Phuket, Thailand — As I sipped a tropical drink seaside at Mom Tri's Boathouse at Kata Beach, gentle waves lapped at the sand, and a couple walked hand in hand along this horseshoe-shaped bay. From here, all seemed idyllic on Phuket, a well-loved resort island about 500 miles south of Bangkok. I spent time in early November in southern Thailand to see how -- indeed, whether -- the area had rebounded from the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that slammed into the Andaman Coast, leaving about 220,000 dead or missing, including about 8,000 in Thailand. I wanted to know what tourists would find when -- and if -- they returned.
Many places on Phuket have made a remarkable recovery. Hotels and restaurants are open, and the beaches are clean, the water clear and green. Tourists will see little physical damage, but economic damage is significant. "We lost about half of our [tourism] income" in 2005, compared with 2004, Pattanapong Aikwanich, president of Phuket Tourist Assn., told me. "And we had to repair everything."
But then there are places like Phi Phi Don island, a 90-minute ferry ride from Phuket, where the waves' full fury was felt. Rebuilding on Phi Phi Don has barely begun; the tragedy's legacy is all too apparent.
Officially, 721 people died in Krabi province, most on Phi Phi Don. Many bodies were never found.
That fateful day
FLASHBACK to the morning of Dec. 26, 2004: Some guests were asleep, others taking a Thai cooking class when two waves hit at Mom Tri's Boathouse, a 36-room low-rise hotel. One wave almost reached the top of Koh Pu island a short distance offshore, where diving students suddenly found themselves sitting on the bottom of the sea.
The Boathouse Grill was inundated with seawater and sewage. "Total devastation," said French-born managing director Louis Bronner. "The grand piano was found in the street in 16 pieces. The long-tail [fishing] boats landed in the ground-floor rooms," where water was waist-high.
Three people on this beach were among the 279 people killed on Phuket, but there were no casualties among hotel guests or staff. The Boathouse mopped up, refurbished and exactly two months later held its grand reopening. Today it's as good as new.
At Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort at Relax Bay near Patong, Phuket's popular beach city, construction work in the parking area and some ongoing re-landscaping are the only visible reminders of the tsunami.
The waves destroyed the beach bar and restaurants. It smashed tiles in the enormous swimming pools and flooded ground-floor rooms in one wing. Water reached the lobby and shops, which sit back from and above the beach.
No one was seriously injured, but damage, including destruction of the below-ground central operating facilities, kept the hotel closed until Aug. 15.
Locals feel overlooked
IBRAHIM NGANKAENG, 64, sat on the beach at beautiful Ton Sai Bay on hard-hit Phi Phi Don island southeast of Phuket. Behind him hung a sign, "Return to Paradise." But this is no longer paradise.
Before the tsunami, this, the southern side of the island, was a magnet for divers and snorkelers, typically, 2,000 a day. They are returning -- but slowly: Now about 600 a day come. Locals complain that the government has been slow to help them, making recovery in Phuket its priority.
"I wonder how I can survive," says Ngankaeng, who lost his livelihood when the water swept away his shops and bungalows together with his restaurant, Arida.
Far worse, he lost his wife and two grandsons.
Farther up the now-desolate beach, signs point the way to bungalows that once stood here. I walked among flattened coconut-palm branches to the Phi Phi Island Cabana Hotel, which is being rebuilt and is expected to be fully open by March.
Owner Wanlert Kittithorngul suffered a double blow -- devastation of this hotel and loss of his new hotel at Khao Lak, a hard-hit coastal resort area in Phang Nga province on the mainland, 50 miles north of Phuket.
The Phi Phi Island Cabana was more than 90% full -- 400-plus guests -- when the tsunami hit. Ninety-six people died -- 25 guests, some of whom were in the swimming pool that now stands cracked and empty -- and 71 staff.
Walking around what's left of the hotel, Kittithorngul pointed out the ruins of the hotel spa --"seven persons killed."
We walked past the ballroom, where water-stained mattresses and mud-caked tables were stacked. Of the 40 hotels that stood on this part of the island, 30 were destroyed. Only four are now operational.
Somehow, he managed a smile when he talked about the new Amandalay villas, his unlucky Khao Lak property. "I opened on the 25th," he said. "On the 26th, nothing."