A Deep Beauty

Travel & Leisure Southeast Asia – May 2008

It was a near-perfect afternoon on Thailand’s Northern Andaman coast, and Khao Lak’s horseshoe bay had revealed itself. Resort rooftops peeked out from the coconut palms, tourists lounged on golden sand, and the turquoise sea gently licked the shore in overlapping ovals.

A minute later we rolled into town, which is essentially one main drag. Tourists – mostly Swedish families – were everywhere, ducking into restaurants, souvenir stalls, and scuba shops. There was no question, that this up and coming beach resort devastated by the 2004 tsunami – had come back to life.

Then we were confronted with Khao Lak’s shadow: an armored police boat stranded in an empty field, about 500 meters from shore. We pulled over and joined the tourists who snapped pictures and stared in silence. This very scene was proof that the tourism resurgence in Khao Lak had not occurred in spite of the tsunami. Rather, the two are intertwined. In fact, everything, good and bad, that has happened here since 2004 can be traced back to that sunny December morning that went sideways.

The tsunami leveled Khao Lak. Local fishing villages and packed four-star resorts were gutted – some were completely wiped off the map. Three-story trawlers were embedded into hillsides. Reservoirs were contaminated with bacteria. Farmland was poisoned with sea salt. Officially, over 5,000 people were killed – locals and tourists, and scars remain. But I would soon learn that Khao Lak’s pain does not mute her charms, it only deepens them.

Ratree Kongwadmai, 35, a lifelong resident of the fishing enclave, Baan Nam Kem –the most dire disaster site – lost her uncle, nephew, sister, brother, father and youngest daughter. When she returned to her land two days later to search for her daughter’s remains, she was stopped by armed guards employed by, Suchart Tuntajem, a Bangkok developer and politician with mafia ties.  He was using the tsunami as a way to steal 418 rai, most of which was ancestral beachfront land owned by 30 fishing families who never saw the need to document their claims. Now that nature had cleared the plots, Tuntajem planned to build a five-star golf resort on the village’s pristine, white sand beach.

“I told them, ‘we only want 80 rai, you can have everything else.’ But they refused,” she said. Actually, they threw eggs at her, cut her power, and repeatedly shoved guns in her face, but she never backed down. Then the New York Times and BBC reported her story, and 18 months ago she began to petition the King, who has a history of intervening in land rights disputes. This possibility spooked Tuntajem, so he begrudgingly agreed to grant Kogwadmai and her neighbors the 80 rai.

Days later, he made lowball offers to buy the land. And many families have already accepted. Not Kongwadmai. She understands its value. Her home is open to overnight guests, and she hopes to transform her property into a budget beach bungalow resort. For better or worse, tourism is coming to Baan Nam Kem.

Which doesn’t surprise Kate Kemp, owner of  The Sarojin – a 56-room, five-star boutique resort on its own white sand beach 7 kilometers north of Khao Lak town. “I don’t know of another place in Thailand that has the same mix of off-shore and inland beauty that Khao Lak has,” she said. “There are mangroves and beautiful rivers, local markets and waterfalls. There is elephant trekking and spectacular diving. [Tourism] is only going up.”

On December 26, 2004, the The Sarojin was nearly complete. Thankfully, Kemp had given her construction crew and staff two days off for Christmas, because five meters of water inundated the rooms and suites. Walls were blown out, cars ended up in the lobby, but there were no on-site casualties.

It didn’t take long for the Kemps to decide to rebuild. “The factors that convinced us to invest here hadn’t changed. Messes can be cleaned up,” she said. The Kemps didn’t just rebuild their property. They gave relief bonuses to everyone on staff. They helped re-install traffic lights, and rebuilt a nearby school. Ten months later they opened for business. “We were only at 10% capacity, but we were open. And at Christmas (just one year after the disaster) we were full.”

Other hotels rebuilt just as quickly. Le Meridian, the only other 5-star property in Khao Lak, opened around the same time. La Flora – once the area’s top luxury resort – was absolutely leveled by the tsunami (dozens of guests and staff perished). But it has been packed all year.

Of course, The Sarojin is Khao Lak’s star. They won “Asia’s Leading Boutique Hotel”, at The World Travel Awards in 2006 and 2007. And it’s no wonder. Sarojin’s open-air lobby tumbles out onto a spectacular, blooming lotus pond. Breakfast is served on a deck beneath a 150 year-old ficus tree, and the fine dining restaurant, The Edge, is perched on the white sand. Plus, their Pathways Spa is tucked perfectly into the mangroves. Nature is king here.

Yet, the Sarojin is more than just beautiful bones. Jowell, a Moulin Rouge dancer for 15 years and Sarojin’s “Imagineer”, encourages guests to immerse themselves in the environment. He arranges flat bottom boat tours of the mangroves. Their chef leads guests on tours of local markets and cooking classes are held on the shores of the mocha-tinted Takua Pa River. Guests are awestruck when monks and water buffalo wander past during class.

Of course, if you really want to learn about local cuisine you could just wander to Mama’s, located on the highway just above Bang Niang Beach. “I had a restaurant on the beach for twenty years,” said Mama, a big, effervescent woman with love to spare, as we devoured fresh fish rubbed with lemongrass and grilled with pineapple. The tsunami took her restaurant and her father. That night Mama hunkered down with her mother, her children and a huddle of about 30 survivors – local Thais, undocumented Burmese workers andFarang tourists. They were bruised, scared and hungry. Mama scrounged some rice, convinced the Burmese to contribute their salt fish, and started to cook. Because that’s what Mama does. “For a moment, everyone was happy. At least we had something to eat.”

Her new place – which is part streetside café, part tiki bar – was opened just two months after the tsunami. Her first customers were aid workers. A year later the dive operators trickled back, and eventually so did the tourists. When we visited there wasn’t an empty seat in the house.

On my last day in the area I decided to dive in the Similan Islands – a national marine park just 30 nautical miles from Khao Lak with Thailand’s best diving. On the trip over I met Stockholm-native, Viola Hellstrom. While thousands of tourists from dozens of nations visit Khao Lak every year, Swedes are the dominant force. Viola was traveling with her husband, Par, and their three young children. Like the other families on board, they weren’t coming to the islands to dive. They wanted to snorkel and enjoy the Similan’s magnificent white sand, boulder-strewn beaches.

But Viola had a deeper reason for being in Khao Lak. “My sister died in the tsunami,” she said as our speedboat roared into the open sea.  Viola’s two year-old nephew, Hannes, was found alone that morning, but three days later he was tearfully reunited with his hospitalized father who had thought he’d lost both his wife and son. The reunion made international news. Ten days after the tsunami, Viola and her father came to Khao Lak to search for her missing sister. They found her at Yan Yao temple, which had become a makeshift morgue.

But the story doesn’t end there. Viola’s parents spend two months each year in Khao Lak. This is Viola’s second trip here since the tsunami. “It’s become a very special place for us. And it’s much nicer here now. There is so much more greenery, and there are many more tourists. Two years ago there was almost nobody here,” she said. “And of course the Thai people are wonderful. They make it easy to travel with children. We learn a lot from them.”

The Similan Islands did not disappoint. The diving – through submerged boulder fields, and around huge coral bommies – was superb. There were thousands of fish. At times it felt like I was drifting in a Technicolor blizzard. Back on land, the Swedes were once again in full effect. In addition to the families on our boat, the Star Clipper, a luxury sailing cruise ship had docked off shore and their dinghies buzzed in with nearly one hundred more. They were swimming, sunbathing, and playing volleyball. And in the middle of them all were Viola, Par, and their beautiful blonde children, splashing and laughing in the shallows.

Viola’s trip here wasn’t just an exotic tribute to a lost loved one. They were here to teach their kids to snorkel, and watch dolphins swim off the bow of our speedboat. They came here to enjoy life. They honored a memory, sure, but they also made a dozen new ones.

And that’s why the guests are back in the luxury hotels, it’s why the backpackers and golfers will eventually find their way to Baan Nam Kem, it’s why the seats and bellies are full at Mama’s, and it’s why Khao Lak is once again Thailand’s next big thing.