Rebuilding Thailand – A Photojournalist Story of the Aftermath of the Tsunami

The 2004 tsunami was the single most impactful
event I had witnessed in my life. And something deep inside of me wanted to
make even just a small impact in return. Thailand, as opposed to Bandah Aceh or Sri
Lanka was a random decision. But it was one that would alter my life in
many ways. This first shot was actually in Bangkok just
a couple days after I landed. It was an off the hip shot, a bit of motion
blur. She’s an apparition. A ghostly reminder of the people that lost
their lives. When the tsunami hit on Dec 26th 2004, the
grandson to Thailand’s late King Rama IX was on vacation, and soaking up the sun in the
Khao Lak area of Thailand. This patrol boat was deployed with him as
a protection detail. Unfortunately that fateful morning, there
was no protection for what was to happen. And the young Prince fell victim to the tsunami. Along with 8,000 other people. The waves were so powerful, that it pulled
this patrol boat a full 2 miles from its anchored spot just off the beach. I returned in 2014, and it still stands there
as a monument to what happened on that day. I arrived in Phuket in late February, 2005. And by that time, a fair amount of the disaster
response efforts had taken place. Bodies had been recovered, and the Starbucks
on Patong Beach had removed the Toyota truck from its lobby, and was selling caramel macchiatos
again. But as I explored the island on my 125 Honda
scooter, I found this forgotten beach named Kamala that wasn’t touristy, and didn’t have
the same kind of money flowing into it that Patong did. So as I came upon this hotel, I realized that
some places would take much, much longer for a place like this to recover. In that same town of Kamala, I happened upon
the Wat (or temple), and got to see first hand what the destructive forces of the tsunami
did. Being directly across the street from the
sea, and without a barrier, the temple took the full brunt of the waves. The structures in Thailand are typically column
and unreinforced brick. So the impact of the ocean met very little
resistance as it ripped through the temple. At Wat Kamala, I met a young monk named Tukta,
who wanted to show me around and what happened to the temple. He didn’t speak English, and I only spoke
two words of Thai at the time, so he just guided me around while gesturing. Here, he’s showing me the wall that was blown
out by the wave. The wood is just a temporary measure to keep
the structure up. After Tukta walked me around the temple he
stopped in front of the main Buddha shrine and pointed out the water level from the tsunami
had actually reached the nose of the big Buddha behind him. I thanked him, and took his photo. I was so moved by him and the people of Kamala. I donated the thousand Baht I had with me,
to help rebuild the temple, and I would return a few more times to speak with Tukta, until
one trip when I found he had been reassigned to a different temple. I was trying to get to Khao Lak, where the
tsunami hit the hardest, and where I would be living for the next year. As luck would have it, a family I made friends
with in Phuket had plans to go to a Chinese graveyard, nearby in Kok Kloi, to pay respects
to their ancestors. And they offered to drive me. They also invited me to the graveyard, which
turned into a full family event with 25+ people arriving. So I started documenting the occasion, and
grabbed this portrait of one of the Uncle’s who owned the land, standing proudly next
to his truck. For one of my VISA runs, I decided to ride
to Malaysia through the South of Thailand on my little 125 Honda. This trip would end up being one of the most
fulfilling times of my life. The further South I went, the more Muslim
influence became apparent. The architecture, the food, the language… I met these boys here who spoke not just Thai,
but also Arabic, Malay, French and some English. We talked briefly, and then the evening Adhan
sounded. They had to go to pray, and I had to go on
to the next town before dark. While living in Khao Lak, I would try to get
down to Phuket once a month or so to see a friend, and just relax. On one of my trips down, I read about a swimming
hole nearby that was certain to provide that needed relaxation. It was after seeing these kids having fun,
and just being kids, that I knew things were turning around. The weight of the tsunami, and 8,000 lost
lives was starting to lift, and the normal “Sanuk” way of life was returning. At the same swimming hole, this dad stole
my heart with the pure love being expressed between him and his son. Many people lost loved ones in the tsunami. In the village I worked in alone, I heard
horrible stories of loss. But when I look at this photo, I’m reminded
of the love and the joy that ran deep with the Thai people in the face of all of that.

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