The Calm After the Storm

Tourists are not returning to Khao Lak. The reasons are many: fear of ghosts, fear of another tsunami, reluctance to have a good time at the scene of so much tragedy, unwillingness to be reminded of the death of a loved one, and the misconception that the area remains devastated, its infrastructure unready to support tourism.



Overview of  Khao Lak area 

Krisda Phanichyanondh is general manager at the Khao Lak Merlin, one of the many properties trying to lure tourists back to the area. He says the Merlin was relatively lucky, given that the tsumani claimed only five of its guests and nine of its villas. With most of the resort on higher ground — the lobby, for example, sits 30 metres above sea level — when the tsunami hit most guests and staff were able to scramble to safety. The Khao Lak Merlin and other properties in the area depend for much of their business on tour operators promoting them in Scandinavia and mainland Europe, particularly Germany. According to Khun Krisda, however, over this past year tour operators refused to believe that Khao Lak’s tourist infrastructure had rebounded from the tsunami, so they simply stopped selling Khao Lak. As a result, the Khao Lak Merlin and other prime properties are suffering 20-25 percent high-season occupancy rates. Normally, that kind of occupancy is characteristic of the low season; pre-tsunami, high-season rates hovered around 80 percent.



Khao Lak Merlin

So far as the Scandinavians and other Europeans are concerned, then, it’s generally untrue they haven’t returned to Khao Lak because of the large loss of life — they simply haven’t been told that the area is once again ready to host large groups of tourists. And it is. The tourist infrastructure is back in place and operational. It’s all there — banks, currency exchanges, ATMs, diveshops, bars, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets, convenience stores, traditional massage shops, Internet cafés, eco-tour operators, clothing shops and, of course, tailor shops.           
David Butcher, of Sea Bees Diving, says he thinks Khao Lak has reverted to the way it was 10 years ago, before the resort boom, when independent travellers and divers made up the majority of its guests. Through a variety of dive publications, his company is trying to get the word out that Khao Lak is back.
Phang Nga Province suffered 4,223 fatalities during the tsunami. The next hardest-hit province in Thailand was Krabi, with 721 deaths, while Phuket reported 279, making Phang Nga by far and away the worst-affected area. It’s estimated that half the town of Ban Nam Khem was washed away when the tsunami hit, wreaking its destruction from this town down through to Laem Pakarang, Ban Chong Fah, Ban Bang La Hone, Bang Niang, Khao Lak, the Phang Nga Royal Thai Navy Base and Tab Lamu.
In Ban Nam Khem today stands a monument dedicated to the tsunami and its victims. It comprises two long facing walls, curved but otherwise eerily similar to the Vietnam War Memorial; the other, which the wave wall is supposed to symbolically hit, has been portioned into sections where plaques carrying the victims’ names and mementoes can be placed. Right now the memorial isn’t easy to find but, as time passes and infrastructure improves, it should make an ideal place to pay respect to all those who lost their lives on 26 December 2004.


Boatbuilder at work 

One thing those in Khao Lak need is skills training. Many lost their primary livelihoods during the tsunami, and they need to learn other ways to make an income. The Ecotourism Centre (ETC), set up by American Reid Ridgeway, is a vocational training programme designed to deal with this problem. The ETC focuses on three skills: computers, sport-dive training, and English. It can host up to 25 students in a nine-month course. One of the largest NGOs operating in the Phang Nga region, it has a budget of US$400,000,000 — enough to set up 4,000 ETCs, so you do have to wonder why more such programmes aren’t operating and more people aren’t being retrained.     
Reid also suggests setting up a state-of-the-art multimedia museum, complete with audio-visual presentations and exhibits with proper labelling and proper translations in a number of languages. The museum could attract tourists, educate people about tsunamis, and serve as another memorial to the victims. He suggests situating it next to the washed-up Navy boat near Khao Lak town, and including a quiet area where people could pray and remember those lost in the tsunami. He also proposes a research centre/green facility showing the power of nature and how it can be harnessed. Reid believes another way to attract people to the Khao Lak region would be by staging eco-friendly events such as mountain-bike races.   
In a country as spiritually oriented as Thailand, it’s hard to downplay the presence of ghosts in a region that has experienced so much death. But if the ghosts are lingering, as many say they are, then embrace them. If you can’t make it to Khao Lak, tell a friend and tell them to tell a friend. Khao Lak needs you back. It’s one of Thailand’s most special places, largely unspoiled the tawdry trappings of mass tourism.
Despite the trauma it has experienced, Khao Lak remains an incredibly beautiful and serene place. This is Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi 30 years ago. And opportunities for adventure sports or eco-tours are many: trekking in Khao Sok and Khao Lak National Park, river canoeing, kayaking, mountain-biking, scuba-diving in the nearby Similans … the list goes on and on.



New boats, fresh start  

If you’re looking for beer bars, karaoke, cabaret shows, and the cacophony of unmuffled motorcycles, tuk-tuks, touts and traffic, Khao Lak is not for you. But if you just want to lie on a beach and have a nice, quiet holiday amid Thailand’s great outdoors, Khao Lak presents just the spot. And the people that make their livelihood from the tourist industry are ready and waiting to welcome you. They need you back.

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