Backpackers Flock to Rebuild Thai Party Island
PHI PHI, Thailand — Two young British men sit shirtless on a Phi Phi beach, wearing surfer shorts, leather thong necklaces and Indian bracelets -- an iconic image of one of the great party-hard destinations on the hippie-backpacker trail.
They're also wearing tattered work gloves, though, and are sitting next to a gigantic pile of rubble dragged out of the sea after the unprecedented Dec. 26 tsunami that left almost 228,000 people missing or dead along the Indian Ocean rim.
Tom Watmore and James Evans are among the droves of round-the-world travelers who have put their wanderlust on hold to help tsunami victims on this Thai island in the Andaman Sea.
"I heard about it all over," said Watmore, 23, from Nottingham, who was on a year-long travel adventure.
He met Evans, 22, from Buckinghamshire, when he arrived on Phi Phi Don, a 45-minute speedboat ride from Phuket, Thailand's upmarket tourist resort island.
The two work together taking rubble that divers pull out from the sea bottom and piling it up on the beach.
"I don't think I could stay here in Thailand without helping out. Got to give something back. The people are so cool," Watmore said. "It'd just be rude not to."
NO OFFICIAL AID PROGRAMS
About 1,400 young people have come through the island since an ad hoc aid group, Hi Phi Phi, started up at the end of January, the news spreading by word of mouth and Internet cafes.
Some lost friends and fellow travelers when two tsunami waves, the second more ferocious than the first, roared in on a sun-spangled morning as Christmas revelers were sleeping it off.
The 16-foot waves converged from both sides of Tonsai village which lies on a narrow palm-fringed isthmus between two sheer-sided hills popular with bungee jumpers and rock climbers, leaving it almost totally in ruins.
What's striking is the complete absence of any official aid programs on Phi Phi Don, where more than 700 people died and 1,300 are listed missing.
"I expected to see UNICEF, CARE, all those international organizations, but there was actually nothing," said Emiel Kok, of Gouda in the Netherlands, who heads Hi Phi Phi, the only aid group on the island.
Kok had lived on Phi Phi from 1992 to 1998, running a dive shop. He speaks Thai and is on the board of directors of Change All Foundation, which helps children in South Africa and is the fundraising entity for Hi Phi Phi (www.hiphiphi.com).
But some folks in Phuket and on the mainland wonder just what the "hippies" are up to on Phi Phi Don, which gained worldwide attention when the adjacent, uninhabited Phi Phi Leh was used as the location for the 1999 backpacker movie, "The Beach."
"The backpackers and hippies mean well, but they don't know how to do it," said a former Thai army officer who goes by his U.S. Special Forces name of Ed Boon.
Boon is organizing aid projects through his association of retired Special Forces soldiers. "People who are asking for their help may take advantage -- get them to build a nice house on the beach."
CASH LOOKING FOR PROJECTS
Unlike other emergencies, the tsunami relief effort is notable for the number of small-scale projects that make it easier for people to participate and to know how and where the money is spent.
But a Western diplomat based in Phuket said ad hoc aid groups need to be monitored. "There's a lot of cash out there looking for projects. Instead of projects looking for cash, which is the usual case, you have cash looking for projects."
About $9.1 billion in official and private donations has been pledged for tsunami projects, according to data Reuters has compiled, one of the biggest aid efforts in history.
Kok insists that Hi Phi Phi is not building anything and welcomes professional support.
"We're cleaning up so people can start making a living again. We're not a group of hippies doing something without thinking. We have nurses, we have skilled workers and we're doing things in a structured way.
"We're in close contact with the (provincial) government of Krabi," he added, proudly pointing to two certificates from the Krabi governor commending the group for its cleanup operations and work with children. More than 100 local children lost one or both parents in the calamity, he said.
Bronzed, shirtless young men pushing wheelbarrows and lugging rakes, hoes and picks moved about the ruins of Tonsai village in the noonday sun.
Last year they would have been lolling on the beach after a night of intense partying. Now they meet at Carlito's and the Reggae Bar -- which in pre-tsunami days served up buckets of Thai whiskey mixed with Red Bull and throbbed to the beat of techno music -- to organize the next day's projects.
A young American woman sits on a railing outside a shed where rows of saws, wrenches, hammers, spades and trowels are neatly arranged, checking off who's borrowing and returning tools.
About 70 volunteer divers go out every morning with fishing nets, filling them each day with about two tons of debris. They float the debris to the surface with air bags -- jewelry, laptops, ID cards, even Christmas decorations -- where volunteers like Evans and Watmore lug it back to the rubble pile.
Personal items are logged in case they can help prove the identity of some of the 1,300 or so victims still missing.
Day divers still come to the island and are grateful the stunning coral reefs are being cleaned. Almost none of the hotels, though, have reopened.
ENN Special Report: Sustainable Travel