#3 – 2004 Thailand tsunami memories: Phi Phi Don to Krabi Town, December 26, 2004

A catastrophic tsunami crashed into parts of coastal Thailand the morning of December 26, 2004.

This post is the third in a series sharing my memories of this time. The blocked section below is from the end of part 2.

Photos are again from a disposable camera.

Part 1 – Beijing and Phuket, December 2004

Part 2 – Phi Phi Don Island, December 25 and the morning of December 26, 2004

* * * * * * * * *

At the end of the dock, a tall, gangly figure wearing a toque dashed haphazardly towards the boat in unstable flip-flop sandals. His substantial pack flopped left and right and up and down on his back. Would he tumble into the water?

His unforgettable entrance was neatly capped with flinging himself on the boat as it was finally pushing away.

Clumps of sun lovers lounged on the upper deck. Motors pushed hard against heavy salt water to swing the boat’s nose around and away from the dock.

Slapping the peaks and troughs of incoming waves, the gorgeous bay of Phi Phi Don Island was left behind.

Phi Phi Don Island's bay

Phi Phi Don from the bay
This was taken on December 25 after my dive trip.

Now that the boat was moving, air conditioning blasted through the passenger area below deck. Thailand was the hottest place I’d been and I had no shame in seeking cool breaks.

Thanks to an almost vertical railing, the ladder-like stairway down to the cold belly of the boat seemed navigable. Rows of molded plastic chairs bolted to the floor filled the enclosed space. Yet it felt roomy compared to upstairs where baking bodies filled every open spot.

Plopping my pack onto a long row, I pulled out my journal and sat down to recap the last few days. An hour and a half of sweat-free joy was ahead. And I even had this entire room to myself.

“I can’t believe I’m leaving in 7 days! Well, I guess it’s not that bad, but going back to my work is not top of my list!

I woke up humming the Jackson Five! Mary got me some banana bread for breakfast and I munched it in the cool breeze on the porch while we were waiting to go to the dock. We boarded the boat and are now currently on our way to Krabi!

I’m excited to be in Thailand. I’d still like to do a cooking course, ride an elephant, and go snorkelling among the fishes!”

Phi Phi Leh Island, Thailand

snorkelers in the distance – Phi Phi Leh Island

A paragraph split into blocks bordered by exclamation marks was enough for now. Retreating into my thoughts was more interesting.

Gazing out the skinny rectangular windows, pale blue morning sky alternated with azure water and creamy foam as the boat rose and fell.

Spending days on Phuket Island and Phi Phi Don Island in +30C slowed life to a lazy wander. Time was no longer important.

* * * * *

Feeling the boat slow meant Krabi Town’s dock was near. Climbing those crazy stairs seemed easier than the reverse, even wearing a pack.

Pressing heat, swirling fumes as the boat reversed, and people chattering clashed with the pristine chill in the lower deck.

boat deck - Phi Phi Leh

tourist boat from Phuket to Phi Phi Don on December 24 –
The boat we took to Krabi Town was similar although there was no woman and her lizard.

Tourists packed the deck along with suitcases and bags, the mass gradually moving starboard. If docks were full, outer boats were tied to inner ones to leapfrog from boat to boat to get to land. This time was no different and two boats lay ahead.

Making eye contact with the rest of my group, I stayed back and waited while others pressed forward. Luckily help was ready to lug those giant suitcases filled with school supplies over and through the middle boats. Too bad our flight to Beijing was so delayed leaving Vancouver. Those bags could have stayed in Bangkok where they belonged!

Suddenly the boat started pulling away from the others tied to shore.

Reaching for the Thailand guide in the top of my pack felt like the right thing to do while questions yanked me out of my dreamy timeless state. Why was the boat leaving? Where was it going? My group was there and I was here!

Why didn’t I pay more attention to our plans? Usually being the one in full control, this time was different. I had no idea.

Pulling my hands back from my pack, I gave up. There was nothing else to do but wait and see where this boat would go. Despite other tourists also left on board, I felt acutely alone.

Waves made the boat sway and bob. Sighing, the water seemed to be the only thing worth looking at.

I blinked and looked again.

Far ahead seemed to be what looked like a solid white line.

Huh, that looks like a pretty big wave, but it’s probably far away.

The crew was skittering around the deck and seemed panicked.

“Tsunami! Tsunami!”

It felt like we were in a football stadium and someone had started the wave. That word kept jumping from person to person until the whole boat was vibrating.

Still not knowing where we were going or believing what was happening, the boat turned sharply left down a channel. Vegetation dropped into water that had changed from blue to murky brown.

Relief filled every cell as another dock came into view while the boat continued to plough forward. We were heading to the old Krabi Town dock, more sheltered than the one we had abandoned without warning.

The boat smacked into another one tied up to the dock. We were shoved and pushed off our boat and into the next one while being yelled at to keep moving! I hated being pushed and still couldn’t see what the problem was.

On land, my group was nowhere. A small van drove by with large, gray loudspeakers on top. The garbled message blared out something about water and staying away. Finding my group was my only mission.

Hailing a taxi, I asked the driver to take me to the first pier. When we got there, it was deserted except for a few police officers.

We drove back and my group was sitting in plain sight. “Where were you?!” they blasted. A stern, windy lecture on the dangers of leaving the group was delivered by a travelling companion I had only met a few days before.

Now I was mad. I was here! We were safe! Done!

Someone headed to the little tourist booth across the road to find accommodation for the next few nights. A pick-up truck sidled up to the curb to take us to our guest house. Tossing the bags in, we followed, using the tires for a step up.

Now the day was improving! Having never ridden in the back of a truck, I couldn’t believe my luck. Finally, some adventure had come my way!

riding in a truck box

first ride in the back of a pick-up squished in amongst luggage

After checking in and finding our rooms, I went back to the lobby to relax and wait for the others.

The TV was turned to the news. It didn’t matter that the announcer was speaking Thai. It was fun to observe her body language and wonder what she was talking about.

Some writing appeared in the bottom of the screen. The only characters I recognized were R8.5

Leaning closer and trying to make out what the announcer was saying didn’t confirm or deny my question.

Had there been an earthquake?

Part 4

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13 thoughts on “#3 – 2004 Thailand tsunami memories: Phi Phi Don to Krabi Town, December 26, 2004

  1. Until the tsunami, natural disasters seemed so far away, it was just something you saw on tv. I know it’s shallow, but that’s how it was for me. The tsunami affected people you could relate to and people you, in some cases knew, at it was terrible. It has changed forever the way I react, when I hear about natural disasters. I don’t just switch to another channel, but I try to take it in and I feel their grief.

    • I agree. Media had these images but it was hard to connect. Now it’s also different for me. I especially understood what my family was going through in 2004 during the 2011 disaster in Japan. They were on vacation in Hawaii and were evacuated due to the tsunami risk while Hitoshi’s family was in Japan. It was awful to be surrounded by media that didn’t necessarily reflect their experiences. But it was all we had until we could reach everyone.

  2. I am so into your story that I find myself stepping back and remembering that this really happened to you. I am sure the next part will even be more intense and I am sure that writing about it is just as hard as well.

    I watched a show on History a day or two ago about it and some of the survivors shared their stories. It is always so sad to hear and see the devastation the tsunami caused.

    • Thank you, Constance! Yes, I suspect it will be. Intense is a good way to describe how I felt once we discovered what had happened. Writing about it has been difficult but also surprisingly… healing. I didn’t expect this.
      I can’t watch those shows. I had a hard time even picking up a magazine with articles inside at the five-year reflections. I’ve read a few accounts this time around and one that was particularly strong is here. http://josiegirlblog.com/2012/06/11/tsunami-survivor/

  3. 5 years ago, we spent two weeks in Rawaii Beach, Phuket (the last week on the mainland) and they were still rebuilding. On one of the days, a lady we met had brought her son over and he was playing with us in the pool. She told us that, having survived, she and her husband immediately sent themselves and their son for swimming lessons. He was an adorable wee thing 🙂

      • Well we were literally around the corner from the tsunami warning zone which, I have to be honest, was a bit eerie.

        Many places, it’s not a short list, ha. We attempted Patong to see a friend, but thanks to a series of global freak rain storms, there were landslides. Giant Bhudda (before it was finished!) and too many temples to count. Spent our last week in Chiang Mai (we adopted an elephant for a day 🙂 ) and a night in Bangkok. I think that’s the shortest summary of those three weeks I’ve ever done!

        • Great summary! 😀 It’s hard sometimes to capture what you want in a description and even more so, when the person you’re telling has no idea what you’re referring to. I can imagine how it must have felt to be so close to those zones. I haven’t been back into the depths of those areas but I plan to at some point.

          • Essentially 🙂 It was more of an experience than a holiday, although that could’ve just been where my mind was at the time. I remember I had to keep a diary just to keep a track of what we had done because my brain was mince.

            It was weird. I’d love to go back, but this time maybe not try and be swept out to sea by sneaky ripcurls 🙂

            • Oh yes! Those diaries can be really fun… or a chore. I often start out with good intentions and then things collapse into random notes when I remember. The best ones to read later are, of course, the more detailed ones.

    • Yes, I agree. As much as time passes, it still is painful for so many. It’s taken me ten years to start talking about it except for speaking with one person around the five-year mark. While my situation was not filled with physical trauma or direct loss, the challenge has been mentally processing what happened. That part of my story will come out in the next piece.

      • Hope you will get better soon from the tragedy. You must be strong and believe that behind it all, God always with you. He never sleeps and he always listens to every pray that you say. He always has the best plans for everything that he creates. GBU.

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