Back from the Brink


The tsunami brought Phang Nga province to its knees. Now, less than a year after the killer waves struck, Le Meridien Khao Lak is welcoming guests once again.


“People ask ‘Why did you come here?’” says Vitya Chakrabandhu, down-to-earth Chinese-Thai owner of Le Meridien Khao Lak, Thailand, whose preferred office-wear today is shorts and T-shirt.


“The main thing is: the environment is beautiful, and the people here are very conscious of it: they don’t cut down trees; they look after animals.


“The planners said you cannot put your sun-bed on the beach – or have horse-riding, every nik-nak and noodle seller. So it will be clean for ever, and all the hotels stick by that.


“The good thing about Khao Lak is there’s only 10-12 miles where you can develop, so I don’t see that it will ever be like Phuket.”


To those who live in Thailand, it seems the publicity drive for Phuket has been motoring for months. We hear of how businesses and infrastructure are largely operational again; the beaches are as pristine as ever. But what of neighbouring Khao Lak?


As Vitya stresses, the area offers sea-front tranquillity seemingly a million miles from the hustle, bustle and neon razzmatazz of Patong (which is really just about an hour’s drive away). This is more of a decent book and gentle sea-breezes kind of place; and an excellent base from which to explore Phang Nga province’s abundant natural beauty.


There are stunning limestone cliffs in Ao Phang-Nga, for starters, and Khao Lak is a jumping-off point for two of Thailand’s finest national marine parks: the Surin and Similian Island Archipelagos, which both offer world-class diving.


Before the tsunami, Khao Lak, becoming known as the “second Andaman Pearl”, was seen as Thailand’s next burgeoning resort destination. The past three years had seen the region experience a construction boom. Half of the 50km stretch of coastline was home to a swelling ribbon development of shops and dwellings; while the beachfront hosted some 8,000 rooms.


International brands scrambled to stake out their claim. Sofitel Coralia Magic Lagoon Resort opened in May 2004, boasting the world's largest “lagoon pool”, for which well-heeled guests paid up to $USD800 a night. Le Meridien wasn’t far behind, opening in late November.


Then came December 26 – and catastrophe.


A herd of elephants in the mountains seemed to know it was coming: stamping and tugging at their chains, breaking free to run to the hills. Elephants have special bones in their feet that sense seismic vibrations long before humans.


For Vitya, who was puttering round the hotel grounds on a golf cart, an ominous harbinger came via a phone call “from Phuket saying ‘The water’s up’ – and then the phone went dead”.


Moments later, after narrowly swerving a head-on smash with a delivery truck fleeing his resort, he was being tossed around the grounds in a swirl of refuse. He presently saw his youngest daughter “about 10 feet away from me and unconscious; so I grabbed a hold of her and the water took us that palm tree right there, where we hung on for what seemed like half-an-hour, but probably took about 10 minutes.”


Meanwhile a German tourist was saving Vitya’s wife, plucking her from the flood and dragging her on to the roof. Two of his other daughters managed to escape: one scrambling to a higher floor with her three sons; another swimming round the chaos to safety.


“I had my four daughters, four grandsons, their husbands, all together about 12 of us,” recalls Vitya, “and we lost one.”


He buried his 22-year-old first daughter, Kariza, onsite, in a quiet grassy spot flecked with palm trees outside his office window. She was one of 12 employees and eight guests who died.


Occupancy was at its highest in Phang Nga over the festive period; and 80 percent of Thai tsunami deaths – around 4,225 people, about half of them foreigners – happened here.


The topography of Khao Lak bay somehow strengthened the power of the hurtling waves, funnelling them like a sluice towards the tourist resorts. The land is flat for less than a kilometre inland from the beach until it hits a cliff. The water picked up everything in its path and slammed it against the jungle at the cliff's base.


Two dolphins were carried away one-and-a-half kilometres inland to a land-locked pond. A bus full of passengers was hauled to the surface five days after the disaster. Only one hotel – on a hill – survived unscathed.


Wayne Martin, a forensic expert with Australia’s Victoria police flown into to assist in the aftermath said at the time: “The Bali bombing does not even come close to this.”


The Sofitel was almost full that morning, with many people sunning themselves on the shoreline or enjoying breakfast in the newly renovated beachfront restaurant. When the waves hit head on, water roared up to the second floor, bulldozing all in its path.


“Sofitel had a tragedy; it was really a disaster there,” says Le Meridien’s general manager Achim Brueckner quietly.


The densely-packed resort packed more units per rai into its grounds than the wide, open-plan spaces favoured by the low-rise Le Meridien, then enclosed them in a walled compound. The Sofitel also neglected to install safety glass, which comes away in one unbroken piece, and people cite this as a contributory factor to the number of deaths.


Officially 220, but possibly up to 350, people succumbed there, including Reggie Shiu, senior vice-president of the Shanghai-based Accor Asia Pacific company, regarded one of the great hotel pioneers of the region, along with his wife and two of his three children.


Now this man-made paradise lies in ruins. 70 percent destroyed, the property has been left a faded, shattered shell with smashed-in windows and gaping holes in the roof tiling. Vitya says he’s spoken with the owner, who’s had the blueprint redrawn and plans to start rebuilding soon.


“Personally, I think it’s too damn fast,” he opines, “but we all see it differently”.


Likewise, Brueckner, a German expatriate of 20 years who lost all his worldly possessions in the disaster, sees testing times ahead for the brand: “It’s a name, the Sofitel,” he says, “to operate and promote themselves… it will be tough.”


"With the amount of devastation up there in Khao Lak, it's going to take years to replace," said Larry Cunningham, chief executive of Phuket One Real Estate and the Australian government's representative for Thailand's tsunami-hit areas.


"While the devastation is there, the memories of what happened are still there."


A cursory drive around the province reveals numerous telltale signs littering the landscape: shattered foundations, communities rebuilding, some subsisting in aluminium shanty-shacks; the luckier ones in custom-made emergency housing, financed by Non-Governmental Organisations [NGOs], the government or privately funded initiatives, and built by the Thai Army.


At one time, around 150 aid groups were working in and around Khao Lak, according to Thai-Together, a network for NGOs.


Some tsunami signifiers have been deliberately left, like macabre outdoor art installations, in homage to what happened here. A police patrol boat that was chaperoning Bhumi Jensen, 21-year-old American-born autistic grandson of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who perished while jet-skiing, was thrown more than a kilometre inland and left stranded as the water receded.


A large orange fishing trawler lies high and dry on the roadside. Upon closer inspection, the muddy ground nearby reveals a grungy collage of washed-up tsunami fallout – clothes, personal effects, flotsam and jetsam – trodden in to the sludge.


While the area produces some rubber and palm oil and there is a small amount of subsistence agriculture, the local economy is primarily based on tourism.


“It will never be the same,” says local Hirant Methasutthikorn, 55-year-old boat-building resident of Baan Nam Ken, a little fishing community where 1,000 locals died. “The tsunami destroyed the corals that were once abundant with fish.” He says the natural alternative is “eco-tourism” but “as the news is still reporting earthquakes, people are still afraid to invest. Maybe we need to wait two more years.”


Aside from the impact on local employment, Thailand was damaged on a macroeconomic scale. The kingdom earns around one-third of its annual tourist income from Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga alone, and tourism revenue for these provinces in 2005 slid significantly. Economic growth slowed to 3.9 percent in the first half of 2005, from 6.1 percent a year earlier, partly because of the drop in tourism.


“All in all, some Bt4 billion in investments has suffered from this very severe damage,” said Juthamas Siriwan, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).


At time of writing Khao Lak had “about 1,200 rooms” from the original 8,000 open, according to Le Meridien’s Sales and PR Manager Orawan Thomchayakorn.


For Le Meridien’s part, “we had to be very grateful to Khun Vitya for going ahead,” says Brueckner. “His daughter was the one he wanted to open the hotel for, so those kinds of things are very difficult…he’s a tough guy, though.”


With his extensive experience as a developer of a top-end real estate projects in Atlanta – “tornadoes came through a couple of times: 80 homes rebuilt” – Vitya knew what was achievable. He felt the sooner they started rebuilding the better: “We started January 2nd,” he says.


“I wanted to get it done as quickly as I could.”


The seasonal rains in October-November would have made construction difficult plus, “I was afraid you would get depressed. It’s depressing enough seeing the damn thing like it is so… you have to rebuild it nicely.”


The resort was still standing, structurally, but it had been entirely gutted, all the wiring, electrics and air-con were gone and “the whole property was covered with one half foot of sand.” Vitya says the “toughest part” of the reconstruction process was clearing the hordes of vehicles, bodies, seawater, and all manner of hotel-owned detritus, from bottles of whisky and beer to flat-screen televisions, from the 30-rai freshwater lake providing the resort’s drinking water. That took two months; plus another six months to refurbish the rest of the resort, where sand and seawater had ruined everything.


“We rebuilt the resort with better craftsmanship than the original,” he says. “We had learned lessons in terms of room decoration, landscape design and safety equipment. A lot of money was invested in improving the landscape.”


The government has praised him for taking a leading role in rebuilding Khao Lak, hoping that others will follow.


There’s still much to be done before fellow resorts recover to the level of Le Meridien. There hasn’t been much of a community drive yet “because everybody scrambles for themselves. Everybody’s so busy getting back on their feet,” says Vitya, but Brueckner hopes “people will come together regularly and create synergies for all of us to promote the area.”


And people are coming. 230 staff from Toshiba Thailand just held a conference here and, although they all wanted rooms on the top floor and were scared of ghosts, according to Brueckner, “they all said they’re coming back.” He expects 50 percent occupancy rates over the festive season.


Having been closed for ten of 2005’s months, Vitya’s still fighting back financially, but says he hopes to break-even in 2006, “maybe even a small profit. I mean the market is good; very healthy. Like I said, long term I’m convinced it’s very good. So that’s the plan anyway.”


And he’s happy to stay. “We like Khao Lak better, because we’ve got beautiful sand here, then the Andaman Sea, mountains in the back, plenty of water. Hard to go home.”

-- Published by In Residence magazine, 2004


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