Travelling to one country four times wouldn’t make sense to the people who don’t know our story…
26th December 2004
The last day of our first overseas trip. I was 14 at the time and my sister was 12. Having spent a week in Phuket, we had fallen in love with the people, the food and the beaches. Back in 2004, many people didn’t know that Phuket existed, and it was the events of that fateful day that made this tropical paradise one of the most popular holiday destinations today.
We woke up that morning feeling both sad and excited. Sad because this was the last day of our holiday, and excited because we knew we had a whole day of beach activities to look forward to. We had decided that we would braid our hair on the last day so we were very eager to get to the beach. We stared at our dad impatiently as he ate his breakfast. As soon as he was done, we headed off to the beach.
The Patong Merlin Hotel is located across the road from the famous Patong Beach, however the plot of land that it is situated on is quite large and so, it takes a while to walk to the beach. About halfway down the path, we heard loud crashing sounds. Our first thought was terrorist attacks, considering all the unrest that the Middle East had been experiencing. Therefore, we immediately turned around and ran back towards a basement.
Almost immediately after descending into the basement, a Thai local appeared at the top of the stairs and shouted “Come up! The water is coming in!”. In a frantic rush, we climbed out of the basement and made our way to the top floor of the hotel. The hotel only had three floors, but the land was sloped so that the building was situated on the higher elevation. From the balcony, what we saw will remain etched into my memory forever…
The calm blue waters of the Andaman Sea had turned into a brown, raging whirlpool. Waves were moving in all directions..left, right, back, front. The first wave came a few minutes after we reached the balcony. The whole sea was moving towards us. The wave went straight through the reception area on the ground floor and out onto the street on the other side. The tsunami washed boats, sundeck chairs, cars and even bodies onto the hotel grounds. The two main waves were around 3-6m in height.
As the water receded, we watched in horror at the devastating picture that it left behind. A little Thai boy was pulled out of one of the pools. He was blue. My sister and I had been swimming with him the day before. People were screaming and frantically rushing around looking for their loved ones. It was one of the most painful things to watch. My dad even went down to help look for survivors, not knowing if another tsunami was on its way.
Over the next hour or so, military trucks had arrived to take people to higher ground. We jumped in, leaving all our belongings behind. We arrived at a hilltop, where we spent the next 12 hours. Breakfast leftovers that could be saved were brought to the hilltop for us. We kept replaying what had happened, having a hard time believing that it had actually happened.
We were then transported to various hotels within Phuket town. My family and I were sent to the Phuket City Hotel. Upon arrival, everything was so chaotic. Officers were present with lists of foreigners in an attempt to identify who was still alive. We were given a room for the night and didn’t even have clothes to sleep in. That had to have been the most difficult sleep of my life.
27 December 2004
Fortunately, we were due to leave back to South Africa the next day. That morning my dad decided to go back to get our luggage. He had to pay someone a higher than normal fee as people were scared to go back to the coast. He returned safely, and described the scene at the hotel as one that you would expect at a graveyard.
We made it to the airport and waited in silence at our boarding gate. Moments later, all the shopkeepers began closing their shops in a hurry. When asked why, one man replied that another tsunami was on its way. Bear in mind that Phuket International Airport is located right next to the sea. I lost all hope at that point and my entire body was shaking. No one knew what to expect. Luckily, it was a false alarm and we managed to get safely on to our flight to Singapore.
Around 280 000 lives were lost to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Had it been even as little as 30 seconds earlier, my family and I would have not survived. But I guess that’s just fate. This is why Phuket will always hold a special place in our hearts and why it always feels like home.
I have decided to start this blog to bring tips and travel advice to my fellow travellers. I have had the privilege of travelling extensively, and I feel that my experiences can be of some help to many of you.