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
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The Independent Travel

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.

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