To give CNN its due, there is profound devastation along Thailand's Andaman Coast, where more than 5,000 people were killed when the wave hit. Most fatalities occurred at Khao Lak, a high-end resort area on the mainland about 60 miles north of Phuket Town. Almost every hotel was demolished at Khao Lak, and the grisly work of identifying bodies -- many of them Swedish and Norwegian tourists -- goes on in makeshift morgues. The rebuilding there could take years. But on Phuket itself, the damage was far more limited. An estimated 235 people died here, a number that seems small only in comparison to the mind-boggling death tolls elsewhere. And on this island roughly the size of Singapore, it is indeed possible to move about many of the tourist zones and see almost no marks of catastrophe.
"It's really much better than we ever imagined," says Clare Albinson, an English hypnotherapist lounging on the patio of the Laguna Beach Resort on Bang Tao Beach. Her daughter, Jane, lies in the next chair with "The Da Vinci Code" open on her bikini'd belly. Her husband swims in the elaborate pool, a fanciful mock-up of Angkor Wat-like jungle ruins. They have the two pool-bar waiters to themselves. "When it first happened, we expected to cancel. It didn't seem to be the thing to do to come enjoy yourself in a place where there's been death and destruction. But the tour company in Phuket e-mailed us that things were not that bad and pleaded with us to come. We're glad we did. The people we've talked to seem to feel they were really quite lucky here."
A vendor sets up Surin Beach for the tourists who are trickling back to Thailand's Phuket Island.
(Apichart Weerawong - For The Washington Post)
At the southern tip of the island, at Kata Beach, the sun is high and white over the glaring sand and a few dozen Western visitors linger in the shade of banyan trees. A Club Med resort sits at one end of the beach where many of the women are topless and the men favor Euro-skimpy trunks. At the other end, long-tail boats idle in the shallows. In better times they would be ferrying snorkelers to the surrounding reefs and outer islands. Now their owners tinker with engines and nap in the sterns as they wait for scarce customers. One lucky one putters out with four tourists aboard.
There's more bustle at Surin Beach. Blessed with a high dune, Surin still features its full complement of thatched beachside restaurants, fruit-shake stands and daiquiri bars. By noon, the parking area is full and more than 200 tourists fill the chairs. "This is the best beach, and now it's the most crowded one," says Horst Klemmer, a civil servant from Berlin making his annual visit. "People are coming here instead of Patong."
Patong Beach, roughly in the middle of the west coast, is Phuket's Waikiki -- the hub of beach life when the sun is up and nightlife when it goes down. It's also where most of the island's fatalities occurred. Everyone came to Patong.
It takes two parallel roads along Patong's mile-long beach to hold the hundreds of hotels, T-shirt shops, restaurants and bars, bars, bars that have grown up in Phuket's three decades as one of Asia's liveliest beach resorts. A half-block inland, the Bourbon Street buzz continues apace even though some joints now have more bar girls than customers and several others are closed until the crowds come back.
Still, Bangla Road is one great noisy arcade of saloons, the Shipwreck, the Flash A-Go-Go, the Crocodile Discotheque ("1 Jug of kamikazes free for every group of 8 girls"). There are families here, too, and older couples at the outdoor pizzerias and noodle shops. But mainly it's a drinking crowd. Groups of men make their increasingly unsteady way from place to place. A heavy man in a strained Singha beer T-shirt, age 55 or so, strolls with a waif-thin twentysomething Thai woman. It's a common sight in Thailand, unpromising Western men sightseeing with striking younger women. They often don't seem to talk much, leading you to assume that they exhausted their common language back when the money changed hands. It's the kind of tourism that no natural disaster will ever eliminate.
During the day, along the Patong beach road, things are much quieter. This is Phuket's ground zero, although even here clots of tourists sun themselves on the clear, smooth sand and vendors hawk Jet Ski rentals at the waterline. Dominique Lanser walks out of the ocean with a bag of trash. The 26-year-old Dutch dive instructor peels off his mask and waddles in flippered feet over to a garbage can. He offloads plastic bottles, a baseball cap, a toilet valve. The seafloor is still littered with the takings of the tsunami, and Lanser spends time as a cleanup volunteer while the reef-diving business is slow. Like many in Phuket, he's beginning to see signs of recovery. "I think it's picking up; you see more people on the beach every day," he says, water sparkling on his face. "And Starbucks is opening back up next week. It's a good sign."
The beach is wide and white and empty, since the government hasn't yet allowed the replacement of the hundreds of commercial beach chairs that were swept away. Kan Nathong, a tour guide, says she likes it this way. "It's like Phuket 25 years ago. So clean. I hope they do not let so much clutter back."
Up on the road, the storefronts are still mostly empty shells, gaping caves trimmed in tangled rebar and knotted wires. Handwritten posters point tourists to life and commerce on the upper floors (the same places where many of those running flat out before the surging ocean found refuge on that Sunday morning). The sidewalks, normally crowded with ambling tourists, are packed with construction workers.