Phuket is booming again - but fears for the future remain

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The Independent Online

Charlie had to run for his life when the Boxing Day tsunami raced over Patong beach, Phuket, killing his brother and more than 5,000 others on southern Thailand's Andaman coast. But now he is busy renting chairs and selling cool drinks on the beach again, and business is almost as good as before the wave.

Two hours' drive north, at Khao Lak, an eerie loneliness assails anyone walking on a ruined resort beach once covered with corpses.

This worst-hit area is valiantly rebuilding - a few hotels and a shopping strip have revived - but continues to suffer more than its glitzy neighbour, Phuket.

Back at Patong, Charlie, aka Boonlour Natakurtoong, said was having breakfast on the beach with his staff last Boxing Day when he saw the sea draining away. He survived because he took refuge on the roof of a seafood restaurant. "I asked myself why," he said. "At that time we didn't know what is a tsunami."

Now he is delighted to see old friends back, sunning themselves and swimming as usual, and points out two Finnish couples. "I remember their hats," Charlie said. "I thought they died. We are so happy they came back."

Minna and Jari Makela, and Mervi and Arttu Sipola, were indeed swept by the tsunami as they tried to video the interesting sea-life thrown up on the sands. But they were determined to return this year. "It was a feeling in our hearts," Minna said. "We were very lucky we were not hurt. We just felt it was better to come back and see everything was OK, and to attend the memorial." This time they are staying in a hotel even closer to the beach.

A stoic pluckiness pervades conversations with bar owners and hoteliers. Moving stories of survival and loss abound across Phuket, but the aim now to move on but not to forget, said Howard Digby-Johns, the owner of a British-style pub in Phuket, the Green Man. "Everybody there will have been through it at some level, some of them quite intensely," he said. "But we have to make the best of it, as we have been doing all year. We all need closure, which is quite hard, exceptionally emotional."

Alongside the mourners are the traditional Phuket playtime people, whooping it up on the notorious Soi Bangla road, pedestrianised at night now, and overflowing with freelance prostitutes. The ageing topless tanners on the beach, those reading tabloids and trashy novels, the overweight tattooed boozers in the sun, are doing what Patong's business people want, eating and drinking as if nothing bad had ever happened.

A popular T-shirt lists the various tragic events that have afflicted south-east Asia - Sars respiratory disease, bird-flu, the Bali bombings and the tsunami - but announces defiantly, "We're still here!"

For some businesses, the tsunami has become a selling point. The Tsunami Tattoo shop is one, as is the yellow Jeep on sale with the name "Tsunami". Some people in Phuket are wearing a blue plastic bracelet to symbolise "Phuket is Back". Others are more circumspect. Wolfgang Meusburger, general manager of the Holiday Inn in Patong, says he plans no Christmas festivities, only a choir and children. He reports 75 per cent occupancy rates, higher than he hoped for.

"You cannot market a destination on a disaster," he said. "Our only goal is to make sure every customer goes home speaking of how wonderful Phuket is again so we can all rebuild our business by word of mouth."

Pim Hoogeveen and his wife, Els Mulder, run the Famous Old Dutch bar and restaurant just off Patong beach. They faced ruin but with a heavy dip into savings, are back in business. "We've had to push for everything, so I'm not going to quit for a bit of water," Mr Hoogeveen said. "And, we were lucky; we're alive."

At Khao Lak, once a favourite destination for European tour groups, there are reminders of the tragedy. In the foothills behind the coast stands the police boat, hurled from its moorings across now-gone resorts, and the main road. It is a spontaneous memorial to the force of nature.

Less than a year ago, this was where hundreds of bloated bodies were stacked, awaiting transportation to the improvised morgue at a temple in Takua-pa. One of the newest buildings on the main road through Khao Lak is bright yellow and called the Mental Health Recovery Centre.

Every few hundred metres, blue and white signs show tsunami evacuation routes. At Sweet Pea's Bakery and Restaurant, Mr Pong - "everyone calls me that" - says he is struggling. He had opened in August 2004 and lost everything in the tsunami. Despite all government promises, he was given just 14,000 baht (£200) in place of the 4 million baht he lost. He says none of the surviving buildings have mains water. "Everyone here has to look after themselves," he said. "For me, I do the best I can, that's all."

No tour groups have visited Khao Lak this year, only the curious and those making remembrance trips. Khao Lak used to offer 7,000 rooms and now has only 1,200, but the noise of construction suggests that number is rising by the day.

Two German backpackers found it creepy to swim on the beach where so many corpses had washed up. "It's a strange feeling," said Kirsten Gioppe. Her friend Heiko Grund added: "It's interesting. It all happened here 11 months ago but now it looks so normal. If you didn't know what happened you couldn't tell."

Back in Phuket, resident Britons who have retired to the island gather at each other's houses for food and drink by the pool. They say the economic aftershock of of the tsunami was devastating, despite rising property prices and the presence of a 53-metre, $25m superyacht moored in the bay.

"It was the worst year Phuket has seen," said John Everingham, editor of the Phuket Magazine and a long-time resident of Thailand. "We're all thankful we are all still able to be here. It's amazing. No one would have believed Phuket would come back as fast as it has. The tsunami has actually generated business and a new fascination with the place. Travellers even express disappointment that they can't see more damage."

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