We had arrived at Peace Corps central in Thailand in early January, 2004. Eight weeks of training and it was off to our site. Christmas of that year brought us some slack time, and we decided to take a vacation. We had traveled around the country quite a bit by then, helping out with English camps and attending training seminars, and I had learned enough Thai to get by in simple situations. There was a big Christmas break at the schools that we were assigned to. Okay, three weeks of time on our hands, where should we go?
We had heard a lot about Ko Phi Phi, Phi Phi Island, out in the Andaman Sea not too far from Phuket. People raved about it, how beautiful it was, what a unique and amazing place, etc. Our teaching site was in the northern mountains; why not take a beach vacation in southern Thailand? We came this close to going (holds thumb and index finger very close together).
As we were considering it, we realized that it was high-season. Which is good, because it's the best weather of the year in Thailand, not as blazing hot as usual and no rain, but which is also bad, because everything is expensive and crowded. Prices are double or more in high season. We had received another offer in the meantime, an essentially free option. We decided to take that option instead. One of our fellow volunteers was staying at his site for the holidays, but he had a great invitation for Christmas dinner and his friends said that we were welcome to come along. We had more than a year to go on our Peace Corps hitch, so we figured there was plenty of time for the islands. Let's go for the merry Christmas!
The dinner was totally American style, and totally delicious. The hosts were a very nice couple, he a Texan in his early 70s, she Thai in her late 60s. She had lived in Texas for about twenty-five years, mostly with her first husband. When he died, she continued to attend their church, because that's where her friends were. That's where she met her second husband, a widower. When he retired, they moved back to her home province in Thailand. She had extensive experience with turkey dinners, complete in every detail. It's not easy finding turkeys in Thailand, and even harder is finding someone with an oven. She had both. There were ten or twelve of us altogether, and it was a great time.
On December 27, 2004, about to board the bus to return to our site, we heard about the tsunami that hit coastlines around the Andaman Sea on December 26th. The underwater earthquake that generated the tsunami registered between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter Scale. That is one hellacious earthquake. Many countries were hit by the waves, as far away as Madagascar, and many people were killed. Even the early estimates of the dead and injured were shocking, and the numbers went up over time as more detailed reports came in. A few hundred were killed on little Phi Phi Island, including many vacationing foreigners. Something like 8,000 people died in Thailand alone. Thailand has a long west coast along the Andaman Sea, with many popular beach vacation spots. Total deaths for all affected countries were over 200,000.
All of that must have been terrible for the most affected parties, and the horror of it was not lost on us. I don't want to appear to be minimizing any of that suffering, whether of victims, survivors, or their families. It was also, however, a sobering experience for myself and my wife, now ex-wife. A casual, apparently meaningless decision to take the other fork in the road for that simple vacation would have put us into either the dead or the missing category. On Phi Phi, there is really nowhere to go, and on that day there was no warning. The odds are good that we would have become statistics.
Six or seven years later I visited Ko Phi Phi. I was in neighboring Phuket, also an island, teaching a class for two weeks, and one of my students was a big shot at one of the tour boat companies. He comp'd me. It really is a beautiful little island. Half of it rises straight out of the sea, exposed rock mostly covered in vegetation, to a height of about five hundred feet. There is no one and nothing but nature on that part of the island. Then there is a nice, curved section of beach behind a bay, with a touristy area of shops and guest houses that runs for a few hundred feet. and the remainder of the island is tall hills covered by inhospitable forested areas. Bays focus waves of all kinds, including tsunamis. (Surfers seek out bays because the waves are bigger.) It's a perfect tsunami trap.
This is probably the most abstract of my near-death experiences, but it is, nonetheless, one of the scariest of the bunch.