Thailand Memories – Sheer Terror: My Encounter With The Tsunami

With the ten-year anniversary of the Asian Tsunami coming up, I thought it would be a good time for me to report on my encounter with it, which took place on Boxing Day, 2004. It remains for me the only time in my life that I have experienced true terror, and, although I have survived a cyclone and being hit by a car on my bicycle, it is the only time in my life where I thought that I was going to die.

I was living in Phuket at the end of 2004 and working as an English teacher at a language school not far from Phuket Town. Much to my annoyance, I worked the previous day, Christmas Day, but I had Boxing Day free as it was a Sunday and so I was determined to make the most of it. As most people would be aware, Phuket has some of the loveliest beaches in the world and although I am not a ‘beach nut’, I did like to relax in the warm sun and take a dip in the warm water that surrounds the island.

I had been living in Phuket for just over a year and my favourite beach was Nai Harn beach, located at the bottom of the island. It was about a 30-minute motorcycle trip from where I lived, but it was worth it as the journey was quite flat and safe and the beach was not overcrowded. There were usually some nice waves there that were ideal for a spot of body surfing, which I enjoyed especially.

When I awoke on Boxing Day, however, I had decided not to travel to Nai Harn but to ride across to the other side of the island and try Patong beach, which I had never been to before. Patong beach is the most popular on the island and also the largest but the water is shallow and the waves are small. I wanted to go there because it was closer for me and simply because I felt I owed it to myself to go there, and Boxing Day was the perfect opportunity. It meant a hair-raising trip across the top of a few steep hills on my motorcycle to get there and this was the main reason why I preferred Nai Harn. On this occasion I decided I would put that behind me and check it out.

I left my apartment at about 9:00 am on a glorious, sunny morning. Boxing Day occurs in the High Season in Thailand, a period of long, sunny days with virtually no rain that begins at the end of the rainy season in November. I had my towel, my phone, a book to read and the clothes I was wearing as I strapped on my helmet and took off. I approached the end of my small soi and stopped to allow a car to pass. A right turn would take me to Patong beach via the town of Kathu, whereas a turn left was the way I would normally go to Nai Harn via Chalong. I still don’t know why but as the car passed me I turned left and immediately made the decision to travel to Nai Harn and once again give Patong a miss. Perhaps it was the trip over the steep hills or just a feeling of being happier with what I was more familiar with, but I now know that my instant decision later saved my life.

I completed the pleasant ride to Nai Harn, passing some small farms and villages and parked my motorcycle next to a large tree not far from the beach. I took my few belongings and rented a sun lounge for the day for 100 baht and soon I was relaxing in the warm sun with my book. There was not a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky and a fleet of yachts were moored about 200m offshore that were present for the King’s Cup sailing regatta. It was indeed a picture-perfect setting.

I had planned to go for a swim, order a few beers from the nearby beach bar and later have a nice lunch at one of the restaurants at the rear of the beach, but I was initially just happy to relax and be thankful that I wasn’t working and that it was such a gorgeous morning. As my watch ticked closer to 10:00 am I decided that I needed to cool down, and so I prepared to go for the first of many swims for the day. There was already a good-sized collection of tourists from the nearby resorts on the sand and in the water as well as all the Thai vendors plying their trades, renting sun lounges, selling drinks, ice creams and souvenirs. The area of water in front of me was quite free, so I removed my T-shirt, kicked off my thongs (flip-flops) and stood up to make my way into the water. There was only one problem: there was no water.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye the water had receded by about 50 metres, as if the tide had gone out. It was such a strange sight and happened so suddenly that those who were swimming out in the deeper waters were able to stand and walk all the way to shore. I was not at all concerned by this and neither was anyone else at the time and I remember several people laughing and pointing at this unusual phenomenon. I had not been to Nai Harn the previous December and I assumed that it may have been just a strange seasonal thing, unique to that part of the world, something to do with the tides or the moon, perhaps. Sure enough, after a few minutes the level of the water slowly rose and returned to where it had once been as if nothing had happened. There was no wave, simply the water gently coming back to the shore and stopping right at the edge of the beach.

I had put my T-shirt back on and was sitting on the sun lounge during the wait and so I once again prepared to go for my swim. Right on cue the water receded again, but this time only by about 20 metres and the water came back almost immediately. It didn’t stop at the shore this time, but gently rose up the beach, almost reaching my sun lounge and then receded again. It got about as far as the shore and then rose again, this time coming up to me, splashing my book and phone and upsetting some plastic tables and moving a few of the empty sun lounges. It was still all very gentle, with no waves involved at all.

I picked up my book and phone from my table and then discovered that one of my thongs had disappeared. I stood up to see if I could find it and the water came back again, this time faster and further up to the back of the beach. Now there were many sun lounges being flipped over, uprooted umbrellas and many blue cushions from the sun lounges scattered along the sand. People were starting to gather their belongings and move away from the shore and a few were calling to others to get them out of the water. I then discovered that my beach towel had joined my thong and I decided to join the other people to the back of the beach and so I sat on a low, concrete wall about half-way between my sun lounge (which was still there) and my motor scooter.

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The view of Nai Harn Beach from the water’s edge, showing the elevation.

I would estimate that the difference in height between the normal edge of the water at the beach and the wall I was sitting on was 2-3 metres and I thought I was quite safe while the water was playing its tricks. I was now concerned about my phone and was checking to see if it was still operational when the water rose up yet again all the way to the wall, splashing me, my phone and my book. It receded once again, allowing me to see that my phone was now pretty much useless. Everything was so gentle, which was probably why I was not worried or frightened, more annoyed than anything. I noticed that a group of young Thai men were in the area of my motorcycle, moving theirs to higher ground and I thought that seemed like a smart thing to do. I didn’t know when the water would stop rising and falling and so I put my book and phone in the basket on the front of my scooter and started fishing my keys from the pocket of my swimming trunks. Suddenly the Thai fellows looked in the direction behind me (at the beach) with looks of shock on their faces. I have a tiny memory of looking behind me over my right shoulder and seeing a huge wall of water coming towards me. The next thing I knew, I was a good 30 metres away on some higher ground near the restaurants at the very back of the beach. I have absolutely no memory of how I got there.

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The low wall where I sat. The large tree on the right is where I parked my motorcycle.

Looking back at what followed over the 10 years since it happened, I know that I immediately went into shock and just stood where I was. I looked at the spot where I had been standing a few seconds earlier and nothing was there. The motorcycles, including mine, and the Thai chaps were all gone. The wave just swept the motorcycles away as if they were toys and I assumed the Thai guys had fled the scene as I did. If I had been thinking clearly, I would probably have looked for an even safer place to go, such as up a tree or on the roof of a building, but I just stood where I was thinking that if another, larger wave came, then I was a goner. My life didn’t flash before my eyes but I do remember thinking that, after seeing what the water had done to the motorcycles, that I was no match for it and I was doomed, that it was pointless to do anything and if it was my time to die then this was as nice a place as any that I could think of for it to happen. My view of the beach was blocked by the trees I was standing amongst and I just stood and waited. Thankfully, that last wave was ‘the big one’ and the next only made its way up to the low wall and just over it.

At no time did I think ‘tsunami’, or ‘tidal wave’ or ‘earthquake’. I had seen countless footage of the well-known image of the huge tidal wave as it makes its way to the shore and what I saw was nothing like that. I knew that something quite catastrophic had just taken place and a tremendous amount of damage had been done. I ventured back to the low wall and saw a scene of total devastation but thankfully no bodies. The water was still ebbing and flowing but only as far as the low wall and gradually receded more and more. It would be another four hours before the water approached anything like normal. What was once on the beach was now all in the water – the hundreds of sun lounges, umbrellas floating upside down, plastic tables, large coolers, massage mats and a sea of floating blue cushions. All of the beach vendors had had their livelihoods ruined and, in typical Thai spirit, put on brave, smiling faces as they watched their assets and businesses drift slowly out to sea. The sun lounge vendors began attempting to salvage whatever they could and I tried to help them, but as soon as we would drag an undamaged sun lounge back up the beach, the water would rise and drag them all back out again.

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I ran to the area on the left in front of the restaurant.

I gave up and decided that I needed to find my motorcycle, not only because it was my only means of transport but also because I had locked my wallet (containing my passport) under the seat. I had a good look around the area where I last saw it and found no trace of it. I ventured further inland, away from the beach and down a small hill and saw my helmet in the distance, sitting in some grass under some trees at the side of the track that lead to the beach. I was thankful that I at least located my helmet (which had been in the basket on the front of the motorcycle) and concluded that the motorcycle must be somewhere in the vicinity. As I walked to pick up the helmet I saw a dead man.

He was Thai and fairly young and was draped over the branch of one of the trees but facing towards the beach. He was quite lifeless and had been there for over an hour. The wave must have swept him down the hill and into the trees but I couldn’t tell if he was one of the men who were standing near my motorcycle. I decided to leave him for someone else and was a bit unnerved as he was the first dead person I had ever seen, apart from a motorcyclist I once saw on the side of the ride on my way to work in Melbourne (but he had been partially covered).

I kept walking around in my bare feet searching for my motorcycle and wondered if the wave had perhaps taken it out to sea as there was no sign of it anywhere. I gave up and went to sit at the restaurant near where I had been standing earlier as I was still shaken by the day’s events and by the dead man. The water was still surging backwards and forwards and as I sat, a group of foreign people arrived and for the first time I heard the word ‘earthquake’. They were all neatly dressed and had no doubt come to have a look at the effects of the tsunami and then I learnt that there had indeed been an earthquake and what I had witnessed (and survived) was a tidal wave. They spoke to the people at the restaurant and said that other areas of Phuket had been hit as well, especially Kata, Karon and Patong. I also heard that there were ‘many dead’.

I reflected on what had happened and wondered what I was going to do. All I had was what I was wearing and the keys and the helmet for my motorcycle that wasn’t there. I thought about walking back in the direction of home and hitchhiking, but I wanted to know how my motorcycle could simply disappear, so I determined that I would keep looking for it. I searched an area below the tree where I had parked it, an area that had filled with water after the waves were biggest and now had finally drained away. It was now filled with tree branches and other plant matter and sure enough, I eventually caught sight of a tiny piece of bright blue hidden under all the mess. It took me half an hour to remove all the branches, vegetation and sand but I had found my motorcycle. There was no sign of my phone or book. I pulled it upright and opened the seat and was relieved to find my wallet still there. Everything was naturally soaked, including my passport, but at least I had some money and I could maybe get a taxi back home. There were many people at the beach now and some Thai gentlemen saw me struggling with my motorcycle and helped me to lift it up the hill and put it back where it once had been, next to the tree. One of them insisted on trying to start it, but I knew it was a pointless exercise, it had been submerged for hours.

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My trusty, waterlogged motorcycle.

I went back to the restaurant and ordered a beer and sat and thought about what I had gone through. There’d been an earthquake somewhere, a tsunami (but not the tsunami that I had always pictured), much of Phuket had been hit by it and there were many dead. I had seen a dead man and I had finally found my motorcycle and now I was thinking about getting home and what I was going to do about my motorcycle, which was totally wrecked. On top of all this, I had to go to work the next day!

By this time it was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and I struck up a conversation with the young Thai chap who served me at the restaurant, and had seen me with my motorcycle. He said he was going to Patong to see if his sister who lived there was alright and offered to give me a lift there on his motorcycle. I took him up on his kind offer and soon we were on our way along the back roads of the island, which were high and unaffected by the tsunami. We arrived at Kata beach from the hill and the scene was just amazing. The waves had smashed buildings, there were cars upside-down on the beach, cars scattered across the streets, debris and sand everywhere. People were picking through the piles of rubbish (probably looking for survivors) and it took us a long time to get through the area. Amazingly, vendors were still trying to sell their wares, picking out their undamaged stock on putting them on display at the front of their ruined shops. I couldn’t believe that.

The scene was repeated all the way up the coast as we continued to Patong. The next main beach, Karon was also damaged extensively, windows and signs of businesses all smashed, walls destroyed and cars scattered and overturned. When we arrived at Patong, I asked my friend to drop me at a hotel where I knew the manager and hoped she could help me get home. He assured me that his sister should be OK as she lived in an elevated area and I thanked him profusely before he sped off.

The hotel was located well away from the beach and quite a distance inland. I walked inside in my dishevelled condition and was quite shocked at what I saw. The lobby was packed with foreigners all demanding to check out and wanting to be taken to the airport. I saw my manager friend behind the counter trying desperately to placate the guests but she was overwhelmed. The hotel had not been touched by the tsunami at all, but these people only wanted to get out as quickly as they could. I could see that the manager would be busy for some time and I was starting to feel hungry, so I decided to find somewhere to get something to eat and return when she wasn’t inundated with these rather selfish guests. People had lost their lives and livelihoods and all these guests were concerned about was getting refunds on their holidays.

The nearby area was not touched by the waves and I eventually found a restaurant and had a welcome meal. The street was filled with traffic and people and I saw a lady I knew when I was living briefly in Chalong. I asked her what she knew about what had happened and she said the earthquake was huge and had happened in Indonesia and had caused the tsunami. She said that the west of Phuket had been hit by it as well as the island of Phi Phi, which had been completely wiped out. She also mentioned that everyone was worried about ‘after-shocks’ and were busy trying to move to higher ground.

I hadn’t considered aftershocks when I had first heard of the earthquake, but I knew that they are always smaller that the main quake. At least it explained why there were so many people moving around in the streets, some of them with household possessions tied to the backs of their vehicles.

By the time I had got back to the hotel it was after 4:00 pm and the scene in the lobby was much quieter. My friend the manager was very surprised to see me and naturally asked me what I was doing in her hotel dressed for the beach. I told her my story and she was shocked that I was alive because she had heard that hundreds of people in Patong had been killed. She told me that since 10:00 am when the tsunami struck, guests had been demanding to check out and receive refunds. She looked totally exhausted and when I asked her if she could give me a ride home on her motorcycle she just said, “Here, you take it. I’m staying here tonight.”

I located the motorcycle in the employee’s car park and drove through the streets of Patong. I decided to take the beach road and see what the tsunami had done and I was stunned at what must have taken place there. I also wondered how so many people had lost their lives when I only saw one dead person at Nai Harn beach. The difference was that Patong beach is almost totally flat and the waves were able to reach quite a distance inland, sweeping everything (including people) in their path. Anyone who was on the beach at the time would have simply been carried away and smashed against trees or buildings, there was nowhere for them to run to. I, and many others at Nai Harn, had been saved by the hill at the back of the beach. As I was riding along the foreshore of Patong it really hit me that if I had been there earlier that day I would have certainly died. It was a chilling thought, picturing myself being washed ashore by a huge wave, struggling to surface for air and then being slammed into a building or a clump of trees.

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Patong Beach after the tsunami. Flat, with nowhere to run.

I saw the same devastation as I had at Kata – so many cars askew everywhere, even stacked on each other, so many things smashed and destroyed, some buildings just completely gone and only the tiled floors remaining. Police and emergency service personnel were in the area, no doubt looking for survivors and also trying to restore some sense of order. I slowly made my way through all the cars over the layer of sand that had been deposited over all the streets until I started to make my way inland towards home.

I began the climb up the steep hills outside Patong and was surprised to see hundreds of people sitting on the sides of the road, most with blankets. In the late afternoon it was obvious that they were planning to spend the night there, but I couldn’t figure out why. Had their houses been destroyed? Why sit out in the open and not go to a hotel or someone else’s house? I later learnt that these people believed that an even larger earthquake was about to happen and they had simply fled to the highest ground on Phuket to avoid an even larger tsunami.

I eventually arrived back at my apartment but popped in to the mini-mart nearby first for some beer and a few snacks. The proprietor, a lovely, friendly lady, greeted me and asked me if I had heard about the big tsunami. I told her that I was in the tsunami. She just laughed! I repeated that I was at Nai Harn beach when the tsunami hit and she laughed again. She obviously thought I was just trying to make light of the disaster.

When I got back to my room I cleaned up and tried to relax but my mind was racing more than usual. I turned the TV on and saw the scenes from the other areas in Thailand that had been hit, especially the area north of Phuket. This was to be a repeated scene whenever I saw a TV for the next few weeks. The events of that day didn’t seem to be real but I knew that they had happened. I knew that I was lucky to be alive, was thankful that I hadn’t gone to Patong after all and wondered how on earth Phuket and Thailand were going to recover from the devastation caused by the Asian Tsunami.

Part 2: My contribution to the relief effort

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