Diving the Similans

Trip Start Jul 26, 2006
Trip End Apr 01, 2008

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I was originally planning to head down to Phuket once I left Khao Sok, as that's where the largest concentration of dive operations seemed to be.  Some Finnish chick I met on the bus down though suggested I check out Khao Lak instead, as it is a lot less touristed and hence cheaper.  I took a look at Jennifer's "Lonely Planet" guide to Thailand, and indeed, it mentioned Khao Lak as a low-cost diving destination for the Similans, at least partly because the Similans are due west and easier to get to than from Phuket, which is further south.  The "Sims" are world-renowned as a dive destination, with pure aquatic magic at depths of 2 to 30meters.  "Similan" comes from the Malay word "sembilan" for nine, and some Thais call it Ko Kao, or Nine Islands.  Princess Chulabhorn, the Thai monarch's youngest daughter, apparently has a cottage on one of the islands.
As Jennifer's book was printed in 2001 however, what I didn't realize is that Khao Lak was Thailand's ground zero for the December 2004 Tsunami that also struck the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and at least eleven other countries on the Indian Ocean.  Caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, the tsunami is believed to have killed as many as 230,000 people and caused as much as $10 billion in damage.  Worldwatch reports that "In the Maldives alone, 87 tourist resorts were damaged, resulting in losses of $100 million.  A further 315 hotels and 234 restaurants were destroyed in Thailand.  Sri Lanka lost approximately 2/3 of its 29,700 fishing boats, while 70% of Indonesia's fishing industry was destroyed."
Khao Lak's part in all this was revealed to me on the way to my guest house from the bus station.  The owner of the guest house, a Dutch guy named Kries, gave me a ride, and he just started talking about the whole thing.  Apparently the tsunami hit right smack in the middle of the tourist season, when places like his were completely full up with guests.  Only he and about half of his guests survived the experience, and they did so by climbing atop a building some distance from the guest house.  Kries is a nice but kinda strange guy really, and I don't know if his weird mannerisms are some sort of post-traumatic stress-related phenomenon or just how he is.  But his revelation was like a glass of cold water in the face; the whole place suddenly looked very different to me.  Somewhat depopulated, but with (re)construction taking place all around, you could see how the water had moved across what was formerly a bustling beach town and simply wiped it clean.  Of the 5,400 confirmed deaths that occurred in Thailand, as many as 4,000 of them happened in Khao Lak.  On another ride into town, we passed down a small street and Kries pointed out how quiet it was, how you couldn't hear the ocean even though it was very nearby.  "No one that lived on this street could hear the tsunami coming; every single person that lived here was killed," he said.  I've never truly believed in ghosts, but if ever I visited a place where it felt as though the dead were still walking among us, it was the beautiful yet chilling Khao Lak
Sitting in a café I overheard a conversation between some Western tourists and a local guy who had also survived the tsunami.  I couldn't help but listen as he told his story, and similar to my experiences in Vietnam and Cambodia, I found myself just watching people, staring into their eyes and trying to imagine what they'd seen.  You could observe remnants of the tsunami experience even in the way people interacted with each other; like when our group returned to the dive center after being out at sea for a few days and everyone stopped whatever they were doing to embrace them and welcome them back.  So many times during my stay in Khao Lak I wanted to ask people about their experiences, whether they'd lost loved ones, and how they'd managed to go on with life in this place where such tragedy had struck.  But no one else seemed to be quite so forthcoming with information as Kries, and I felt weird asking, so instead I just took in the landscape and listened out for ghosts on the breeze.
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ecogyrl on

sadly beautiful
you shoulda picked up one of those disposable underwater cameras. i got some great snorkeling pix my last trip to hawaii.
send an address this way when you get a chance.

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