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Railay After the Wave

By James Martin - July 26th, 2005

As I float in the blood warm water of the Andaman Sea, the hi fi at Bobo's bar projecting Jerry Garcia's guitar toward volleyball players on the beach while the molten sun sets in the haze, I find it hard to believe that a series of epic waves assaulted the shores of Thailand just a few months ago.

On December 26 of last year, the seafloor off the coast of Northwest Sumatra shivered, triggering a tsunami, a deep ocean wave that radiated into the Indian Ocean at near supersonic speed. Those who went through it say this: don't think of the tsunami as a beach break at Jaws; it was more like a rapid rise in sea level that generated breakers when it arrived in the shallows. The result was a natural disaster that set a new standard the modern times: A million people homeless and almost 300,000 dead or missing, most in Indonesia. For many Asians, the terrible event created a deep distrust of the sea. In Thailand, the death toll was more than 8,600 people. At nearby Ko Phi Phi, waves crested from both sides of the island. Most visitors stayed on a low sandy isthmus between two hills. The unstoppable water destroyed the buildings and swept away many of the people. Rescuers found scores of bodies scattered on the sand and floating in the bays amid the wreckage.

The wave took several minutes to reach Railay. Some kayakers and swimmers were already in the water and the longboats were ferrying tourists from the beach to Ao Nang, the end of the road. By the time the sea started to recede, calls from Phi Phi warned the Railay locals, who ran to the beach to urge tourists to high ground.

I asked Saichon Suksai, a local rock climbing guide, if he was here that day.

"Yes. I was teaching a group on the easy wall," he said. "We saw the water disappear so I told everyone to scramble up to a ledge. Then the water rushed in. Nobody was hurt on the land, but those in the water were killed."

I visited an adjoining beach on my tour of the area. The bay was full of limestone boulders festooned with gastropod shells, their surfaces scalloped like cheese graters. Anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the water here was savagely torn apart.

Several waves pulsed to shore, but the waves at Railay had only a fraction of the power seen at Phi Phi and at the tourist mecca of Patong Beach on Phuket island, where the world saw video of water overwhelming the land. Although some of the beachfront buildings there are still undergoing repair-- except for a sparkling new Starbucks that appeared to have been drop shipped from Seattle-- the rest of the town is already back in action, albeit with fewer tourists about.

By the time I arrived at Railay last month, the cleanup was long since complete, although several damaged buildings stood empty. The local hotels were still suffering from a lack of tourists, not damage from the wave.

"They are starting to come back," said Saichon, "but I guess they still worry." His penchant for understatement reflects the Thai's fatalistic view.

Saichon and I headed out one morning to climb Caveman, a route just above Railay Beach. The first pitch, a moderately steep wall of limestone covered with handy pockets, leads to the eponymous cave. The exit from the cave overhangs. As Saichon leads the overhang, I look down on longboats crisscrossing the bay. Kids are playing in the shallows and the other climbers are just starting their walks to the rocks.

In the wake of tragedy, sometimes it's hard to know what's right. But one thing is clear: Even though the grieving continues, the time for giving is drawing to a close, and there's no longer a need to stay away so the relief effort can go forward unhampered. At Railay, at least, the structural damage has been mended, it's time for healing. Returning to climb here, to help restore the economy, is the best gift we can give the locals now. It's okay to come back.


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