Khao Lak After the 2004 Tsunami

Just over 13 years ago, on 26th December 2004, the Asian tsunami hit our television screens, brought to us by horrifying holiday videos showing the sea retreating, then towering up in a massive wave that swept up beaches, destroying hotels, houses, cars, boats and anything that stood in its way.   We saw only the video footage shot by the few holidays makers who escaped its power, but on the Thai coastline that stretched across six provinces, Phuket, Krabi, Phang-nga, Ranong, Satun and Trang, it took 5,395 lives (among them 2,000 foreign tourists).

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Hard to Imagine a giant wave surging towards this placid beach.

Khao Lak, the location for the Ewan McGregor film of the tsunami, The Impossible, is the Thai resort that recorded the most deaths in the disaster; the official death count of 3,950 is considered by some to be an underestimate with estimates reaching as high as 10,000 due to the large number of undocumented Burmese migrants who disappeared.

I was in Hua Hin in Thailand when it happened, waiting to meet up with a couple of close friends who were in Khao Lak at the time.  I never saw them again: they were but two of the many foreign tourists whose bodies were never recovered.   My most harrowing memory from that time, apart from the wall to wall tragedy that was unfolding daily on the TV screens, was standing alongside hundreds of Thais in utter silence by the roadside in Hua Hin as we watched the convoy of trucks carrying rough, wooden coffins to the disaster zone further south.

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A Village that is Renewing Itself in Khao Lak

I made the journey back to Khao Lak a few weeks ago to see how it was faring and my heart sang as I saw how the people have managed to put this traumatic episode behind them, how the villages are renewing themselves, how the tourist trade on which so much depends has bounced back, better than it was before, and how the loveliest beaches in Thailand and Southern Thailand’s finest rainforest are once again open for business.

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The magnificent beaches of Khao Lak

At the time of the tsunami it was a peaceful alternative to the brash resort of Phuket, some 55 miles to the south, and so it remains.  But whereas before it had bungalows, now there are small low-lying hotels spread among the palm trees, the hardwoods, and the trailing lianas,  that create a forest canopy that crackles with noise from the cicadas and the frogs.

Khao Lak’s inter-connected beaches extend for many miles and a small-town atmosphere still prevails.  The town, if one can call it that, is a row of shop houses selling the essentials for locals and a few bits for tourists, like hats, sunscreen, sarongs etc.  It is not a place to shop till you drop, but it is a place where you can soak up the pleasures of Thai life, the smells of durian, garlic and spices and where you can enjoy eye-wateringly hot street food as  Thai children gather around you and stare. Then there are the giggling beach masseuses who’ll pummel you in bamboo shelters for one-tenth of what you will pay elsewhere in Europe, the sound of the sea lapping the sands being the only noise.

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There are tsunami-related Memorials, of course.  About a mile inland lies Motorboat 813 from the Thai Navy which had been providing protection to Princess Ubolratana Phannawadee and family when the tsunami struck.  The 25-metre heavy boat was carried 1 kilometre inland and it was decided to leave it there after the clean-up, as a permanent reminder of what happened. The princess’s son, Bhumi Jensen, who had been out on a jet ski at the time, was one of those who died in the tsunami: his body was discovered the next day. memorial-gallery-tp-tsunami

There is also a private tsunami museum whose exhibits are mainly videos on a loop, detailing the traumatic events, the grisly findings and the processing of victims’ bodies.   One cannot walk through this museum without feeling moved, if not to tears, then to reflection on the tragedy. Then there is the Baan Nam Khem tsunami Memorial Park, right by the beach, consisting of two long walls curved like a big wave.  One wall is covered in mosaic tiles, with name plaques set into the wall, some with photographs, some with fresh flowers.  Most of the photographs are of smiling children, heart-breaking in their happiness and innocence before the wave struck.

memorial-plaque-at-tsunami-centreBut as I said, Khao Lak today is recovering well and the people are welcoming visitors once again to what must surely be one of the loveliest places in Thailand.  Within easy reach are the Similan Islands for diving in pristine waters, Khao Sok National Park for a rainforest experience, hiking in green, forested hills, and a profusion of wildlife from monitor lizards to cobras to keep one interested!

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I found the perfect hotel as well, the Manathai, set just back from the beach in a quiet area with an open-air bar perfect for taking in the dramatic sunsets that atracts everyone down to the beach for pre-dinner cocktails.  The main restaurant served a fine International menu and the beachside Thai restaurant was just perfect.  Rooms were large and exquisitely furnished, but best of all was the super-large balcony – perfect for the early morning coffee.sunset-at-hotel-manathai-khao-lak-thailand

Weekly Photo Challenge: Nostalgia

The  last days of summer, the last two deckchairs on the beach, coats on because the weather has turned really cold on this early Autumn day.   Maybe it was just the contrast with the former sunny days that made this party don what looks like winter gear?  Who knows, but the scene struck me as somewhat forlorn.

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Palavas les Flots – Montpelier’s Seaside

Just six kilometres south of Montpelier lies Palavas-les-Flots, a seaside town with some very fine seafood restaurants lining the canalised section of the River Lez  that runs through the centre of the town just before it enters the sea.    This has the effect of splitting the town into two sections, a Left Bank and a Right Bank, the names by which they are known.

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See Palavas by Chair Lift- Mari Nicholson

In the centre of the town is the distinctive ‘lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ with its popular revolving restaurant: next to this stands the church of Saint Pierre with its attractive garden.  There are few other sights to detain one in this seaside resort – it is a place for relaxation and enjoyment of the watersports and the facilities on hand.  What is a charming sight, though, is the canalised section of the town on which the fishing fleet makes a fine picture on a sunny day as they get ready to set sail.  And again, on their return, photographers line up to  photograph the fishermen who sell the fish directly from the decks of their boats to customers from the nearby flats and even from towns beyond.

Fishing-boats-ready-to-sail---Mari-Nicholson

The restaurants that line the canal are a magnet for visitors from Montpelier, especially at weekends, and you should be prepared to wait a while for a table and again for the meal to be served once you have chosen a restaurant.  The favourite meal is  mussels , served n every imaginable style, and always in the traditional big, blue enamel pots beloved of French restaurants.  They can be recommended.

Those who enjoy the fun of local markets should visit on the mornings of Monday, Wednesday and Friday when there is a market in the town.

The seafront is a short distance from the town centre and has a wide sandy beach, not what one would call a ‘golden beach’ but nevertheless, sandy and clean.  It is seven kilometres long and with this massive stretch of seaside comes all the water-related sports activities you could wish for  – kayaking, jet-skis, windsurfing, paragliding, swimming, snorkelling and diving.  Most of the equipment can be hired from concessions on and around the beach.

The sprawl of apartment buildings that is a backdrop to the beach either side of the centre is not especially handsome but the little harbour is attractive and from the small concrete pier are some good views of the town and across the bay to La Grande Motte.   And as I said, the good stretch of sandy beach is an ideal spot for families and couples to enjoy the facilities on offer.

Just outside Palavas, a short walk away, there are natural ponds that are home to an interesting selection of wildlife.   What attracts most people to the area, however, are the flocks of flamingoes that live here and that make a visit to the ponds something rather special.

How to Get to Palavas-les-Flots from Montpelier

By Tram or Bus, but the tram is so quick and fun to ride that I recommend them.  Purchase tickets before boarding, multi-lingual ticket machines at each tram stop. A day pass is recommended if you plan to use the tram much. Be sure to validate your ticket in the machines, being found without a valid ticket means an on-the-spot fine of around 30 euros. Not speaking French is not accepted as an excuse.

One-way tickets cost €1.40 round-trip €2.50. A 24-hour bus and tram ticket is €3.80.  Line 28 runs to the beach at Palavas les Flots.

The “Navette des Plages” bus runs non-stop to the “Face a la Plage” beach, between Palavas les Flots and La Grande Motte. Bus 131 runs to Palavas-les-Flots.

 

Photography Challenge – MORNING

A few of my favourite images from over the years seem to fit the Morning Challenge so here they are.  It’s amazing how some places never change, and how they still attract customers to these old-fashioned deck-chairs.

Mornings in Thailand

  Morning

An Illustrated Walk on the Beach, Isle of Wight

 

My new camera, the Sony A6000, has a brilliant inbuilt programme that turns the image from a  basic photograph to one that can isolate one colour, say red or blue, leaving the remainder of the photograph in black & white; changes the image to one that looks like a water-colour with the tints bleeding into each other; and, my favourite, illustration which alters the photograph miraculously so that it looks like a graphic illustration.  It is tempting to embark on designing a comic strip, or to illustrate an article with an illustration instead of an image.

Here I give you a few samples of Illustration, taken on a walk along my local beach the other day, a cold wintry day but with a blue sky lighting the day.  I hope they reproduce in the blog as they do on my screen, best viewed very large.

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Beach and Cliffs with People, Sandown, Isle of Wight
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Fishing Boat on Horizon at Sandown, Isle of Wight
By the Pier a Young Man Kicks a Football and Children Play in the Sand, at Sandown, IoW on a wintry day.
By the Pier a young lad kicks a football and two children play in the sand, at Sandown, IOW, on a wintry day.
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Blue skies, calm(ish) waters with the White Cliffs of Culver at Sandown, Isle of Wight.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Time

 

This is the AFTER photograph.  I wasn’t there to take the BEFORE shot, but most of us will have seen the terrible pictures of the 1944 D-Day Landings in Normandy, France, even seen the film The Longest Day, in which the graphic images of the horrors of that day and the terrible happenings on the beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword are now part of history.   It was a Time of heroism on a grand scale and a Time of mistakes on an equally grand scale.  It heralded the end of the beginning of the war that tore Europe apart, the one we call The Second World War, but it also heralded a Time of hope when it seemed that Peace might finally descend on Europe.

To me, this Memorial to some of those who lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy signifies Time Past and Time Remembered.

 © Mari NicholsonD-Day Landings.  War Memorial on Normandy Beaches

Buddhas and Beaches

Hua Hin – a Village a short drive from Bangkok

Fifteen years ago only a few intrepid travellers were aware of the wonders of Thailand.  Last year over twelve million visitors came to enjoy this amazing country.  With people who actually do smile all the time, and mean it, beaches that are invariably powdery white,  waters that range from turquoise to a limpid blue, a mean average temperature of 280 , and one of the finest cuisines in the world, it is easy to understand the attraction.  Nor should the safety factor be overlooked, either.  With a population that is 98% Buddhist,  religious conflict is virtually nil in this country of gentle, courteous people.

Thai Orchids

Bangkok is Noisy but the Chao Phraya River is Tranquil    

The Modern Face of Bangkok

No one would call present day Bangkok a paradise, but this modern metropolis was once known as the Venice of the East, a city built on canals which meandered through the capital and out into the countryside.  Most of these have now been filled in, but the magnificent Chao Praya River with its traffic of tugs, rice barges, and house-boats, still runs through its centre, lined by stunning hotels like the Oriental, Peninsula, and Sheraton Towers.

Big Buddha in Pattaya – a famous landmark

Hire a boat and a boatman from your hotel’s landing stage for a visit to the temples and palaces, most of which are on the river, and you need never step into Bangkok’s noisy streets.  It’s a relaxing way to see the City of Angels (Bangkok’s former name): sunrise over the Temple of Dawn, viewed from the boat, is an incredible sight.

Beaches and Islands – Where to find the best   

Horse riding on the beach, early morning

If its beaches you’re after, there’s the peace and tranquillity of the resorts on the Andaman Sea where you can cruise around the extraordinary 40-odd limestone karsts thrusting out of the sea in this totally surreal landscape (recognisable from The Man with the Golden Gun which was filmed here), picnic on a sandbank or deserted island, or head off into the Marine National Park for some of the finest diving in the world.   If you choose to stay in a hotel, the most exclusive has not one, but three beaches surrounding it as well as an infinity pool.

Koh Samui

The best known of Thailand’s islands is, of course, Phuket, whose coastline hides bays of the sort of shimmering sands lapped by turquoise seas you see in publicity pictures – Karon, Kata, Nai Harn, Pansea, Bang Tao and the National Park beach of Mai Khao.  Pick any one of these and you’ll find exclusive, world class hotels to cosset and pamper you.  If you want brash and noisy, then head for Patong Bay, easy to reach for an evenings entertainment.

Phuket is subject to monsoons but when it is raining there, the weather is fine in Ko Samuii (and vice versa) an island fast moving from backpackers hideaway to an upmarket resort with a laid-back atmosphere.

On the mainland, the resorts of Hua-Hin (where the Thai royal family have their summer palace) and Cha’am, attracts the more mature traveller for its great shopping and good restaurants.  And don’t dismiss Pattaya, known mostly for its girlie-bars, nightclubs, and massage parlours: it  has one of the world’s great hotels right on the edge of town which many people check into and leave without once setting foot outside it, their entire vacation having been spent luxuriating in one of the Royal Suites.

Go North and visit the Hill Tribes        

The writer with a Padaung Hill Tribe Woman, one of the ‘Long Necks’

Even great beaches can bore after days of perfect weather, and this is a good excuse to visit the hill tribes and enjoy the northern culture of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son.  Home to some of the most colourful tribal people in the world, the Akha, Meo, Leo, Hmong, Karen, Lisu and the long-necked Paduang, the velvety green mountains hiding rare orchids and other flora, is a startling contrast to the south of the country.  There are opportunities to join elephant rides into the jungle or to trek to remote villages to meet the hill tribe people.  For a more hands-on activity you can hire a 4WD (with or without driver) so that you can navigate the steep mountain roads and tracks, drift up the Pai River from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai on a bamboo raft, visit the border town of Mai Sai and cross into Myanmar (Burma) for a few hours, then visit the strange town of Theod Thai to talk with the remnants of Chiang Kai Chek’s Nationalist Army that settled here after escaping from China.

Phuket Sunset
The Elephant is the National Symbol o Thailand

Thailand is not just another country, it’s another way of life, guaranteed to de-stress even the most overworked executive.  After all, a country that has but one word for both work and pleasure, sanuk, has to be something special.

Reflections in a Pool – Hotel in Bangkok