Denver Bar Association
April 2005
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The Ghost Crabs Still Dance

by Norman Beecher

The ghost crabs still dance their familiar little sidelong tangos away from our feet as we walk the tideline in the morning. Red, blue and yellow beach umbrellas have sprouted again in the sand. The casuarina trees appear untouched, indifferent, and only a handful of holes among the palms hint at the destruction caused by one of the largest natural disasters in world history.

Cleanup work on Ko Phi Phi Leh Tonsai
Town isthmus.
Ten days before I was scheduled to leave for Bangkok on a long-anticipated vacation, an earthquake under the seafloor off of Sumatra on Dec. 26 dispatched waves three stories high at speeds of 500 miles per hour across the Indian Ocean as far as Africa.

Although Sri Lanka and India, along with Indonesia (Sumatra), suffered most, thousands of lives also ended abruptly in the popular tourist areas of the Andaman Coast, where Thailand reaches a long arm down from the belly of Southeast Asia toward Malaysia, Singapore and the island nations of the South China Sea. We learned that although the Ko Phi Phi, Khao Lak and Patong vacation areas had shut down, 95 percent of the southern provinces were unaffected. We decided to forge ahead with our plans, with a few adjustments, hoping to find opportunities to help. We were the exception among tourists.

The most striking evidence of the Boxing Day Tsunami around Phuket, Thailand is not what you see, but what you don’t see. The day we arrived, we were the only occupants at the height of the winter tourist season on a mile-long post-card perfect beach. Fully-set tables appeared on restaurant patios around Phuket each morning. Beach chairs available for rent sat neatly along the berm. Traditional Thai masseuse rolled out their mats hopefully on the grass, and waited all
Posters for the missing at
Phuket Airport.
day for customers who never came. The upscale Laguna Beach Resort gave us rooms at one-third their normal price, but until a small corporate seminar began at the end of our stay, we saw only a handful of other farang (foreigners) in its pools, restaurants, business offices, gymnasiums, bars and shops.

The most repeated analogy at ground zero was that the tsunami was like a neutron bomb, killing people instantly, but leaving much of the local infrastructure intact. The next most popular analogy was that the destruction of individual livelihoods and the regional economy due to complete abandonment of the area by tourists was the second tsunami to hit Thailand.

Many Thai, even in the hardest-hit areas, adopt an almost apologetic tone when talking about the "big wave." "This never happened in Thailand before," they note, as if somehow collectively at fault and in need of justification. "In Japan, the tsunami has come many times, but in Thailand we did not know." Children did not know when the water receded, leaving fish flopping and tidal flats exposed, that this was not a God-given opportunity to explore. Tourists watching the children that morning did not know they were witnessing an unusual event for the area, and the unconcern of the locals was no assurance of safety. When the first wave came, those who saw it finally knew to run for higher ground. Some were immediately swept away but many who later died were able to find a way to hold on through the initial inundation. No one, it seems, anticipated the second wave.[1] Many of the dead did not drown; they were crushed in the maelstrom of cars, tables, air conditioning units, signs, tools, bicycles, boxes, home furnishings, chairs and trashcans sweeping over them. When everything settled, bodies were found beneath 20-foot piles that looked like landfill.

Ko Phi Phi Leh Tonsai Town isthmus.

The tsunami made Tonsai village on Ko Phi Phi, the island of the Leonardo DiCaprio film, The Beach (Ko Phi Phi, coincidentally, means "island of many ghosts"), an exposition of false advertising. Signs, hanging mostly from the surviving second stories of the shops or on separate steel posts, promised cold drinks, fresh Thai cooking, cheap massages, and SCUBA lessons. Yet the shops below were bombed-out rubble. The most poignant postings were the sparkling, frilled banners wishing customers "Happy New Year," clearly in vain. On the narrow isthmus between the much-photographed limestone crags at Ko Phi Phi’s center, people scrambling to escape the wave looming over the docks, ran straight into another wave coming from the opposite side. The ground level destruction is so total that a giant backhoe simply spends hour upon hour, day after day, shoveling debris straight into dump trucks that are driven a short distance to a pier where
another backhoe loads the barges that haul it all away. With characteristic Thai optimism, the locals note that the schools were closed because it was Sunday, a holiday. On the other hand, fully a third of the students were orphaned by the deaths of both parents.

Ko Phi Phi Leh: bay where
the Leonardo DiCaprio movie 
“The Beach” was filmed.

Elephant trainers, or
“mahouts,” pole their
bamboo raft down to work
near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

“Labor of the Living in Honor of
the Dead:” a Buddhist
temple in Penang, Malaysia.

A restaurant stands vacant on
Bangtao Beach on Phuket Island,
three weeks after the tsunami.

The devastation was brought home to me most viscerally in Malaysia, rather than Thailand. Our driver in Penang, a devout Muslim who used the phrase most commonly heard in Banda Aceh and Sumatra as well, told us that 43 people had died as a result of the Ombak Besar (big wave) right there in his home town. "People say this is not so many, but for us it is very very many. Here we know everybody. The whole island is crying." A monkey protecting her young screeched from a branch overhead and another was begging at his feet; cars rushed by close, but he was oblivious. Staring across the road at the local grade school, his desolation was so complete as to be tangible.

Some Thais believe the tsunami struck so quickly that the dead foreigners never knew what happened to them, and without relatives to bless or cremate them, continue to appear in spirit form on the beaches, still imagining they are on holiday. Most Thai believe quite literally in spirits. In the most technologically-advanced Internet café among the upscale hotels on Siam Square in Bangkok, for example, you will notice, as you take off your shoes to enter, perhaps near the ceiling toward the back wall, an elaborate ‘spirit house’ or shrine, festooned with flowers, fruit and other offerings of the day — just as you would see beside the poorest house among the back alleys of Chiang Mai. The sense that the ghosts of the dead circulate among us goes beyond the life cycle notions of Buddhism, and has some of the elements Hinduism and the pre-historical animistic religions that mix happily together in the spicy soup of Thai culture.

Regardless, it is clearly important to free the stranded souls, not just because they may actually exist, but because, with Thai practicality, the lunar New Year is fast approaching, and the Chinese tourists who provide the majority of the business — between the western year-end holidays and spring break season — are even more concerned that their holiday haunts be free of unwanted presences. At Khao Lak, where the number of Swedes killed by the tsunami represents the single largest loss of life inside or outside that country since World War II, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and others crowd together for the ceremony. Two thousand monks chant beside a makeshift memorial of names and photos of the dead. Christian clergy dispense blessings and mullahs conduct prayers. Then, relatives from all over the world light thousands of floating lanterns, inverted paper bags that rise on the heat of the candle illuminating them, to lead the lost spirits away. It is indescribable standing with thousands of strangers, looking upward and sharing a kinship of hope.

Scuba divers are taught to follow their bubbles to the surface when disoriented or confused, and while I love the depths, there is always a moment at the end of each dive when, looking upward at last, I see the boil of my breath rising from the regulator to catch the sun in a hundred receding bulbs and I get the heart-bursting urge to race them to the surface where I can breathe freely. For a few moments, watching the paper lanterns float upward into the moist dark of a hot Thai night, it feels as though we are all there at the bottom of the tsunami sea, and somewhere far above the farthest spark just merging into mist and stars is a salvation we cannot reach.

[1] Animals apparently knew. Environmental surveys of the national reserves conducted since the tsunami have found almost no animal carcasses, and anecdotes describe whole herds moving inland an hour before the waves hit.

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