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How Khao Lak was destroyed by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004

The east coast in the south of Thailand was hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 – with Khao Lak being the worst affected area.

Khao Lak, in Phang Na province, sits on the coast and is the most exposed part – it is the most easterly part of land and closest geographically to India and the site of the tsunami.

The region was utterly destroyed by the tidal wave from the earthquake. At one spot in the Bang Niang area, every building up to 2 or 3 km in from the sea was washed away – hotels, homes, shops, restaurants and bars all wiped out. The death toll in this area included many European tourists and Thai locals – while in the wider Khao Lak and Phang Nga area as a whole, 4,500 people lost their lives. This was the highest death toll in Thailand from the tsunami, which claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people around India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mayanmar and other parts of South East Asia.

One of the most high profile casualties from the tsunami was the King’s grandson Bhumi Jensen who was holidaying on a boat moored just off the coast of Khao Lak.

What happened when the Tsunami struck Khao Lak?

The tsunami struck Khao Lak early in the morning around 9am or 10am. Tourists were finishing breakfasts getting ready for a day of lounging on the beach. Thai locals were going about their usual business.

Initially, the sea disappeared in what is know as a ‘drawback’. The ocean recedes leaving nothing but sand on the beach. This bizarre sight caused many people to go onto the beach to see what was happening – some even swam in sea. Unfortunately, a tsunami drawback is a warning of an horrendous killer wave that’s about to hit.

About 20 or 30 minutes after the sea drawback, which is caused by a change in pressure under the water at the site of the earthquake and cracks in the fault lines, the ocean returned and a succession of powerful waves began to roll into the shore. These waves actually look harmless – and not the towering walls of water that we associate with tidal waves. People in the restaurants and hotels on the coast in Khao Lak who were watching the waves roll in had no reason to expect that they were a tsunami.

But as the waves came closer, it was clear that they wouldn’t stop on the beach like normal. The water continued moving up to the mainland – carrying away people still standing on the beach – and flooding the restaurants, hotels, bars and shops.

A sign on a lampost on the main road in Khao Lak which shows the height of the water after the tsunami in 2004

A sign on a lampost on the main road in Khao Lak which shows the height of the water after the tsunami in 2004

The water surged miles inland and flooded the whole area, including the main road that runs through Khao Lak, submerging it totally. You can see just how high the water reached from a sign on a lampost (pictured right) on the road, which is a 10 or 15 minute walk from the sea and up a slight incline.

It’s hard to imagine just how powerful the waves were. However, just consider this – a large Thai navy boat which had been moored 1 nautical mile off the coast protecting the King’s grandson (mentioned above) was flung around like a toy and carried 2km inland. Through roads, trees and buildings the tsunami flung this large metal boat, named Tor 813, almost 2km through the town. It settled at a small piece of land and is still there to this day.

The boat has been left there as a memorial to all the people who lost their lives and as reminder of the destruction caused by the tsunami. A small memorial and information building has also been built around the boat, and the area is known as the tsunami memorial park.

The Thai navy boat immediately after the tsunami and in the days after when water when had dried up and the debris cleared away

The Thai navy boat immediately after the tsunami and in the days after when water when had dried up and the debris cleared away

The Thai Navy boat 813 that was moored off the coast on the day of the tsunami and carried 2km inland by the waves

The Thai Navy boat 813 that was moored off the coast on the day of the tsunami and carried 2km inland by the waves has now been left in place and a memorial park has been built around it

As can bee seen from the picture above, this was not some small wooden fishing vessel. A navy boat is large, strong and well-built – yet the sheer force of the tsunami wave flung it around and pushed it 2km inland to its final resting place.

Tsunami museums and memorial in Khao Lak

A tsunami memorial park has been built around the Navy boat 813, pictured above, and there is a small stall here with gifts and some information and pictures about how Khao Lak was affected. There is another small museum in the memorial park which has a rolling video montage of news clips, pictures and newspaper articles from around the world. This is pretty moving to watch. One map on the wall shows all the buildings that were destroyed by the tsunami – it’s frightening and sad. There are another two small tsunami museums with similar videos on repeat and pictures. They are interesting and sometimes quite upsetting to visit. But it is recommended to visit them, and get an idea of what happened to the area.

How has Khao Lak been rebuilt after the tsunami?

Before the tsunami struck Thailand in 2004, Khao Lak was a relatively small, peaceful and unheard of tourist destination. Yes, there were hotels and restaurants – but it was not a mainstream place to visit. Most of the visitors were there for diving and snorkeling trips to Similan.

However, after the tsunmai Khao Lak has been rebuilt. There are now many modern looking hotels, large resorts and restauants. The area is still by no means a tourist hot spot and it still has the same calm, quiet feel. However, it is more developed than before. This is largely due to the finiancial aid that was given to the area and the rebuilding process afterwards.

Unlike busy areas such as Phuket and Krabi, Khao Lak is a destination mainly popular with couples and families. It is a breath or fresh air.

Read more about Khao Lak if you would like to visit the area.

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