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Old 06-17-2017, 03:55 PM
dmas dmas is offline
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Stuart Hopkins
While my book will be in chronological order, I'm not writing it that way. I'm flitting from chapter to chapter, writing a little here and there. I feel it keeps my writing more fresh.

With that in mind, I'm taking you away from my childhood for awhile. In 2004/05 I was resident pianist at the JW Marriott, Pocket, meaning I was there when the Tsunami struck.

Here are some of my experiences:

Saturday 25th December 2004, 19:00 hrs: 13.5 hours until disaster.

I sat down at my beloved grand piano in the lobby bar of the Marriott Phuket Resort and Spa as usual, and played mostly Christmas Carols.

Every seat was taken with guests enjoying pre-dinner drinks. Families were laughing and joking, children were wearing their new clothes and playing with the new gadgets that Santa had delivered to them just a few hours previously.

Throughout the evening, the odd drink would appear on the piano, sent by guests enjoying my music. Those who I’d already socialised with previously would know to send me a Glenmorangie or a Long Island Iced Tea. By the time my working evening was completed at 23:00 I was relaxed and very mellow.

I closed my piano, put the cover on and left after once again wishing each guest a Merry Christmas individually, and having a quick chat with the bar staff with whom I’d arranged to have a beer with close to my home after their shift had ended.

23:00 hrs: 8.5 hours until disaster.

The Nai Yang Beach - a mere five minute drive from my home – of 2004 was largely unspoiled. It was featured in the second installment of Bridget Jones’ Diary, the scene where she took the magic mushrooms.

With white powdery sand, just one hotel and a row of around 20 bamboo shack bars along the beach front, it was an idyllic place to enjoy a few cold beers under the starry sky, with the only noise being the waves gently breaking onto the beach.

Of all the little bars from which to choose, my regular was Mama Mia’s and that is where we would all meet in the fresh hours of Boxing Day.

Mama Mia, as she was affectionately known, was an elderly Thai lady with a personality as warm and bright as the sun itself.

During the filming of the Bridget Jones movie, the cast and crew – including Hugh Grant, Rene Zellweger and Colin Firth – all used to have drinks and food at Mama Mia’s. Behind the bar, hanging on the wall was a giant version of the official movie poster signed by all cast and crew, thanking Mama Mia for her hospitality. This poster was her most prized possession.

Just after midnight, my friends and colleagues from the Marriott had finished work and started to arrive, as well as some other friends that I had made in the local area.

00:30: 8 hours until disaster:

With too many of us to fit into the small seating area around the bar, we decided to form a circle on the beach. We lit a small fire upon which we cooked some basic BBQ snacks. We would sit there chatting and imbibing until around 04:00.

04:00: 4.5 hours until disaster:

Most of us were very drunk. A lot of the group – including me – had the day off with it being a Sunday, but those who were on shift didn’t have to report to work until 17:00 and were therefore in no hurry to rush off.

We tossed around a few ideas and agreed that with this in mind, we would sleep on the beach until sunrise, have a swim to wake up and take breakfast right where we were.

One of those present in the group was Lek, the executive assistant to my boss, Theera Kanjana, the director of food and beverage at the Marriott. She had brought a friend along – not a hotel employee – called Jun, and Lek had introduced the two of us.

I do not recall why, or how, but we had all decided at some point not to sleep on the beach, and I’d somehow ended up back up at home.

Had we gone ahead with our original plan, my life along with that of everyone else in the group would have ended that morning. Had we gone ahead, I would not be writing this now; you would not be reading this now.

Jun, as it had turned out had asked me if she could stay over at my house as she lived far away. I had obviously agreed, not wishing to offend her. Ever the gentlemen, I was determined to keep the British end up, so to speak.

Due to what was obviously Singha Beer Syndrome, I had no recollection of leaving the beach or of the events until around 09:00 that morning when we were, without knowing it, 30 minutes past disaster.

Planning to go home, Jun had woken up early and had left me to sleep while she’d cooked herself some breakfast, and she’d turned on the TV. It goes without saying that every channel was dominated by the unfolding news.

At this time, not much was known, and the news stations were still concentrating on the main earthquake that had struck off the west coast of Sumatra earlier in the morning.

Jun spoke very little English. She shook me awake, I smiled – happy that Santa had been kind to me that Christmas – and she said to me, ‘This morning, the ground move.’

I was still drunk, a hangover was setting in, I’d had little sleep, and having only been awake for a few seconds had yet to engage my brain.

Here I am, a beautiful Thai girl, looking over me to wake me up and telling me the earth had moved for her. It doesn’t get better than this.

Acting like a complete prat, moron, wanker, arsehole – choose your own adjective – I looked at Jun, smiled and thanked her for the compliment, telling her she was welcome to visit any time.

I’d already learned to speak Thai to a reasonable conversational level, but I’d never learned what the Thai word for dumbass is, which is likely what she was thinking as she left.

I crawled out of bed, took a long shower to wake up, still oblivious to the tragedies that were happening in so many countries; totally oblivious to what I would be seeing and experiencing over the coming weeks.

I walked outside my house to get some sun and have a smoke. It was eerily quiet. No neighbours around; no cars in our cul-de-sac; no kids playing outside. I thought it was a little odd, but not enough to concern me.

After I’d had my cigarette and felt vaguely human again, I jumped into my car and headed back to Nai Yang Beach where I thought I’d get my usual Sunday treat in the form of a British fried breakfast at Mama Mia’s Bar.

Half way there, literally three minutes driving, it became apparent that something was very wrong. The police had blocked and closed the road leading to the beach.

I wound down my window and asked what was happening but did not understand the reply. I asked in my broken Thai if I could park my car and walk to the beach, thinking that there had been an accident ahead or something of the like. The police allowed me to pass on foot.

As I walked, I started to see what I never believed was possible had I not see it with my own eyes. Approaching the beach I didn’t even recognise my surroundings. I hardly knew I was at Nai Yang Beach.

Palm trees were town down. Cars had been tossed around and flipped over like little dinky toys. The bars all along the beach were gone and had been smashed into thousands of pieces when the wave impacted. There were a few locals, mostly bar owners including Mama Mia herself, rummaging around for anything left that had value, material or sentimental. There was very little.

On December 26th 2004, many people had headed to Nai Yang Beach to start work as they had been doing for years. Nineteen of them would never return home.

I walked back to my car in absolute bewilderment, and for some reason, elected to drive to the Marriott rather than returning home.

I went straight into the lobby bar which was full of guests and staff. Every single person was staring into space in a dazed silence.

I saw my boss, and noticed that his hand was bandaged. I asked what had happened, and he, in typical Theera understatement, told me, ‘It’s nothing’. I asked if there was anything I could do, he pointed to the piano, and simply said, ‘Play’.

Having originally left home to enjoy breakfast on the beach, I was dressed in a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. I would never dream of going to my place of work dressed in such a way, not even in my downtime, but the things that had seemed important just the day before, were now shrouded in insignificance.

It’s impossible to know what to play under such circumstances, there are no right songs. I’ve always prided myself on playing songs that fit the atmosphere, age of guests and what my audience wants in general. But, what does one play when a Tsunami has just struck? I can’t remember exactly the songs I played that day as I too was in a daze, but I do know that it was very gentle music.

Later in the afternoon I took a break and walked around the hotel. The beach, pool and gardens had been wiped out. The wave had struck the grounds of the Marriott.

There is a story on the internet about how a young girl and her family had saved everyone who was on the beach at the time. The girl had started screaming because she’d understood the signs that a Tsunami was coming, having studied the subject in geography class at school.

Here’s what actually happened, the version you don’t get to hear about.

About ten minutes before the waves struck, a member of staff was on the beach setting up chairs and towels etc, ready for the arrival of the guests. It was still quite early. Nevertheless, some guests were already sunbathing and swimming.

The staff member had noticed the sea going out and he later said that he’d felt a chilling sense of fear. He called Theera on his cell phone and asked him to go to the beach as something strange was happening with the sea. Theera went, took one look, and taking no chances, decided to get everyone off the beach.

He ran around telling all guests and staff members to evacuate the beach immediately. He stayed there, ensuring that no one had been left behind.

As the wave was coming in, Theera started running back towards the hotel, but not before the water caught him. He managed to hang on to a tree, but upon falling he’d smashed his wrist, leaving the bones in small fragments.

Theera cleared the beach that morning and possibly saved lives, but, with him happening to be one of the most modest humble men in this world, he’d never suggest as such.

A couple of days later, I walked past his office. It was full of flowers, bottles of wine and champagne, along with notes of gratitude from the guests who he’d helped.

Despite the terrible pain from his injuries, he worked solidly for the next two days. It wasn’t until the general manager, Craig Smith, insisted that he get treatment that he finally took a break. He flew to Bangkok where he underwent surgery for several hours, having his wrist rebuilt.

A few weeks later, Bill Marriot flew Theera to the US so that he could thank him personally.

From Bill Marriott’s blog:

“We have a lot of heroes here at Marriott.

“People like Theera Kanjana at our JW Marriott resort in Phuket, Thailand when the Asian Tsunami hit. After he noticed the sea acting up, he ordered everyone off the beach and away from the pool. He put his life at risk – even suffering severe injuries, but, again, he protected our guests and associates”.

Due to Theera’s actions that morning, we suffered no loss of life at the Marriott. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d experience him always thinking of others before himself.

We were lucky. Other hotels in Phuket and up to 100km north on the mainland had lost many guests and staff. One of the worst affected was the Le Meridien Hotel in Khao Lak. When rescuers arrived, they found the general manager, in his suit, sobbing, and walking along the beach looking for survivors. He wouldn’t find many. An estimated 4,000 souls perished in Khao Lak alone that fateful morning.


A few days after the event, I, together with a couple of friends drove to Patong, the major tourist destination on the southern tip of Phuket.

The beach road, together with the palm trees lining the frontage, had been torn up like confetti. Buildings had simply vanished. We saw a leg sticking out from under a pile of rubble. Aircraft accident investigators say that once they’ve experienced their first crash scene, they never forget the stench of death. That day, I understood what they meant.

The night before hell was unleashed, people had been partying in that very place. Now, it was desolate, deserted and haunted with tragedy.

For me, one of the saddest stories that I heard regarding Patong happened at the Ocean Plaza Shopping Mall. Situated right on the front, one needs to drive off the beach road and down the steep ramp to the underground basement for car parking. When the wave came with inexorable force, it literally filled up the entire area. Everyone inside at that at that moment drowned, a total of 50 people. The poor souls hadn’t stood a chance.

Bar girls; lady boys; families with children; the wealthier staying in the better hotels. It hadn’t mattered who you were, the wave offered no discrimination.

Famous film director, the late Sir Richard Attenborough’s family were holidaying in Phuket at the time. Sir Richard lost his daughter Jane, 49, Jane’s mother in law Audrey, 81, and his granddaughter, Lucy, aged just 15.


The worst affected areas were Khao Lak and Nam Khem which are towns located on the mainland 63 and 82km north of Phuket respectively.

Official Thai government figures put the death toll in Thailand as a whole at 5,500 with 4,000 of them being in Khao Lak alone. Nam Khem is a poor Thai fishing community where I would later visit. When I did so, I spoke to a Red Cross volunteer and he had told me that the real figures in Nam Khem alone were estimated to be 5,000 deaths. It’s easy to forget the poor when you have your tourism industry to protect.

The Marriott , was at the time the first major hotel to be found when arriving n the island of Phuket from the north, and was also the closest major hotel to Phuket International Airport. With the hotel being relatively intact, we were besieged by members of the press from all over the world. They’d take the busses provided from the hotel in the mornings to Khao Lak where they would snap their pictures showing how the Tsunami had destroyed the big hotels and write their articles accordingly. Very few visited Nam Khem. 5,000 deaths in a poor Thai fishing community doesn’t sell newspapers back in the West.

There were three other categories of guests who came to stay with us: Those displaced from severely damaged hotels; people from all over the world trying to find loved ones, and members of the world’s emergency response offering their assistance.

Some hotels in the worst affected areas were damaged so badly that they’d have to close their doors for almost a year. The afore mentioned Le Meridien in Khao Lak, as an example, did not welcome guests again until the following November.

With the runway at Phuket International Airport being damaged (the airport is right on Nai Yang Beach and the wave swept away a portion of the tarmac) there was no quick escape from the island. Like other hotels which had escaped severe damage, the Marriott took in tourists with no place to stay. The entire hospitality industry came together as one, and, although a mere atom in the chain, I was proud to be a part of it.

There were families comforting each other in the lobby bar, happy to still be together. There were guests comforting complete strangers. Staff were hugging and crying with guests. But the most heartbreaking thing I saw were the guests who’d come to Thailand with their loved ones, but who would be returning home bereaved.

There was a gentleman who sat at the table in front of the piano every night while I’d play. He was alone, but I knew from just looking at his face that he’d lost someone dear to him. There would be instances when I would play a certain song and his face would contort in emotional pain. I’d struck a chord, both on the piano and in his heart. Maybe it was the song he’d listened to while proposing to his wife, or maybe it was the song they’d listened to when they shared their first kiss together. I’d never know, but I so desperately wanted to take some of that man’s pain away, if only just a little bit, for a little while.

A family was sat in the bar one evening: mum, dad and their daughter of around 10 years old who was sitting in a wheelchair, her legs badly lacerated. When I took my break, I went over to them as I often did – it’s part of my job to socialise with guests – and I sat down with them. We didn’t say much, but I looked at the little girl, smiled to her, and told her that everything was going to be just fine; that they still had each other. The father looked at me and said, ‘She lost her sister.’ He was a broken man and I will never forget the pain on his face. He’d lost his princess, his baby. They’d only gone for a holiday for the Christmas period as a family, what could they possibly have done to have deserved that? I stood up, looked at the three of them and walked away without saying a word. I knew if that I said so much as told them I’m sorry, my emotions would have got the better of me.

I often think about that family even today, 13 years later.

As ever, thanks for reading.

Best wishes,

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Old 06-17-2017, 07:48 PM
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Default tsunami story

Amazing, stunning, well written and well said. It is hard for one, thousands of miles away, to truly understand the horrific tragedy that befell the people that were there. The loss, the memories and the legacy will live on because of those who write about these things. It's a living history, well done!

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Old 06-17-2017, 10:37 PM
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IMO the most important lesson gain from Indian Ocean 2004 Earthquake & Tsunami is not only "What Work and What Doesn't" but also the event is a wake up call for ASEAN countries on the necessity of disaster preparedness & mitigation.
Old 06-18-2017, 12:56 AM
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East Coast Woods East Coast Woods is offline
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Dmas how far from the beach did you live?
Old 06-18-2017, 02:56 AM
BabyBlue BabyBlue is offline
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Thank you for a very good article. I never understood how the people who live and work there didn't know what the significance is when the sea pulls so far back from the shore. I know it means tsunami, and I live in Rocky Mountains of the US. I've only seen the ocean twice in my life. How can people who live there not know? But these big ones are so rare that after several generations they forget, or downplay it. Like living on the slopes of Vesuvius, I suppose. The vineyards and olive groves grow so wonderfully there that the danger is forgotten eventually.
Old 06-18-2017, 04:42 AM
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varuna varuna is offline
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Originally Posted by BabyBlue View Post
I never understood how the people who live and work there didn't know what the significance is when the sea pulls so far back from the shore. I know it means tsunami, and I live in Rocky Mountains of the US. I've only seen the ocean twice in my life. How can people who live there not know? But these big ones are so rare that after several generations they forget, or downplay it. Like living on the slopes of Vesuvius, I suppose. The vineyards and olive groves grow so wonderfully there that the danger is forgotten eventually.
Knowing something from reading it and being there at the time is two different things.

The retracting seawater (which is the signature of coming tsunami) isn't as dramatic as what Hollywood portrays, but instead it retracts more gradually, in which case most local believe it was some freak weather.

There are many rural (islander) tribesmen who survive because their elders still remember story about it being told throughout generation, about a legend of retracting sea water and make run to the hill (to gain elevation)
Old 06-18-2017, 08:01 AM
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Thank you for the post. Sobering by at any time, things can happen that changes the rest of your life.
Old 06-18-2017, 08:21 AM
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This was not my story, it was only one of several from a guy on another blog, its at the top. This one happened to do with survival. Interesting he didn't know about the event till he actually saw the devastation. The tsunami was formed two hours away at one of the biggest ever recorded quakes, over 9 and lasting about 10 minutes.
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Old 06-19-2017, 03:14 PM
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In response to DMAS: Well written, heartfelt and an eye opener. Thank you.
Old 06-19-2017, 06:00 PM
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See post 8. I did not write this.


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