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Sharing Amongst
the Shards

Published in The Nation
Newspaper - August 2005

Tourists Pitch in to Help
Phi Phi Island

By Oliver Benjamin

For most people, a dream vacation on the fabled Thai island of Ko Phi Phi doesn’t involve lugging around sacks of broken concrete in the hot sun.

But for Carla and Fernando Maura, that’s exactly why they came here from their native Spain. For five hours each day they scour the beach, collect debris left over from the Tsunami disaster, put it in bags and deposit it on an ever-growing mountain of rubbish that stands as a tribute both to all that Phi Phi has lost, and all it has received.

The Tsunami that wrought havoc throughout the Andaman sea last December hit Ko Phi Phi especially hard. As the most populous area of the island is framed on each side by two majestic bays, the wave curled around and hit the center of town from both sides, effectively doubling the destructive force. The result was cataclysmic. That day, more than 800 people perished on this tiny slice of paradise.

After watching the searing images on television in their native Barcelona, Carla and Fernando searched the internet for a way to help that went beyond just donating some money. They came across Help International Phi Phi (www.hiphiphi.com), a small organization founded in the wake of the disaster by a Dutch tourist who had some relief experience in Africa. The site appealed to anyone who might listen that urgent help was needed immediately. The millions of dollars raised by the international community could do nothing for people who had lost everything and could not wait for the proverbial “check in the mail” – a check that still has not come. And though these hard-working Spaniards might have enjoyed a more relaxing break from their daily grind, they could not resist this alternative form of recreation: that is, to help rebuild what the Tsunami destroyed.

From 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., six days a week, scores of foreigners dressed in bathing suits and protective gloves can be seen scattered across Ko Phi Phi’s gorgeous white beaches and its quaint lanes, an army of bronzed altruists helping to clean, paint, plant and rebuild what once was an island famous not for tragic destruction, but joyful distraction.

They emanate radially from the HiPhiPhi “Tool Shed,” a small warehouse located in the very center of what used to be Ton Sai Village. The Tool Shed is command central for all manual operations, and is stocked with building supplies, wheelbarrows, protective gear, and assorted other tools. As very little international aid has found its way to little Phi Phi, all of HiPhiPhi’s operations have been funded by private donations.

Current projects are listed on dry-erase board outside the shed: Repainting a restaurant, fixing the septic tank at a small resort, the ever-present beach cleaning, and so on. Skilled divers are employed to clean debris from the ocean floor and haul it onto waiting pontoon boats.

Six months after the Tsunami there is still so much to do, and HiPhiPhi is doing what it can, largely with the help of young, able-bodied tourists – most of whom got involved quite by accident.

Ferry boats arrive here twice-daily, shipping in tourists eager to laze about on the sand with a book or a frosty Beer Chang. But as they lug their packs down the pier they can’t help but notice two friendly girls holding signs that read “Want to Volunteer? Talk to me.” Of course, most just keep on walking, but each time a handful actually do stop and discover an unexpected way of acquiring a suntan.

There is no shame in walking on by, however. The organization insists that just by visiting Ko Phi Phi and spending one’s tourist dollars, this little island can be eased slowly back onto its feet. To the locals who make their livelihoods from tourism, visitors who merely sleep in their bungalows, chow down banana pancakes and get trashed on local liquor are their heroes as well.

Though Phi Phi has been at pains to let everyone know that it is wide open for tourism again, bookings have already been cancelled, and too many tourists are under the false impression that Phi Phi has been utterly washed away. Consequently revenues down to a fraction of what they normally are. Yet there is no better time to visit – Phi Phi had arguably become overdeveloped before the disaster and despite the great cost of life and property, it now enjoys a wide-open expanse of scenery and peacefulness unseen since its early days as a tourist destination.

In the six months that HiPhiPhi has been in operation, it’s come up with all sorts of creative ways to raise funds and to provide a helping hand. In Ton Sai here’s now a small HiPhiPhi shop that sells T-shirts, jewelry, books and more, a HiPhiPhi restaurant, a HiPhiPhi medical center, a Tsunami Information Center and even a free tour (though donations are of course accepted) which helps to enlighten visitors as to the extent of the damage.

The tour starts at 9:30 and begins with a brief video assembled from bits of footage taken by tourists who witnessed the event. Against the melancholy strains of Ben Harper singing “I am blessed to be a witness,” we ourselves witness the wholesale destruction the wave wrought. It is like watching a trailer for Apocalypse Now, with its surf, helicopters, wounded and astonishing wreckage. At the end, a few in the audience have tears in their eyes.

We are escorted on our tour by Pichet Intongmak, 26, a Phi Phi local for the last 10 years. He is soft-spoken and earnest and most of what he has to say is of a personal nature. He tells us what it was like to flee up Reggae mountain to escape the waves, taking refuge for days as dead bodies floated down below. He tells us of the Phi Phi that was, of the children orphaned, of the problems that still linger.

Pichet leads us to a building that used to house the employees of the island’s largest resort – inside is a veritable archaeology of lost lives. The floor is piled high with damaged personal effects that will remain unclaimed. Walls still bear damaged photographs of friends and family, shredded posters of sports heroes and bits of intimate graffiti. The sheer force that passed through here is incontestable – metal bunkbed frames have been twisted around each other, wooden doors have been shattered like glass, and ceramic toilets upended and broken. Whatever happened to the people who lived there is beyond comprehension.

The three-story resort itself is still standing, though all the rooms on the bottom floor have been gutted, the walls between them washed away. Smaller, one-story establishments have not been so lucky. Though the beach has been cleared, a few meters farther in it’s still littered with chunks of concrete that made up the walls of this building and many others. As we follow our guide on his tour we pass a group of HiPhiPhi volunteers dutifully placing chunks into bags. They greet Pichet with the easy camaraderie of lifelong friends – they’re not just buddies, after all, the HiPhiPhis, they’re allies in a war against despair. “The Power of Love,” Pichet notes as we continue past them down the beach. It is a refrain he uses often in his presentation. And under the circumstances, it does not sound the least bit corny.

The tour finishes at the HiPhiPhi shop, where one of the most striking products on offer is a full-color book called The Children of Phi Phi Island. It contains a bittersweet collection of drawings and essays by local children who suffered through the disaster. The images are both touching and haunting – childlike crayon sketches of utter mayhem: cartoon waves crashing onto brightly-colored beaches, blue seas full of struggling stick figures, miserable suns. The essays are similarly heart-rending, often including stories of lost family members. The book will soon be available internationally, and you can see a preview of it at (www.childrenofphiphi.com).

The shop is still filled a half an hour later, minus much of its stock, and despite the fact that donations were never explicitly asked for, many of those on the tour have given generously. “It would have just gone to me liver anyway,” a sunburned Englishman jokes, happily stuffing Thai currency into the donation box.

Marie-Louise “Coral” Schmiegelow, 22, is among those who spend hours a day in the hot sun gathering chunks of concrete. When asked if she finds the work difficult, the thin young Danish woman shakes her head no. The stories of loss the locals tell her inspire her to give everything she has. “Yesterday I only had two hours of sleep and I did gardening until six p.m. without even noticing it.” She insists, however, that people only have to work as hard as they wish. “There’s no pressure at all. Any one who wants to help only needs to go to the tool shed and get a bag and some gloves. They can work as much or as little as they want. That way everyone is in a good mood and that no one brings any bad energy to the group.”

From the looks of things, there’s very little bad energy going around. The volunteers behind her look like they’re having the time of their lives. They smile and laugh as they scamper around, as if they were filling their bags with gold instead of concrete. Manual labor has never looked so engaging.

Despite all their efforts, however, there are still many hurdles. Full reconstruction still hinges on some wrangling between the government and the land-owners. Money promised by the government and aid agencies has yet to materialize, and HiPhiPhi is struggling to survive with the meager funds it manages to collect – it’s running short of funds to purchase supplies and pay their Thai workers. Still, Coral maintains that everyone involved is positive about the future.

“There’s a long way to go,” she says, “but working all together, step by step, we’re going to make it.” She sweeps her arm out to indicate the empty stretch of land, once piled high with rubble. “Only one month ago, this was much worse.”

At night both volunteers and Thais usually end up at Hippies bar, where they relax after a hard day’s work and get to know each other better over a beer and some tunes. Many who expected to stay here only a few days have pushed their flights back again and again, touched by the plight of the islanders and inspired by such a meaningful pastime. Just last night two long-termers finally had to leave and they were given a tearful send off. They promised they would come back, as others have. Of the over 1000 volunteers have participated in the last six months, many have already returned for an additional stint.

If, as most travelers contend, the highlights of traveling are the friends you make and the communities you interact with, then HiPhiPhi should be considered a much more attractive proposition than a full moon party or packaged jungle trek. And here, volunteers eat for free.

Ironically, it was at Ko Phi Phi that the blockbuster 1999 movie The Beach was filmed. In the film, a group of young people try to carve out a hedonistic version of paradise and it all goes horribly wrong. The message: Because of human desire and greed, there can be no such thing as paradise on earth. But here, in this little battered Eden of an island, a group of concerned youth have found that by banding together and acting selflessly, paradise can be created, if only for the moment.

Dragging her bag to a nearby wheelbarrow, Coral says, “We can learn from this: We need to take care of each other, to stop fighting against each other and to start fighting together against the bad things in this world.” She looks up and smiles, “We need to help spread the love.”

To the cynical ear, it might seem strange to hear the word “love” bandied about so willy-nilly, but to those who have seen its effects, it does not sound the least bit corny.

For more information about Help International Phi Phi, or to make donations, please visit their website at www.hiphiphi.com.

All text and images © copyright Oliver Benjamin