I couldn’t see the beach.
The white sand, all of the beer bellied sunbathers in small speedos were all washed away.
All I could see was the wave of the Tsunami of 2004 hitting the Patong beach of Phuket.
My mind went back to December 26th, 2004. I was in a coffee shop in Amsterdam with my husband, doing what you do in coffee shops in Amsterdam. Maybe that’s why the imagery of the tsunami footage is tattooed in my brain.
Tsunami Patong Beach, Phuket 2004
Yet somehow, the beaches of Phuket had recovered, including this one in Patong. Lots of the footage from the Tsunami was taken here.
But I was spooked. It wasn’t that I expected another wave that day, I just thought the beach would have some sort of memorial. Something. I hunted, almost needing a metal detector on the beach to find them. One included a sign to a Tsunami evacuation route.
I followed it, fearing what I would find.
It didn’t lead to monks praying at shift morgues or a wall covered with photos of lost ones, but to something more tragic: Starbucks.
Really? There isn’t a memorial? Only a few weathered signs and emergency phones?
I left the beach curious to see if there was a memorial anywhere for the tsunami. There had to be.
And there was.
I had to travel to Khao Lak, a small village about 50 km north of Phuket Island. This entire village was wiped out, including four thousand lives, both locals and tourists. The 2012 movie called The Impossible, based on a family vacationing here.
Before the wave hit, there was a Police boat anchored about one nautical mile off shore, protecting a Thai prince and princess on a holiday. The waves of the tsunami tossed the boat over a mile inland, along with flattening everything in its way.
The police boat wasn’t like the fiberglass sailboat I’d capsize on Paw Paw lake as a kid, but a serious hunk of steel. Just look how small the people in the right of the photo.
The tuktuk driver was all smiles. “Sure, I bring you to memorial. Too far to walk. I come back in twenty minutes.”
“That’s all the time I’ll need?”
“Yes. Memorial just boat.”
The tuktuk driver was right. The memorial consisted of the Police boat 813, a nearby spirit house and a few vendors selling trinkets.
But the atmosphere was heavy, bursting with memories. An umbrella would have been futile. It couldn’t stop the downpour of tears.
Maybe that’s what a memorial should be. It’s the feelings it stirs inside, not the things you can see.
The tuktuk driver remembered the day, being more informative than any of the pamphlets in the gift shops.
“I lost a friend that day on at the beach.” His smile disappeared for a moment, “but my home, north of here. OK.”
I told him how I prayed for him that day and how I was sorry of his loss. He thanked me, then whisked me back to the bus stop.
I continued onto Surat Thani. The bus ride was spectacular the traffic being slowed down for a bit by a few elephants on the road. They weren’t like deer jumping in front of cars in Northern Michigan, but wrinkled SUVs steered by elephant whisperers, if there is such a thing.
I stopped and changed buses in a town that even Lonely Planet hasn’t discovered. I ate the world’s best Pad Thai chased by pineapple sprinkled with crushed pepper and salt (the yin yang combo has a cooling effect).
I thought about the tuktuk driver, his smile, his helpfulness. Then I wondered if I unearthed a grave of memories for him that should have remained closed.
Then I waited at the terminal with a monk.
I wondered what he prayed for that day.
Note: There are memorials for the Tsunami, but not at the sites the media focused on. About 30 km north of Khoa Lak, there is the Ban Nam Khem memorial and in Indonesia, there is the Aceh Tsunami Museum.