Blessed to be a witness

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Tuesday, May 10th

Leonardo's missing millions

As evidenced by the existence of my last update, the rains let up and we finally made it out of our resort into the main town. A map in the reception area optimistically showed some sort of road going to the town. In actual fact it was an unmarked track through the jungle, that began with a near-vertical climb up a rainwater gulley, using tree roots as rungs, as well as a rope that had been helpfully tied there as a handrail. Following our ascent, the path then meandered through the bush down to a small cove, littered with the shells of wooden beach huts. It then ascended back into the jungle and redescended to another cove of broken huts, before heading up into the back end of hillside resort bungalows, all functioning, with air conditioning and so on, where we immediately checked in for the next night.

We walked into the town, past a devastated school, and found an internet café, and then returned to Hat Yao, not wanting to negotiate the jungle track in the dark. Later that evening, feeling that we might just die of excitement from the brand of entertainment offered by the resort - namely, watching the staff watching Thai soap operas - we took a stroll down the beach in the dark, little translucent crabs running away from us the whole way, where we found a rather magical place on the southern tip of the beach, with the jungle up the hill lit up by spotlights dotted around the trees, and a bright, friendly bar littered with triangular Thai recliner cushions and low tables.

The next day we donned our packs, and renegotiated the jungle trail. Not too arduous a journey, though quite energetic, but with 20 kilos on my back, I began to sweat like Niagara. When we arrived at the new resort, I dripped all over the reception desk, and the very kind people behind the desk fussed around and got me a towel, and didn't seem as disgusted as I would have been.

After showering, we took a hike over to the other side of the town. This was where we realised that our initial assessment of the damage inflicted on the place had been grossly underestimated. And later I learned that my initial charitable view of the government was misguided. Tonsai bay, where we arrived, is on the Andaman Sea side of the island. The other bay, over the sand, is on the Indian Ocean, and is, there's no other word for it, shagged. A few brick buildings remain, walls smashed out by the wave, but the rest is just a wasteland of debris-filled sand and the stumps of broken trees.

On our way back the rains started up again, so we ran and sheltered in a nearby restaurant, and ordered coffee. The restaurant is an open two-storey, barn-like structure with a corrugated iron roof, that thumped and banged in the rain and the wind. High up on one of the vertical wooden pillars supporting the roof was a piece of red tape. It said "10.20am December 26 2004". This was the level the water got to in the restaurant - 2.8 metres. We got talking to the proprietress, who said she had been in her room on the ground floor when it struck. "I was under," she said, "I was very shocked". As the water hit the wall by her bed, a plank of wood smashed through the wall, and with it came the wave. "And this chair," she motioned to the rustic wooden chair on which she was sitting, "and bodies". Luckily there was an upstairs, and she and her husband survived. When the waters receded there was a one-metre depth of silt, corpses and garbage in her room. We asked what assistance she had received from the government. "Nothing," she replied. "Volunteers come to me and ask if I need help. They help repair the wall. We fixed the roof. But now it is very noisy. Before there were many buildings around us to protect us from the wind and rain. Now, we have no neighbours." The restaurant stands alone, surrounded by rubble.

The lack of assistance she had received from anyone other than volunteers was the first inkling we were to have of something terribly disturbing that is happening on Phi Phi. Later we went for the volunteer meeting (which we missed, having been given the wrong time), but met a coordinator who advised us, before volunteering, to take the free tour, organised by the charity, that explains just what happened, and just what has been done in the way of reconstruction.

So this morning we turned up and were led to the area of devastation we had visited briefly the day before. Here we learned that, while the Andaman Sea side had experienced 3 metre waves, the Indian Ocean coast had been hit by a 10 metre wave. The Andaman wave had hit first, so all the people on one side of the island ran away from it towards the other side, where they were immediately swamped by the larger, deadlier wave. The two waves met in a maelstrom ("like making a banana shake", said our Thai guide). Of a beachfront resort of 110 wooden bungalows, there is nothing apart from one shell of one bungalow left, and 600 people died there alone. Two adjacent resorts were also completely wiped out. Everyone on the beach was killed, and everyone in the bungalows was killed. In total, around 1,500 people are still missing on Phi Phi, and only 850 bodies have been recovered.

This reservoir was swept so full of bodies that the water turned red with blood; only one person, a diving instructor, survived, by working out which way was up, and swimming up through the debris, where her waving hand was spotted by a local man who dived in and fished her out.

This is shockingly tragic in itself, but what has happened since has been very worrying. According to the people we spoke to, Phi Phi has received almost nothing in the way of government aid. Furthermore, hardly a single charity or NGO has even visited the island. Every single piece of reconstruction work (because by law, no new structures are allowed to be built - existing buildings have merely been patched or propped up) has been done by volunteers. What the government has done is as follows: each small business received 20,000 baht (€400), three small diggers were sent to clean the entire island, which they failed to do, and a large boat was sent that removed 7,000 tonnes of debris. The government also removed all Thai residents of the island, and put them in a refugee camp in the nearby mainland province of Krabi.

It appears, according to the locals and volunteers we have spoken to, that elements in the government are opportunistically pushing to rid the island of its current residents and small businesspeople. No decision has been made yet on its future (the decision is slated for next Monday, May 16th, but the deadline has slipped several times already), and the rumours are that either Phi Phi is to be turned into an uninhabited nature reserve, or, more realistically I think, the island is to be given over only to large, five-star resorts. It's an unconscionable situation.

Heartening, though, are the actions of Help International Phi Phi, the organisation that we're joining, which was started in January by a Dutch guy who had spent a long time on the island. 'Hi Phi Phi' collected funds with which it has been able to recruit former residents and bring them back from Krabi, paying them a small wage to participate in rebuilding, their numbers swelled massively by the hundreds of backpacker volunteers who are either passing through, or have decided to stay on a long term basis to help out. The organisation has managed to restore more than a hundred small businesses that would otherwise have gone to the wall. Despite the appalling state of parts of the island, the situation that preceded it was far, far worse. Rubble, bodies and rubbish were piled in the streets and buildings to a height of up to three metres; now, the sand is visible, albeit filthy, and open spaces have been cleared; new palm trees have been planted to shore up the sand which might otherwise have been swept away; a memorial garden is being planted for the memory of those who died or, more importantly, are missing.

It angers me that the island has been so neglected. I know that there are other areas in Asia that were worse affected, and I'm only currently concerned because I'm here, but this place has received bugger all help. The generosity of the population of other countries, where the tsunami appeal received, in Ireland at least, the single largest mass of private donations in the history of the country, and of the Thais in areas unaffected, and of individuals like Leonardo diCaprio - who donated that money specifically for Ko Phi Phi - has been insulted. If 'compassion fatigue' hasn't set in yet, I urge anyone who has the time or energy to write to the Thai government, or the aid agencies to whom they donated, and ask where the money has gone - alternatively donate directly to Hi Phi Phi, since the larger NGOs aren't doing anything here.

Also, if you haven't planned your summer holidays yet, please consider Phi Phi. It's still possible to have a holiday here, and pretty cheaply: there are undamaged resorts, there is beautiful weather, lovely beaches, snorkelling, diving. The Hi Phi Phi people are very careful not to pressurise people into volunteering, as any tourist presence here is immeasurably valuable to the businesses that are just beginning to recover.

And, unlikely though this may be, if anyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who might know someone in Hollywood who knows Mr diCaprio's people, please put them in touch with me, as I am sure he's unaware that his money has disappeared, and I'd like to drop him a line and let him know that his $10 million has evaporated - or maybe a newspaper would be interested in the story - any publicity thus generated couldn't hurt the situation.

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