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Phuket: Should You Go?

"We hope most things will be back open in three months," says Hompont Boonpeang, a chef at the Royal Palm Restaurant, one of the few beach road eateries back in business. Where two cars had been lodged in the open-air dining room, three tables of tourists eat lunch and look out over the battered Holiday Inn. "It's still very slow," he says, laughing. "No tips. And I start to worry about my salary, too."

He's a cheerful, round-faced man, and it's long into a joking chat that he mentions that seven members of his family were killed by the wave, including his mother. She gave massages on the beach.

A vendor sets up Surin Beach for the tourists who are trickling back to Thailand's Phuket Island. (Apichart Weerawong - For The Washington Post)

_____Post-Tsunami Thailand_____
Phuket: Should You Go?
Airlines, Tour Operators Offer Deals

Most of the worst-damaged beachfront buildings have been cleared away. But there remain a few truly monstrous ruins. A guesthouse is crumpled like tinfoil. It's impossible not to imagine being shoved through those jagged heaps of concrete by the incalculable weight of the Indian Ocean. It's impossible not to glance again at the sea, which is as meek as a spring pond.

Theresa Miller walks the beach, stopping to place a flower in the little garden of 235 placards stuck in the sand, each inscribed with the name of someone killed on Phuket. She's from Winthrop, Wash., and she and her husband have just stopped here for some beach R&R after an annual stint of volunteer work in Cambodia. It's been a routine for nine years. This time it's heartbreaking, she says, but they never considered not coming.

"The beauty is just overwhelming here," she says. "It reminds me more than anything that life goes on."

A Solemn Ceremony

And finally, it's time to send the ghosts away. The Thais, mostly Buddhists and animists, are an admittedly superstitious lot, and everyone has a spooky tale to tell. Kan Nathong, the tour guide, heard of a taxi driver who picked up a group of foreign tourists soon after the tsunami. "When they reach their hotel," she says breathlessly, "he couldn't get the money from them. They were spirits."

Such stories make many workers -- and no doubt some potential tourists -- openly nervous, and nothing may indicate Phuket's yearning for normalcy more than the recent series of public exorcisms. Called merit-making ceremonies, they are a Buddhist ritual meant to speed the lingering spirits of the dead on to the next world. One in Khao Lak last week filled a stadium. This morning, several dozen locals and a handful of tourists gather not far off the beach in Bang Tao.

A line of nine Buddhist monks moves slowly along a table crowded with offerings, accepting baskets of goods from the gathered faithful. A placid breeze stirs the saffron robe of the eldest monk as he takes a basket of alms -- rice, sticks of incense, fruit, boxes of juice and milk, cans of sardines -- from a young man wearing the tunic of a hotel bellman. The old man nods gently; the young one makes a respectful wai, his hands pressed together as he lowers his face to his fingertips. Next to the bellman, a woman in a hostess dress with a Sheraton name tag hands fresh orchids across the table to another monk; then come several men in kitchen whites, a pool boy in khaki shorts. There are dozens of hotel employees crowding the table, in the uniforms of five surrounding resorts.

As the monks pass and the baskets and bags change hands, the workers are reverent in the inimitably graceful way of the Thais. But then they turn happily to their neighbors to laugh and talk. It's a beautiful morning; the mood is high. A month after the tragedy, it's time for the dead to go and for life to go on.

"It makes me feel good to do this," says Nui, a young woman whose family owns a restaurant on the nearby beach. The thatch-roofed building was only slightly damaged by the wave, and Nui's family reopened it within a few days. They set up each day and await the tourists. "Now I think spirits can be happy and people here can be happy. People can come back here now."

Steve Hendrix will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's weekly forum at www.washingtonpost.com.

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