Khao Lok, Thailand

Trip Start Dec 04, 2007
Trip End Feb 26, 2008

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Friday, February 22, 2008

We have spent the last several days laying around the beaches of Khao Lok (pronounced COW LOCK). This beautiful section of Thailand's SW coast lies on the Andaman Sea. The whole area consists of several beaches actually connected by periodic rock outcrops separating each coral beach section. The whole set of combined beaches runs for several miles.

70 km off shore, fro Khao Lok, are a group of nine Islands called the Similan Islands. This area is a renowned dive location. We hired a snorkeling tour for one day trip to the island group. The day began with an early up, and out the door of our cheap, but clean $15 dollar room at 7:00 AM. The "Taxis " here are small pickup trucks with canopies. Two bench seat line each side providing seating for passengers along each side of the truck bed. 

The port facility is a short distance to the south of town, and took only minutes for the taxi to deliver 9 of us to the "dispatch " area. We were first told to select a set of fins that fit, and a mask and snorkel set. We signed for our equipment and also signed for some form of "insurance". (Insurance for them , or us? , I wondered." While we waited we were provided with a cup of water and a cup of coffee (the ubiquitous Nescafe) and a small mini twinkie, wrapped in a sealed package the size of a snickers bar.

The whole operation was well organized , and the equipment seemed to be for communal use by the many tour operators working off of this pier.  There were more and more tourist arriving every minute. Some were diving for two days and sleeping in tents or cabanas on the island (a national Park), others were snorkeling/diving for three days and staying out there for two nights. We had chosen to do a day trip, snorkeling four of the 9 islands, having lunch,and returning the same day. At the dispatch center, each group was assigned a number, and given a sticker to put on your shirt, or bathing suit. My sticker ominously read  "#7 - one way". I really didn't like the sound of that. After thinking about it, I decided that "One Way" must mean something different to the Thais , than it did to me.

The passage to the Islands was fast, thanks to the three Yamaha 200 horsepower outboard motors.Our boat, with a crew of 4 and 20 passengers covered the 70 Km in 1.5 hours with all 600 horsepower fully engaged. The weather was sunny, hot with little breeze, so the surface of the water was smooth. Once we cleared the port and shoreline we entered the channel between the mainland and the Similan Island group, we encountered a swell which pitched the craft, to and fro, as it tore across the water. 

I sat on the port side, across and a little toward the stern from a group of folks on the starboard side. Sitting across from  me and next to a young woman was a thin guy with sunglasses, who began smiling, but soon started looking a bit "queasy". He soon began making faces, grimaces really, and began holding his head in his hands, and soon looked quite pale. While he was pounding his head, and began gasping for air, the crew dutifully offered drinks, and ice packs which he  placed on his forehead and neck. It was clear to me that he was heading south, and FAST!  Sure enough, he suddenly sat forward, bolt upright, eyes bulging, and put both hands on his mouth! All hands moved their feet out of the way. One heroic fellow passenger, in a flash,  pushed a conveniently placed trashcan in front of the poor devil, just as he "pitched his twinkie."

Now, I consider myself to be a minor authority on motion sickness , having been afflicted with it throughout my lifetime. ( I was a real joy to have around on long vacations in the car as a kid!) Over time, I have found it to be very helpful to have a horizon view when traveling. It is much better than to be down below, where your ear, eyes, and mind can play tricks on you. It also helps to keep your mind off of the subject of heaving. 

Following the display of my fellow passenger, which we all witnessed, I decided that it would be better for me to stand, look over the gunnel toward the horizon, and breath some fresh ocean air, least a domino twinkie pitching episode should break out on board. Thankfully, the outbreak did not occur.

The snorkeling was good. The first site was only fair, but fish and coral improved over the afternoon sites and the water was quite clear. We saw many fish we were familiar with, including 4 varieties of Parrot fish, grunts, trigger fish, puffers, and saw several fish we had never seen before. Nothing big or massive, but the fish were in large schools and the coral beds were varied, colorful, and abundant.

Our lunch was served on the beach under the shade trees. We had fried fish, steamed rice, stir fried veggies. When we hit the beach our guide/handler would say something like, "You can swim or walk the beach, for 45 minutes. Be sure to be back here by 3:00 PM when we will leave. Or, we will see you tomorrow!"   (I though about my "one way" sticker each tie he said that. )

Following our return to Khao Lok town, we spent our last night in our $15 room, and stepped up to our new digs, which ran around $40 a night. The room sits in a park like palm tree garden forest. The room has AC, TV Cable, fan, and a wonderful bed. The Pu Khoa lok has a nice pool and wonderful restaurant. and sits across from Nang Thong beach. We will stay here the last two nights in Khao Lok. Each evening we go down to the beach for a Chang beer and sunset.

While on the beach, it is hard not to think about the tragic tsunami event that occurred here on December 26th, 2004. There are now small shrines at most hotels, a large shrine under construction, and many makeshift memorial shrines along the beach dedicated to loved ones lost here on the day just over three years ago. There is a Tsunami Museum, built by a nonprofit group which is small, but informative. It presents the scientific explanation of the phenomena.  Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes below the seafloor, where one continental plate is being pressed under another, causing these waves to emanate from the epicenter outward across the sea. They can travel at an incredible 550 miles per hour, so they can cross an ocean in a day. The waves can be up to one hour apart. In deep water (over 600 feet) they are barely noticeable. Often , the quakes that caused the waves are so far away that the victims are completely unaware of the quake that caused the monster waves. The victims have no idea that the danger is hurtling at them. The waves give little warning, except for a quick, extreme lowering of the water level (like extreme low tide) just before a monster wave's advance onto the shoreline. It is in the shallow waters and shorelines that the tsunamis do the most damage.  

Most of the 169,752 known dead and 124,236 missing lived or worked along the shoreline. Indonesia lost the most, being closest to the epicenter of the quake. Their casualties totaled 122,232 dead and 113,937 missing. Thailand lost 5,394 dead, and 2993 missing and resumed dead. (2,448 of these were forgone tourists, from 37 different  countries.      
As we visited the museum, we saw a guest book, where visitors can sign in. We signed in our names and recorded our county of origin. We perused the book of 20 pages. We found the vast majority of signatories were  from Sweden, Norway, and   Germany. Smaller number signed from the UK, France, and Italy. In 20      pages full of signatures, there were only two Americans. We signed so now there are four. We met several Swedes who can to Khao Lok specifically to "pay their respects" to their fellow countrymen who lost their lives here. I believe that Sweden lost the most of the tourist population here that day. 

We visited a police patrol boat, which had been swept 1/2 of a mile inland by the three waves. It is amazing to see this huge ship, sitting in a pasture,  over 1/2 mile from the sea. The buildings all along the coast were destroyed. In the last three years there has been a building boom here. The debris has been removed,  new streets, hotels,  bungalows, restaurants, and stores, are being constructed. Billions of dollars are being spent to get this tourist destination back up and operational. In most of the tourist areas it is hard to find areas that are now not fully operational. No signs of the damage are apparent. I wonder how it looks in Indonesia and Banda Aceh?

As we enjoy our evening Chang Beer on the beach, it is indeed, hard not to consider what it was like on that bright sunny day after Christmas three years ago. It was 10:30 AM and the beach was filling with elderly retired couples, and young families away from their snow covered countries on a holiday in the sun. Some were out for a morning walk, or a swim in the warm sea, while others sat on their bungalow porch and sipped their morning coffee.
Then, at 10:30 AM, their world turned upside down: the sea lept from it's seabed, which it was never supposed to do, and lept over the trees, over the bungalows,  over the hotels,and shops, and inundated their world and snuffed out their three catastrophic, monstrous, poundings. The weeks and months of victim recovery, identification,  DNA registry, debris  removal must have been horrific and as grim as it gets.

The community is now faced with "moving on", while the government is faced with installation and testing of a new Indian Ocean based Tsunami  warning system.. Some parts are in place, others remain to be installed. The system is still incomplete.

As we went to bed last night, we heard on the CNN International channel that there had been another earthquake in the northern portion of Sumatra, near Banda Aceh. It registered 7.4 on the Richter scale, and was very close to the epicenter of the 2004 9.1 quake. We went to be wondering if we would hear sirens in the night, and made a plan to run up the hill behind our cabin, if we did. We were assured by the fact that our new cabin sat well off the shoreline and on ground that did not get wet in 04. 

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