Six months on from the tsunami: how to help - and have a holiday

There are lots of ways tourists to the region can give back, say Jan McGirk in Thailand, and, below, Clare Dwyer Hogg in Sri Lanka

Thunder rumbles louder than the Andaman sea breakers and the sodden sand steams beneath the noon sun. Broken mangrove roots, where 16 bodies had been trapped by the force of the Boxing Day tsunami, are rotting and still tangled with holiday detritus. The wild rainforest garden of ferns and ancient trees is badly burnt by saltwater, and a squall fells great dead branches which drop and disperse the feral dogs. Yet Thai workmen are hammering a new teak balustrade in place and re-erecting the dish for a satellite internet connection high up in the palms. At Thailand's Koh Phra Tong, just as in countless seaside retreats in 11 countries around the Indian Ocean, people are picking up the pieces six months after the calamitous waves.

Thunder rumbles louder than the Andaman sea breakers and the sodden sand steams beneath the noon sun. Broken mangrove roots, where 16 bodies had been trapped by the force of the Boxing Day tsunami, are rotting and still tangled with holiday detritus. The wild rainforest garden of ferns and ancient trees is badly burnt by saltwater, and a squall fells great dead branches which drop and disperse the feral dogs. Yet Thai workmen are hammering a new teak balustrade in place and re-erecting the dish for a satellite internet connection high up in the palms. At Thailand's Koh Phra Tong, just as in countless seaside retreats in 11 countries around the Indian Ocean, people are picking up the pieces six months after the calamitous waves.

High tourist season is over. Tropical downpours make reconstruction a challenge when the channel must be traversed in a leaky open boat, but a new type of earnest off-season traveller is showing up on these shores. Volunteers, committed to helping repair local lives, bring muscle and verve to these stricken places. Many work alongside aid agencies or local charities, at shattered resorts, fishing hamlets and temporary tent cities. Others simply turn up, a little hungover perhaps, but ready to pitch in for a day or two before the next full moon party beckons. Most share rooms at budget guesthouses that survived the giant wave or pay to stay with local families who need the cash. Few are tempted by the 30 per cent discounts at luxury spa hotels 90 minutes' drive away in Phuket.

Phylippa Levine, a 34-year-old public relations rep from London, has rented out her West End flat to fund her volunteer year managing the office of the Northern Andaman Tsunami Relief (NATR) group in Khuraburi, Thailand. "The crisis work is mostly completed, but we need a couple of years if longer-term projects are to succeed," she said. "You don't get immune to the devastation. My heart still breaks whenever I drive past. We get mostly gap year students - a real mix, and we need people with specific skills, with community-building experience."

Around 16 volunteers at any one time keep busy in the dozen communities serviced by NATR. They repair nets and boats, or teach handicrafts, and help with reforestation. "Grunt labour should be short-term and is best done by out-of-work villagers who want to be hired," said Bodhi Garrett, the group's founder. "We use local Thai staff wherever possible, so we know we are not being duped. We prefer foreign volunteers to work for a minimum of a month. Continuity is important," he added.

The Italian director of a sea turtle conservation project, which was wiped out by the tsunami, is actively scouting for volunteers to work at Koh Phra Thong. Monica Aureggi lost her co-workers, a laptop, a boat, and nine years of academic research to the earthquake-powered waves.

During an intensive fortnight next month, volunteers will help hack back the damaged mangrove roots, recycle or burn rubbish, and be on the lookout for fragile turtle eggs. Ms Aureggi intends to use local materials to reconstruct a classroom where local schoolchildren can learn about marine conservation.

"I dream about people who are no longer there, so it is hard to stay on the island now," the marine biologist confessed. "And sadly, volunteers must fund themselves. I have raised enough money for materials, and prices have doubled since December."

"Post-tsunami tourism is a serious issue," says Jane Lopacka, a British social worker normally based in Phnom Penh, who helped for seven weeks to train Thai clinicians to deal with the tragedy's victims. "The place is like a ghost town and whilst many people are coming to terms with the losses, they are beginning to despair about the lack of work normally generated by tourists. Restaurant owners and tour guides are now very vulnerable."

Thailand's first tsunami warning system for the Andamans has been installed on the ocean front near rowdy Patong Beach in Phuket, where the jet skis and prostitutes are back in action, but where visitors have not flocked back in significant numbers.

The worst hit stretch of coast is Khao Lak, where 30ft waves blasted more than a kilometre inland and thousands of tourists and hotel staff were swept away. One of the most prominent of the remaining hotels is the Khao Lak Nature resort, on an outcropping beside a national park and plainly visible from the highway . In the past six months, this rustic place has been converted into a volunteer centre open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, run by a Thai group called the Mirror Foundation. From a hi- tech computer room where playful gibbons have been known to snatch a mouse from a desktop, the volunteers match individuals with a plethora of Non-Governmental Organisations and charities. Some 500 volunteers, comprised of 40 nationalities, have arrived unannounced by taxi or bus to find jobs. It is a hive of good intentions, and nearly every willing hand finds a job to do. Thai students outnumber foreigners.

Koh Phi Phi Don , the idyllic island paradise that featured in the film The Beach was simultaneously struck by two huge waves on Boxing Day, and some 1,400 people were killed or disappeared. The majority of the British tsunami fatalities occurred on this tiny party island. Neil Dodson, along with other expatriates who worked at Phi Phi's dive shops and pubs, have organised HiPhiPhi, to help dig out and recover.

Casual volunteers, mostly long-stay backpackers or students, are instructed on the internet to take a ferry from Phuket to Phi Phi island's main pier and simply turn up at Carlito's Pub and see what needs doing. "I am looking forward to hard graft and partying," read an internet post by Jennifer, an obviously keen traveller. Already, 22 small guesthouses have reopened on the island that was nearly obliterated on 26 December. Piles of rubbish still need fumigation and hauling on to barges. Sometimes work halts early so beach volleyball tournaments can get under way in daylight. There's a sense of island camaraderie and special adulation for expert scuba divers, who salvage refuse from the deep dive sites that surround Phi Phi.

Last week, a scuba volunteer group led by the British diver Andre Humes, 40, turned in the cache of 47 wallets and personal belongings which they had retrieved from the floor of the Andaman Sea surrounding Phi Phi. Police intend to return all these items to the victims' families. Divers are renewing efforts to find more.

Meanwhile, one T-shirt stand on the boardwalk near Phi Phi's dock sells out regularly. Like a rock tour's itinerary, the island's recent travails are spelled out on the shirt back: "Sars 2002/Bird Flu 2003/Tsunami 2004". Scrawled across the front, a triumphant "Still Alive".

Give me the facts

The tsunami struck six coastal provinces in southern Thailand: Phangnga, Krabi, Phuket, Ranong, Trang and Saton. Volunteers can surf the internet and find out how they can help stricken Thai communities heal and rebuild. Long-term projects are expected to continue for at least two years. Here are five reliable websites: www.unitedplanet.org/quest/quests/tsunami_thailand.htm. This organisation arranges home-stays for volunteers in battered fishing communities near Ranong - mainly rebuilding and educational.

www.northandamantsunamirelief.com

This small eco-oriented aid agency reaches out to Burmese migrants, sea gypsies and far-flung groups in Phangnga who are often overlooked by big organisations further south.

www.naucrates.org

An Italian marine research unit which needs committed helpers for the clean up and re-assessment of the remote island, Koh Phra Thong

www.tsunamivolunteer.net

Thailand's Mirror Foundation coordinates international volunteers and networks with agencies and NGOs needing helping hands in devastated Khao Lak. It has more than 15 projects in operation in villages as well as the rainforest and shore communities.

www.hiphiphi.com

An expat group that welcomes tourists and expert scuba divers to clean up Koh Phi Phi. While they reconstruct, others teach new livelihood skills to the displaced islanders on the mainland.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?