Paradise found and paradise lost... (pt. 1)

Khao Lak Travel Blog

 › entry 2 of 5 › view all entries

The past week has been an incredible whirlwind. We've been from offices to beaches, resorts to small simple houses in the jungle, traveled on water, land, sea and air...

We wrapped up our last two days in Bangkok with a few business meetings on Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday we traveled to the offices of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) where we had a briefing on their activities in Southeast Asia. While there we talked about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, family planning activities, illegal immigration problems in Thailand and discrimination against non-citizen tribal people around the country among other things. While I can say that taking a trip to a division of the UN is an experience in itself, I really found that I didn't take that much away from this meeting, unfortunately. While our host was very informative and helpful, I feel like the majority of what he told us were things I have already gone over in some capacity or another in the classroom over the course of the past year. I know there were a number of the other students in my group that found what he had to say very captivating, but for some of them this is entirely new and unique ground as well.

On Thursday Jim had arranged for a couple of meetings with some of his acquaintances in Bangkok to talk to us about various other aspects of Globalization in Southeast Asia. Our first meeting was with a friend of his that managed a transport and shipping company who discussed the various perks and obstacles to doing business overseas. He also provided us with a wealth of knowledge about how to go about getting hired on with a company overseas and what he looks for when hiring people on to work for his company. In addition I also plan to use him as a resource for my paper on Educational Tourism and Cultural Integration for this seminar since he has set up programs for business in the past to immerse their employees in the new cultures that they find themselves in when working overseas.

Later in the afternoon we met with Family Health International (FHI) which is an organization that helps fund and promote health programs throughout the world. Here we discussed a number of the same topics that we covered at the UN, but the difference was that Tony from FHI was able to give us the "real" story about what goes on in the world of foreign aid and NGO funding rather than the sugar coated PR version that was provided at the UN. His frank, and open conversation with us gave me some incredible insight about how a successful NGO is started, operated and funded and provided me with some ideas that I may apply to my own organization in the future.

Very early on Friday morning we hopped on a plane to fly down South and start the first of our adventures outside of the sprawling metropolis of Bangkok.  Our first stop was in Khao Lak at the Seaview Resort, a serene beachfront hotel that sits right on the Adaman Sea.  The Seaview is unlike any hotel that I have ever been at before (or will likely be able to afford to go to for a while) with two incredibly large pools, beach side volleyball court, spa, massage service, and any other amenities that you could think of to make your stay as comfortable as possible.  We were sharing the resort which typically holds 650 people during its peak season with only 12 other guests on our first night and 49 others on the second, so we also were fortunate enought to have the full attention of the staff whenever we needed it as well.  However, the reason Jim picked this particular hotel was not because of it's posh and luxury, but because it was one of the first resorts to have been rebuilt in the quiet town of Khao Lak since the dreadful tsunami that  devistated the area on 26 December, 2004.

After checking in and having some brief time to explore the hotel grounds we met up with Jim in one of the conference rooms to watch a video about the events that occurred almost four years ago and see just how much things had changed since that time.  While we were originally going to watch an ABC news documentary, the manager of the hotel told Jim that he had a video that might have a more signifigant impact on us and offered to stay with our group and talk about his experiences during that chaotic time.  The video we saw was raw, uncut footage filmed by a park ranger who was trapped in his post on the hillside on that day.  I began at the time the water was pulled out into the ocean about an hour before the giant wave would come crashing back to shore and swallow up the people who had wandered out to see the newly exposed coral and sea animals that were exposed by the phenomenon.  It continued on to show the hotel buildings being splintered as though they were pieces of particle board being hit by a bullet, and all of the debris... and bodies... being drug back out to sea. 

The manager did his best to tell us about his experience  saying that he lost 24 employees and an unknown number of guests to the wave.  He said it would be weeks before all the bodies would be recovered and a year before they could all be identified.  Before he had to excuse himself from the room he told us that the hardest part was having to go and identify the bodies of friends and loved ones who no longer looked like the people that they once were...  The experience was incredibly sobering to say the very least...

Shortly after our talk with the manager we went to see two of the tsunami memorials.  The first is a 60 ton police boat that had been in the area the day of the tsunami as part of a security convoy for members of the royal family of Thailand who were in Khao Lak on holiday.  Despite the fact that most other ships were heading away from land and out to sea just before the tsunami, the police boat remained at its post and was ultimately pushed about 2km inland when the wave came hurtling towards land.  When the water subsided the boat was too heavy to be moved from the spot where it rests so the Thai people have decided to leave it there as a reminder of what happened and of loyalty to the royal family.  About 15 minutes up the road is the Ban Naam Khem tsunami memorial where the fishing village of Ban Naam Khem was completely wiped out that day.  The small village had a 100% property destruction rate and a 90% death toll for the residents that lived there.  Today, however, it is difficult to imagine the chaos and destruction that existed four years ago as the area has been replaced by a beautiful park and memorial that was erected to celebrate all of the lives lost in the great wave.

After our humbling experiences of the day we met up with Jim for dinner later that night and had a chance to lift our spirits and discuss some of the more positive aspects of the town we were visiting.  After dinner, he had prepared a surprise for us on the beach where we participated in a buddhist tradition of releasing sky lanterns (or paper hot air balloons) for good luck.  We sat on the beach and watched for a while as our balloons disappeared into the night and then got up to take a walk down the dark, seaside and got to hear some of Jim's ghost stories from his past visits to Khao Lak on the way.  As we were meandering back to the hotel, after most of the girls were sufficently scared out of their wits, we caught a glimpse of the brightest, most spectacular green, purple, red and orange meteor that any of us have ever observed.  Between the ghost stories, the meteors and some of the other events that have occurred so far on this trip I'm starting to feel as though there are some mysterious secrets about the world and spirituality that can be uncovered here in the East, which makes me want to remain longer to try and explore more about this place and ultimately myself in the process.

Jim gave us a free day on Saturday to decompress and do some exploring on our own.  The majority of us decided to book a tour of the islands in the area by longboat and by sea canoe.  We started off leaving from Phang Nga on a longboat and cruising to Ko Tapu, or "James Bond Island" where Man With the Golden Gun was filmed.  While the island was beautiful in itself it was kind of spoiled by all of the tourists that were in the area, as well as the shops that lined the beaches selling manufactured souviners.  We remained on the island for a brief period of time before getting back on the boat and meeting up with a charter boat out at sea where the sea canoes were based.  There were two of us to each canoe with a guide in each boat that took us around some of the various islands, through caves, under rock formations and into various secluded inlets.  This was probably the most relaxing, peaceful part of the day as we were able to escape many of the other tour groups for a while and have the ocean and the islands to ourselves for a period of time.  Our next stop was at a muslim fishing village where we had an amazing lunch that probably paid for the expenses of the tour in itself.  From there we hopped back on the longboat to Phang Nga and took a van to see a nearby cave that contains a buddhist shrine.  The shine itself was somewhat plain compared to some of the others that we have seen on this journey, but exploring the caves was quite a fun experience and made me want to go spelunking sometime soon.  Also, there are hundreds of rhesus monkies that live around the cave that like to be fed by the tourists, so we had an opportunity to play with some "funny monkeys" as well.  The tour ended with a trip to a near by jungle waterfall where we found a gorgeous, clear blue pool to swim in for a while and relax before returning to the hotel. 

Today we head off to the fishing village on the island of Ko Naga which will be the first of our two homestays on this trip.  I'm really looking forward to this visit as I feel it is moments like these that truly allow you to experience other ways of life and find out more about the world we live in, rather than taking pictures of monuments and paying to see toursit attractions.

I will tell you how our stay goes soon...

Until then...

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Khao Lak
photo by: skibabe