The view north from Cape Pakarang Baotshed, looking towrds Laem Pom/ Ban Nam Khem
The following is a diary I kept about my time as a volunteer in May-June last year.
FRIDAY: On the bus from Phuket Town to Khao Lak, the area in Thailand hit hardest by the tsunami. A quiet trip, until dozens of school kids pile on. A girl sits down next to me and ventures the main Thai conversation starter: “bai nai?” (“going where?”). My answer: “bai Khao Lak” is a conversation stopper. I presume I’ve pronounced it so badly, she can’t understand me. I’m later told she probably couldn’t understand why I would willingly go to a place full of ghosts.
The bus drops me at the Khao Lak Nature Resort, base camp for most volunteers. Three English guys are drinking tea in the dining area and contemplating the rain, while two gibbons cavort around. “New are you? The office is just down the road a bit,” one says. “Leave your pack here and we’ll rifle through it while you’re away.” The office is less jolly; everyone’s glued to phones and computers. “You should get involved in construction,” says an American woman, Charlotte, who’s doing reception today. “There’s a village called Laem Pom, where we really need more volunteers. They want to go home and the Mafia is trying to steal their land.”
Hearing that was a bigger surprise than maybe it should have been, given Thailand’s reputation for corruption. It turns out there are around 30 tsunami-hit villages currently under threat from land grabs or official relocation plans. Half of these villages are in Phang Nga Province. The Laem Pom villagers were already fighting for their land before the tsunami hit. Laem Pom was built on an abandoned tin mine 40 years ago. Back then nobody could have imagined it would ever be worth fighting over. But as the tourism boom rolled on and Phuket became crowded, developers began eyeing off beachfront land throughout Phang Nga. In 2002, the shadowy Far East Trading and Construction Company claimed ownership of Laem Pom and tried to force the villagers out. When the village was flattened and half it’s population killed, the company grabbed its chance. Survivors returning to search for corpses were turned back by armed thugs. In February, they called the company’s bluff, setting up a tent village and marking out foundations.
Laem Pom, looking across the old mine sink hole
The Laem Pom reconstruction effort had a setback recently. A couple of volunteers were having a joint on the beach during lunch break and the police arrived. Rebuilding was halted while the crime was investigated.
Evening: At dusk I walk thorough the swathe of destruction at Nang Thong Beach. Whatever was left standing has since been bulldozed. I begin to understand why the ghost fear is so focused on Khao Lak. Even more so when I’m suddenly stuck in knee-deep mud. Then two local guys come over and direct me to a tap to wash the mud off.
At a party at Cape Pakarang boatshed to launch a longtail fishing boat. I get to learn how much Thailand loves karaoke – the machine is kept going for hours. I also get to meet the other volunteers. There is a Thai contingent, mostly university students from Bangkok, quite a few from America and Britain and one or two from the rest of Europe, Israel, Canada, India, Singapore, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Cayman Islands. A few volunteers have trade skills. Most are like me and just have an extra pair of hands to offer.
Saturday: With the beach cleaning team. We head down to Nang Thong beach and pile bags of junk onto the truck. It’s foul. When we get to the tip, it’s worse. The shoestring budget means we need to recycle the garbage bags. So we send their contents cascading across the ground and toss the empty bags back on the truck.
Two kids and their mother are scouring the tip, while their unsmiling father surveys the scene from his truck and sips on a can of beer. The kids come over to see if we have dumped anything of value.
Coming back from the tip we pass the Khao Lak tsunami scene – a police boat washed up on dry land a mile from the beach. It had been guarding holidaying members of the Royal Family, including the grandson of the King, who was killed.
Looking at the boatshed from the beach
Sunday: Heading to the Cape Pakarang boatshed, with two Americans, Scott from South Carolina and Brandon from Rhode Island. A dozen boatbuilders are churning out longtails and we’re building the shed around them as they go. There are 40 longtails to replace just from the two nearest villages.
All the American volunteers I’ve met so far are Bush haters. However, Brandon says not all Americans here are the same: American Christian organizations are involved in the displaced persons’ camps and the evangelists are out to get converts by any means necessary, including material inducements. I guess that would be “compassionate conservatism” in action. If you believe “knowing the Lord” matters more than anything, you will push people in what you are certain is the right direction for them. If you believe in the “prosperity gospel”, giving converts material advantages is just speeding up what happens to the faithful anyway.
Brandon adds that a bunch of Mormons have arrived. He thinks they represent the nuttiest in American religiosity: “They think Jesus went to America.” I have visions of an army of them, all ear to ear smiles and gleaming teeth, patrolling Khao Lak on their bicycles, ready to ambush the unsuspecting with an ever so polite: “Excuse me sir, have you heard of The Book of Mormon?”
MONDAY: The Mafia is not currently in evidence at Laem Pom – apparently we help keep them away. Some of the Mormons are here. Three of them are in the team I join. We help a builder concrete a floor. Their names are Katie, Kathy and Katherine or something like that (there’s so many names to learn). They are from Salt Lake City, early 20s and presumably came here on a mission. It doesn’t take me long to decide that I like them. Myra, from Boulder Colorado, who describes herself as “Democrat to the grave”, likes them too, even though they probably voted for Bush. Myra has talked with them and tells me their mission is to help the local people materially and they are forbidden from proselytizing.
We’re finishing early today, there’s a funeral. One of the volunteers, a German teenager, hanged himself. He was here with his family when the tsunami hit and was the only survivor.