Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Koh Chang

by AJ/Skald

I stared into the sea spray as the thump of the 8 cylinder droned trance-like. The long wooden boat moved up and down rythmically with the waves. Water sloshed back and forth at my feet..... slowly leaking in from tiny unseen holes. Behind me, the driver stood tall at the stern clutching a long pole connected to a massive engine. A long drive shaft extended from the engine into the sea-- at the end a small propeller pushed us towards Aoe Said Bay, a remote area of Andaman Koh Chang island (not to be confused with the more famous island of the same name in the Gulf of Thailand).

My body bucked and bobbed as if I was riding a horse.... and immediately I thought of the tsunami which had hit the area a few days before. It had come without warning on a bright clear day. I turned and scanned the sea, trying to imagine what it had looked like. A flash of fear gripped my gut. I shook it off and muttered to myself, ìmai pen raiî.... which is Thai for ìno worriesî, then turned back and caught the distintive mast-like tower of Kokkram Resort- our destination.

The engine revved higher as we plowed into the bay, then the boatman cut the engine. The long, narrow, battered boat slid onto the sand in the shallows and crunched to a halt. A Japanese girl in blue batiked pants, a Thai woman in shorts and a t-shirt, and a bare chested ìfarangî (Westerner) popped out from the coconut trees and ambled to meet us. Our driver skipped along the side edge and began to unload boxes of food and sacks of ice meant for the remote inhabitants. I grabbed by small backpack and slung it over one shoulder... Tip, my girlfriend, grabbed her bag and eyed the water warily.

Wobbling, I stepped on the side rail- then jumped into the shallows.... extended my hand, grabbed Tipís bag..... and she followed. The three bay residentís nodded- each had the same half grin and mellow, sleepy eyes. Tip and I nodded and then set off to the left towards Kokkramís tower... perched on a hill above the beach on the left bank of the bay. We passed a cement pavilion, the beachside bar- which now contained a broken longboat thrown by the tsunami. Luckily, this was the only damage suffered as the remaining tents, huts, and tower building are located on high ground. No one died on Koh Chang, as the island was sheltered from the worst of the wave by other islands in the Andaman Sea. Still, a somber quiet hung in the air.

We eyed the wreckage then climbed the stairs to the resort. ìResortî is a very ambitious name for Kokkram, for it is in fact a collection of dome tents and simple wooden huts. Each hut has an attached bath, but there is no hot water. The staff run a generator from 6pm to 10pm, otherwise there is no electricity. The building is built around the single mast of a large tree trunk: The structure is wide at the bottom (where the open air restaurant is located) but tapers to a small lookout tower at the very top-- a place that gives wide views of the bay and the beach.

A Thai man with two armfuls of tattoos waved to us as we topped the stairs. He too had the half grin. ìMy name is Changî, he said and then Tip chatted with him in Thai. Chang led us to a hut perched precariously on a small cliff above the beach. We dropped our bags under the mosquito net then briefly strolled the grounds.... followed by Kokkramís resident chihuahua and German shepherd (Namwan & Bubo). Three Thai women lounged in the main building, but otherwise the place was empty.... all tourists had fled following the tsunami and none had returned. We were the first visitors since the disaster.

Normally I would have revelled in the peace and quiet,..... a perfect place to reenergize and rejuvenate. But following the tsunami I felt an eerie lonliness-- as if we had sailed into a ghost town. I second-guessed the decision to come. Our friend Wat, who had helped build the resort, had encouraged us to come despite the tsunami. ìItís OK on Koh Chang.... I think you should go.î, heíd said.

After our stroll Tip and I sat in the restaurant without speaking. Chang lounged in a hammock while the other staff sat silently at another table. ìThis was a mistakeî. The thought cycled repeatedly. ìWe should go back to Bangkokî. Then I remembered- there would be no more boats that day.

In Bangkok it was easy to maintain an objective distance from the unfolding events. It was different on Koh Chang.... Even though no one had died there.... Even though there was no major damage. It was nevertheless much closer to the event. We didnít speak of it but the tsunamiís presence could be felt in the silence.

I grew restless and moved to the porch of our bungalow where I sat and stared at the sea. Two weeks ago I had finished reading Hemingwayís The Old Man and The Sea. He described the sea as a woman-- charming, fickle, terrifying. Those words meant something now. In a few days, Wat, Kristin, and other friends would arrive on the island to spend New Years. But for two days Tip and I were alone.

I strolled around the beach and grounds and took in the images: broken coral on the beach..... trash and debris piled and burned on the beach. an open and empty sea. termites crawling on the bungalowís handrail. Kokkramís resident pony charging up and down the empty beach trailing a rope. From end to end, no one on the beach. chairs hastily piled at the top of the stairs. candles burning on the beach at midnight. Namwan marching the grounds, nipping at invisible bugs. Half eaten jackfruit.... spikes moldy-black.... decomposing in the sun. Spacious empty sky. Spacious empty sea. Spacious empty beach. Empty huts and tents.

No music. No activities. Only an occaisional boat on the horizon. No sounds but the relentless push and pull of the surf... a sound now tinged with menace and dread..... evoking Thai newspaper images of bloated bodies on the beach and killer rogue waves that strike without warning.

Tip was scared to go snorkelling and nervous about walking on the beach. The staff were friendly but quiet.

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