembled.