There Can't Be a Word for This

The catastrophic Christmas tsunami hit Thailand's climbing meccas hard. Railae Beach resident SAM LIGHTNER JR. reports on the nightmares and miracles of the aftermath—and on the Thais and expats rebuilding their slice of paradise.

Mar 1, 2005
Outside Magazine

THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS is the very peak of the peak season at the world-famous beaches along Thailand's southwest coast, and Phi Phi Town—the dense village of dive operators, coffeehouses, hotels, bootleg-DVD vendors, and climbing shops on the island of Koh Phi Phi—was packed. Lying roughly 28 miles southeast of the resort-filled island of Phuket in the Andaman Sea, Koh Phi Phi was bustling with as many as 4,000 visitors and locals.

Phi Phi Town sits more or less at sea level, a jumble of wooden shops, bamboo shacks, and brick bungalows crowded on a thin isthmus of sand that separates Dalam Bay, to the north, and Tonsai Bay, the island's main entry, to the south. Any view of the ocean itself is cut off by two massifs of 300-million-year-old limestone jutting nearly a thousand feet out of the sea. And so, at a little after ten that morning, as beachgoers and climbers sat drinking coffee and eating pastries or putting on their first coat of sunblock, no one could see the massive swell approaching from the west.

Koh Phi Phi is surrounded by deep water—in places the depth off the western side is 100 feet just three feet from shore—so the tsunami was almost on top of the island when it bounced off the shelf, creating a wave that rose as high as 60 feet. The water could have been moving close to 50 miles per hour when it crashed into the 11-square-mile, hourglass-shaped island's rugged west coast. There, the wave split in two, sweeping toward the town through both Dalam and Tonsai bays.

The water hit the Tonsai side first, then plowed in as a larger wave from Dalam Bay, crashing across the beach in front of P. P. Charlie's and the other bungalow resorts and creating a Cuisinart of shattered windows, corrugated-tin roofs, scuba tanks, and people. Nothing in its path could stop it, and the water surged on, washing across one of the most crowded stretches of waterfront in Thailand and rolling toward the mainland.

EARLY ON THE MORNING OF THE 26TH, I was awakened at my parents' house in Jackson, Wyoming, with news of the disaster. Koh Phi Phi is only 18 miles south of Thailand's Phra Nang peninsula, where a dozen years ago I bought half an acre of land on Railae Beach and built an open-air wooden house near the cliffs on the beach's northern end. I've spent much of my adult life there, working as a writer and climbing the walls of southern Thailand, and now, seeing the first snippets of video from Koh Phi Phi, I realized that both my home and many of my friends could be gone.

I'd first visited Thailand in late 1989, with my childhood friend Mark Newcomb, now a co-owner of Jackson's Exum Mountain Guides. We'd heard reports of a small selection of excellent climbs on Koh Phi Phi, but as we waited for a ferry to take us there, the young Thai boatmen told us of another, possibly even better, climbing area: Phra Nang. They wove unbelievable tales of towering cliffs rising from pearl-colored sand liberally decorated with scantily clad European beauties.

Soon we were in a place fiction could not improve upon. The Phra Nang peninsula pokes south out of Thailand's Krabi Province into the Andaman Sea; it's largely cut off from the mainland by 600-foot walls of orange, gray, and white limestone. A vibrant reef, up to 900 feet wide, protects the beaches. The nightlife was subdued, owing to the limited power produced by small generators, but the lack of music also meant candlelit dinners.

The sheer beauty of the coast and the incredible, steep character of the rock would, in themselves, make a storied climbing destination. But throw in a cool dry season coinciding with the European winter, the fact that Thailand is a common stopover for mountaineers returning from Nepal and Pakistan, and the Thais' well-earned reputation as gracious and caring hosts and you can see why Phra Nang draws more serious climbers than almost any place on earth. At any given time, everyone from Canadian ice specialists to French bolt clippers can be found dangling over the sea on roughly 350 climbs ranging from 5.8 to 5.14.

As I watched CNN in Wyoming, all I could think of was the fates of my friends, both Thais and Westerners. So on December 28, in the thick of a blizzard, I boarded a plane and headed for the horrors of Southeast Asia.

I didn't have to make it to Railae Beach to get a taste of what I was in for. Boarding Thai Airways Flight 249 from Bangkok to Krabi, the province's main city, I smelled a slight, nauseating sweetness in the air. The flight attendant confirmed my suspicions: The plane's hold had been used to ferry out the identified bodies of victims. "We are picking up 40 more," she said quietly, "on our return."

There were only a few of us on board, and I found myself explaining to the well-dressed Thai man across the aisle that I'd been surfing in Bali just after the Al Qaeda nightclub bombing in 2002. There, I saw that when people could not put their hands on the body of a loved one, they often needed to go to the place where that person had lost his or her life. I'd met dozens of parents on Bali's Kuta Beach, Europeans and Americans who had come to see the clear waters that had attracted their children—and the bombed-out buildings where they'd died. Now here I was again, heading to the site of another catastrophe. This time, besides looking for my own friends, I wanted to open my home to the families of any missing climbers to give them a starting point in Thailand.

As we gathered our bags, my Thai friend introduced himself as Senator Pridi Hiranpruek, a member of the Thai Senate Committee on Tourism. Tourism is an $8 billion industry here—ten million tourists visited Thailand in 2003, a number that, before the tsunami, was projected to rise to 13 million in 2005—and it's also the mainstay of the country's long southern peninsula, where resorts line both the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. The Andaman side had been hit hard, and the senator was surveying the damage to coordinate relief efforts. He offered me a ride to Nang Bay, where travelers must give up cars for boats to reach Phra Nang and Koh Phi Phi.

Hiranpruek has a master's in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, and he speaks English better than I do. "Sam, you don't know how much it pains us to see this happen here," he said as we neared the coast. We could see rescue helicopters cruising the bay; I'd heard there were nearly 2,000 missing in Krabi Province, plus 500 dead, but no one really knew. "It is a huge tragedy for Thailand," the senator continued sadly, "but we are so upset that it happened to the tourists. Thailand is supposed to be a safe place."

IT WAS SURPRISINGLY EASY to hop a ride across Nang Bay on one of the few wooden longtail boats—the standard shallow-draft transportation of the Thai coast—that had survived the waves. Twenty minutes later, I was standing on Railae Beach; the place was desolate. Splintered longtails were scattered on the sand, separated by smoldering pits of debris. A 30-foot sailboat, which I recognized as belonging to my Thai friend Luang Vitsanu, was rammed into the rocks that separate Railae from the main climber hangout, Tonsai Beach. The debris appeared to have gone no more than a few hundred feet inland; thankfully, it hadn't penetrated the dense vegetation at the beach's northern end. I walked the 450 feet to my house, and there it was, intact and untouched. Now I knew I had a dry place to sleep, but my biggest concern was my friends. I set off down the beach.

Luang was one of the first climbers in Thailand, and one of the first local guides. He and his wife, Sara, originally from Sweden, have a five-year-old girl, Tuva, as well as an eight-year-old son, Liam, from a previous relationship. The sailboat had been their home, and if they were in it when the wave hit, I knew, the result would be a huge loss to this community of Thais and seasonal expat climbers. I headed toward Luang's beachfront climbing school, Hot Rock, fearing the worst. But to my relief, there were Luang, Sara, and the kids, taking stock of what had not been washed away. A three-inch layer of sand had been laid down on the tile, and most of the equipment was ruined, but the shop was still standing. Considering the situation, Luang seemed upbeat. "I was on the east side of Bamboo Island with clients," he said over a cup of coffee. He and Sara had recently pulled together everything they had and taken out a loan for a speedboat to run snorkeling tours of the nearby islands.

Luang's clients had been up on the beach. "I noticed the water beginning to swirl with sand," he said, "and then pull away from the beach. I got the boat running just before the water was completely sucked away."

As the foaming wall approached, the clients fled up the beach, while Luang sped out toward deeper water. "When it hit the boat, I almost rolled over, but I tried to turn more to the north and ride on the front of the wave," he continued. "Suddenly, another wave hit from the right." As on Koh Phi Phi, the water had split around the island and met roughly at the main snorkeling reef on the eastern side. "A second later and I probably would have been rolled under the wave," Luang said, "but the northern swell pushed me back upright." After what felt like an eternity, the cresting wave died down to a huge, steep, rolling swell. It slipped underneath the speedboat, leaving Luang in relatively calm water. Nearby, two Japanese snorkelers were clinging to an overturned longtail, muttering, "Tsunami, tsunami!" He loaded them in the boat and turned back toward Bamboo Island to pick up his stranded, shaken clients and speed back to Railae.

"I knew the wave was headed toward Phra Nang," Luang said. "It would probably kill my family, but I could do nothing about it." What Luang didn't know at the time was that Railae was about to dodge a bullet. Between 10:15 and 10:30 that morning, my friend Michel Gaultier, the French manager of the Railae Beach Club—the collection of homes, including mine, on the north end—had a panicked conversation with Aree Pabpet, one of his Thai staff: Aree's brother Dusit had called from Phi Phi, screaming about a giant wave.

"I walked onto the beach," Michel said, "and I saw the wave—a big black line rolling toward us on the horizon very fast." He and another homeowner, Darrell Sheldon, ran south on the beach, screaming, "A tsunami is coming!"

"Most of the people on the beach, probably 200, stood and looked at us as if we were silly," Michel told me. "It was a perfect day. Not a cloud in the sky, and the sea was completely flat. It was hard to imagine anything that could ruin it. But then they glanced out to the sea. Everyone panicked and began running back through the beach club to higher ground."

Only a few observers got a good look at the height and speed of the water. On Tonsai Beach, Kathryn Stedham, a climber and artist from West Virginia, had just set up her easel when she saw the wave break over the yachts moored out beyond the reef. "Looking at the mast height," she said, "that wave was at least 30 feet tall." Austrian Christian Neumeyer was watching from a route on the Tyrolean Wall, which rises from the jungle just off Tonsai Beach. Judging from the distances it covered between the islands, he calculated that it was moving close to 40 miles per hour.

It was largely the reef that saved Railae. Already dissipated by Koh Phi Phi, Koh Poda, and Chicken Island, the wave now hit Phra Nang's wide band of limestone and coral. Once the leading depression had sucked the reef dry, the area had to be filled in again before the water hit the beaches. By the time the surge hit Railae and Tonsai, the wave had spread out, shrinking to perhaps 10 to 20 feet in height.

Still, all along the beach, climbers were left clipped to single bolts as their belayers dropped their ropes and scrambled up the hills behind the beach. Norwegian journalist Lars Gilberg and his girlfriend, Ana Espin, were getting started on one of Thailand's most famous climbs, an overhanging 5.12c named Tidal Wave, when they heard a terrifying noise—"like a jet engine as it tore across the reef," as a nearby climber described it. Another group of climbers was caught on Ao Nang Tower, a spire that rises a few hundred feet straight out of the water just outside Railae Bay. They had to be rescued off the summit by a Thai military helicopter.

To my relief, my longtime friend Elaine Catlin, from San Diego, had also survived. She had been belaying her French boyfriend, Guillaume Huntzinger, on a 5.11b called Jumping for Jugs. The start of the route is nestled behind a wall of vines and small trees completely obscuring any view of the sea. The wave crashed through the jungle and slammed Elaine against the wall, but the vegetation created a natural filter that protected her from larger debris. "The water was filthy," she said. "It was almost black and had a terrible smell."

After the first wave receded, Elaine managed to lower Guillaume down. They were both OK. Then, Guillaume said, "a girl with gashes in her legs and head, and all of her teeth knocked out, stepped back through the shrubs." She and her husband had been kayaking, and she was wandering in shock, crying out for him. Guillaume led her up a hill, where climbers had scrambled to safety atop several large boulders. They tossed down a rope and aided her up.

As of mid-January, her husband still had not been found.

WHEN WE THINK OF A GIANT WAVE, we picture a surf break like Waimea Bay, on Oahu, where breakers can tower up to 50 feet. But unlike a Hawaiian big wave, which comes in as a wall of water followed by a crest and then a depression, a tsunami is a massive wall quickly followed by more great surges; when it recedes, it carries debris back across its original path, dragging anything and anyone out to sea. A tsunami also travels a lot faster than any wave Laird Hamilton would dare be towed into. The waves at Jaws, the infamous surf break off Maui's north shore, move between 20 and 30 miles per hour. A tsunami travels the open ocean at up to 600. To put that energy into perspective, if you jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, you would probably hit the water at about 120 miles per hour.

The calm waters off the Phra Nang peninsula are protected, Thai legend has it, by an ancient princess of Thailand's sea-gypsy tribe. The princess, it appears, was working hard on December 26. As Internet connections came back and newspapers arrived from the mainland, we saw pictures of the devastation the world was facing. By January 15, the U.S. Agency for International Development counted more than 157,000 dead and 27,000 missing in eight countries, plus 1.5 million left homeless. As we heard the numbers double each day along the Thai coast—149 locals and 111 foreigners dead on Phuket alone—everyone realized how lucky they were. Even at Railae, the casualties were far from clear, but our best local estimates had perhaps 30 tourists and resort staff killed or missing. Phi Phi wasn't so lucky.

The Thai government had evacuated the island, so none of us knew what was going on there. We knew that the sea was being searched by U.S. Navy Orion P3 aircraft and that the Thai military was bringing bodies back to the mainland, but not much more. The fact that it was plainly visible from Phra Nang, a silhouette on the horizon with a smoke plume and constant helicopter traffic, kept it a topic of conversation. The papers talked of something like 500 dead in the province, but the makeshift morgue at the wat, or Buddhist temple, in Krabi contained almost 700 bodies. (As of January 12, the Thai government confirmed 693 dead and 715 missing in Krabi Province, most from Koh Phi Phi.)

One thing was clear: Koh Phi Phi was decimated. Forensic experts from Israel's Disaster Victims Identification (ZAKA) organization, the group that identifies the remains of bombing victims in that country, were at the Krabi morgue, working to identify the dead. "This is hell," one volunteer, an Israeli policeman, told Merry Winslow, an American friend of mine. He was referring to the sheer number of bodies.

On January 4, I met my friend Luang at Bobo's, the sole beachside bar in Railae to have withstood the wave. He'd been to Phi Phi that day, giving a speedboat ride to a police official, and he said the destruction was as complete as rumors had it. In addition, Luang felt, the Thai navy's search of the outlying islands had been, for the most part, a quick skimming of areas that we knew well. We decided to go out and canvass the outer islands for the missing. More likely, we would just find lost belongings, but we hoped they could help someone, someday, piece together a relative's last moments.

THE OCEAN WAS AS SMOOTH AS GLASS as Luang and I motored out of Railae Bay. Out on Koh Poda and Chicken Island, the day was calm and bright. The sea was distinctly colder, perhaps a function of turnover in the layers deep within the Indian Ocean. A sea eagle rode on a thermal, and the reefs still teemed with fish. Luang and I dug around half-buried longtails and swam around coral heads looking for wallets, watches, toys—anything that might show a relative where their loved one had been. In Koh Poda's Paradise Cove, we found a bright-yellow "Live Strong" T-shirt; on Chicken Island, a baby stroller, a wrecked Olympus camera, and a tiny Winnie the Pooh bathing suit.

On Bamboo Island, the coral on the windward side was mostly destroyed, but otherwise it was the perfect white-sand island I'd first seen 15 years before. Only three miles south, Koh Phi Phi's plume of black smoke billowed into the pale sky. Luang had friends missing there, and I felt it was likely that in the next few days I would be hearing from parents, spouses, and others still missing loved ones. A Vietnam War–era Huey choppered overhead, and Luang revved up the motor. We sped off after the helicopter, following it into the center of the destruction.

Phi Phi Town has always been a conflicting place to me. It was always so densely packed that when I stood in its center I felt as if I could have been in the slums of Bangkok or Bombay. However, just at the town's edge, it was once again clear that it was the most beautiful island in the world.

For the first time, I didn't hear blaring reggae bars or the engines of longtail boats. Birds chirped in the palm trees and waves lapped the edges of Dalam Bay. But the wreckage of collapsed buildings fumed with flies and creaked in the slightest breeze. Rotting food and the latex gloves of rescuers littered paths through the rubble, and all senses were overpowered by the odor of decomposing flesh. The town's electricity, created in distant generators, had been a maze of haphazard wiring, and the small sewer system had been designed for hundreds, not thousands. Now I walked those tight streets and saw roofs that had been ripped off, shattered windows, and hot electrical cables cut and swinging through the water. The overtaxed sewer system had ruptured, mixing septic water with the thick sludge churned up by the wave. Thai laborers struggled to pull apart debris, and backhoes pulled up the sand where it was thought hundreds were buried. I occasionally bumped into a sole Thai official taking survey of the damage, but Phi Phi was a ghost town.

Two days later, I was able to speak to Dusit Pabpet, the Koh Phi Phi resident who had phoned the warning to Railae. Dusit had been standing on the Tonsai Bay pier when the water suddenly rose.

"We didn't know for sure what it was," he said. "Some people were scared, and we ran to higher ground. Some moved back toward the Dalam side. That's when the big wave came in from Dalam and covered the town." The tsunami had come as a series of pulses, and the second one had been enormous. "From the hill above town I looked down," he said. "One side to another was just water, no land. I think it was about 50 feet deep."

People had gone from sipping a cappuccino one moment to being sucked into the ocean the next. Honeymooners had been made into widows and widowers. Almost every hotel, house, and resort had been wiped out, and those people who lived huddled together on the hilltops on either side of the flooded town until a rescue operation could be mounted hours later.

I saw no aid workers on Phi Phi, perhaps because anyone who could possibly need aid there was dead. I made my way to the rubble of a climbing shop that belonged to my friend Cathy Beoleil, who'd been back in France when the wave hit, and her husband, Eadt, who I'd already heard had survived. I started toward the main market, but then changed my mind and turned back toward the pier to meet Luang. I don't think I'll ever go back.

IN THE WEEKS after the event, the skies of southern Thailand grew hazy. You could almost taste the smoke from burning debris as Thais and foreigners worked side by side, pulling wrecked buildings apart and dragging longtails back into the water. At the Krabi wat, volunteers held the hands of the bereaved as they searched photos of decomposing bodies for tattoos and other identifying marks. Helicopters passed overhead, searching for missing victims farther out at sea and carrying more corpses back from Koh Phi Phi. Here on Railae Beach, in Phuket, and on other Thai beaches, people were cleaning up and hoping for the tourist season to resume, but in Phi Phi Town they were still looking for bodies.

"There can't be a word for this," one of the volunteers at the Krabi morgue said. I had to agree. Just as I couldn't come up with a way to hold the horror of Phi Phi in my head, I also couldn't come to a conclusion as to how those of us who hadn't been through it should behave. The Phra Nang peninsula had settled into a feeling of normalcy, save for the somber mood that seemed to override every pleasant moment; there was no code for dealing with this, no logical path that would ease the suffering.

Senator Hiranpruek had told me that he deplored that this event had happened to tourists: They were guests of his country, he said, and if Thailand had had an early-warning system, maybe they could have been protected from danger. No Thai suffered less than any tourist, yet they grieved for their visitors. The western beaches stood to lose up to $1 billion in annual tourist revenue—a projected $537 million on Phuket and $95 million on Phi Phi—the Tourism Authority of Thailand estimated in mid-January. Yet even in the worst of times, the Thais never forgot their role as host.

Thailand's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, had publicly asked the world to return to Thailand, only to hear that many people felt it was too soon. And who could blame them? News reports of European women sunbathing topless down the beach from burning debris piles and Americans playing volleyball near flooded shopping malls made stomachs turn. But what were we all supposed to do? Roughly 60 percent of the climbers on Railae Beach stayed, I'd say. We were pitching in—but also climbing and supporting the economy.

"What did most people in the world do during all this suffering?" asked Lars Gilberg, who'd been criticized by a reader for an account he'd published in a Norwegian newspaper. "They looked at it on TV, then went to New Year's parties and watched football games. We helped rebuild, and we put money into the pockets of people who need it." It wasn't anything to brag about, Lars believed—this was our second home, and we were fortunate to be able to give something back.

The rest of the world sent body bags, water-filtration systems, doctors, and money—great outpourings of aid: By January 13, between $4 billion and $5 billion had been pledged by foreign governments, with roughly $2 billion more in private contributions. The American Red Cross had received $170 million in donations; Doctors Without Borders had so many tsunami contributions that it was directing donors to its general Emergency Relief Fund instead. "If you need to mourn, OK," said Jantima Niyomdecha, a young Krabi local in the Railae Beach Club office, "but it is not mourning just because you stay away from Thailand. If you do, the disaster continues."

On New Year's Day, I sat and watched the sunset from Tonsai Beach. I looked over at the climbers on the Tonsai crags, working moves, brushing handholds, running laps on the easier routes. Some were climbing, some were bouldering, and some were belaying, but all of them were making the best of the situation and had turned their backs to the sea.

This was as it should have been, Luang believed. "I keep looking over my shoulder," he'd said on the ride back from Phi Phi, "waiting for the wave. But I know it's never coming. You know, Sam, this is so horrible, but Thailand will survive." He looked back toward Koh Phi Phi, watching the smoke rise into the calm sky. "I watched Tuva and Liam play on the beach this morning," he said quietly. "No matter how bad it is, the children will always play. Eventually I will, too."

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