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Kata Noi's mostly lucky escape

By David Challenger

Tourists relax on Kata Noi four days after the tsunamis struck Phuket.


Disasters (General)
Environmental Issues

PHUKET, Thailand (CNN) -- On any normal day, Kata Noi -- a typically beautiful stretch of beach on the west coast of Thailand's Phuket Island -- is as close to a peaceful oasis you can get.

Colorful purple umbrellas dot the shimmering white sand, shading tourists from around the world as they read their books, eat ice cream, apply sunscreen to their children or sleep off a heavy night of boozing in one of the many bars.

This was the setting for countless beaches along Phuket's coast on the morning of December 26, 2004, including neighboring Karon Beach, Patong Beach 10 kilometers to the north, and Kamala, Bangtao, Surin and Nai Yang beaches beyond that.

Then the tsunamis came. (Special Report)

"It was about 9.40 a.m.," says Jaew, a 40-year-old Thai woman who runs an open-tent kiosk about 50 meters back from the shoreline on Kata Noi.

"At first, the water receded about 500 meters to a kilometer. It stayed out about five minutes. Then it rushed back in," she says.

Jaew explains that the first wave was more like a fast incoming tide, without the white foam that typifies a large sea wave.

Nonetheless, it was powerful enough to wash away all of the umbrellas, and reached about 100 meters beyond the usual shoreline.

"I ran away from the beach as fast as I could towards the hill. Everyone did," she says.

About five minutes later, as she looked back towards the beach, Jaew saw the second wave roar in. It was much more powerful than the first, with a large head if whitewash at its front.

She estimates it was at least three meters in height by the time it hit her stall, decimating it and washing anything that had been left from the first wave back out to sea.

A third wave soon followed, but was the least powerful of the three.

"I stayed away from the beach for at least 24 hours after that. I was too frightened to go back," Jaew says.

When she did return she realized how fortunate Kata Noi had been, at least in comparison to other beaches. While some people were injured, the area didn't suffer any deaths.

It was a month before the single mother of two -- her husband died in a motorcycle crash in 1999 -- could resurrect her kiosk. But in the 10 months since, Jaew admits her annual earnings of 120,000 baht ($2,900) have suffered.

"Tourists were scared to come to Phuket because of what happened. It's getting better, but it's still only back to 70 percent of what it was before the tsunami," she says. (Related story)

Family connections

Jaew's 41-year-old sister-in-law, Amara, is also in business on Kata Noi. She operates a kiosk just 40 meters up from Jaew, as well as renting out about 20 umbrellas and chairs.

"We lost our kiosk, and all the umbrellas and chairs to the waves. Each set costs 7,200 baht ($174), and we've had to replace all of them," she says.

But worst of all, just 10 days before the tsunami hit, Amara's family took out a loan for 2 million baht ($48,500) to buy a restaurant on Karon Beach.

"The restaurant was destroyed, and we had to borrow money from others to meet our debts, at 10 percent interest. The whole year's been a loss, and we're in debt of about 1.5 million baht ($36,300) because of the tsunami. But," she adds reflectively, "at least we are safe."

Jaew mirrors her sister-in-law's guarded optimism, especially when recounting her visit to Khao Lak three days after the tsunamis.

Situated about 80 kilometers north of Phuket in the province of Phang Nga, Khao Lak was easily Thailand's hardest hit area.

From the estimated 5,300 people killed in Thailand from the Boxing Day disaster, it's believed more than half died in and around Khao Lak, Thailand's Parliament President Bhokin Balakula was reported as saying in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"Myself and some family members took clothes to Khao Lak after hearing how bad it was up there. It was terrible ... we saw six or seven dead people, still dangling from rubber trees. And we saw two dead people still in a car after it had been washed a kilometer inland," Jaew says.

"We were scared and have suffered in Kata Noi, but Kata Noi was lucky. We still have our lives."

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