My family and I couldn’t wait to vacation in Southern Thailand where the weather is almost always sunny and deliciously warm. The ocean is calm and clear. That’s where my husband, two daughters and I joined many other North Americans, Europeans and Australians.
We had plans to snorkel, dive, sail, kayak and relax. We had no idea we were headed towards the worst natural disaster in modern times.
In October, I crossed my fingers as I planned and booked our holiday trip to Thailand—admittedly very late for such a popular warm weather destination. I was disappointed when there was “no room at the inn” along the pristine Phuket beaches, in Krabi or on Phi Phi Island. So I booked a short stay on Samui Island, located in the protected Bay of Thailand, where we’d spend a few days and then get back to our original itinerary on the Phuket beaches and Phi Phi Island.
We flew into Phuket as planned and stayed along the popular west coast at a beach front resort on Ban Tao Beach. Three days later, the Asian tsunami struck this magnificent beach, toppling buildings, crushing and drowning thousands of tourists.
On December 26th, as we were packing our bags to return to Phuket, many other Southeast Asian beaches were ripped apart and washed away. We watched the horror unfold on BBC, the only English speaking station on our hotel TV. We were a short thirty-minute flight away from the hardest hit disaster area. Thankfully, where we were staying in Kho Samui was untouched by the tsunami.
It does not bear thinking about what would have happened to us if we’d have been in Phuket as originally planned. I believe our lives were spared because there was “no room at the inn.”
It took awhile before the significance of the news settled in. For instance, it was my routine that every morning before my family awoke I would take a long walk along the white-sand beaches. Before breakfast, JC , our sixteen-year-old daughter, jogged at the water’s edge. “She could have gone for a run and never come back. Or you could have done your morning walk and been washed out to sea,” speculated my husband.
Many things “could have happened,” but they didn’t. Why not? Was it chance? Luck? The will of God? Or was it as simple as being in the right place at the right time?
We met many survivors over the next week. Through their eyes we saw the nightmare, and we began to realize just how close we had come to tragedy. One hundred and fifty sea-ravaged and bloated bodies washed up on the very beach where we would have been swimming, walking and jogging. We had missed it by tweny-four hours.
Flying low, over beaches littered with debris, we returned to the Phuket airport and quickly realized we could not expose our children to an 8-hour lay-over in an area that resembled a war zone. Relief workers in military fatigues, search and rescue dogs, patched and bandaged survivors filled the halls. Tragedy hung in the air like a thick layer of fog.
There were “Missing People” signs covering every wall of the terminal, posted by loved ones and officials. We saw relief workers and army helicopters searching the nearby beaches. It was the small blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian children peering out from missing person posters that haunted me the most. Each one of them seemed to resemble my own beautiful daughters who, miraculously, were safe. We were all safe.
Filling the crowded airport there were temporary booths representing different countries offering help to locate loved ones. “Missing Persons: Germany.” “Missing Persons: Australia.” “Missing Persons: Sweden.” It went on and on.
I asked one representative at an information desk, “What nice hotel, within a thirty-minute taxi drive is somewhat intact?” Information was key and she had numerous recommendations. We ended up at the JW Marriot, an ultra-deluxe property with “limited tsunami damage.”
I spoke with a British mother who had been on the beach with her ten-year-old daughter when the tsunami hit. The young girl was so traumatized that she could do no more than stare at us with her thumb in her mouth, trembling.
Our experience and the images we saw were difficult at best.. Will this experience stop us from traveling? No. We love to travel because we have curiosity as well as the desire to see and connect with other cultures. When we travel, we bring home a bit of the world. We know how important it is to care for our brothers and sisters, worldwide, regardless of religion or politics.
Today, I count my blessings as I struggle to cope with our survival and the death of so many innocent people. The earth can tremble and we can vanish in an instant. Life is fragile.
But when asked, “Would you return to Thailand?” I answer unequivocally, “Absolutely, tomorrow, given the opportunity.”
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