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Tsunami Report: Tourists Return To Stench & Sand


Tsunami Report: Tourists Return To Stench And Sand

By Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- Americans are tossing a Frisbee, Germans are eyeing the lapping sea, and an Italian is thinking of Pompeii here on Patong Beach where tsunamis killed so many and destroyed so much, leaving a stench which now wafts on a tropical breeze.

"You have to enjoy yourself and life goes on," Steve Acquafredda, 26, an engineer from Phoenix, Arizona, said in an interview on the sand.

"It is certainly terrible what happened, but that's not going to stop me having a good time out here, and enjoying myself.

"About 10 minutes ago, Matt threw a Frisbee out that way," he said, pointing a few feet away at the flat Andaman Sea meekly rolling onto the shore near his Frisbee partner, American Matt Kopala.

"I went running out there, into it. I didn't really think anything of it."

When the tsunamis rolled into Patong Beach on the morning after Christmas, this beach was packed with tourists frolicking in the shallow water, women sunning themselves topless on towels or wooden lounges, and people sprawled near wood-and-thatch, open-air restaurants which served delicious food at bargain prices.

"I imagine, like, what the wave would have looked like coming in and how it would affect things. But certainly I think the chances of that happening again right now are very, very slim," Mr. Acquafredda said.

Only a few dozen tourists could be seen on Friday (Jan. 7) afternoon, on Patong's curved, one mile of beach which usually attracts hundreds of foreigners and an equal number of Thais servicing them.

Now, the soft tumbling of tiny waves mixes with groaning and grinding bulldozers, backhoes and other heavy equipment where the sand stops and shop-crammed Thawiwong Road runs parallel to the sea.

The machines are clearing rubble from scores of buildings along the beach, amid an unidentifiable stench which could be rotting corpses, food or debris.

Much of Patong's destruction is from flood damage. Most cement structures are intact but soggy with sand, and strewn with refrigerators, furniture, cars, and other heavy items.

Foreign and Thai business owners are hurriedly repairing, painting, sweeping and drying out their shops, hotels, bars and offices. But the damage ends about a quarter of a mile inland where busy streets perpendicular to the sea, gently slope higher.

More than 260 people died on Phuket island, mostly at Patong Beach, Thai officials said.

On the mainland, about 40 miles north of Phuket along Phang Nga province's beaches at Khao Lak, the tsunamis hit much harder and killed more than 4,000 people. Waves also wiped out most of Phi Phi island, southeast of Phuket, where hundreds perished.

Unlike Patong, those sites will take years to recover.

"It looks like the people of Thailand, and particularly here in the Phuket and the Patong area, have done a really good job of cleaning things up and making it hospitable for tourists, so I recommend they come and here," Mr. Acquafredda said.

"I just arrived about a week ago," the American said. "After reading the reports and seeing where the tragedy had hit, I realized most of our trip wouldn't be too affected by it. It just seemed like we could still work through it, and have a good trip.

"So I flew out of Phoenix on December 28," two days after the tsunamis became worldwide news.

Mr. Acquafredda met his friend, Mr. Kopala, and they stayed in Bangkok for a couple of days and headed south to Phuket as planned.

Today, flinging a bright green Frisbee on the same beach recently smothered by the onslaught of water, the two Americans reflected on Patong's suffering.

"It is something you think about," Mr. Acquafredda said. "But I think it's a great tourist destination and it wasn't going to stop me."

His friend, Mr. Kopala, a 27-year-old computer engineer also from Phoenix, nodded in agreement.

"They would probably welcome tourists coming here, because the tsunami probably scared a lot of people off," Mr. Kopala said in an interview.

"A lot of the locals just need the extra income that tourism provides, so we figured if anything, it is a positive effect" for Americans and others to visit Patong.

"Right now, we are just playing Frisbee. I don't know that it feels really weird. The tsunami has come and passed. There's not really much that we can do about it.

"There's been a few moments when we look out to sea and just wonder what it must have looked like when the tsunami was coming into the bay, and almost wonder -- although the chances are almost pretty much nil -- what it would be like to see another one coming," Mr. Kopala said.

"But I don't think there's any reason for people to not come here."

The Thai government is anxious to broadcast the message that Patong Beach and many other tourist venues along the damaged west coast are rising from the mire and desperately need tourists to boost the crippled local economy.

Government-run TV repeatedly shows bikini-clad foreign females strolling along the shore, topless women laying face down on their towels, foreign adults and children sitting and playing on the beach, and other tourists splashing and swimming in the sea.

Elsewhere on Patong Beach, German paper manufacturer Ekkchard Jager, 42, said he was in Phuket about three kilometers inland when the tsunamis hit.

"I was in a hotel, sleeping. I didn't notice anything. Nothing," Mr. Jager said in an interview while relaxing on the sand.

"I'm married to a Thai lady, and we come here for a holiday once a year, and my wife has family here," so the Jagers did not leave after they realized tidal waves destroyed part of Patong's commercial community.

"But it is not the same as last year, when there were more people and more enjoyable. Now it is quieter and not so good," Mr. Jager said.

"We knew some people who died, who were from here. A man working on the beach, we've known him for 12 years, he died. So we think about this a little bit."

Mr. Jager was optimistic more tourists would arrive.

"I think they will come back. People who came to Thailand for the first time, maybe they won't come back, but people who have stayed here two or three times will come back."

He eyed the placid sea and insisted he was not worried about another underwater earthquake generating a fresh tsunami.

"No, I think it won't come. It is finished."

Vincent Lanzoe, 46, an Italian tourist who works in a hospital as an administration officer, said he arrived in Phuket 10 days before the tsunami, but was safely staying in a friend's house about 50 meters above sea level.

"Yes, it was very terrible and bad luck for the people, but I didn't think that I would go back and stop my holiday," Mr. Lanzoe said in an interview in the shade of a tree on the beach.

"I am very careful where I walk, when I swim, [because] maybe I will find a piece of something," such as wreckage from the turbulent floods which might cut his feet, he said.

Reminded about the volcano which buried Italy's Pompeii in lava and ash 1,926 years ago, Mr. Lanzoe said there was some similarity, "because it happened with the water too, that a lot of people died, and it was so suddenly.

"People didn't have time to know what happened."

*****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/

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