Blessed to be a witness

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Thursday, May 5th

Some of these are very bad

The wreckage of Molly Malone's on the beachfront

Finally, I feel, the amazing generosity and friendliness south-east Asians we have met backfired a little. We duly contacted Rose, the Thai friend of the Singapore hotel sales manager, and met her in the appointed restaurant, where we had the best Thai food we've encountered so far, and possibly the best mussels I have ever had. Nonetheless, I felt that the entire occasion was a little strained.

The charming and beautiful (even for a Thai woman, in my opinion) Rose, advertising sales mananger for a glossy Phuket monthly, turned up with her mother and gorgeous seven-year-old daughter in tow (it turned out she also had a 19-year-old daughter at university in Bangkok, which amazed me since Rose hardly looked 25 herself). On the morning of December 26th, Rose had been on her way from Phuket town, where she lives and which was largely unaffected by the wave, to Patong for a beauty appointment, but at the last minute she had had to postpone it for two hours, and she was spared. Her mother, from Chiang Rai, who had moved to stay with her in Phuket a few years ago when Rose's father died, beamed at us throughout the meal. We could only communicate with sign language, but we bonded over a mutual appreciation of fags and Heineken. "Tsunami" was the only word she said to us, indicating the street from the beachfront restaurant terrace on which we were sitting, then held her hand over her head - a height from the ground of two or three metres.

And here was the awkwardness: it seems that the sales manager in the hotel in Singapore, who had emailed her to introduce us, after meeting M only once, had introduced us as his "friends", even though we hardly knew him from Adam. During the meal, he rang Rose's mobile, which she handed to us to have a chat - but since we hardly knew the guy, it was something of a forced conversation. Later M revealed to Rose that we had only met him a few days ago, and I felt that the enthusiasm waned from the evening somewhat. Embarrassingly, but as expected, Rose paid for the entire meal and wouldn't be dissuaded, and then drove us back, very early. Again, we really appreciated her generosity, with her time since she was clearly very busy, and by paying for the meal, but I felt that the hospitality, this time at least, was a little misplaced.

The next day I booked tickets to Ko Phi Phi, a stunning tropical island near Phuket, that was very badly hit by the tsunami. Apparently they need all the help they can get, unlike Phuket, in which the government seems to have taken over reconstruction work. Later that evening, we met an Irish gentleman called Tony who ran a bar (with a pool table, of course, which is why we met him). Tony is from Cork, and the morning of the disaster had slept late - presumably sleeping off the excesses of Christmas day - and awoke to the sounds of sirens and helicopters. His bar, about a kilometre from the beach, had been on the first bit of ground not to have been touched by the waves. He said he'd been phoned up that day by Sky News, RTE News, and even Eamon Dunphy, so we had probably heard him already.

He then produced sheaves of photographs, warning us that "some of these are very bad". And they were. Photographs that didn't make it into the western news media, though no doubt are in the underbelly of the internet somewhere. A gigantic raft of floating wreckage alongside a ruined beachfront hotel: bits of wood, bits of furniture, and like so much flotsam, dozens and dozens of bodies; five bodies lying on a beach, washed up in a star pattern - bloated, eviscerated, prolapsed; dozens more bodies lying across the pristine sand in their beachwear, heads stoved in and blood everywhere; and "this is the worst", the interior of a makeshift tent, in which lay the bodies of fifty or so babies and children. This really brought it home to us. It's all very well to say so many people died here and so many died there, but to see the actual, appalling consequences is something quite different. We were horrified, and desperately saddened.

Tony and his friends had sponsored a few people in Patong who had lost everything, and bought them beach chairs, umbrellas and recliners, which they are now able to rent out to tourists to generate income. He then showed us more positive pictures: north of Phuket on the Thai coast, the fishing villages of Khao Lak had also been terribly badly hit. In Khao Lak, the majority of those killed were fishermen, and their widows and families are suffering badly, having no income on which to survive. Khao Lak is not getting the same attention as the tourist areas. I don't blame the government totally for this: if it has limited resources, and since tourism is the greatest revenue generator for the region and its people, it makes sense to attend to that first. However, it would be much better, of course, if resources were not limited, and if equal attention could be paid to all affected areas. They had also had raised large amounts of money, and had delivered it in person to the local Khao Lak authorities. At picture after picture of women and children, Tony said "she lost her husband", "and her", "and her". And yet some of them were smiling for the camera; perhaps forced, perhaps because someone was helping them, or perhaps partly because of the national character.

Beachfront trees - note approximate four metre height of stripped bark and broken branches

On our final day in Phuket, we frequented one of the beach-chair vendors, only too happy to give our business to them once we realised why they are there. We also swam in the warm sea, but were both very jumpy in the water. The rubbish washing up on the beach isn't the usual beach trash of crisp packets and ice cream wrappers: it's household waste and bits of buildings. Many thousands of bodies are still unrecovered in the area, and it is quite possible that one may still be surfacing every now and again. It is difficult to enjoy the surf when one starts at every thing that touches one's feet under the water.

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