On February 1-7 , 2005 I went to the tsunami stricken regions of Thailand on a journalistic research and relief mission. Before scrolling down, be forewarned, some of the pictures are graphic and can be disturbing.

Here is the original email called "An Open Suitcase of Relief" that stated it all ...


IN THE TSUNAMI WAKE © 2005, Brad Olsen

HER TOOTHBRUSH WAS STILL IN A JAR BY THE SINK. Her toothpaste, makeup, vitamins, pills and other toiletries were in the bathroom too. Her hair brush had what looked like dark blonde hair in the combs. Outside on the porch her bathing suit hung on a clothes line. Katarina Hallgren liked to collect sea shells. An assortment of colorful shells, along with two plastic bottles filled with sand, remained at the bottom of her hotel room closet just below a hanging floral dress and a pretty blouse. Situated on another closet shelf was a book written in Swedish and a breakfast coupon for the Seagull Andaman Hotel. The date stamped on the coupon was “27 DEC 2004.” Entering Katarina Hallgren’s room was like stepping into a personal mausoleum. Everything was just as she had left it on that fateful morning.


The placid Khao Lak beach ... as seen on Feb. 4th, 2005
Another room in Katarina's hotel. Rescue workers had already collected luggage and most of the victim's valuable items.
One of many bathrooms I viewed with personal items still intact.
Our first view of Khao Lak. Most hotels were fenced off and already gutted.

Katarina Hallgren was likely having breakfast when the infamous tsunami hit. Either that or beach combing the picturesque Khao Lak beach she loved to explore. Placed on her room desk was a copy of Khao Lak Inside magazine featuring the cover story “Happiness Knows No Limitation.” She may have been thinking about what she would do on her final night in Thailand. Her Scandinavian Airlines boarding pass from Phuket to Gothenburg (dated Dec 27 DEC at 7:50 PM) was on her bed, perhaps being readied for transfer to her money belt. But like thousands of others, her return flight was never to be used. Ironically, if she had been in bed nursing a hangover from a Christmas late night party she would be alive today. Her room was on the third floor.

Damage from the tsunami ...
... was uniformly destructive.
Everything in its path ...
... suffered immeasurably.
Swimming pools are now swamps.

Just after 10:00 a.m. the second wave unleashed its undiscriminating fury on a completely unsuspecting foreign clientele at Khao Lak. Tourists and locals alike were swept away in an instant. Hotel rooms like Katarina’s on the third floor were frozen in time above the surge. Rooms on the second floor of the Seagull Andaman had been nearly filled with water so when they drained most personal effects were deposited haphazardly into the open air hallway. The ground floor illustrated the sheer force of the tidal wave. Solid cinder block walls were punched open, sometimes up to six walls in a row, with everything in the rooms smashed against the final wall to hold its integrity. Trees were plucked from their roots and tossed about the resort at random. The swimming pool was now a fetid swamp. Delicate landscaping was covered by several feet of mud and sand. Even the jungle across the road from the Seagull Andaman where the tsunami made its final stand was touched by the stain of death – the saltwater had killed all the undergrowth.

Rescue operations continue.
Thai laborers do most of the heavy work.
This boat is about one mile inland.
Khao Lak may never be the same.
The damaged buildings can be fixed ...
... but the lives are lost forever.

* * *


These photos are not included to be shocking ...

... but to show the monumental task of IDing thousands of bodies. A few photos have been Xed off with a red marker. The rest remain anonymous.
DO NOT click on these photos if images of decomposed bodies are disturbing! You may have nightmares.

It can be said that most of us attend church or temple services to come into a closer understanding of the world beyond. Priests, ministers, rabbis, clerics, monks, shaman, and ascetics are trained in all matters pertaining to spirituality. One universal task of all holy men worldwide is attending to the soul of the recently deceased. Such is certainly the case in the Buddhist realm, as is evident in Thailand. Thai monks of the Theravada Buddhist tradition are taught to attend to spirits in the form of chants and rituals.

On Phuket Island forensic experts ID the thousands of foreign tourists ...
... The experts are almost all European police officers who work on crime scenes. Bodies are being loaded in rear from freezer to truck.
The "Open Suitcase of Relief" weighed about 60 pounds ...
... And was gladly delivered to the main hospital closest to Khao Lak beach.
A solitary flower memorial on Patong Beach.

Yet Thailand has a dual relationship with Buddhism. Animism can be observed across the country in the form of the ubiquitous Thai Spirit Houses, which are mostly devoted to the memory of departed ancestors. Its mixture with Buddhism is accepted by the mellow Thai people, of whom 95% profess themselves as Buddhists. The resulting mix with animism is the gentlest and most liberal form of Buddhism practiced in the world. Attesting to their faith, glittering Buddhist temples and Spirit House shrines can be found throughout Thailand.

The good people at the PTA Recovery Center.


Only the immediate beachfront property of Patong Beach still bears tsunami scars ...
... but the cleanup and rebuilding is progressing every day.
Wreckage of various items are still to be found ... but not for long.
Karen found this shirt in a destroyed Koh Pei Pei shop. I'd hate to think who took it seriously enough to wear.

The Yan Yao Buddhist monastery is located in the middle of Takua Pa, a small city nestled alongside the picturesque Takua Pa River. Wat Yan Yao is located far enough inland not to have been directly affected by the tsunami, but other places nearby took the full brunt. Most of the Phang Nga coastline was engulfed by waves estimated to have been up to 50 feet (15 m) in height, compared with the waves of 18 feet (5.5 m) that hit Phuket and Krabi. The reason for the difference in wave heights has been attributed to the slope of the continental shelf off Phang Nga. In the center of Phang Nga province, 18 miles (30 km) south of Takua Pa, is the former tourist town Bang Niang. Set sufficiently away from the beach is Wat Bang Niang, the other Buddhist monastery that rose to the challenge of assisting in the tsunami disaster relief.

A peaceful Buddhist monastery was transformed in a day ...
... to a makeshift morgue for thousands of bodies and a relief center for survivors.
The Yan Yao monastery is now the "Center for Forensic and Identification" for the 1000s of Thai victims ...
... as thousands of bodies await their identity in refrigerated containers along the riverbank.
Yet the monks of Yan Yao still seem blissfully at ease.

Perhaps because of their spiritual training, or maybe because there was nowhere else to go, the two largest temple complexes in the Khao Lak region became emergency relief centers immediately following the tsunami. The traumatized were cared for and the severely injured were transported to the various hospitals of southwestern Thailand. From the day after the tsunami struck and for weeks to follow came the arrival of the dead – literally thousands of bodies. So many so that the two Buddhist monasteries became sprawling above ground graveyards. Until the refrigerated containers arrived, the immediate surroundings of Wat Bang Niang and Wat Yan Yao would have been very difficult to pass. Although the smell has mostly left the temple grounds a month later, the work goes on as a forensic and missing persons’ identification center. As the mounting bodies accumulated in the temple grounds both monasteries kept their doors open to the unspeakable horror. Their community service during this national tragedy cannot be overstated.

* * *

Bang Niang Camp. All of the people pictured here lost one or several relations in the tsunami.
To the left is our guide Don. Below is the pregnant woman who guided us first to the man who lost seven family members, then to the others.

The first day I arrived in Thailand I discovered a book called The Teachings of Buddha in my hotel drawer. The first page I turned to illustrated a lesson, in which the Buddha observed that the correct path to Enlightenment was to embrace the four human emotions of compassion, gentleness, kindness, and equanimity. I would take this to heart as I toured the tsunami stricken regions of Thailand. Nowhere have I seen the embodiment of these human emotions personified more than at the two aforementioned Buddhist monasteries in Phang Nga. We can read, we can listen, we can comprehend, but when is it ever more important for us to practice what we preach?

I look at the photos I collected on the trip and I am routinely amazed by the look of contentment on the faces of the monks I visited. Actually their expressions look the same as other Buddhist monks I have met in my travels. But those other monks have not seen what the Khao Lak monks have seen. Nevertheless, the Khao Lak monks emanated a serene sense of understanding; a resolution to persevere; a grasping of a great truth not realized by most.

The "Laguna" suffered erosion damage, but buffered many hotels by absorbing the waves.
Bang Tao has several restaurants on the beach that will likely never reopen again.
The ubiquitous Spirit House reminds people that there is hope ...
... in troubled times. We are mere mortals after all, or as a popular bumper sticker says:
"We are not humans having a spiritual experience, but spirits having a human experience."

I made cash donations to both monasteries in Phang Nga. After presenting my gift to the head monk of Bang Niang, he motioned for me to follow him into the temple. I was instructed to light a stick of incense and a candle. I was then told to pour a bowl of blessed water into a flask. With these three offerings the head monk and his assistant began to chant a prayer for the recently deceased victims of the tsunami. When finished I was instructed to take the three items out to a banyan tree. The water poured on the tree symbolized continued life; the fragrant smell of the incense represented a passing through both realms; and the candle signified to the recently departed that there were people who cared for their transition. The saying "character is not made in a time of crisis, it is only exhibited," took on its true meaning for me after visiting the monasteries of Khao Lak. My thoughts were with Katarina Hallgren.

The outer Thai islands of Koh Pei Pei feature:
hidden beaches amongst soaring cliffs ...
Solitary towers of limestone jutting from the sea ...
Some of the best SCUBA diving in SE Asia ...
Fantastic boat tours of the islands, including the location where they filmed The Beach.
The flat beach areas were, unfortunately, in the direct path of the tsunami.

* * *

This next series of photos illustrates the progression of our walk through the Pei Pei village. This is where we found no persons living anymore. So very, very sad. Whoever survived, we were told, went back to their home provinces on the mainland. Two decades ago the Koh Pei Pei islands were uninhabited, save for a few temporary fishing settlements.



A group of foreigners doing fantastic long-term construction projects in the Khao Lak region: www.tsunamivolunteer.net

The exact moment clocks stopped ticking in Pei Pei village -- 10:36 a.m.
Children's toys scattered in the debris ...
... not far from a kid's small bicycle. For me, this area was the hardest to inspect.
The smell of something rotting found itself into our noses on several occasions.
In this shot, I counted no less than six walls punctured in a row from the force of the great wave.
The lead coordinator of the Thai Tsunami Volunteers

ENDNOTE: The localized cleanup and rehabilitation of thousands of victims continues to make progress every day. Such a disaster will impact millions of people for years to come in the next "Economic Tsunami." It is important to remind everyone what I was told by several Thai officials: If you really want to help the people in the tsunami stricken regions, consider a vacation to Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Maldives or India and spend your valued tourist dollars along the stricken Andaman Sea regions. The visible signs of destruction will be gone in a month or two. Besides, the tsunami was limited to only a few select areas.

This photo series depicts our walk through the destroyed village at Ton Sai Bay:

I learned a lot about the human capacity during a time of extreme crisis and the awesome force of nature on this particular trip, plus it felt really good assisting the Thais in their time of need. Thank you for putting your trust in me and allowing me to make the 100% direct donation program happen. I truly appreciate your generosity, and more importantly, so do the people and organizations who received your funds.

It is still hard for me to imagine lying in a 2nd floor bedroom and having a huge wave come crashing through the wall.
Despite coping with the harsh reality of tsunami destruction, we still left with smiles ...
... after all, Thailand is considered "The Land of Smiling People" ...
... and SW Thailand is one of the most beautiful places on earth, with virtually no other tourists around during high season -- plus fantastic weather.
On my flight back I caught a glimpse of Langkawi, Malaysia -- the island were I attended the ATF conference.

Thanks for reading the whole page,

Brad Olsen

An incredible collection of tsunami videos from that fateful day can be found at: www.asiantsunamivideos.com

More Andaman Sea photos taken while flying from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur. Apart from the first Langkawi shot, the rest are Thailand.


An airplane picture of Koh Pei Pei Don, with the direction of the tsunami as it approached from the southwest. The angled arrows represent where the wave bounced off the cliffs and slammed into the two flat-land settled areas. Pei Pei Village is clearly visible. The lower shallow bay is separated from Ton Sai Bay by a narrow sand spit. Unfortunately I could not get a completely clear shot of the whole island.


"Let the world change you ...
and you can change the world."
-- from The Motorcycle Diaries