Eyewitness Report

Just back from a "super-fam" trip to Thailand's Andaman coast, photojournalist Mark Edward Harris offers a first-hand account and photo slide show

By: Mark Edward Harris

Mark Edward Harris has taken photographs in over 60 countries. His editorial work has appeared in Life, Playboy, Vogue, Elle, People, The New York Times, The London Times and The Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. Harris is the recipient of several awards including a CLIO Award and an Aurora Gold Award. His 1998 book, "Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work,” won the New York Book Show Photography Book of the Year and Best of Show awards. His 2004 book, “Wanderlust” (R.A.M. Publications), earned Harris Photographer of the Year honors at the 2004 Black + White Spider Awards.

December 26, 2004, is a date that won’t soon be forgotten by the coastal inhabitants of the Indian Ocean. The indelible scenes that were broadcast of that fateful day have been permanently etched into the minds of people around the globe. The same body of water that had provided a living either directly through fishing or indirectly through tourism had unleashed a devastating tsunami. In Thailand, the Andaman coast was particularly hard hit.

On March 5, 2005, less than three months after the tsunami, 1,000 journalists and travel industry professionals met in Phuket at the invitation of Thai Airways in cooperation with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to attend a conference at the Phuket Hilton Arcadia Resort Spa aimed at highlighting Thailand’s post-tsunami recovery efforts.

The fact sheet handed out that Saturday morning revealed the devastation that the tsunami brought to Thailand 5,395 Thai and foreigners dead, over 8,000 injured and almost 3,000 still missing.

In addition, a quarter of the 53,860 hotel rooms in the area were affected. In the aftermath of the disaster more than 80 percent of the rooms that were still operational received cancellations. As of the day of the conference, occupancy was around 10 to 20 percent as compared to the normal 80 to 90 percent for this time of year.

With these stark numbers as a backdrop, speakers, including Juthamas Siriwan, governor of the Tourism Council of Thailand (TAT), Wichit Na Rong, president of TAT, and Kanok Abhiradee, president of Thai Airways, looked to the future. Topics included the promotion of domestic tourism to the six affected provinces; campaigns and incentives to promote both short- and long-haul markets; the promotion of high-profile sporting events such as the Golf International Tiger Skin Game (Tiger Woods is half Thai); and restoration and revival measures including plans for a tsunami advance warning system. After the conference a candlelight mourning ceremony was followed by a Phuket Beach Festival and a dinner at the Club Andaman Hotel.

Most of Phuket is now fully operational and ready to host visitors, as is the town of Krabi on the other side of Phang Nga Bay. Nightlife has returned to its usual frenetic pace. A cruise and sea canoe expedition around the magnificent Phang Nga islands is a reminder that this is one of the most beautiful destinations on earth.

It was not until we drove an hour north of Phuket up the coast to Khao Lak that we were able to truly gain a perspective of what took place on Dec. 26. This beautiful beach area where hotels and resorts once existed, revealed the mind-boggling devastation. In terms of development, it will be several years before this area returns to any semblance of its former self.

Looking over this scene, I recalled the words of Orasa Tanticharoenkiat, of Aberdeen Tours in Los Angeles, over breakfast at the Novotel Corala Phuket that morning: “To live in fear is no life. It’s time to look to the future.”