Where once upon a time had stood sturdy houses on stilts, tall coconut palms, an orchard of cashews, and a crowded three-room school with a thatched roof, after a few chaotic post-Christmas hours in 2004 you’d have seen only beams, rafters, and siding like split matchsticks projecting from the mud, tousles of dead and jumbled weeds and plastic trash, broken and stinking bloated human and canine remains decomposing beneath legions of flies and scavenging birds. Fallen pieces of trees, too, would have cluttered the view, and rotting fish thrown up by the ocean, in rapidly evaporating pools of brackish water, the few scattered plants left standing around brown and dying from the salt. All this had come from giant waves, one after another, relentlessly pounding poor Koh Sawang until most of the island had been under three meters of water for a half-hour or so.
Now, this much later, beneath the cloudless blue there were a couple hundred shining and much sturdier two-storey houses on stilts, a grand spanking new six-classroom school with the Thai tricolor waving proudly above, and a wide patch of sapling sea-pines struggling upwards to become a future windbreak.
The island of Koh Sawang. Four years after the tsunami and over two years since I’d left, I was back in the same place, strolling into the little pre-planned town along the pristine cement promenade with its aesthetically pleasing bends that circled and crisscrossed it. During the chaotic months following the big waves I’d been in charge of building this very walkway. Felt good at the time, and didn’t look like bad work now. I’d also had a big hand in putting up the gorgeous school I was now approaching, but really had nearly no idea how that had gone, or much of what had gone on here or in any of our other sites since I’d left Thailand and moved on to distant assignments—Guatemala, Kenya, no place near as sweet as this one.
Thai schools are often, like many of the houses, raised on stilts. I’d originally thought that was done to put them above any possible flood line, but if anything, that was secondary to the Thais. First of all, they’ll tell you, it provides a kind of natural air-conditioning in this sultry climate, a shaded space beneath the floor where the wind can blow free. It also effectively doubles floor space. A school built this way has a ready-made combination lunch-room and meeting hall on the lower level, just add tables and chairs. And if the student population grows, there’s room to cheaply add classrooms—downstairs, just throw up walls, doors, windows, and voilà! An efficiency of design hardly to be found even in the fabulous West.
It was a beautiful day, with a bright sun and a cooling ocean breeze. But something seemed wrong. In all this gleaming new village, and even as I approached the school, the loudest sound was the flapping of the flag at the top of the pole. No kids playing outside, no sounds of teaching or singing inside, and though it was lunchtime, there were none of the food carts and bustle you’d expect at even a very rural Thai school. Rounding the corner, though, I did come across a few tiny nut-brown kids in dusty school uniforms of khaki shorts and white short-sleeve shirts munching away at a few scattered tables, and a young lady sitting with a couple of others going over what appeared to be a school workbook. She looked up, as did one of the kids, who pointed his finger and gleefully shouted the common name for us Western types, “farang!” I grinned and shot back in Thai “What makes you think that? My nose, maybe?” to which, though he was grinning, too, he sat too stunned to make a response. Thai-speaking farangs aren’t that common anywhere in the country, certainly not 750 kilometers from Bangkok and an hour in a long-tail boat across a choppy inland sea. The petite young teacher, though, laughed freely, a happy chime of a laugh, and spoke in clear, perfect central Thai.
“Sawat dii,” she said, “I’m Kanlaya. did you come to see the school?”
“Sawat dii, Khun Kanlaya. My name is Kami. I came to look at the school, of course, and whole village. Is this a holiday? Where are all the kids?”
“Oh, no, everybody’s here! It’s just that we only have seven students. I’m the only teacher.”
“Only seven?” I was startled. We had planned for more like a hundred, and that was just for starters. “I saw pictures of the old school. It looked crowded, kids spilling out the windows!”
“You were here before?” she seemed surprised.
“Yes, I was with the Swiss government, we did a lot of work here after the tsunami. But why so few students today?”
“Oh, it’s every day. You see, a lot of people died then. The rest had to go to the mainland for a long time, and then didn’t want to come back.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Some liked it better in Andaburi. Here they didn’t have electricity. Some thought the tsunami would come again, and everybody was afraid of the ghosts hanging around from the last one. That’s why we hardly have any students. See, look, a hundred and fifty of these houses are empty.”
I looked across the brown football field at the village. It was true, while a tiny number of those snappy-looking two-storey houses had clothes drying in front, roof extensions, water tanks, and sometimes even a set of solar panels, small gardens, and spirit houses for the household gods, most looked stark and bare. Talk about ghosts, serious business to the Thais. This was like looking a clean and perfectly prefabricated ghost town.
“Kami! Kami!” the shout came from behind, over to the left, while I was pulling my flip-flopped left foot out of the shallow-water muck. I glanced back across the tiny, tide-drained estuary and saw Thérèse in her floppy hat, right hand lifting the hems of her long white skirts, about to clamber into a long-tail filled with sea gypsies, rice and veggies, probably headed back out through the mangrove-lined inlets to Koh Sawang, where I’d just been.. “Kami, écoute! Il y a des choses avec Mme. Angkana. peus-tu parler?”
Problems. We have to talk. But I didn’t have time right now, and neither did her boat. I waved back, “Ce soir, Thérèse, maintenent je me dépêche.” Later, kiddo.
“A, oui, alors ce soir? à La Glace?” Her name for what the English-speakers call “the ice-fish restaurant,” a popular dinner spot for Andaburi expats, named for the signal open-air display case out front that kept the seafood appealingly fresh.
“Oui, biensur, La Glace, sept heures, comme ça!” And a goodbye wave. By seven I’d probably be way ready to eat, and to talk about somebody’s problems other than my own, too. I pulled another flip-flopped foot back in the mud, pulled another out, took one squish step after another up the brush-topped bank—each move sending 6 or 8 tiny red hermit crabs scuttling into their stinking mud holes—and finally scrambled up the bank toward the Prado—what they call a Land Cruiser here—just as large drops began to fall.
Thérèse Desgauches was point person for the French group Amis des Réfugiés, one of the dozens of NGOs of all stripes and persuasions that had swarmed this previously sleepy backwater in the two and a half months since the tsunami. Old she looked, and, I suppose, was—probably older than 65, anyway: face pink as if sanded to irritation, wild, thinning white hair—but she had a sweet, winning smile and the energy of a dervish, and since her arrival shortly after the New Year had seen to donations of food and clothing, fishing boats and squid traps, delivery of medical services, on, and on: she alone was doing more to help refugees than six or eight relief groups put together that I could name.
Problems, sure, but we have to talk? I didn’t get the why of the “we,” but Mme. Angkana was the Thai “Hi-So”—Thai for “high society,” or, really, just rich—woman who owned the fish processing factory north of town, and I’d heard she’d donated 50 rai of land for permanent housing, and Amis would be putting the houses up.
We Swiss weren’t putting up houses like Amis, but had our hands full with plenty of other projects, investing millions in piers, schools, a health station, job creation, boats, and on and on, mostly out on Koh Sawang and other islands.
A light shower began to fall. I beeped open the Prado and threw my notes about the Koh Sawang boat situation onto the far seat. Put her in gear and started up the crumbling, muddy track through the trees away from the dilapidated wharf and mud hole that passed for a landing, past the stares of the head-scarved Muslim lady and her scrawny son, bumping up past a gaggle of goats and the shabby, isolated dwellings of their owners, uphill to the Andaburi road. Thoughts. Back to poor, devastated, Koh Sawang, the tsunami gave it a real workover last December. Nearly all of it scrubbed over by 15-meter waves, the stilted wooden dwellings had not a chance, wells ruined and vegetation destroyed by the salt, fishing boats destroyed or scattered to the winds, families decimated . . . my mind went back to this last visit, and this boat issue. Just now Wan Li, the headman of Tha Mum Meuk Village, had made a point of reminding me that none of the sea gypsies—the nomadic fisher folk known as Moken, or Moklen, whose collective memory of tsunamis may have accounted for their relatively minimal losses—somehow had no fishing boats any more, and were asking us, and presumably everybody else, for some.
The clouds broke for a moment as I reached the tiny cluster of shops that marked the left turn into town. There was a cluster of shirtless middle-aged (my-aged!) guys, a couple of them wearing sarongs—known as “phaa khao maa” in Thailand—a couple of them playing that curious Thai version of chess in the corner noodle shop. One of the onlookers gave a grin and a wave as I went by. Familiar . . . sturdy-looking fellow, square-jawed, you could call him handsome. I tried to place him, but was coming up blank. It sure looked as though he remembered me.
I swung left onto the paved road that wound down into town. That absurd feeling of well-being I often get in this country swept over me, driving through the dappled afternoon, jungled hills on my right, to the left trees and brush sloping down towards that hidden world of mangroves and sea water, thick, tangled, eternal. From here, or anywhere along this road, apart from the simple magnificence of the universe itself, you could see no hint of the forces that had brought us here. The effects of the tsunami: so narrow, almost never further inland than a single click—but so deep!
Through the window of his office I could see that Fis (English-speakers think “Feese”) was even more out of sorts than usual. The price of being organized, I supposed. No one could argue that Fisnik Hunkeler was not organized—a mover and shaker in the Swiss Development Agency following his master’s in marine engineering from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and all that after a brief but stellar career as a GM in Switzerland’s famed hotel industry. And nearly as good with languages as I was. It’s guys like Fis who helped give rise to that popular image of heaven, where cooks are French, police British, the cars German, the lovers Italian, and—but of course!—everything is run by the Swiss. Being organized didn’t often make a person lovable, though, and few came away with the warm fuzzies from talking to my boss. I’d had to cut short my talk with Wan Li and rush to a Fis encounter: that not only broke up a perfectly nice day, but gave me something to not look forward to.
“What were you doing out there, anyway?” In Swiss German, giving a bizarrely comic lilt to his the brusque words. Definitely no “Hey, Kami, how’s it hangin’?” We do have slang like that in Schwyzerdütsch, but Fis never used it.
His powerful forearms rested on the desk. Below the gracefully thinning hair, eyes bulged a bit over a hawk-beak nose and square jaw. So far he doesn’t need glasses, even to read. I’m envious. But Fis doesn’t read me very well.
“I thought you were supposed to be checking on the specs for the water tower up at Thung Tham Leuk,” he continued, then “but skip it for now, this is important. Two things. No, three. First, I’ve been called home for ‘consultation,’ seems somebody upstairs is worried about misappropriations, after hearing about the 30 billion baht police scandal in Takua Pa. Second, my father’s dying, the docs say a couple of months. So I’ve got to stay home awhile. Third, although I’m not sure you have the stuff, you’re the only one in a position to take over here. So starting Thursday, you’ll be the face of the Swiss down here till early summer.”
Not being able to get whatever-it-was he wasn’t getting about me was probably the reason people like Fis are usually the ones running the show. Maybe he actually could read me, in a way, at least enough to sense I didn’t really want a job like his, but he saw that as weakness, incompetence, or something else it wasn’t. Want the job or not, I was glad to get to be my own boss around here for awhile, and started thinking about some of the cool things I could start doing, talk to the people who had the troubling stories, find out why the pieces of this relief puzzle weren’t fitting together all the time.
“Fis, terrible about your dad, I lost mine already, I understand.” And I listened patiently to his cautionary drone for awhile, till he finally waved his hand dismissively, and I was out of there. He had really needed to drag me back for this? It was now pouring outside, but I headed up the road to check on the water system for that Muslim village.
Six thirty, coming back into town: Andaburi can be wonderfully funky at dusk when the clouds are parting. The sea itself is kilometers away, but its reflection is there in the glorious sunsets, and the river reflects it yet again, now with darker greens against the florid sky. In European and American cities the streets are bright. In the Thai provinces they’re sometimes flat-out dark, but where there are street lights, they are softer, and far apart. Soft smoky haze—charcoal cooking smoke mixing with tule fog—settles in patchwork patterns around dim lights that cluster roadside. Plastic tables and chairs crowded with diners are grouped in front of ramshackle storefront restaurants, extending well onto the wide gravel shoulders of the road, which in the center of town has incongruously grown into four lanes, however sporadic the traffic. Food smells—garlic, kaffir lime, frying chilis nipping at the septum—drift in and out.
I pulled onto the gravel and got out by one of the tables at La Glace, where Thérèse was already sitting, by a pudgy fellow with a pock-marked face that sprouted a few odd tufts of beard—Moklen sea gypsy? Not likely, they’re usually skinny—I didn’t recognize. The two of them already started on their second round of Chang beer, there were four of those tall bottles Thérèse broke into an ear-to-ear grin. “Look, Somchai, here he is, right on time, like a Swiss watch! Kami, come have a beer!” She spoke in French—really, it’s nearly all she knows—but again, I’ll try to let you hear things as I did. “Kami, meet Somchai, he’s the sweetest man, he’s helping us get the land.” Somchai’s gap-toothed (a lot of gaps) grin shone at me, I believe he had no idea what she was saying.
“Madame Angkana, you know, she has a beautiful palm oil plantation right up the road, she really wants to help the refugees.”
“I know, Thérèse.” Actually I knew only that when the tsunami happened, the good Madame had offered some land to a charitable organization headed by the King. That might have meant no more than that she had seen a chance to curry favor with the Royal Family.
“Well, we have money for this land, so many have given, you know, and we offered two million baht, I think it is a lot for such land. But Mme. Angkana, she says it is not enough, she loses money, the palm oil, there is even some rubber.”
“Sawit have money,” commented Somchai in heavily accented English. You can think of “sa-wit” as Tinglish (Thai English) for “Swiss.” Maybe he had actually understood what she was saying.
“But we cannot ask ze Swiss for ze money, Somchai.” Good on the English, Thérèse.
“Khun Kami, you Sawit help Koh Sawang?” He turns to me with a gap-toothed grin.
“Yes,” I said, “we Swiss are doing a lot of building on Koh Sawang. A pier, a school, much more.”
“Dis for Koh Sawang person. No have house. Need house.”
“Somchai, I wish we could help. But we already have our budget, our plans. There’s nothing left over.”
“I think you help. You talk Wan Li.”
“Ah, you know Wan Li?” The man I’d seen just this afternoon out on the island.
“He my brother.” Well, then, Somchai was definitely no Moklen. Wan Li was from a Chinese family who settled Koh Sawang a hundred years ago looking to start a tin mine, now he was the big cheese in the only village left standing on the island.
Somchai didn’t have much of a grasp of European accounting practices, or that he wasn’t about to get anything from us. Made me think, though.
Turning back, “Thérèse, I’m sure you know we can’t ourselves get you any money. But maybe you can use our vast Swiss expertise in negotiations. Why don’t you take me to meet this Mme. Angkana. Can you string her on till next week, anyway?”
“Kami, just what I was hoping for. More beer? And food!” And along with 4 or 5 of those amazing Andaman seafood dishes, we ordered yet another of those tall, strong Chang beers, and relaxed into the congenial warmth of an uncharacteristically dry Andaman Thai evening, clouds skimming slowly along as just the hint of a first quarter moon pressed into the mountaintop above the town.
About the Author
Peter Montalbano is an American Bangkok-based musician and writer, member of the Bangkok Writers’ Guild. Read his latest updates from Thailand on his blog.