Khao Lak, home to beachfront resorts, and neighboring villages are in the area of Thailand hardest hit by the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami.
Khao Lak, home to beachfront resorts, and neighboring villages are in the area of Thailand hardest hit by the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami.
Chaiwat Subprasom -- Reuters

Help Wanted

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007

Jamie Conlan and Daria Barnhart spent their vacation this year slathering mortar over concrete-block walls in the hot sun, helping tsunami victims in southern Thailand build new homes.

College student Chelsea Norell volunteered nearby in an orphanage for children whose parents were swept away in the tsunami.

Just down the road, I took a Thai cooking class, rode a longtail fishing boat to a gorgeous beach and floated down a river on a bamboo raft.

Yet I, too, was helping the recovery effort.

My activities were operated by survivors in a village an hour north of Phuket, a village devastated in two ways. The villagers' boats and homes were destroyed by the tsunami that ripped through the area three years ago, and most of the village's best wage earners were killed: Adults who spoke English worked in beachfront hotels, making them the most vulnerable to the tsunami's waves. With the help of nonprofit groups, the village is seeking recovery by creating fun activities for tourists.

Meanwhile, with the help of a foundation set up by the Thai king's youngest daughter, another village is seeking recovery by providing tourists meals and accommodations. The foundation, using workers from the Thai military, has constructed 60 attractive cottages with tile roofs and modern baths. Villagers will live in 30 of the cottages and offer rooms to rent to tourists. The other 30 houses, which should be available in coming months, are for tourists who wish more privacy but still want to stay in a real village. Both projects bring jobs and income directly to the villagers and provide visitors a taste of Thai life -- an unusual opportunity for a tourist to become a traveler.

Whether your tastes run to physical labor, nurturing children or interactions with locals, post-tsunami recovery efforts can still be part of your next vacation.

The casual tourist in southern Thailand will see no signs of the 2004 tsunami that destroyed both fancy beach resorts and modest villages. Major hotels and resorts along the southern coast had insurance and quickly rebuilt. Yet the disaster lives on. Norell, a California college student, said she learned during her work at the orphanage that "restoration isn't merely the erection of new buildings."

In a way, the orphans are a metaphor for how things stand. Said Norell, "Often the children seem completely happy, but sometimes when they wake up in the morning, their pillows are drenched with tears."

'See You Tomorrow'

Norell, 21, says orphans saved her life. "Voluntourism" is a long family tradition, but her family always follows up with a traditional vacation. In late December 2004, they were volunteering at an orphanage in Vietnam, with plans to fly to Phuket, then drive an hour north to a beachfront resort in Khao Lak for Christmas.

The family was so intrigued by the volunteer work that they extended their stay in Vietnam. Otherwise, they most likely would have been lying on a beach on Dec. 26 in the part of Thailand hit hardest by the tsunami. More than 4,000 people in Khao Lak died that day, including many tourists and the grandson of the Thai king.

Nearly three years after the tsunami, Norell finally made her trip to Khao Lak. She chose to stay in the resort town, traveling to a village about an hour away each day to volunteer at an orphanage operated by the Duang Prateep Foundation, a Thai nonprofit agency. I found her there last July, teaching about a dozen children simple English vocabulary. A running game required them to shout out directions in English. She'd hand out cards with numbers spelled out in English, and the children would say the number, then line up in the order of the number they'd chosen.

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