The year was 2004. I had been working very hard for the last six months so that I could have the entire month of December and January off to travel in the South East Asia. They were the days of travelling on a shoestring budget. The plan was to spend the first half of December in the Northern part of Thailand and then slowly make the way down south to the famous Thai beaches and its coral fringed islands. A week before departure, I realized how difficult it was to secure any beach side accommodation during the very popular Christmas and New Year period. So at the last minute I hastily reversed my itinerary and changed the bookings. Well, as they say, the rest is history.
I was backpacking through the remote interiors of Northern Thailand with no contact to the outside world (cell phones were yet to become a rage). After few days of peaceful wandering around, visiting working farms and villages, I returned to the civilization which for me was a decrepit looking hostel in Chiang Mai. The thing I remember most about the moment I entered the hostel is not that there was hardly anyone in the lobby but, rather, the eerie silence broken by wails of men and women. I followed the mournful cries to the restaurant adjoining the hostel and saw no less than a dozen people watching the television in complete silence. A Thai reporter on TV was talking animatedly in front of what looked like a scene from a war zone. The houses were flattened as if they were match boxes, people’s belongings were peeping through the rubble and in the distance I could see paramedics hauling bodies into the ambulance. It was most unreal. After few more minutes of footage showing similar devastation, but this time at a different location and voiced over a different language, I gathered enough courage to ask what was going on to the girl sitting next to me. She must have thought I was mad because by then the whole world and their cousin knew about the TSUNAMI.
Rewinding back a week: I was staying in a perfect little shack lent by an old Thai lady on a secluded beach in Khao Lak. Khao Lak is unlike most other beach side resort towns that have sprung up in Thailand over the years. It doesn’t have the same number of bars and discos that are ubiquitous to major Thai resorts. Instead, it focuses on small establishments that cater to families who are looking for quiet beaches and a peaceful holiday. But I was there for a different reason altogether. Khao Lak is the closest departure point to the Similan Islands of the Andaman Sea. The Similan are a group of islands that offer one of the best diving opportunities in the world. They consistently appear in the top ten dive locations. They are also heavily protected and considered as a national treasure by the Thai royal family and it’s not difficult to see why. There are very few places left in this world where you can go snorkelling from the beach and encounter stunning coral reefs that haven’t been discoloured from fishing and other human pursuits. Similarly, the diversity and sheer number of fish that live from these corals are outstanding. They are also completely fearless as fishing is prohibited in this marine reserve. They like to tickle your mask to show their curiosity and then swim away. I am sure this world is full of natural wonders but for me Koh Similan will always remain the paradise on Earth.
The Tsunami of 2004, as you well know, created havoc in many countries and devastated most of the Western Thailand. As I learnt many days after the event, all the places I stayed in were flattened. Khao Lak was one of the worst hit. The sweet Thai lady who rented me her shack about a week ago in Khao Lak told me over the phone how that shack and all her other properties were engulfed by the ocean. The diving team I went to Similan Island with were saved because they were out in the sea where the effect of the Tsunami was surprisingly less. Similar stories came out whoever I called.
In all these years since that fateful trip, I have never questioned “what if” because, really, there is no point. I pray for the departed souls whose lives were cut short so dramatically and hope that we, the fortunate ones, can live our dreams in this life.
Back in those days, I didn’t have a camera so to continue the tradition of posting photographs with each blog post, here are a few that I have downloaded from web resources.