Khao Lak fails the test

Observations on Thailand

The phone call came at 7pm, just after I'd clambered into a bath. "Sir, there's been an earthquake in Sumatra: 8.2," crackled through the handset. At first I wasn't clear why I'd been called about tectonic plate movements a thousand miles away. Then the penny dropped. I was on my honeymoon on the west coast Thai beach resort of Khao Lak, with its glass-clear seas and white sand beaches.

Khao Lak took the brunt of the Asian tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004. More than 4,000 tourists and locals, half of Thailand's total loss, perished on its beaches from the aftershock of a large Sumatran tremor. "How long do we have?" I asked. "If it's there, it will be with you by 9pm. Check the BBC on your TV, sir." Click, brrrr.

It has been a long haul getting Khao Lak back on its feet. The 11-metre wave destroyed every beachfront resort, decimating the local economy. A police boat, which was patrolling the waters at the time of the tsunami, still sits marooned three kilometres into the jungle as a monument to the sea's power. The death toll stole the headlines, but the survivors suffered enormously. A 2006 Rutgers University study into the effects of the tsunami noted that tourism made up 6 per cent of Thailand's GDP. That figure rose to nearly 50 per cent for Phang Nga, the province that includes Khao Lak, which had 642, 387 visitors in 2004; in 2005, that figure dropped to almost zero.

"It was very hard," explains Ria Netboot, a Dane who with her Thai husband runs the Viking Steak House on the high street. "We were lucky; the buildings along this street are higher, so we survived."

To reassure locals and potential tourists, the Thai government invested in an early-warning system monitored by the National Disaster Warning Centre north of Bangkok. Two hi-tech sea buoys were placed in the Andaman Sea to monitor sea levels; 30-metre high warning towers - able to raise the alarm in five different languages - were installed along Thailand's west coast beaches. If there was a sniff of anything, evacuations to special shelters in the mountains would begin within minutes.

We rushed to dress, grabbed our passports and joined the chaotic exodus. Hysterical families were running, cycling or driving to the mountains. Then the heavens opened. My wife had a brainwave. "Head for the Viking Steak House. If they survived the last one, they'll survive this one." We drove on our clapped-out moped past crashed motorcycles and trees blown down by the hurricane's gusts. Others had had the same idea and the Viking Steak House was full of soaked tourists, crying Thai families and bemused diners.

The Thai government, and in particular the National Disaster Warning Centre, was nowhere to be seen or heard. The 30-metre beacons stayed silent; no warnings were issued. Survivors from the previous tsunami turned to international news networks.

"I didn't hear any warning so I stayed on the main street here," explained Toom, a Thai who runs an internet cafe . "Everyone else has run up the mountain; there's about 500 people up there."

That Thailand's expensive warning centre failed its first test provoked outrage in the local media. Early tsunami warnings were issued in every country except Thailand - another blow to a government trying to engender trust among its sceptical population. Faith in authority, bar the revered king, is at rock bottom.

Any recovery made by the beleaguered tourist industry will have been further destroyed by this month's horrific plane crash at Phuket airport, which killed at least 89 people.

At the Viking Steak House, 9pm came and we were all still alive. Ria moved from table to table breaking the news: "We've been given the all-clear; there's no tsunami!"

Had the government managed to send word at last? "No," answered Ria. "I heard it on the BBC."

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown