Save a soul and get a gold star – After the Tsunami, Koh Lak, Thailand
In 2004 I was living in Bangkok when the tsunami smashed into Southern Thailand. About eight – nine days after the waves caused so much devastation, I rang the British Embassy to offer help. Being greeted by a recorded message that redirected me to another number, I dialled again but was put through to yet another ansaphone. I left a message as directed but no one bothered to ring me back. Over the next two weeks I called again and again hoping to talk to a person and not a machine, with no success. Finally, I managed to speak to a human being who informed me that they were coping very well and didn’t need any help – thank you very much. So I asked the obvious question, which was, if they were coping so well how come no one had been answering the phones for over two weeks? And had they considered what effect that had on distraught families ringing to get news of missing loved ones? They got snotty with me and hung up. Still it was reassuring to know that the staff at the Embassy were doing us proud in a time of crisis and had it all under control!
Knowing that I’d been given the brush off, I checked the internet and confirmed my belief that the British Embassy exists in a different reality. Voluntary organisations in the disaster area were reporting newly discovered desperate situations by the day and pleading for help. I left from Bangkok shortly after, made my way down South by public transport and arrived at Koh Lak two days later.
The bus stopped on a deserted road and I stepped out into a scene from an apocalypse movie. The heat shimmered in the air, nothing moved, buildings and debris were strewn in every direction and there was silence. For those of you who haven’t visited Thailand, let me explain that no noise in Thailand is, to say the least, unusual. Cars, buses, motorbikes honking and tooting, birds singing/clucking/crowing, the sizzling sounds of food cooking, hawkers calling out to sell their wares, buyers haggling over prices, the noise of building, people laughing and talking, children playing, dogs barking – a canopy of sound that continues day and night in cities, towns and villages. So the silence was extremely unnerving.
I turned 360 degrees taking in the carnage and saw a strange sight. Running alongside the road was a line of wave damaged buildings. At the end of the crumpled row was a shop with no roof and only a back and side wall intact. As the shop front no longer existed I could see straight into the room space, which had been set up as a tour agency. Posters adorned the water stained walls and a small desk and two chairs had been placed in the centre of the room. A man in a shirt, tie and jacket sat behind the desk staring out at the road in anticipation of non-existent passing trade. This gentleman directed me to one of the only hostels left standing in the area and I went to check in.
I had been living at the hostel and working for the volunteer centre for about 3 weeks when I was assigned beach cleaning duties – which meant a 5.30am start. The night before I was due to start I woke up suddenly to the sounds of a party in progress outside the rooms. Shoving my ear plugs down as far as they would go, cursing the person who decided to have an impromptu party during the week, I went back to sleep. About 3 hours later I was woken up again as people piled out of cars, laughing, joking and generally having a good time. This time I hauled myself out of bed to give them a piece of my mind and to ask why I hadn’t been invited. But before heading out of the door I checked my phone for the time and saw that I’d been sent a message.
“Just heard that there has been another earthquake – hope you are safe” read the text.
On investigation it turned out that I’d slept through the earthquake, a tsunami warning, the evacuation of the town, several hours of panic, the stand down and return home. There was no party!
The next day I caught up with some of the volunteers who’d spent the night up at the volunteer centre or hitched lifts to the hills in fleeing cars. One of my friends was picked up by members of a Christian sect and given a ride to higher ground. The price of his rescue was to endure a lot of chanting, hand holding, breast beating, lighted candles and prayers. As other people arrived, word spread that one of the pubs on the outskirts of town had stayed open to keep abreast of the latest developments being broadcast on the radio. Somewhat fed up with the faithful trying to involve him in a singing circle he, and some like-minded people, decided to head down to the pub for a drink. He said that he’d rather go down with a pint in his hand than with the happy clappers.
I also encountered the American Christian sect when they took over the remaining rooms and camping site at the hostel I stayed in. Unfortunately, the hostel was one of only a few left intact by the tsunami. Therefore, most people stayed there – some who had their own, and not necessarily helpful, agenda. This particular group flew over to take advantage of the disaster by preying on the vulnerable in the hope that they could ‘save some souls’ and convert as many people as possible. Presumably, this charitable act of benevolence gave them a free ticket to heaven.
Not content with foisting themselves on the decimated local population, they very kindly decided to share their prayer meetings, held outside the restaurant several times a day, with any hapless person hoping for a quiet meal. Any order of food for the stomach came with a free side order of food for the soul. After prayers at breakfast, a pep talk on how to subvert as many muslins/Buddhists to the other side and a team hug, they headed out to the makeshift camps. Not to help build, cook, and counsel, teach or be of any practical use but to read the bible and to undermine people’s, shaken, faith in their own gods. One of my friends told me a story about one of these visits. A member of this Christian sect was wandering around one of the village rebuilding projects we were working on with the local people. With a bible in his hand and a pious look on his face, he started to congratulate our volunteers on all their good work. He saw Tina, who was digging some foundations for a new building, went up to her and watched for a while.
God loves you” he told her
“That may be so” she replied “but I think Allah loves me more”.
Not long after the sect moved in to my hostel, I witnessed one of their meetings where gold stars were awarded to those who’d ensnared the most souls that week. I found somewhere else to live – it was no big deal after all I never did like blood suckers.