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Lana Willocks, writer & editor

Independent writer and editor from Canada based in Phuket, Thailand. Life is good!

Shifting gears in 2018!

Phuket Writer aka Lana Willocks, Writer and Editor, is now blogging over at Go Phuket - Travel Guide and Blog.

Drawing on my 15+ years of travel writing experience and a few lessons learned working and raising a family on the island, I’ve founded Go Phuket as a one-stop spot for tips, tales and thoughts on life and travel in Phuket and beyond.

Go Phuket will focus on Phuket Travel tips and info, Phuket Events, Weekend Trips to places within easy reach of Phuket, Phuket Community and Phuket Rentals (the family business). The About Go Phuket page explains our goals and hopes for the site in more detail.

Follow me at Go Phuket, where your comments, criticisms and witticisms are most welcome!

Mani Pramongkit has a story to tell. His eyesight is fading but his hands are still strong and sure, and as he sits on the wooden floor of his front porch, these skilled hands carve out the story of a seafaring life.

Back when Khun Mani was a young man, much of his time was spent roaming the Andaman Sea with his fellow Urak Lawoi tribesmen. The 74-year-old describes a life of freedom and self reliance where nature provided for all their needs.

Khun Mani’s ancestors first settled on the beachfront of Koh Siray on Phuket’s east coast some 400 years ago but for most of those years the Urak Lawoi – the sea gypsies – criss-crossed the Andaman in search of marine life and treasure. Carving their distinctive “jangnga” boats with its upwards curving bow was not only an art, it was the heart of their sea-roving life and the key to their survival.

Khun Mani would often join months-long voyages across the sea all the way to Myanmar and back, powered only by small sails and the 12-person crew’s rowing skills. They would fish and forage for food, and dive in search of pearl nautilus shells. These deep dives were made without the use of scuba equipment or oxygen, an impressive feat of human endurance and strength.

Along the way they would often stop at the Surin islands, where they would meet with the local sea gypsy tribe known as the Moken. On these visits, Khun Mani noticed their “phrahoo” boat design, a style quite different from his own tribe’s with a C-shaped curve at the front.

As the years passed, Khun Mani explains, the life of the sea gypsy changed. The creation of national marine parks and land ownership laws across Thailand meant the tribe was no longer able to freely fish the waters or land on the beaches. Fishing remains their primary activity but their nomadic ways are on the wane.

About 12 years ago, Khun Mani began carving small wooden models of his tribe’s boats and those of the Moken. Down to the smallest detail, these tiny replicas evoke memories of far-flung adventures that Khun Mani’s now-settled descendants will never know.

As he smoothes the surface of his newest creation, Khun Mani explains that he had hoped to share his carving expertise with some younger villagers, but found that no one was interested. Now, he says, in a village of 2,000 people only about 10 have the skills to craft boats, and many are turning to tourism for work.

Visitors from around the world have come to see Khun Mani and his captivating jangnga and phrahoo boat models, often picking up one or two as a special memento of their peek into the life of the Urak Lawoi. While Khun Mani and most of his village have shifted into a more settled life, it’s his little boats that now sail forth, carrying the story of the sea gypsies with them across the globe. 

This article first appeared in Jetstar Asia Magazine.
Georges Ciret, wine director at Mom Tri’s Villa Royale, describes how a chance encounter at a Phuket beach resort more than a decade ago marked the start of a great collaboration in creating some of Thailand’s most celebrated wine cellars. 
Life is good! Fine wines and sunset views at Villa Royale.
We meet Georges Ciret on the restaurant terrace at Mom Tri’s Villa Royale on a blustery day and as we talk wines we watch a surfer navigate the waves rolling in at Kata Noi Beach below. Feeling privileged to finally meet the man and the mind behind the wine cellars that have scooped up numerous international awards, we’re delighted when he lets us into the resort’s cellar for a peek.

Inside the stately cool room are hundreds of bottles with labels from around the world, all arranged under huge chandeliers made with 200 wine glasses designed by Villa Royale’s owner, the artist and architect Mom Luang Tridosyuth Devakul (better known as Mom Tri), a descendant of King Rama IV.

Born in Paris, Georges’ career path took him around the world, working at hotels in France, Senegal, Colombia, South Africa, Miami, mainly for Accor, before arriving to Phuket about 15 years ago. He bought and managed a guesthouse in Patong, but just a few months after arrival he went to The Boathouse resort on Kata Beach for lunch. There he met the General Manager Louis Bronner, where, Georges said, “I told him my life’s passion is wine and he said we need you here.”

It was the start of a fruitful collaboration in creating an elaborate wine collection celebrated by wine-thirsty guests that went on to win numerous awards for The Boathouse, which was built by Mom Tri in 1989 and is now under new ownership.
The Wine Cellar at Mom Tri's Villa Royale.
In 2006, The Boathouse earned a "Two Glass" Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, a coveted accolade given only to wine cellars that are "destinations for serious wine lovers, showing a deep commitment to wine both in the cellar and through their service team.” The award came about “by accident”, Georges said modestly. The wine cellar at Mom Tri’s Kitchen at Villa Royale under Georges’ direction has also won several awards, including the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence since 2006.

Being a sommelier in a country without an age-old wine culture like France is not without its challenges. One of the greatest difficulties in building up local wine expertise and appreciation in Thailand has been the steep cost of imported wine. Georges said that with astronomical import duties, the practice of daily tastings among the staff to develop their knowledge and find the best food and wine pairings cannot be done due to the high costs. And Thai cuisine, with its complex mix of chilli, sugar and herbs presented Georges with a bit of a puzzle at first.

To learn more about Thai food and how it would work with wine, he found a way around the prohibitive costs and worked closely with The Boathouse Chef Tummanoon Punchun, whose Thai cookery courses were among the most popular in the country. Georges explained that at the end of the classes, students would eat their creations and they would be served three glasses of wine. “We always asked them which wines they liked with each dish and over time, with some 500 people taking the class, we learned a lot.”

Georges said that for Thai cuisine you need a special wine, something very strong. “In general, for Asian food people think about Riesling, but now I think about Viognier wine because the taste is minimal, not too fruity.” White wines tend to be paired more often, he said, especially as the tannin of red wine doesn’t go with seafood. He also suggests blending some sparkle with the spices: “Prosecco is usually good with Thai food.”

The wine list at Mom Tri’s Kitchen is changed every three months and Georges collaborates with the chef to develop the wine and food menu. Evolving with the changing demographics and tastes of their guests, Georges said the wine menu has more “wine by the glass” selections than ever before, with more organic, biodynamic and vegan wines available. There’s even a kosher wine from Israel, prompted by a special request by a guest.

Most of the cellar is stocked with imported wine but Georges said that a small number of Thai winemakers have overcome the difficult conditions of Thailand’s tropical climate and are producing some quality wines. His favourite Thai wine is made by GranMonte in Khao Yai. Owned by Nikki Lohitnavy, it’s a small winery that works in the French style.

During our visit, Georges invites us to a staff wine tasting presented by Argiano, a super Tuscan winery in Italy. Two bottles of red are tasted and mulled over by Villa Royale’s chef, sommeliers and restaurant staff, and as they discuss the wines and which dishes would work best with them, we catch an inside glimpse at how the resort’s celebrated menu is developed and honed. Georges said that 60% of his time is spent on staff training, crucial for impressing their discerning, well-travelled clientele. “Guests like the Thai smiles, but it’s not enough,” he said.

One standout moment for Georges in his life as wine director came when he had the chance to meet respected wine critic Robert Parker, who he calls the “Pope of the wine universe”. “He has a great talent for tasting and he has a 100-point rating system for wine. If a wine maker is given 100 points, they’re rich.” They met at a wine dinner hosted by the Wine Gallery distributors in Bangkok. Putting on a wine event for the world’s most famous and feared wine critic must be somewhat terrifying, and Georges said that at the dinner, no expense was spared … they served only 100-point wines.

A sadder moment came in December 2004, when The Boathouse was struck by the tsunami. Luckily, none of the hotel’s staff or guests were lost and it was able to reopen in just a few months … but 70% of its wine cellar collection was destroyed.

A number of bottles were, however, recovered intact from the beach but they had lost their labels in the waves. Turning this unusual situation into a fund-raising opportunity, Georges said the resort sold off the bottles for charity. Buyers wouldn’t know what they’d bought until the bottle was opened and the wine maker’s stamp on the cork could be seen. The ultimate blind tasting challenge.

(This article was originally written for Insider Asia magazine.)
One of the joys of modern travel is the chance to instantly share your trip photos and highlights with friends and fans online. When you have a large following, your shared thoughts and images are certain to come under widespread scrutiny, as pop star Rihanna discovered while visiting the Thai island of Phuket in September 2013. When she uploaded a selfie with a cute slow loris on Instagram and shared it with her 40 million Twitter followers, it sparked the ire of animal lovers worldwide.

Rescued gibbon Bambam & her baby Peepo at GRP
Rihanna joined the ranks of many travellers to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries who are unaware of the dark reality behind the exotic animal images they’re snapping. Animal encounters are a big attraction in Thailand, and magazines and social media sites are full of images of happy people posing with elephants, tigers, pythons, gibbons and, of course, the slow loris of Rihanna fame, a small primate with captivating large eyes.

Cuddly slow lorises and gibbons can be seen every day on the streets and beaches of Phuket, carried by touts who let tourists take photos with the animals…for a fee. But the creatures being touted are far from loveable pets – gibbons and slow lorises are the victims of a vicious poaching and smuggling trade that have so drastically reduced their wild populations in Thailand that both are listed as highly endangered on CITES.

Photo prop gibbon in a Patong Beach bar
 It’s usually the babies of the species that are sought out by poachers, and due to their strong family ties, they’re often captured by first killing their protective mothers. And in captivity, gibbons and slow lorises are subject to ill treatment, abuse and exposure to diseases.

The photo-prop trade has been banned for years but yet it still thrives as weak enforcement lets poachers and touts easily evade arrest, while Thailand’s growing tourism industry continues to bring in ever more customers.

Lack of awareness is a big problem, and on that front the non-profit Gibbon Rehabilitation Project on Phuket has made strong efforts to both educate travellers on the dark side of animal photo props and in rescuing gibbons, slow lorises and other animals from the abusive trade. Since the GRP launched in 1992, 32 gibbons have been reintroduced and around half of them have adapted to life in the wild. Of these successfully rescued and released gibbons, 15 babies have been born wild so far.

Rescued slow loris named Jora
The best weapon for combating animal poaching and abuse is to ensure it is no longer profitable, which will only happen if tourists refuse to take photos or tours that support the trade. After Rihanna’s selfie fiasco, the GRP released an open letter that pointed out the harm such photos cause. While it’s not known if Rihanna ever got the message, it was a good opportunity to get the word out while the issue was making worldwide headlines.

Positive steps have also been taken within the travel industry, most notably when STA Travel, a major youth-oriented travel company in the UK, announced in May 2014 that it would no longer book elephant riding and other tours deemed harmful to animals.

Rescued gibbon Phi Phi
The Association of British Travel Agents, meanwhile, has created a list of tips for sustainable travel, one of which is to “think twice about participating in activities that might distress an animal and avoid souvenirs made of animal parts as this can contribute to illegal poaching.” [And in October 2016, TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel site, announced that "TripAdvisor and its Viator brand will discontinue selling tickets for specific tourism experiences where travelers come into physical contact with captive wild animals or endangered species, including but not limited to elephant rides, petting tigers, and swim with dolphin attractions."]

In Thailand, the Gibbon Project urges people who witness photo props or other questionable animal tourism activities in action to report it to the Department of National Parks, and details how to do so on its website.

We all love sharing our travel adventures, but it would be wise to think before you shoot, and understand before you upload, the true cost of capturing that moment with an enchanting animal.

Many thanks to Petra Osterberg, Primatologist and Gibbon Rehabilitation Project volunteer, and Phamon Samphanthamit, GRP Manager, for supplying the photos that appear with this article.

For more info contact the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project:
104/3 Moo 3 Paklock, Thalang, Phuket
Tel: +66 76 260 491

This article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of Jetstar Asia magazine. Republishing here knowing that a lot of awareness-raising work is yet to be done since a new, horrible elephant/snake show venue just opened around the corner from my house! 

“I think that imagination is very important,” says Dr Sanguan Kunaporn, when reflecting on his life’s work. For some, the imagination is unleashed with a pen or a paintbrush. For Dr Sanguan, however, his creativity flows through the scalpel.

His meticulous surgical methods, finely honed after years of practice, have elevated Dr Sanguan from a general practitioner in rural Thailand to a world-renowned plastic surgeon in less than 20 years.

The Bangkok-born doctor arrived in Phuket 13 years ago to work at the government-run Vachira Hospital, where he performed countless reconstructive and cosmetic procedures. He now runs the clinic Phuket-plasticsurgery.com and performs operations at Phuket International Hospital (PIH).

Dr Sanguan forms a key part of the island’s drive to be a “health tourism hub”, where people come to Phuket for quality medical procedures at reasonable costs, then spend their days or weeks of recovery relaxing in paradise. Indeed, such is the demand for Dr Sanguan’s work that PIH does not need to market his services.

Many of his patients are from Western countries, some of whom are willing to endure the seven- to nine-month wait for Dr Sanguan’s highly sought after, male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery (SRS).

SRS is just one part of Dr Sanguan’s extensive plastic surgery work, but it’s undeniably the most fascinating. Even Dr Sanguan, who has performed some 500 SRS operations, remains slightly in awe of it. “It’s very amazing, very amazing,” he says. “I have given many lectures and presentations [about SRS] to groups of people, the community, other surgeons. I can see on everyone’s face that they think that it’s unbelievable.”

There are many professions in which one can claim to make an impact on another individual. There are few, however, where seven or eight hours of your hands-on work will forever change the course of a person’s life. As Dr Sanguan says, “Every case is interesting.”

While he can describe in graphic detail, without blinking, the two-phase procedure for creating a woman’s sexual organs from a man’s, Dr Sanguan holds a certain reverence for SRS. He doesn’t forget that his patients are real, breathing people, not subjects upon which he can refine his techniques.

“I call it the life-altering surgery,” he explains. “After surgery, the patients start a new chart of their life, in another sex role.”

Dr Sanguan sees his SRS work not as a way to trick nature but as a method to release an individual from the trap he’s been caged in all his life – that is, the wrong body, the wrong sex. This is what his patients tell him.

“Some patients of mine say that they really recall what they wanted to be since they were two or three years old,” he says. “They wanted to play with girls, to wear their mother’s clothes, to wear lipstick, paint their eyes – since childhood. This really surprised me.”

While Dr Sanguan is modest about his abilities, Internet web sites and chat rooms dedicated to transsexual issues are full of testimonials of his former patients, who expound on his particular skill in creating the female sexual organ.

“There are only a handful of doctors with his reputation for SRS, maybe 12 doctors in the world,” says American plastic surgeon Dr Harold M. Reed, who recently visited Phuket to observe Dr Sanguan’s work. “For most transsexual patients, the important thing is the depth of their [vaginal] wall – and his dissection of that space is very meticulous, very careful.”

Dr Sanguan is also well known for making sure that a key bundle of nerves in the male organ find their way, intact and functional, to the newly formed female organ. His mastery, many claim, is that it not only looks the part, but that it feels the part too.

While a functional organ is important, another crucial factor in the success of an SRS operation is the support of family and friends, Dr Sanguan says. Among most of his patients, that level of support is high. Amazingly high.

“Some patients come to Phuket with their mother,” he says. “Some patients come with their ex-wife. Some patients, they bring their present wife. Some patients come with the whole family – present wife and three kids. One patient of mine came with her son. At that time [before the operation], her son called her ‘mum’ already.”

It is clear that Dr Sanguan views his work as that of helping people. He cares about the outcome of his surgeries. He keeps in regular contact with many of his patients, following their recovery and new life after their return home. He’s mild-mannered and soft-spoken, yet he exudes a quiet confidence that would assure anyone about to undergo a major life change that they’re in good hands.

But he’s certainly no pushover. Unlike some plastic surgeons – the most famous examples being those who, in stages, largely removed the face of pop-star Michael Jackson – Dr Sanguan refuses to accept patients who seem to be harbouring “unreasonable expectations” about what surgery can do for them.

Among his SRS patients, all must pass certain criteria indicating that they are ready for the procedure. They’ve had extensive psychological evaluations, have had hormone treatments for at least one year, and have done a “real-life test” – that is, lived as a woman for 24 hours a day – for at least six months before undergoing the operation.

Though the 40-something doctor, an avid cyclist and beacon of calm, looks like a model of health and vitality, one wonders if, like the painter who experiments with self-portraits, he’s ever considered cosmetic surgery for himself.

Dr Sanguan laughs and says “never”, though he concedes that some of his colleagues have suggested that it might be time to consider hair transplants. “I say, maybe in a few years, but not right now. I’m ok with this.”

This is an edited version of an article I wrote for Phuket Magazine a while back. Some information may be out of date but Dr Sanguan is still here in Phuket and is as busy as ever!

Baba beauty, looking a bit furtive.
Update in 2018: The Por Tor Festival will run from August 23 to September 9, at various shrines and sites around Phuket Town and beyond. See this Hungry Ghost festival news for details.

Crowds. Noise. Don’t like them. Perhaps because of my early years spent on the wide-open Canadian prairies, or maybe it’s my introverted nature, but the thought of immersing myself into a crowd has always been a dreaded one. Especially when you throw firecrackers into the mix.

In the thick of it at the Phuket Por Tor Festival.

A pause in the Por Tor parade.
So it was with some trepidation that I set out to see the Por Tor festival in Phuket Town, also known as the Hungry Ghost festival. An annual event in the Hokkien Chinese community, Por Tor is a time to honour and feed ancestors who have passed on, especially those who were banished to a hellish realm or otherwise not given a proper passage into the beyond at the time of their death.

I didn’t see any ghosts.

But I did see the results of a lot of effort to give these unseen spirits a fantastic time during their well-earned vacation from hell.
Red turtle cake offering for the hungry ghosts.
Lots of food: whole roasted pigs and twisty-necked ducks, dry rice noodles arranged into towers, fruit and vegetables elaborately carved. A brief parade with prancing dragons, stepping amongst the exploding firecrackers, ear-shattering and acrid. Giant red turtle cakes, a symbol of longevity, an ironic image perhaps in a festival for the dead. Incense sticks pressed between hands. Piles of ‘hell’ money ready to burn to help the ghosts pay their way through the afterlife. Beautiful children with painted faces and satin frocks.

Plenty of colour and clatter, but not the expected crowds. I joined the daytime parade (another is held a week later in the evening), anticipating the streets to be lined with parade watchers jostling for position in the hot tropical sun, but there were only a handful of spectators and photographers.
Ghostly smoke rises as the dragons dance.
Solemnity and explosions intermingling.
The parade stopped for a time and a few more people gathered along the sidewalks. I took photos of all the kids with turtle cakes, and they sometimes returned a smile. Then it started up again and I spotted the dancing dragons ahead of me, shimmying to the clash of cymbals and drums.
This man is of my tribe. The noise-hating one.
I raced ahead to get in front of them for a better photo angle but stopped when I saw the lines of firecrackers stretching down the centre of the street. Some photographers who were well positioned in front of the parade probably got some great shots up until the moment they noticed the firecrackers exploding under their feet. The look on their faces as they leapt aside was a bit Wile E Coyotish. Sadly, I missed those shots, too.
Happy fat turtle gets a free ride.
The dragons were followed closely by local bigwigs carrying a heavy incense pot and an image of Por Tor, the god of hell who usually dwells in a Chinese shrine across town. Everyone in the procession reached out towards the pot and golden statue, or touched the arms and shoulders of those closer to these sacred items.
Offering incense and best wishes for unfortunate, starving souls.
The main parade makers took a hard left and made a jangly walk to the upper floor of the downtown fresh market building, led by the dragons, firecrackers a-cracking. Poof! The parade was over in a cloud of smoke. Within minutes the red paper firecracker debris was swept off the streets and the big turtle cakes unloaded, with a lot of shoving and shouting, from the parade pickups, then carried like royalty on the shoulders of teams of men up into the market.
Red turtles carrying messages of hope and good fortune.
I went up to check out the food displays and the merit-making, snapping away and trying to make sense of it all. So much, so much. Such a bounty and glorious effort for people long dead, unseen, unknown.
Magnificent melon fest.
Dazzled and dazed, observing the rituals of a faith I’ll never fully understand through the haze of smoke, slowly finding a cure to my aversion to crowds.
A sad anniversary is approaching. December 26 marks 10 years since the massive tsunami hit 14 countries across Asia and Africa, killing 230,000 people, displacing millions and leaving many coastal communities devastated.

Patong beach 5-year anniversary memorial service, December 2009.
When the tsunami hit Phuket about 10am on a Sunday morning, I was sitting at home with my husband, well inland and completely oblivious to the disaster happening just a few kilometres away along the shoreline. Later that morning, my husband heard a report on the radio about big waves hitting Patong, which we were perplexed about – the sun was shining and the air was still. Maybe it was something to do with the full moon, we surmised.

We carried on with our relaxing day at home, my main concern at that time trying to keep cool in my full-term pregnant state. Our first child was due within a week or so.

Soon after, my mom called from Canada. “What’s this about a tsunami on Phuket?” she asked. She’d heard about it on the radio as she was driving home from her family Christmas dinner. I had no idea, I said.

We were on our way to a beachside restaurant, due to meet my in-laws for lunch. We were stopped at the road approaching the beach, and men standing at the road were stopping all vehicles and telling them to turn around. My husband said to one of the men that we wanted to go to the restaurant up the road. “That restaurant is gone,” he replied. Ok, now it’s looking serious.

I thought about friends of mine living on or near the beaches. Thought I’d better call them to ask what was happening. By then, the cell phone service was completely jammed. Couldn’t get through to anyone. Fear and worry set in. At that point we hadn’t seen anything so we had no idea what was going on.

In the hours and days that followed, the horror of the event unfolded as pictures and reports trickled in from around Thailand and the region, and we managed to see some of the beaches on Phuket.

As a massively pregnant woman who had just taken leave of my writing job at a travel website a few days before, I felt like a completely useless slug, sitting on the sidelines while so many people were in need of help. With (thankfully unfounded) fear of infection and disease, I was advised to stay away from the worst-hit areas.

Some of my friends and many in the community delved in to assist in myriad ways, from manning the phone lines set up to help people overseas get info on their missing loved ones, to preparing food packs for communities and rescue workers, to even helping with the recovery of the bodies.

Unable to venture into the disaster zones, I blogged instead, mostly as a way to make sense of it all and to communicate to friends and family back home in those pre-Facebook and Twitter days. The blog I had at the time is now offline, so below is how I wrote about it, in my shocked, prego-head fog, in the days and weeks that followed the tsunami.


This first post was written the day before the tsunami, when my mind was filled with baby thoughts and Christmas…

December 25, 2004 

4am Christmas Morning
I’m overstuffed with turkey and mashed potatoes. My body’s overheated, dripping with sweat even in the air-con. Can’t sleep. Can’t get comfortable. Anyway, I can never sleep on Christmas Eve – a leftover habit from my childhood, when I would listen for Santa and his sleigh.

So I get up and sit on the terrace. It’s a beautiful dark morning. The old lady across the road is already up, chopping vegetables on the little stoop outside of the front door of her shack. No other noises or movement, except the soft shushing of the cool breeze through the dry leaves of the kraton tree, and the occasional blip in my belly. Indigestion and baby fighting for space and attention.

The moon is nearly full and casting a bright glow through the trees, peeking through the branches as they bend with the wind. Silence. Coolness. Bliss.

The sound of bells begins to fill the air. Bells. Bells? What the hell? Church bells for Christmas? What’s going on? Never heard this before, though if I’m ever up at 4am it’s the bleary end of a hard night, not at a day’s beginning when senses are sharp.

Then I remember. Monks. The temple’s calling the monks to their morning chant. Bong. Bong. The bells continue. The island is waking up, following an age-old rhythm of life that respects the sun’s searing heat and embraces the cool, dark hours.

The new day gently unveils in the pre-dawn stillness. I think of the saffron-robed monks gathering in the temple hall and meditate on lessons learned in nature’s simple glory.

December 26, 2004

Disaster in Phuket
I'm sitting here high and dry on a bright sunny day in Phuket, and can't quite believe the devastation that's going on along the coast today. A tsunami. Unbelievable.

The phone networks are down, which is very frustrating since I have a lot of friends with homes and businesses near the beach. I have no idea whether they're ok or not.

Couldn't sit at home anymore, so my husband and I went down to Friendship Beach resort, which is on the Rawai beachfront, to make sure everyone there was okay. The guests were clearing out as we arrived - the whole resort was washed over by a giant wave. Lots of damage but thankfully no injuries or deaths. People were slammed around as the wave hit.

Friendship Beach Resort, December 26, 2004 (It was reopened within a week.)
Very sad to see the resort, which the owner spent two years renovating, including some new rooms that just opened this month, now totally full of mud, debris and smashed glass.

This is just one small resort out of hundreds of homes and businesses that must have been devastated by this wave. Amazing how life can take a complete u-turn in just a few seconds.

Yesterday, I meditated on nature's glory. Today, I will ponder its massive force.

December 27, 2004

Tsunami aftermath
Just returned from the beaches, where we spent the morning driving around to see how things are after the wave. We didn’t go to Patong, which looked to be the worst hit because the traffic getting in there was too chaotic.

Pretty shocking sights. Nai Harn, Kata and Karon beaches covered in broken beach chairs, umbrellas and other debris. Some of my favourite little spots including Lorenzo’s pizza shop in Nai Harn and the group of restaurants at the south end of Kata beach totally destroyed – only piles of rubble and broken timber.

Karon beach, December 27, 2004.
Shopowners in with half-shocked expressions walking over their destroyed businesses, picking up anything salvageable. Beach vendors and beach massage ladies just sitting on the seawall, looking down at the huge mess on the sand. We watched as a group of workers tried to pull an upside-down car out of the side of a resort in Nai Harn. A small dingy zoomed up to shore with a few people and a twisted motorcycle on it – some wreckage found at sea that they were bringing in.

Kata beach, December 27, 2004.
In Kata, a small cluster of bars behind Club Med were chock full of mud and garbage, many of the shacks destroyed. In Karon, cars and tuk-tuks strewn around along the sides of the road – one tuk-tuk up on its side against the sign of a resort. A catamaran could be seen wedged against a hotel wall, about 200 metres back from the beach.

Pictures in the newspapers today were truly horrifying.

I still can’t get through to most people here, though amazingly people in Bangkok and Canada are able to call me. I think about people I know with boat charter businesses, little hotels, snorkel tour companies, etc. How are they? I still don’t know. I won’t know for several days probably.

Nai Harn beach, December 27, 2004.
I feel a bit helpless at the moment, especially in my 8.5-months’ pregnant state, but I hope I’m able to help out in some capacity in the week ahead. I did manage to get through to my friend who works at the hospital - he thanked me for my offer to help but said they’re so frantic right now he couldn’t think of what I could do.

Hoping and praying my baby can hang in there for a while yet – I don’t want to add to the burden of hospital staff this week.

December 28, 2004

Tragedy sinking in
On December 26, Phuket Island felt the impact of a giant wave crash against its shore. Today, and in the days to follow, the emotional impact is rising and spreading. Its power is much more subtle than a tsunami, but its impression will last far longer than the physical destruction wrought by the sea.

Today I went to the hospital for my weekly pre-natal checkup, not even sure if the doctor would be able to see me but I was unable to call ahead. I walked through the doors and saw [name redacted] sitting in a wheelchair covered in bandages and bruises. I asked how he was doing.

“I’m ok. But my baby didn’t make it,” he said.

Oh God.

His lovely little girl, who was born in early May. I only saw her once, when she was a few weeks old. I remember seeing his wife looking serenely down at her newborn daughter as she breastfed her at the beachfront restaurant we were gathered at.

On Sunday, on a whim, they decided to go to Patong and were strolling along the beachfront when the tsunami hit. I don’t know the details of the unimaginable horror and chaos that they must have experienced in the swirling water afterwards, as he was too upset to talk about it.

I hugged him and went for my checkup. I was holding everything in, until the nurse taking my blood pressure said she needed to check it again, since it seemed unusually high.

That’s when the dam broke.

I started to explain that I’d just heard some bad news, which had probably raised my blood pressure, and began to cry uncontrollably. The shock of what I’d just heard and the masses of injured people all around me were just too much to take. The nurses were sweet and consoling, and led me over to the waiting area to wait for the doctor.

He did an ultrasound check to try to estimate my baby’s weight. While I looked at the little miracle of life moving around on the screen above me I was overcome with a jumbled mix of emotions; tears were running down the sides of my face as I lay on the bed.

Now, as I write, I still don’t know what to feel, what to say, what to do. The losses are piling up. I’m so thankful every time I see a familiar face – one more person safe and alive. I’ve given my husband about a thousand hugs today, and feel so happy every time I feel my baby move inside my belly.

My prayers go out to everyone who has been hurt or affected by this awful, awful disaster.

December 28, 2004

Calm and kindness
After a terribly upsetting morning I was desperate to find some peace and something hopeful, so my husband and I went down to Chalong temple. There are few better places to go when the mind is frayed than a Thai temple. To see people kneeling in front of the Buddha with their hands pressed together in prayer, as the sweet smell of incense floats through the hall, is a picture of serenity.

It’s a moving, silent ritual that Thais can be seen doing every day across the country, yet today it seemed more profound. You could sense that many had experienced loss, or, like me, were shocked and horrified at things they had seen or heard after the tsunami hit.

Afterwards, we went to a small Chinese temple in Phuket Town, where they were receiving donations of clothing, food and cash for the victims. It was very busy – many had come out to offer something. Some, I could see, were handing over thousands of baht in cash.

Donation centre for coffins, Phuket Town, December 2004.
Like many things in Thailand, the act of donating is steeped in religious significance and ceremony. When we handed over some money we were given a piece of pink paper, upon which we wrote our names and posted to a stack of coffins. The whole stack was covered in pink sheets. Each donation sheet represented a coffin that could be built for someone whose family could not afford to give them a proper cremation or burial.

We were also given a yellow sheet of paper, which we took inside the temple, and, after praying to the Chinese god with incense sticks between our hands, we set on fire and put in a bowl. This was done to pay respect to all the victims.

It was incredibly moving to see the heartfelt acts of kindness, the efficiency and dedication of all the temple volunteers, and the quiet way in which people express their reverence for things.

The Buddha probably had something to say about this, but I think my observances today are best summed up by Shakespeare, who wrote: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

December 30, 2004

Phi Phi, Khao Lak memories
Clean-up efforts are in full force in Phuket, and now many of the beaches – aside from Patong and Kamala, which were hardest hit – are almost back to normal. I drove along Karon Beach yesterday and saw a lot of sunbathers lining its shores, and people relaxing by the pools of their hotels.

In stark contrast, Khao Lak, on the mainland just north of Phuket, will probably never be the same. What I’ve heard from friends who went up there, and what I’ve seen in the news, is shocking. Two hundred people are still unaccounted for at one hotel alone. An area stretching 1 km back from the shoreline and 1.5 km wide was completely flattened – my friend said that what was left of the hotels there was a knee-high mess of rubble and mud.

Phi Phi Island looks like a warzone. I shudder when I think of the destruction and death there, in that tiny area which would have been packed with people at its busiest time of year.

For me, Phuket is my home, while Khao Lak and Phi Phi are both places I go to for mini-breaks. I first went to Phi Phi nearly 10 years ago and remember walking along the beach with a small herd of goats trotting along in front of me. Then, and every time I’ve returned, I’ve met fantastic people from all over the world, and partied and played and restored my soul.

While it was in grave danger of ruining itself with overdevelopment, Phi Phi was still a magical place. It was where I tested my mettle by snorkeling with the sharks. It was where I spent a fun few days with my 22-year-old cousin, which, combined with some other things that happened around the same time, convinced me to drop my job and go freelance. It was where I cracked jokes sitting on the sand under a clear starry sky at 3 am with an American musician I’d met. It was here that I enjoyed my last big hurrah on a ‘girl’s weekend out’ with friends a week before I discovered I was pregnant.

Khao Lak’s beauty was more subtle. Its beaches were not as spectacular as Phuket’s or Phi Phi’s, but its endless stretch of golden sand was inviting, and there was something special in the quality of the light in the coconut grove on a late afternoon. There was absolutely nothing to do there, and that was the point.

Lazy days spent reading in the hammock at Mai’s Quiet Zone or sipping a banana shake on the balcony of my hut at Wunder bungalow on Bang Niang beach, gazing out to sea. I can’t even comprehend how this peaceful image has now been replaced by its present reality – that very beach now littered with swimsuit-clad bodies; nothing left but piles of debris.

Can one ever again relax on the shorefront without thinking about the staggering loss of life that occurred here? The buildings may be rebuilt, the hotels may reopen, but will that carefree feeling - the promise of tropical paradise - ever return?

January 1, 2005

Post-tsunami New Year’s blessings
It’s 12.01 am on New Year’s Day, 2005. I can hear firecrackers exploding all around my home, and just watched a fireworks show being set off from Chalong Bay from my upstairs window. A night of celebration, and also remembrance. In Patong tonight, they are holding a candlelight vigil for the tsunami victims, with a moment of silence at midnight.

The year that closed with a hellish nightmare for Phuket and a vast stretch of Asia’s coastlines is now over. It’s now time for those hit by the disaster to start mending their shattered lives – a task that may still seem insurmountable to many. Indeed, many may never recover what they’ve lost.

I still can’t find words to express the feeling of being in the midst of all this, alive and unscathed in my comfortable home, while tens of thousands in the region that surrounds me have perished and millions more are suffering.

I have been blessed with a child, who is due to arrive any day now. He is just one of so many blessings in my life. The outpouring of love and support from family, friends and even people I don’t know from around the globe over the last week has reminded me again of just how lucky I am.

Even the simplest things are to be cherished, like this glass of fresh water that I drink. For a countless number of people today, a sip of clean water is a dream.

My new year’s resolution, and life’s resolution, is to remember to greet each new day as a gift from God that I shall not squander.

January 2, 2005

Tsunami – the week that was
It’s exactly one week after the day that Asia was severely shaken by the earthquake and tsunami. All the thoughts and anxieties I had in my mind a week ago seem now to be so petty and insubstantial. The scale of devastation and death will forever alter my perception of what’s important, what’s a ‘big deal’, what’s worth worrying about.

Like the force of a wave, strong emotions propelled me along all week in a whirling, confusing mix that seemed beyond my control. I’m now numb and unable to absorb any more – I hit refresh on my bookmarked news site and the death toll jumps another 20,000.

The numbers swirl before my eyes as the brain tries to process the immensity of pain felt in just one death. But 10,000? 100,000? How will those that remain even begin to cope with the losses?

With the stories I read and hear, and the countless others I will never know about, it’s hard not to drown in despair. But as a fortunate, healthy person I must remember that I owe it to those I love, and my community also, to use all I’ve learned this week as an energizing force that will hopefully help to do some good in this world. Wallowing in pain seems almost selfish now.

A snapshot of the range of emotions…

Anger, when I read things like this:
Earthquake and tsunami expert Smith Dhammasaroj said that when he was chief meteorologist in 1993 he had warned southern provincial governors they might be “dangerously affected” by deadly tsunamis and issued a follow-up warning in 1998 after a tsunami had hit Papua New Guinea.

“Nobody heeded my alert,” he said. “Some provinces have even banned me from entering their territories. They said I was endangering their image with tourists.”

Joy, when I get emails and calls like this:
Hi Lana, yes, thanks very much for your kind thoughts. We’re okay. A close one, we were in the house when the first wave broke through our deck. Will copy you, with our news.
Best, Don.

Hope, when I read news items like these:
Plan to help fishing villages drawn up
Aid pledges top $2 billion

Sadness, at statistics like these:
Total 140,000 dead
Indonesia 80,000 dead
Thailand 7,000 to 8,000 estimated dead (4,560 confirmed)
Phang Nga (Khao Lak) 3,701 dead
Krabi (Phi Phi) 395 dead
Phuket 281 dead
6,541 people missing in Thailand
1,463 families homeless in Phuket alone

…And many more emotions that probably won’t completely unravel and reveal themselves till the initial shocks subside.

Today, I’m wiped out from all the tension and worry I’ve experienced this week. But it’s good to feel. It’s very, very good to feel alive.

January 6, 2005

After the tsunami
So here I sit in an abyss of time between one of the biggest natural disasters on the planet and the birth of my first child. Tick, tick, tick. I wait and worry and watch the fallout from the tsunami from within the safety of my home, at the same time anticipating signs of labor to start at any moment.

Unlike other areas, Phuket has emerged relatively unscathed. Safari trucks are again rumbling down my road and up to the hills, full of excited tourists looking forward to their first elephant ride. Beaches are peaceful scenes of people sunning themselves and swimming. The markets are as bustling and colorful as ever.

Tsunami remembrance, Patong beach.
Panic and horror has largely been replaced by determination and relief. Who would have thought before that a death toll of "only" 280 people, the final tally in Phuket, would be something to be thankful for?

Since the waves hit, I've come to realize more than ever that my friends and family are a deep well that I can draw from in times of need. I've regained contact with old friends, including the group of university students with whom I first discovered and explored Thailand 10 years ago on an international exchange program. We're now planning a reunion for later this year. I've been touched again and again by the outpouring of support and love from so many people near and far.

I ran into a couple I know at a shopping centre the other day -- a couple with a beachfront house who I was unable to contact for five days, not knowing if they had survived. Though they lost their beautiful new home, you'd never know it from their faces. They were happy and jovial and downplayed their tribulations, so grateful that they and their three dogs not only lived, but were quickly taken in by friends and taken care of by their neighbors.

I have a renewed appreciation of my community, and the spirit of the people in cleaning and rebuilding the island has been inspiring. The ways in which the island, the country, and indeed the whole world has responded to this crisis has been reason to restore my faith in the goodness of people.

As I await the delivery of my baby, I have a lot to be thankful for, and a lot to reflect on. The things I've learned since the day the tsunami struck will hopefully make me a better mother, and a better person. Most of all, it's taught me that love and joy within the human heart are boundless.


On January 9, 2005, our healthy baby boy was born.

January 16, 2005

New mom, new life
I’ve been a mom for a week now and it’s finally settling in that my life has changed forever. I look at the fresh little face of my baby boy with awe; his ever-changing expressions are a delight and a mystery. It’s hard to write about the feelings he invokes in me without sounding clichĂ©: the innocence of a child, the marvel of a newborn. He’s the most beautiful thing that’s ever happened in my life.

But my thoughts have not all been positive. There is sorrow over the loss of my former ‘freedom’ to come and go as I please. A half-hour shopping trip yesterday was frantic and full of panic over leaving my baby, even though he was safe at home with my husband. I’ve been reduced to tears of frustration for my inability to control things – I cannot schedule his hunger, I cannot always stop him from crying, I cannot keep him from spurting poo and pee all over when the diaper’s off.

I’m tired. I never seem to have enough time to eat, or finish a meal before my breast is demanded again. Sometimes the feedings are really easy, other times it’s incredibly hard. My body’s still in pain from the labour, plus there’s new pains in my neck, back, shoulders, arms. I look like hell, with breastmilk and pee stains on my shirt, unwashed hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, unshaved legs. The uniform of a new mother I guess.

Smiles, tears, ups and downs. It’s been quite a ride so far.
Candles in the sand, remembering the tsunami, Patong beach. 
This whole week I’ve been immersed in the baby’s needs, and haven’t thought much about the tsunami and its lingering effects. Then I picked up the local newspaper and read this passage from a man living in Khao Lak, an area hit hard by the wave:

“I lost my parents, my two great doggies, my cat, my home and my business. I almost drowned under the roof of a bungalow. I stated that I would visit the beach one final time, never to return.

“I said to a friend of mine – who lost his fiancĂ©e, unborn child and parents – that I would spit into the sea, curse it and beat it with a stick before heading to somewhere such as the mountains of Canada, where I would never again have to set eyes upon the sea.

“I was an enthusiastic diver, underwater photographer and all-round sea-lover before, so I hope that this gives the reader some idea of how it can feel to go through such a physical and emotional nightmare.

“Some two weeks on, I realize that it was neither the ocean’s – nor anybody’s – fault. Disaster can strike anywhere, and no one is 100% safe from its reach. Along with other survivors, I will stay here and try to find faith in life itself and in living by the sea. …”

Suddenly the losses and pains I’ve suffered from having a baby seem trite. They’re not really losses at all – my entire existence did change in a flash, but the result is that I have a new life in my arms. The writer, and many others around me, have nothing, and yet they still have hope. That the writer wishes to reconnect with an ocean that swept everything away from him shows an incredibly trusting and loving attitude towards nature and its ability to heal.

Such strength I am only beginning to discover. I may never find such strength. I need to remember that every cry, every scream, is a life force asking to be heard, and a miracle.

I’ve created a child, yes, but actually it is he who is creating me.