Update 5: February 24, 2005
The tsunami brought destruction to Phuket's Patong Beach, but in its wake is a beauty unseen for decades, reports ROB MCKEOWN.
In the first weeks after tidal waves swept across Patong Beach, locals spoke of almost nothing but the tragedy. From grocery shoppers in Ocean Plaza to residents out for an early morning drive, about 200 perished here in the December 26 tsunami. The destruction and reconstruction dominated conversations.
But now that cleanup efforts are underway and foreign survivors have gone home, there's a new and unexpected point of agreement: it has been decades since the beach looked so good.
"Patong looks beautiful, huh?" my soft-spoken driver, Dorn, said to me one morning as he wound his gold Honda down one of the towering cliffs that guard Patong Bay.
It was a thought I had been afraid to voice myself. What was once a clutter of tourist-trap beer bars and stands renting umbrellas and jet skis looked pristine. The sand was white and went on forever, catching the early morning sun in honeyed light and set in relief against the teal Andaman Sea. Jungle-clad headlands rose in all directions. Young Thai children sat at a distance from the water beneath coconut palms.
Locals are pleased with the return to beauty, but they are also quietly desperate for tourists to return. More than 80% of residents make a living from tourism. In this, the high season, the island's 35,000 hotel rooms would usually be nearly full. As it is, they're running at 10 to 15% occupancy.
But the devastation that is keeping the crowds away has created an opportunity for growth. The Thai government now plans to invest nearly $15 million in this resort town as a new model for oceanfront development. Some proposals being discussed: hiding all power cables and waterworks for "aesthetic appeal," banning all clubs and entertainment venues on the beach, and cutting back on the number of beach umbrellas for rent from 7,000 to 1,500. Beneath the remaining sea pines and palms a promenade will be installed and sculpture gardens and music plazas will be built. All this, it's hoped, will bring back tourists—not the rowdy masses of Patong's recent history, but a more refined crowd that will appreciate the newly clean beaches.
In the meantime the sand, turned over by the waves, is sugary-soft and looks cleaner than it has for decades. Where wooden chairs once crowded the beach, a pick-up soccer game now spreads out at sunset. It is a quiet, tenuous paradise.