After the tsunami: Thais struggle to rebuild the hotels of Koh Phi Phi - and its reputation

KOH PHI PHI, the best-known of southern Thailand's islands, was transformed on Boxing Day from a tropical idyll into a touchstone of horror.

More than 1,440 people died or are still missing on this relatively small island, about five miles long by two miles wide, which nestles off Thailand's west coast. Today, more than 100 travel industry and tourism officials will meet in nearby Phuket to discuss ways to salvage the livelihood of Phi Phi and the other resort destinations across south Asia devastated by the tsunami.

Phi Phi's recovery is viewed as crucial for the travel industry, which accounts for 6 per cent of the Thai economy.

Across Asia, Phi Phi - which drew 400,000 visitors last year - is seen as a test case for reconstruction. While some areas, which were protected by coral reef or other islands and headlands, escaped relatively unscathed, other heavily populated and developed areas were devastated. The clean- up is expected to take at least another three months - by which time high season will be over.

No longer does the public ferry call at Phi Phi's Tonsai village, which is closed to all but relief workers and cleaning crews. With so many cancellations, there is little demand. Yet cleaning crews are on a war footing so that foreign travel agents can inspect the eastern coast of Phi Phi today. The devastated central village remains off limits.

Most residents were evacuated on 27 December, the day after two monstrous breakers struck on both sides of the narrow sandspit between Tonsai and Loh Dalam bays, obliterating everything in their path. People who ran screaming from the wall of water bearing down on the ferry's pier were hammered by another three-storey wave coming the opposite way. It swept them away, along with broken coral, shattered boats, air conditioning units and large chunks of rubble. Jagged pieces inflicted horrific injuries - more than 4,500 people were treated for fractures and deep wounds. About 10 per cent of the injuries required amputation.

The corpses were cleared away weeks ago, but workers are still clearing rubble out of crumbling buildings and spraying disinfectant on piles of rubbish. Paths have been bulldozed through the rubble, which will gradually be sorted and heaped onto barges to be disposed off. Reconstruction is not going to happen any time soon; they are still digging out.

On government orders, our ferry, with only 12 tourists on board, stays in deep water and we board a wooden long-tailed boat. When it rounds into Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Lay, the smaller of Phi Phi's two main islands there is a collective gasp. The jade green water sparkles, surrounded by soaring cliffs, and the beach is like talcum.

The boat heads for three undamaged hotels at Laem Tong Beach, on the eastern side of Koh Phi Phi Don. The cement pier has been smashed away by the tidal wave and broken boats litter the rocks. But a new wooden dock is already in place, leading across the headland to a sea gypsy's snack shack.

There are no customers and the owner stares at the vacant beach and describes a solemn rite with rice and joss sticks. "We fed the sea to satisfy its hunger. And to show our respect," he says.

Nipon Pongsuwanthe, from the Phuket Marine Biological Centre, heads a group of 100 scuba volunteers who tend the broken coral. The reef west of Bamboo Island, five kms away, took a direct hit and blunted the tsunami's power before it struck these eastern beaches. "It is a mess," he says. "Uprooted trees and housing material are strewn on it.

"At Loh Dalam bay, the seabed is very shallow. There was no slope to slow the wave, so a huge amount of water was powered by the earthquake onto the shore. Backwash sucked from two sides at once and generated the force to rip everything apart."

Recovery and salvage workers clearing up after the tsunami have had to contend with a series of secondary plagues: in the aftermath of the wave came a plague of flies; US Navy Seals, searching the mangroves and sinkholes for remains were forced to round up an infestation of stray cats. Now officials warn about the rats.

Smoke pillars from burning rubbish streak the cloudless sky, but the turquoise water stretches like silk to the horizon.

Up on the scrubby hill behind the resort, where the tsunami survivors huddled on higher ground, Mathias Neilsen, a Danish hotel receptionist, is checking to see which of the bungalows on stilts is repairable. He cannot shake the memory of Boxing Day. At least 50 of his companions perished on Koh Phi Phi.

"Afterwards, it was so quiet," he says. "No electricity, no music, nothing. When the water thundered in, there were horrible screams and chaos. But people drowned within minutes. No one screamed after that."

Gary Stearman, 40, a diver from Brighton, sorts equipment for his Thai employer. Mr Stearman hopes day trips will recommence at Long Beach. The sediment has settled, he says, and underwater visibility is a crystalline 27 metres.

The provincial governor has offered to buy back damaged property and transform Tonsai Village into a national park and memorial for the tsunami victims.

"Phuket is big enough and strong enough to be back on the map already," says Phil Russell, a Phuket-based travel agent. "Phi Phi still needs some time to heal."

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