I was beyond fortunate to have a local show me around parts of Khao Lak and Ban Nam Khem Tsunami Memorial Park, amongst other off-the-beaten-track locations where you’ll find no tourists.
Some of the beaches and little spots that we stopped at were beyond amazing – isolated, near deserted and pristine with local Thai families just out enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon, and to me that stands out. They’ve been through so much yet are so resilient, always offering that world-famous Thai smile.
Jonny, a friend I met three years ago, offered to show me around what he called his Thailand, his home, and it was something special. For me, it’s all about telling a story, sharing that with other people. Jonny runs Lucky’s, a Thai-Western restaurant situated along what’s called Khao Lak Eating Street near Bang Niang Market – which is well worth checking out.
So there we were: me, Jonny and our friend Thomas heading up towards the fishing village of Ban Nam Khem. I’m in the back seat trying to take photos on my phone, juggling my Osmo Pocket and GoPro cameras all at the same time and, despite the air conditioning, I was struggling. Jonny says if I want to take photos to let him know. Let me say, we stopped a lot. Photos of locals, beaches, a multi-million-baht prawn farm and even some cute little semi-domesticated piglets. I took photos of them all.
As a photojournalist what stood out the most was around the area where the ferries left for Pak Ko harbour. Busy with locals, it felt like the heart of the village, in contrast with the surrounding area which hasn’t come close to being fully recovered after the devastating 2004 Tsunami. Massive structures remain empty except the nesting swallows that have taken up residence.
While other areas around Khao Lak have taken off thanks to tourism and holiday resorts, this is one place that hasn’t. Even now, being back home in Australia, it still hits me hard looking at photos of just after the tsunami hit, and seeing what I saw cannot but affect you.
The tsunami memorial at Ban Nam Khem is run down and eerily haunting. As I walked along the concrete wall that’s in the shape of a wave, I spotted a local family who were out on a Sunday afternoon walk, perhaps remembering those who were no longer with them. I cannot describe what it’s like walking along this section of the memorial. I always think of Coldplay’s song Fix You. The images of those lost in the tsunami stay with you, as do the plaques and how quiet it is. I felt like time had stopped.
One plaque that is burned into my mind is a yellow helmet of possibly a firefighter or paramedic. There’s the number 196 in red on the helmet and what looks like a diver’s badge on the bottom left of the plaque. I was told they were from Finland and were in Thailand at the time with their family, but the Thai text on the plaque translates into something different.
Reports differ, and even now it’s nearly impossible to get records on who the helmet belongs to. Nonetheless, people need to remember, people need to visit these places. It’s about respecting the Thai people and their culture and understanding what happened.
If you do visit, just remember not to act like a tourist. Treat the locals with the utmost respect and they will return the favour.
– Blair Horgan
Blair Horgan is a writer and photojournalist from Australia who has spent the last couple of years working closely with various emergency services based in the North West of Tasmania. He frequently travels to Thailand, Bali and Vietnam where he enjoys mostly doing street photography, finding himself off the beaten track and trying to get the next story. You can follow him at www.facebook.com/aussiejournalist or check out his portfolio at gurushots.com/Blair.Horgan/photos