Diarrhea may have saved our lives
At first glance, the beaches of Ton Sai in Krabi lived up to the fantasy. Arriving via boat (at the time, there were no roads that reached these remote, yet touristy beaches), we were greeted by gorgeous white sand, warm clear waters, and swaying palms. We meet Jason and Lisa, along with their friends Amos and Ro from L.A., at our picture-perfect beach bungalows. For the first few days, we thought, “this is paradise.”
All too soon though, the allure began to fade and the dingy, backpacker vibe began to grate. Our group decided it was time to move on.
One of the beach’s charms or inconveniences, depending on how you look at it, was only having electricity beginning at sunset each night. Good sense would say that ordering shrimp pad thai for lunch, when there’s no constant refrigeration and it’s sweltering, is probably a dicey move. I can’t say Matt or I gave it much thought before diving into the noodle bowl and we thought it was delicious at the time. Later that night, we both began to feel sweat beading on our foreheads. As we became queasy, the extent of our bad judgment sank in.
For the next two days, we holed up in the once-cute, rustic shack now turned hell itself. We spent Christmas day racing each other to the bathroom with fluids exploding out of both ends. (A bonding experience for any couple.) In case you were wondering, not having electricity during the day also means no AC. Beyond miserable, we lay sweating in bed listening to a constant track of Christmas music drifting in from the resort’s main lobby.
The saving grace in this awful experience was our four friends. We had planned to leave Ton Sai beach on Christmas morning by ferry to Koh Phi Phi. Since we were in no shape to travel, we urged our friends to go ahead promising we’d catch up. They refused saying there was no way they’d leave us in this condition. They would wait and we would all go together.
The next morning, December 26, still feeling shaky but ready to leave the devil shack behind, we made our way to the ferry. Because the bay was shallow, the ferry couldn’t come into shore so riders had to take a long-tail boat (canoe with a car motor off the back) into open water to meet the cruiser. So there we sat in the ocean on a boat packed with people waiting and waiting and waiting for the ferry.
We finally spotted the boat heading our way, but knew something was wrong when it quickly turned back. Our captain, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, surveyed the water and suddenly cranked the engine and began to haul ass toward the nearest shore. We were going so fast water was leaping into our boat. At first, we couldn’t help but laugh, shake our heads, and say, “What is this crazy Thai doing?” Then Jason looked to the horizon and suddenly yelled “Tsunami!” Before that moment I’m not sure I knew what a tsunami was, but when I saw the wall of water racing toward us, there was no mistaking the moment’s gravity.
Out of Nowhere
As you’ve heard from many accounts, the wave literally came out of nowhere. There was no warning system in place and no one else on the water around us even seemed to be aware of what was happening. As we raced into shore our captain yelled to other boats, kayakers, sailors, swimmers, everyone we passed – it was in Thai – but we knew he was telling them to get to shore. Some people paid attention and followed our path to land, others seemed dumbfounded and literally froze in their spots. Suddenly the water receded and our boat was quickly beached. As we jumped out, the first thought that ran through my silly little mind was “we’re on land, we’re ok.” I turned to see the wave cracking sailboat masts and knocking boats and people around like toys. Someone yelled “fucking run!” and in that split second I realized we were far from safe.
As fast as we could, we ran up the paths from the beach leading to the hills seeking refuge at several places along the way until someone would yell that another wave was coming (some true, some rumor) and we would dash for even higher ground. With the water quickly rising around us, the second wave hit as Matt and I were crossing a footbridge. He yelled for me to run faster. Once the wave hit, I looked back to see a boat smashed against the bridge where he should have been. I panicked thinking the boat had knocked him out and he was now under water and unconscious. When I turned around to move the boat, I found him on the other side – he had seen the boat coming and ducked – he was furious at me for turning back.
There were many heroics along the way, Jason rescuing a woman from drowning among the crashed long-tail boats; Matt, Jason, and Amos carrying an injured man up the hill to safety; other equally scared people sacrificing themselves to pull people from the water and debris; and everyone trying to help each other out. When we reached the area’s highest point, our eyes met hundreds of others, tourists and locals alike, gathered together in hushed shock. For the most part, those on the hill were unharmed, just shaken; but we knew that wasn’t the case for many others. Seeing the locals concerned about their families and unaccounted for loved ones made us realize all the more how lucky we were. We knew it was a miracle that everyone in our group was safe.
I can’t say enough about the Thai people that day and every day following that we were in the country. Even in their state of dismay, they did everything possible to help out the travelers including raiding the sparsely-stocked pantries to bring rice and water to the refugees on the hill.
I’m not sure anyone there realized the magnitude of the overall situation at that point. We certainly didn’t. We assumed it was an isolated incident, just in our bay. It wasn’t until late that night, when people crowded around a still-operating bar’s TV glued to the BBC that we began to grasp the enormity of the event. Everyone was speechless seeing the images and hearing that the tsunami had been caused by a 9.3 earthquake and killed thousands (the ultimate number would surpass 230,000 people) in 15 countries. When we heard the news coming out of Kho Phi Phi – where we would have been when the wave hit had pad thai not changed our plans – that most of the island was decimated and a large number of its inhabitants and visitors lost, we counted our blessings even more.
(To keep reading, see the conclusion of this story: Part III)