Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Ko Phi Phi story

After additional consideration I've decided there's little lost and something gained by leaving this up:

They show up tattooed and hung-over, wearing dreads and tiny bikini tops. The backpackers are an unlikely army of accidental aid workers but they’re the only help residents of Ko Phi Phi, Thailand have when they return to their tsunami-ravaged homes.

Though most surrounding areas have been repaired and rebuilt, Ko Phi Phi—the island made famous and wildly popular by Leonardo Dicaprio’s The Beach—is still in ruins. Residents wonder why the government has forbid rebuilding at least until late May and not a single major relief agency has turned up to help on the island where 2,000 died, leaving the work of cleaning and repair to the handful of backpackers who have stumbled onto the ferry to Ko Phi Phi.

“They’ve been to Phuket, they’ve been to Krabi and the places look okay and they say, ‘Okay we’ll go to Phi Phi island, it sounds like a nice place,’” said Clare West, an island resident and volunteer organizer. “And they come in and they expect it to be the old Phi Phi and they’re gob smacked and once a lot of people have seen it they can’t leave because they feel guilty about it.”

The informal volunteer work began in early February when Porntip Palertchai Wong stopped Neill Dodson as he passed her souvenir store and asked him to help clear the area in front of her shop. “We thought she was a bit crazy opening up when there was nobody here,” Dodson said. But he bought two wheelbarrows and five shovels and when Wong’s area was cleared he and two friends moved on to the next shop. Soon visiting backpackers were assisting.

“Most people came for a day and ended up staying at that time two or three weeks. Literally four or five people would come a day and we would just all work in an area and clear a strip. Now you can see it’s a little bit bigger. We’re getting about 100 volunteers working a day,” West said.

Monique Sauvé, 18, of Red Deer, Alberta took the 90 minute ferry ride to Ko Phi Phi and discovered the group of volunteers. “We thought it would be super pretty here and I had no idea it would look like this,” Sauvé said. “We were here for about 25 minutes and we ended up working here.”

Tyler Pargee, 24, of Vancouver, felt compelled to lend a hand when he arrived. “It seemed like the thing to do, to start helping out, everyone seemed to be doing it. No one here is involved in any organization, they’re just on vacation and pitching in,” he said while taking a break from demolition work.

Each evening at 7pm the loosely organized volunteers meet on the beach at Carlito’s, one of the few re-opened bars here, and choose from a list of available jobs for the following morning. “We got people smashing down walls with sledgehammers, we got people painting shops, it’s a completely wide range of jobs: carpentry, electric, painting, demolition, building, plastering, you name it, it has to be done and we’re doing it,” Dodson said. There’s even a group of vacationing scuba divers and snorkelers who lug debris up from the ocean floor.

At times it looks like life imitating art. In The Beach, which was shot in Ko Phi Phi, tromping backpackers discover an unspoiled island paradise and build their own utopian community. Now that the masses of tourists are gone, the island has been left to locals and backpackers, who work to repair their private paradise by day and drink buckets of potent Sang Som whiskey by night. But after eight hours of heavy labor, as the Sang Som flows, the obvious question inevitably comes up:

“You know today I was working and I looked around and thought, ‘How can they not have a machine here to do this right?’ It takes people like us from around the world to come here and do this manual stuff,” said Rob Hearn, a volunteer from Dallas “We’re the only ones here and we’re doing work that’s so manual its like taking us back in time 50 years. We got an assembly line going with rocks and there’s a tractor half a mile away that I haven’t seen anyone in.”

Government tractors have cleared acres of debris from the sections of Ko Phi Phi that were completely destroyed but provincial Governor Arnont Promnart said the big equipment wouldn’t do any good in partially damaged areas.

“Heavy machine cannot go into that lot. If heavy machine go into that road every building ruined because the streets very narrow,” Promnart said.

Furthermore, he said the work of clearing and repair is best left to the residents themselves, especially given the amount of looting that’s already been reported on the island.

“Right now I told the private sector to take care of their own property because if the government people still go right there, you know there’s something missing or something like this, it’s a problem,” Promnart said. “It would be better if the owner cleared by themselves.”

So for residents like Atn Oonsuvon, 20, who lost his father in the tsunami, the farang (foreigners) are the only source of assistance when returning to the island.

“Farang help me, help Phi Phi,” said Oonsuvon. “Thailand no good, no help.” Oonsuvon returned to Ko Phi Phi with his mother and sister and repaired their eight by 20 foot home/business without formal assistance.

But the punch line for families like Oonsuvon’s is still to be delivered. After rebuilding their house without assistance, the government will almost certainly come in and knock it down.

Though the Thai government is still working on a plan for redevelopment (it will be announced on May 22 at the earliest) both possible plans Governor Promnart described in a recent interview call for everyone within 30 meters of the shore to relocate to higher ground. Promnart said it is a necessary safety precaution while residents here fear they’re being moved to the hills to make way for a mega resort on the beach.

Asked several times if a mega resort might end up where residents like Oonsuvon have lived for generations, Governor Promnart first said, “No,” then said, “Yes,” and finally said, “Two months after this I’ll tell you.”

Some residents see the lack of assistance, unclear plans and changing timetables as stalling tactics aimed at depleting residents’ meager savings (business owners have received about $500 in cash aid since the tsunami) and compelling them to move.

“People are prolonging their misery just to make more money. Private investors are using the local government—the national government may not even know about it—quietly, behind the scenes to stop people from rebuilding and starving them out,” said John, an English-born Ko Phi Phi resident for 13 years, who refused to disclose his last name, saying he feared he’d lose his work permit.

Governor Promnart said he doesn’t want owners to sell their land and shook his head emphatically when asked if the government was “starving out” the people of Ko Phi Phi.

“I think this is a very misunderstanding. We want the people in Phi Phi to go back right there. But in a better situation, more safe and more pretty. But it needs time. Five months and a situation like this is not a long time,” Promnart said. “Maybe they forget the situation that happened with their families on the 26th of December. We don’t want the situation to happen again for the people so we do as best as we can to make Phi Phi better.”

In the meantime, with rebuilding on hold, government and Red Cross aid is being directed at Phi Phi residents still living in displacement camps on the mainland. The first relief group to establish operations on the island itself, Hands On Thailand, hasn’t been able to do much more than set up a website (handsonphiphi.org).

“We want to get going here and having been over to the displacement camps in Krabi where a lot of the local residents are, they’re desperate to get back and we’re desperate to help them but we’re not allowed to,” said Zoë Fox, a representative from Hands On. “They want to come back, this is their home, this is their life…All we can do at the moment is give them a hug.”

Meanwhile, the work of the unlikely army continues, as backpackers with wheelbarrows and shovels clear one shop at a time. In the last two months most of the streets in Tonsai Village have been cleared and nearly 100 businesses have re-opened. A growing trickle of normal tourists are arriving to buy the jewelry, bootlegged DVDs, Thai pancakes, and fresh fruit that once again line the car-less streets here.

John, the island resident for 13 years, said he’d seen renewed hope in people here. “You see the change on their faces. Before they said ‘Phi Phi is finished,’ but the backpackers have given them hope. They’re the only ones who have given them hope.”


At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story Brook. Makes you wonder if this is an isolated problem or if other damaged areas are being ignored. Hopefully your story will be picked up by several media sources. There is nothing like a little public exposure to get the government off its @## to start doing something. Keep up the good work.

At 8:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


John in Roseville CA

At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Akshay said...

I most certainly hope that someone picks this up. I feel like this something that I would read in New Yorker, but it would be nice if it appearned in, say, a newspaper. An eye opener to most. I guess it was sort of expected by some. Gov't trying to take advantage of a bad situation and making it sound like they're doing it for the people. It'll bring in more business, and more jobs...right...i suppose that is true.


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