A new field adventure is approaching. After crossing Japan and Chile off my wishlist, it is time to discover Thailand. During the following two weeks, Ed Garrett from the Geological Survey of Belgium and I, Evelien Boes, will be sampling the coastal lowlands of Khao Lak, Phang Nga Province, 80 km north of Phuket, in search of well preserved deposits of the 2004 Indian Ocean or Boxing Day Tsunami (and predecessors) in ponds and on land. This exploratory fieldwork and future analyses will be running in collaboration with Kruawun Jankaew from the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
More than 11 years ago, on the morning of December 26, on Boxing Day, a devastating megathrust earthquake (Mw 9.3) occurred 250 km southwest of Banda Aceh, northern Sumatra. The earthquake generated a destructive tsunami that made severe damage at coastal areas of 11 countries and took almost 280 000 lives (as far as Kenya), which is the largest mortality toll for a single tsunamigenic event historically known.
The first of multiple waves reached the coastline of Thailand (Phuket) about 1.5 hour after its triggering. 25 minutes later the tsunami arrived at Khao Lak, where it made its most graphic entrance with run-up heights of 12-14 m. Several tourist holiday videos show the retreating of the sea, followed by the massive wave sweeping away everything on its pathway… making it the Thai resort that recorded the most deaths in the disaster, including a member of the Thai royal family. The high number of fatalities is thought to be partly due to the flat land, only a few meter above sea level, and low rise bungalows built near the beach. Survivors’ witnesses and imagery were used for the making of “The Impossible”, the Ewan McGregor film set amid the tsunami devastation at Khao Lak.
Recording from the Muan Lai Restaurant, on higher land
00:00 withdrawal of the sea, 00:20 view on approaching wave with still limited amplitude, 03:15 wave is gradually gaining amplitude, 06:05 woman from restaurant shouts warnings to the people on the beach to “Get out, quick! Go back!”, 06:42 person standing in the plain created by the retreated sea in front of the rapidly upcoming wave, beyond rescue, 06:49 tens of people still standing on the beach, 07:15 wave going on land
Video shot by German couple on Khao Lak beach
00:00 retreated sea with approaching wave, lots of tourists are still standing on the beach or even walking into the plain in front of the tsunami, having no clue about what was going to happen…, 02:30 “What is that?!?, woman suggests a seaquake causing enormous waves, brushed off by her husband who utters in disbelief “This is madness!”, 03:40 military and fishermen’s boats in trouble, 05:00 they decide to flee only after 5 minutes 05:27 mentioning of the word “tsunami”, after which panic breaks loose, 09:00 view on swirling water mass in the coastal plain where they were standing minutes ago
Meanwhile, Khao Lak has put this traumatic episode behind. Several signs for tsunami evacuation routes, combined with a couple of tsunami-related relics (i.e. memorial sites), are practically the only clues to what went before. So, most of today’s visitors go about their holiday-making with little or no idea of what took place more than a decade ago.