Khao Lak, Thailand
A great loss; a town reborn.
I had stopped in Ranong while traveling from the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea to evaluate the border with Myanmar (Burma), and review the possibility of obtaining a 28-day visa for the country outside of Bangkok (with the thought of traveling north through it). Unfortunately, recent policy changes for the military-run country have now closed the borders even further, disallowing deep entry (and the issuance of tourist visas exceeding two days) from the southern frontier.
Now, having traveled 200 kilometers south (125 miles), I'm in the small town of Khao Lak. I'm here to review the residual damage and rebuilding spurred from the devastating December, 2004 tsunami, that could have easily claimed my life if I hadn't traveled to Ko Pha-Ngan (on the opposite coast). The greater Khoa Lak area suffered the highest number of tsunami-related fatalities in the whole of Thailand—the waves essentially wiped the bulk of the town and its tourism infrastructure off the map.
Today, nearly 30 months after the event, Khao Lak seems to be on its feet and flourishing (albeit with the types of businesses I'd rather not see—unsightly rows of custom suit stores, visually offensive gift shops, and tacky tour companies). The number of people from Nepal and India who own/operate shops in this town is staggering.
Questionable (mis)management of relief funds have expanded the simple coastal highway into a sprawling six-lane Goliath (plus parking) as it passes through the township. Take out the cars and the little concrete island and it could probably double as a landing strip. Further uphill, the highway has been given a new cantilevered walkway, complete with tiles, a stainless steel handrail, and enjoyable views of the coast. Yes, it's probably wise to separate pedestrians from evacuating vehicles in a tsunami repeat, but the walkway seems a bit over the top.
Back a sea level, the overgrown concrete ruins of some facilities can be seen on large, empty lots next to the ocean. New moderate- to high-end resorts and bungalows have been erected, and appear to be fully operational. There's still a great deal of construction underfoot everywhere, but given the fact that it can take folks 60 years to build a big Buddha, I'm rather impressed.
Fresh rows of trees have been planted to replace the forest that was washed away. I don't see any memorials in town, only a few remembrances left behind by family or friends who've visited the site of their loss.
I suppose what's really throwing me for a loop (other than the most expensive Internet I've seen in Thailand) is all this infrastructure for tourism, and being the only person in sight on the beach for kilometers in either direction. I couldn't have asked for better weather this past week—it's been absolutely fabulous—so I know it's not that. It's the rainy season, the low season, and I find it hard to imagine that these massive resorts can stay in business like this. Many businesses are indeed closed down until October/November, when things pick up at a hurried pace for the peak season.
This is the time of year to find deals on accommodations, though. A traveler here has their choice of hotels, and they should be hungry for the business. In another month the bargains will get even better.
I walked around town when I arrived, shopping budget locations in the heat. I ended up getting a fantastic room at Sri Guesthouse, about a 10-minute walk from the beach. I haggled them down, taking a third off their asking price for the room—they wanted B$300, I got it for B$200. I'm paying US$6 a night for a quite, cool room with a bed big enough to sleep three adults, hot water in my shower, two patios, and screens over the windows, and a beach near by—awesome. You can barely even get a dormitory bunk bed for twice this price in Brazil.
The beach here is sort of like a manifestation of me—blond sand, (perfectly warm) blue/green water, with a relaxed, easygoing disposition. I don't care for this shelf that seems to sit right off shore though—I go from knee-deep to over my head in just a few paces.
I spent the afternoon chatting up a cute German girl with a slightly sun-phobic boyfriend, and got the skinny on their place. The two are paying B$800/night for an ocean-view room at the resort I was sunning myself in front of. They've got a fridge, television, and A/C in the room, and a swimming pool out back—all for US$25, or €18. Absolutely rock-bottom prices for a couple on a two-week holiday spending euros or pounds.
I like my room/location, though. It's more than I need, and I've got some interesting jungle sounds to listen to. I've missed the loud "kissy" sound the geckos make at night.
My dream pet: A mosquito-eating gecko that clings to my feet, legs, and/or shoulders—protecting me while living a fat, happy life.