Getting to the Similan Islands also posed another dilemma -- we would have to leave from an island in eastern Thailand, which would mean crossing into tsunami territory. We talked to several people who had been who said they were not-so-up but still running. We also heard they were in desperate need for tourists as the businesses that are open need customers. So we figured this would be the perfect way to give direct help and support. We weren't sure we would be able to book a diving trip, but either way we decided it was a good idea to go.
The route of choice was to fly to Phuket and then find our way to Kao Lak. On arrival in Phuket they told us we could pay the equivalent of $200 for a private mini van to Kao Lak. Or, we could take the local bus for a lot cheaper. Hmmmm. Guess which one we chose...
We got dropped off in the middle of a busy highway, crossed the street and waited about 30 mins for what we were told was the bus to Kao Lak. When the bus stopped, the guy did nod his head when we said Kao Lak -- but we had our doubts. We hopped on anyway and let the adventures begin. This bus seated about 40 people, but there must have been 3-4 people on a seat meant for 2. L and I sat in the back, on a spare tire. It was a rasta bus -- aluminum interior with fans all the way down the ceiling and decoreated in red, yellow and green stripes. Interesting.
The fare collector, who also has to shout at the bus driver anytime someone wants to get on or off the bus, took 80 bhat for both of us. That's $2. We were so proud if this -- but we still weren't sure where we were going... We quickly made friends with an old man, also sitting on the tire, who had no shoes. When I asked him why, he made a gesture that they were either thrown out the bus - or he threw them out himself. Either way, he craked himself up and made us giggle as well.
About 2 hours later, the fare collector said to us -- "Kao Lak? Next stop!" Hooray! We were on the right bus. Not only that but he said he would drop us off in the center! Brilliant. So we hopped off the bus, but there was no center in sight. So we had to walk and walk and walk with our packs. We got saved by a nice pick up truck who dropped us off in town. Otherwise would've taken us hours. Oh well, at least we had arrived.
We had heard that Kao Lak was demolished by the tsunami. It started to become evident from the walk, when we could tell that the resorts beyond the signs that pointed to them were all closed. It was only later we discovered they were not only closed, they were gone! (more on that later...)
We walked to one of 3 dive stores that was open for business and lucky for us, we got 2 of the last 3 spaces on a live aboard "diving safari" to the Similan Islands. It was departing the next evening and luckily, they had a place for us to stay up the road as they said accommodation was very difficult to find now.
At this point it was dark so we grabbed a bite to eat, went to bed early and decided to explore the next day. This is when reality truly set in. We walked along what used to be a stunning beach resort with turquoise water. The turquoise water was still there but that was about it. We walked where there used to be bungalows and beach houses, swimming pools and a beach for that matter. Keeping in mind, the big stuff had been cleared away and parts of the island looked like a new, bare construction site. But we still saw opened suitcases, flip flops, bits of clothing, smashed cars etc. strewn among the busted concrete and 4 and 5 story hotels that were now just shells. I imagine it was alot like Ground Zero three months after 9/11. On first sighting, it was still hard to get our heads around exactly what happened, how many people died, etc. But we talked to loads of people to find out.
We went to one of the shops that was opened so that I could buy a bikini. As I was shopping, L was looking at a poster of pictures just after the tsunami. Then a woman handed him a stack of pictures which told a story you never saw on the news. Graphic photos of bodies, debris, etc. We felt like we were invading their privacy or felt guilty of the morbid curiosity but it's hard not to and they didn't seem to mind. Surprisingly despite probably losing their friends and families, the locals here were all in happy spirits. And even more happy when we bought the bikini and some CDs and DVDs.
We came to learn later that Kao Lak was hardest hit by the tsunami. We met some volunteers who told us that a rumored 18,000 people died on that beach alone -- many of them were illegal immigrants working in the resorts who were never accounted for. The news reported about 5,000 in total died from all of Thailand. Interesting...
Yes, we also looked into volunteering. But they wanted commitments of at least a week for projects, which we didn't have. But they said spending money in town was just as good as manual labor. So we were ok with that.
So we had to go diving...