Monday, August 29, 2005

Difficult recovery (Published by - Kho Phi Phi, Thailand

For those who have visited them before December 26th 2004, the Phi Phi islands, just off Thailand's south-western coast, are the right place to find out what a tsunami can do, and the difficulties the reconstruction process has to face; much more than Phuket, where the traces of the hurricane are evident, but still just that: traces. A few buildings being erected, others renovated, some scraps heaped in a corner and a stinging smell coming out of the sewers close to the beach. On the other hand, Phi Phi shows the true scale of the catastrophe, more than eight months after.

Paradise lost

Koh Phi Phi is the name of a couple of islands in the sea of the Andamanes, off the coast of Krabi, in south-western Thailand. Phi Phi Ley, with its almost square outline and vaguely creepy appearance, is the smallest of the two, practically uninhabited and mostly known for having been the set of a famous film with Leonardo di Caprio, shot at heavenly Maya Beach.

The other island, Phi Phi Don, looks like two different sized lungs, linked by a narrow strip of land which sets the two main bays apart. The first bay, Ton Sai, faces south-east towards Koh Lanta, and if seen from above, looks spotted by the colourful diving boats and the less evident boats which connect the island with Krabi and Phuket. Loh Dalum bay faces the opposite direction, towards Phuket, is almost totally enclosed by the island's heights, and offers a romantic observation point for tropical sundowns.

Between the two bays and up until the hills' base spreads the village of Ton Sai, where most of the tourist accommodations are found.

In the wake of the film's fame, and encouraged by its depiction of dream-like beaches, an ever growing number of tourists have visited the islands from the mid-Nineties, with the highest peaks recorded in the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve. To accommodate, feed and entertain all those tourists, Ton Sai became filled with all kinds of hotels, restaurants, diving schools, tourist agencies, bars and shops. More than a few tourists, hoping to have reached an untouched tropical paradise, were in fact flabbergasted at being welcomed by cash machines, 24-7 minimarkets and satellite internet connections.

The tidal wave's signs

Even before reaching Ton Sai bay, you can see from the boat that the first row of buildings has been severely damaged. After landing and crossing the jetty you will come across the remains of an illustrious victim: the Seven/Eleven building, which can only be recognised by its luminous sign and a few shelves, which appear through the debris between the crushed walls; the glass façade has instead disintegrated.

Walking the town's streets, you bump into damaged buildings which have been restored, destroyed ones replaced by temporary structures, and just a few which still look intact. Here and there, heaps of debris and pieces of torn metal have been carelessly hidden from view. It's quite disturbing to see cash machines - a sign of the island's development - dusty and with an "out of order" sign roughly scribbled on a piece of paper and stuck on the vacant screen, or more often with nothing at all.
However, what awaits visitors who move towards Loh Dalum bay is even worse. From a certain point onwards, the few buildings which still stand are all new , the rest is just an endless heap of debris. Going on to walk towards the sea, at about 200 yards from the water, the spectacle is terrifying.

The maze of narrow roads, flanked by simple buildings - often made of timber - which were once cheap hotels, small restaurants and shops, is now just an open space, mostly covered in scraps.

Eight months ago

The tsunami generated off Sumatra's shore touched Phi Phi at around 10:30 in the morning of December 26th 2004, three quarters of an hour after having reached Phuket. Phi Phi Don was washed by two subsequent waves, each of which hit both bays. Just before the first wave, the sea suddenly went back by many metres, leaving boats stuck in the sand and fish to wriggle in the wash. Many tourists and puzzled residents drew closer to observe the exposed coral and to catch the agonising fish. The first wave struck the coast at a speed of over 50 Kph, reaching 6.5 metres in height at Loh Dalum bay and 3 metres at Ton Sai. The waves coming from the two bays converged along a line which divided the village, then the bigger one coming from north-west pushed the other back. The sea then drew away once again, and the process was repeated.

The water crossed the island from side to side in other two points on the north-eastern "lung": between two minor bays - La Naa e Bakhao - and in Laem Thong, a nomad fishermen's village.
The damage is very serious: 70% of buildings have been destroyed or damaged, 800 people were found dead and 1200 went missing; over 100 children were left orphans. Among the victims, none seem to have belonged to the gypsy fishermen community. They in fact managed to save themselves in time, after recognising signs of the tsunami in the sea's activity and in certain "seers"' dreams.

Reconstruction works

The reconstruction process is underway: carpenters and builders work on the sites of the crumbling buildings, thailandese workers and volunteers, mostly foreigners, clean up the beach from the debris.

Those who have managed to rebuild quickly and those who didn't suffer any damage thrive on the tourism machine which has started to function again. Many exhibit signs meant to raise passers-bys' awareness. In a massages centre you can read "The women who work here have to keep their families struck by the tsunami; help them and spoil yourself at the same time". A trinkets shop says "The tsunami destroyed our shop and we hav no money to buy new goods. There are five of us in our family, three of which children. We have nothing. Help us!". The figure have not, however, gone back to what they were before the disaster. A few weeks ago, the CNN interviewed the owner of a firm wich provides links to the mainland. Up until last year, his boats were almost always full, and he was forced to hire other operators' boats in high season. Now the boats are half empty and the firm often has to operate at loss.

Tourism relaunch and crime

Some have managed to find a positive side to this scenario of destruction. A Canadian tourist says she doesn't actually mind having stayed here right now, now that many of the structures swept away by the storm still remain to be rebuilt and most of the island shows its true face.

There are also rumours of conspiracies. According to certain sources, some powerful businessmen, supported by certain politicians, are apparently planning to convert Phi Phi island in a luxury resort, by building expensive structures. Because of the resistance of some locals, these individuals are trying to nìhinder the reconstruction process and the relaunch of the travel business. It's a similar story to the one which concerned other Thailandese islands a while ago. The only evidence regarding these allegations concerns the waste which was regularly shipped towards the mainland, and which is now left to rot on the islands. The heaps of rubbish in Koh Phi Phi are are actually big and smelly, but it still it hardly seems to be unmistakable proof of the alleged traffics. Similar ones can in fact be found in all the south eastern isles, including those not hit by the tsunami.

An uncertain future

On board the boat to Phuket, and watching the workers on the building yards which from a distance look like bees around a beehive, the impression is that soon everything will go back to what it was, but with a new layer of paint. A few venues may well change owners, the survivors and the newcomers will have lost a few months'income, but the flow of tourists, which is already growing each week, seems to be going back to the golden days.

Just a small garden dedicated to the victims, the plaques exhibited by some shop owners, and a couple of wall paintings drawn by a tourist will remind people of those who didn't live to tell the tale.

Fabio Pulito

Translated by Cristina Bernabini

Published by Peacereporter

Peacereporter website

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