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Thailand: Getting On With Life In Phuket
Cindy Drukier and Teresa Sutakanat

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“The ocean looks much prettier than before,” said 21 year-old Suksan Sawangpol, while looking out onto the Andaman Sea. Sawangpol, a lifeguard on Patong Beach in Phuket, was in the direct path of the tsunami when the first waves struck the sand.

“The water receded so quickly [before the waves hit]. I thought it was strange so I went down to take a look, and even picked up a fish,” Sawangpol jokes. Although he smiles, the scar on his forehead hints at the violence of the waves that followed.

He soon returned to work, but the once-bustling and busy coastline is missing beach chairs and umbrellas, and lacks the throngs of tourists, peddlers and food vendors. These have been replaced by a calm silence, and endless stretches of white sand. While the occasional tourist can be seen swimming or sun bathing, Patong Beach has become subdued, in sharp contrast to what it was like before the tsunami hit, and during the immediate aftermath.

A quick scan of the beach also reveals an obvious lack of Thai faces among those present.

“Thai people don’t want to go swim, unlike the foreigners,” Sawangpol shared. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time…it [the tsunami] is embedded in their hearts.”

Other fears may explain why Thais are largely absent from the beach, or so believes Thanomsak Nhoorod, 32, a taxi driver who has lived in Phuket for the past 13 years. Right after the tsunami, corpses were lining the roads. “Some locals are afraid of ghosts,” notes Nhoorod, so many residents don’t dare to wander too far from their homes. These notions are normal in Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, where most believe in reincarnation and the afterlife.

Living and working mostly inland, Nhoorod was not directly affected by the tsunami. While he says that he still enjoys looking at the ocean, he doesn’t feel comfortable going near it anymore.

For others, like Nisakorn Janchodthi, 22, she feels she has no choice but to stay close to the water. Her livelihood depends on the selling of fruit to tourists and locals who go to the beach. “I’m afraid, but I have no choice except to work so that I can earn money,” says Janchodthi. “Many people have gone away, going back to their hometowns…not like the foreigners, they aren’t afraid of something like this.”

Almost all of the Thai tourists, as well as the majority of the transient worker population, have simply left the Phuket area. The few people who are seen swimming at Patong Beach are clearly foreigners, though many of the foreign tourists have also joined the exodus from the area.

“We want to help the people here. They need our business,” declared Hedi Wiese, 63, a German tourist who has chosen to stay at Patong Beach. She knows that she is lucky to be alive. The waves left her with scars across her knees and bruised ribs. Friends in Germany have been sending her money, which she has been donating to the local relief effort. When asked about how she plans to get past her ordeal, she replied simply, “We have to forget.”

Patong Beach, while still heavily scarred at many levels by the tsunami, is getting on with the business of living.

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