By Kit C.Cauw
In the first few days of tsunami trauma, I couldn’t have imagined
writing an article promoting tourism in the Thai Andaman Sea, not
for this year. I sat frozen, shocked, fused to my television, convinced
that nothing would ever be the same. Paradise lost, paradise gone.
I wasn’t the only one to think this way. Even resorts that had
suffered no physical damage watched their guests flee. One can understand
the reaction. With so much carnage, so many tears and so many reminders,
one’s battery of holiday cheer runs dry. Even if no one was hurt
on your beach, you didn’t feel like swimming. My family and I did
what everyone else was doing: we cancelled our New Year’s reservations
for a beach resort; this despite assurances from the bungalow operator
that all was well on that particular island. Within weeks, the lifeblood,
the tourists, had nearly drained out of Phuket and the entire region.
Newspaper articles forecast layoffs in the range of 50,000. By January
13th, one of the biggest name resorts on the island had one occupied
room. Radio Thailand reported that regional occupancy percentages
hovered in the teens; February was looking like single digits. When
would the bleeding stop?
Loss of tourism revenue is the tsunami’s rogue cousin, a wave that
spread over the region, showing no clear signs of abating. Local
tour agencies, publishing houses, and public relations machines
cried foul, blaming the media for lumping Phuket in with harder
hit areas like Khao Lak, Phi Phi, and even Sri Lanka. News channels,
giddy on high ratings, got sloppy, negligent to the point of malice.
Viewers watched photos and video from utterly annihilated zones
in other countries while the voiceover spoke of Phuket. Little effort
went into differentiation, critics accused, causing people abroad
to believe that the risks of disease and the lack of infrastructure
applied to the entire affected region.
Many expats, including myself, received numerous calls and emails
asking if our water was safe, if we needed anything, if aid could
be sent to us. Educated people circulated photos over the web of
tsunami devastation: one such collection showed pagodas overcome
by water-from Japan in a totally unrelated event. Worldwide hysteria
and fascination with destruction ran high, as did word of doom.
One news report took photos of two coral reefs, the first untouched,
the other covered in sand. Though the pictures were shot simultaneously,
the report presented them as "before and after" pictures.
The coral’s all dead, streamed reports, the dive industry is finished.
Meanwhile, battalions of volunteers, relief workers, search and
rescue forces, soldiers, forensics specialists, police and monks
were working to clean up and set the departed souls to rest. Less
than a week after day zero, many of the beaches were clean enough
for swimming. Indeed, a brief, hopeful report flashed on Thai television
of wacky Europeans out sunbathing. I drove through Kata and would
not have known anything had happened. Suddenly, Phuket seemed salvageable.
In fact, people whispered that the shoreline was now cleaner than
ever; that Patong Beach looked like it did 20 years ago. The Nation
ran an article entitled, "After The Scrubbing." No tour
buses crowded the road, traffic thinned. It was the best time to
visit Phuket in decades.
Still, an awkward pall hung above the island. Was it calloused,
insensitive, or in poor taste to start encouraging people to return?
Not to the folks who work here. Quite the opposite. The universal
response was, yes we’ve suffered, we’re grieving, but don’t punish
us further. John Gray, the sea kayaking pioneer, said to look at
the numbers. Around 300 people died on Phuket. "That’s about
the same as the number of people on an airplane," he said.
"Would tourists stop coming here if one airplane crashed?
John Gray’s Sea Canoe is just one of many fine businesses feeling
the squeeze, washed out more by cancellations than the wave itself.
Now that the area is clean and in many instances more beautiful
than in recent memory, what reason is there to stay away? From my
ninth-floor hotel room overlooking Karon Beach, the scene below
more closely resembles a deserted island idyll than the sea of umbrellas
and beach chairs I’m familiar with. No jet skis pollute the tranquil
tableau; the only boats are traditional fishing craft, booms extended
over the sparkling sea. This is the perfect time to feel good about
travelling, an occasion where every Thai baht you spend is going
to a good cause: the restoration of Thailand’s Andaman coast.
Drinking water is safe and plentiful here; there has been no outbreak
of disease; phones, electricity, banks and cars all run as usual.
True, there is no absolute guarantee that another tsunami won’t
strike-though the likelihood of it happening any time within the
next thousand years is far slimmer than that of your being struck
by lightning, eaten by a shark, hit by a drunk driver, or taken
hostage by a terrorist in New York, London, or Sydney. You’re far
more likely to perish the aftermath of a doomsday asteroid, a nuclear
meltdown, or in an airplane crash than in another greatest-natural-disaster-in-the-history-of-the-world
Scores of people have asked how they can help Thailand rebuild.
The answer is most simple. Come here and play. Swim, dive, sail,
kayak; stroll the naked beaches. Do your little bit to help locals
keep their jobs and businesses. Travel along the coast, explore.
The tsunami has not changed the fact that Phuket is the travel hub
of southern Thailand, the perfect base camp for forays into the
forests of the mainland and the islands of the Andaman. Though Phi
Phi will take longer to recover, other destinations were barely
touched by the tsunami. The Similans, Phang Nga Bay and Trang province’s
Hat Chao Mai Archipelago are three sterling examples. Perhaps most
alluring and the least touched by the wave, are the islands of Koh
Tarutao National Marine Park, down on the Malaysian border.
On the navigational chart, Phuket and Tarutao look like sister
islands, though the former is roughly twice as large. Both run lengthwise
from north to south with white and golden sand beaches along their
west coasts. Their eastern sides are both muddy, though they afford
stellar views of limestone islets. So similar are their features,
a trip from Phuket to Tarutao is like a journey back in time. Mountain
peaks surge more than 500 metres upward from the sea with streams
running down through virgin jungle and untouched mangrove forests.
If you were to magically awaken in Tarutao after a night on Phuket,
your first question would not be "where have I gone?"
but rather, "where have all the resorts gone?"
Tarutao is a tour of natural history. You can see how, like Phuket,
the island was once connected with the mainland. You can see many
of the birds that used to call Phuket home, most notably white bellied
sea eagles and brahminy kites. The eagles are territorial; they
nest and stay put in one area, so when you happen upon them you
can return later to watch them catch fish in the same spots. One
way to attract them is to throw bits of raw chicken skin upon the
surface of the water. Their eyes are keen enough to spot these snacks
from roosts high in the bone-white fichus trees. On an adventure
with John Gray’s Sea Canoe last April, we spent an entire afternoon
playing with these magnificent raptors, watching their aerobatics
as they dove like arrows from the clouds to swoop down for their
One needs a canoe or kayak to fully explore Tarutao. Rivers lead
through some of the best preserved mangrove forests in the world,
home to multitudes of fauna, including water monitor lizards, pythons,
crab-eating macaque monkeys and dozens of species of birds. These
estuaries formerly teemed with sea crocodiles, which John Gray ranks
among the world’s three most dangerous sea creatures, right up there
with box jellyfish and the great white shark. In over ten years
of exploring Tarutao’s interior, the conservationist has yet to
encounter a salty, as he calls them. You can tell that he wants
to, but not up close in a tight cave. "The sad irony,"
he says, "is that we couldn’t be here if there were sea crocs.
They’re real aggressive. But they’re all handbags now."
Unlike Phuket, limestone is a key geological feature of Tarutao,
with the dramatic cliff faces, stalactites, carved-out overhangs,
and jagged formations that one associates with Phang Nga Bay and
Krabi. A number of caves have formed in the rock, some enclosed
chambers with crystalline falls that dance in the light of your
torch, others with ceilings that collapsed long ago, leaving crater-like
rooms, or hongs as they are known in Thai, open to the sky and stars.
National Park headquarters are located on a white sand beach at
the mouth of a tidal river. This is one of the best managed parks
in Thailand, the kingdom’s second marine park, established over
30 years ago. UNESCO recently included Tarutao on their list of
ASEAN Heritage Parks and Reserves. In addition to the museum-like
information exhibits and library, the visitor’s center provides
a restaurant, mini-mart, dormitories, tents, prayer rooms, and a
helicopter pad. From here, visitors can hire longtail boats to caves
and other beaches, as well as catch ferries to the mainland and
the outer islands. Hiking trails lead up to a sunset point and over
the mountain to the abandoned penal colony at Talowao Bay.
The prison was Tarutao’s first claim to fame-or infamy. While banishment
to paradise hardly sounds like punishment, especially in light of
the better known prison island of Alcatraz, the tropics have their
own particular brands of suffering. Prisoners here contended with
malaria, crocodiles, and the dreaded tiger pits, preserved in the
prison museum today. Jailors threw offenders into these cement ovens
in the morning; few survived much past noon. In the heat of WWII,
the government neglected the penal colony, allowing the incarcerated
to seize control of the island, from which point they proceeded
to wreak havoc by pirating ships passing through the Straits of
Malacca. From 1944-1947 the inmate-pirates reigned, until a company
of 300 British soldiers set them down. Tarutao lay abandoned for
nearly thirty years, inhabited only by nomadic bands of sea gypsy
fishermen. Since becoming a national park in 1972, the island has
stayed quiet, except for brief flashes of glory when the French
and American versions of the so-called reality programme, Survivor,
Tarutao National Marine Park comprises 51 islands flung across
an expanse of sea totaling 1,490 km?. The west coast bays of Ao
Pante, site of park headquarters, nearby Ao Jak, Ao Molay, and Ao
Sone all offer lovely sand beaches, most of which are excellent
for swimming during the northeast monsoon, from November through
April. Visitors can camp on the beaches or stay in park bungalows
at ranger stations. At Ao Son, a river pours out along a lengthy
sandbar. Coming from Phuket, you have to wonder if this is might
be Kamala or even Patong before their growth spurts. The basin and
subsequent mountains present a conundrum: since you can’t take in
both views at once, do you focus your attention inland, or gaze
out upon the open sea?
Once you have made your way to Tarutao, you will need a few days
to soak up the island. A perfect vacation itinerary would run something
like this: a week in Phuket to acclimate and feel good about spending
lots of money to assist the local economy, a day of transit to Tarutao
(unless you fly by helicopter, seaplane, or super luxury motor yacht),
a minimum of four nights on the island, followed by another week
or two back in your lavish resort basking in the glow of your humanitarian
relief effort. If you are interested in visiting the marine park’s
other islands, you should double your time down south. You won’t
want to miss the waterfalls off Koh Adang, the crescent beach of
Koh Lipe, or the underwater fireworks of Thailand’s most secret
There are three superlative ways to visit Tarutao from Phuket,
none better than the others. The first is with John Gray’s Sea Canoe,
on a trip called Wings Of The White Belly. Because of the distance
involved, this adventure requires special arrangements, but it offers
the closest insight to the island, as experienced, well-trained
guides lead guests into various caves and hongs, up rivers, through
mangrove forests, and to spectacular waterfalls. Accommodation is
on the beach, in tents set up by Gray’s staff; dining is aboard
the escort boat, quite possibly the best food you’ll enjoy in the
Another excellent way to explore is by charted yacht. Joanne Cooney,
charter director at Thai Marine Leisure, recommends two weeks for
a cruise from Phuket. This allows for a relaxed sail down along
the coast with visits at islands along the way in Krabi and Trang,
up to a week of cruising throughout the marine park, then another
few days for the trip home, stopping at new islands.
Luxury motor cruising is the third recommended means for arrival.
A 40-foot Riviera from an outfit such as Tawan Cruises can zip you
all the way to Tarutao in just a few hours. This option would grant
the greatest flexibility, though it lacks the romance and quietude
of the first two options.
Tour operators have lobbied in recent years for the construction
of an airport in Tarutao, but for now their efforts have been thwarted,
allowing the island to maintain its status as the only one of size
with no resort on its shores. It’s the perfect compliment to Phuket,
a before and after portrait captured simultaneously, in present
day coexistence. Like 80% of Phuket’s hotel rooms, Tarutao suffered
no damage in the tsunami. There’s no reason to feel guilty or strange
about a visit. On the contrary, this is the best time to travel
the Andaman coast in years. If you come soon, you’ll capture some
of the most positive images created by the tsunami’s aftermath-the
beaches of Phuket restored to their natural beauty, reflecting their
own past, while echoing Tarutao, the pure sister to the south.