Update 4: February 4, 2005
Amid catastrophe and personal grief, Thai locals willingly aid the tsunami relief effort. ROB MCKEOWN reports from the Phang Nga province in southern Thailand.
On the day I met Tipparat Jitkaew the Wat Lak Khen temple, once a quiet refuge, was pure chaos. The scent of incense was overpowered by the sulfurous smell of corpses that had been brought there. Tangerine-robed monks wandered barefoot amid hundreds of bodies that were swollen and the color of smoke, all of them pulled from the waters or found on beaches in the wake of the tsunami on December 26. In the surrounding Phang Nga province alone over 4,000 people had died.
Over the next few days, corpses by the dozen arrived in pick-up trucks. TV crews piled out of vans. Frantic tourists came in to look for loved ones lost in the tidal waves. All of them were met by locals like Tipparat, a 21-year-old Thai volunteer who goes by "Kay."
"Hi," Kay said simply to me. "Do you need anything?Is there something we could do?Let us get you a mask."
In Thailand, a country that prides itself on peace and calm, "the day the waters came" is now a part of the national consciousness. As with the events of September 11, 2001, people here remember where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the deadly swells. The days right after the tsunami hit were cloaked in fear, confusion, and pain as the scale of the tragedy became known.
"I was sitting in front of the television, watching the news and crying, " Kay remembers. "I was praying that nobody I know was affected by these tidal waves. I didn't know what to do, but I knew I should be there and I wanted to be there to help."
Thousands of locals have volunteered for the most difficult and draining work in the tsunami relief effort—helping identify victims, consoling families, aiding with DNA checks, moving bodies, digging for survivors, even exhuming more than a thousand corpses after an error in tagging. One man, a soft-spoken doctor from the Southern city of Surat Thani, drove six hours to a toppled fishing village called Ban Had Say Kaew. I met him at a tent camp as he was handing out cash donations to those who had lost families, homes, boats, and their livelihoods.
"In Buddhism, death is unpredictable and comes in a circle," Kay says. "We are born, we get sick, we live, but eventually we must die. It is the circle of life. We might all have a completely different life, but finally we have the same ending."