Rebuilding After Thai Tsunami

Column By Don Coppock

  When you make the descent into Patong Beach, one of the more popular tourist stops in Phuket (pronounced Pooket) Thailand, the first thing that strikes you is the wild jungle greenery cascading down the mountain and threatening to sweep this insular town into the ocean.

   Next, as you plunge further, you’ll glimpse the Andaman Sea stretching as far as the eye can see, with rolling turquoise views and picturesque islands guaranteed to take your breath away. Finally you will come to the community itself.

   As my taxi wove down the verdant hills overlooking this small resort, Patong appears revitalized six years after the tsunami that devastated it, with new buildings, new roads, new business’ and a disproportionately giant shopping center, the Jungceylon, that is a magnet for the farangs (foreigners) who now once again inundate this little beach town on the west shore of Phuket.

   The first indication of the recovery came at the base of the hill as we passed Wat Suwan Khiri Wong, the Buddhist temple that somehow seems incongruous with its surroundings. Here the lanes converge, and the myriad motorbikes, trucks, buses and cars jostle and struggle in a frantic attempt to merge into the single lane leading into this apparently now thriving resort.

   It had been awhile.

   I lived here for 6 months in a small apartment on Soi Nanai a year after the hell broke loose, and signs of the devastation were everywhere. Most of the locals were struggling, damaged buildings loomed as testaments to the tsunami, detritus still littered vacant lots, sections of the beach walkway were gone, tourists were slow to return, and the aid promised to help small businesses seemed to take forever to reach its destination. Most of the foreign help in the immediate aftermath had disappeared, and Thais were left with the mundane tasks of rebuilding structures and lives.

   Further north, boats remained marooned as much as a quarter mile from the water, forlorn reminders of the power of the sea. Locals I talked to, Thai friends I’d made over my many previous stays, still were in a state of shock a year later, and often fought back tears as they attempted to describe its grim impact.

   But something happened in the 4 years since I’d last visited, people have apparently decided it’s safe to return and are willing to pay for the privilege again, high-priced hotels are often fully booked, and streets are once again crowded with farangs of every nationality. It’s off season in Thailand , but you wouldn’t know it by the crowds here.

   Now once again as many as 75,000 visitors a day flock to the small beach communities sharing this beautiful coastline—towns with romantic names such as Kata, Karon, Rawai and Surin– and expensive homes once again are creeping up hillsides.

   If anything, it seems there are now too many people, the few roads trisecting Patong are often clogged with traffic and the sidewalks are littered with a polyglot culture jostling with each other in a maddening array of languages as they push and weave and herd their way to the shopping center or the beach or the bar. You’ll hear German, French, Indian, Korean and Russian, as well as a host of mystifying Arabic and Baltic languages I couldn’t identify.

   The one language you won’t hear much of — especially in the more expensive places closer to the sea– is Thai, and most of the Thais who helped rebuild Patong are gone.  Virtually all signs are in English, there are Starbucks, Burger Kings, KFCs, and McDonalds, all guaranteed to mimimize any risk of culture shock.

   Later, as I toured the Jungceylon, now indisputably the center of Patong, I found Thais conspicuously absent from this busy sprawling mall catering to the wealthy. Thais were around, of course, many making the daily jaunt from the other side of the hill where the housing is cheaper, but most worked in the shops earning the Thai minimum wage of 207 baht ($7) a day selling overpriced name-brands often exceeding hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

   Yet while many of these tourists walk out with Gucci, Prada, Dior and Vercaci, products guaranteed to solidify their image in circles that respect that sort of thing, most tip jars placed prominently on the counters (hint hint) remained empty.

   Oddly enough, after speaking with many of the local small business owners, the increase in tourism hasn’t helped much and most I spoke with claim they are worse off than they were in the pre-tsunami days. According to them, the mall has had a similar effect to a Walmart opening in a small community. Low paying jobs are had at the expense of small business owners, who are hard pressed to compete. Something is gained, and something is lost. Maybe that’s progress.

   Gone is the open air market I delighted in frequenting, most of the used bookstores I patronized have vanished and the makeshift carts and stalls selling cheap Thai food so common throughout Thailand are much more difficult to locate than I recall.  They’re still here, albeit in smaller numbers, but you have to move away from the beach to the small road hugging the hillside to find them. You have to search them out. Apparently they weren’t part of the plan.
   The establishments that have clearly benefited are the ubiquitous bars centered on Soy Bangla, once considered the shopping hub of the town. Impossibly enough, they seem to have multiplied. People no longer shop here in the daylight hours. But while the mall has siphoned customers from most of the afternoon businesses, once evening descends Bangla, the seething heart of Patong at night, resumes its role in a town known for its nightlife, and the myriad little beer bars consisting essentially of stools and a surrounding counter begin to pulse and throb with music while thousands of undulating girls and katoys (transvestites) begin to hoot and holler as they vie for the attention of the mobs that have returned for no other reason than to drink themselves insensible and fondle the ladies.

   People mechanically empty their drinks as girls dance above and around them, until the evening is a kaleidoscopic blur, all the women (and some of the men) begin to look alike and the Patong Beach is once again the center of the world…

   Alas, morning comes, revealing remnants of the evening, stragglers huddled in one last attempt at drunken camaraderie, grinning weary grins, coughing smoker’s coughs, laughing hoarsely while shielding their ruined eyes in an attempt to come to terms with the blinding light.

   Meanwhile. early risers begin to walk and jog along the beach, and it’s at this time, before the vendors have filled the white sands with chairs and the tourists flood over it like ants, that the beach is at its most pristine. This is Patong at its best.

   So things are back to normal, or what passes for normalcy in this little tourist town. Money is flowing once again, and Patong has been reclaimed. Once again crowds soak up the sun, fill the malls and the sounds of traffic blend with the sounds of the sea.

   As I take my morning walk it occurs to me I should be happy. The views are still beautiful, and I suppose that’s reason enough to come. It’s once again a tourist destination. The only certainty I really had was that for better or for worse this was no longer the town I had left.

   But hey, that’s recovery, right?