Boxing Day 2004

Sawadee ka!

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.

map + epicenter

Left: location map of the Khao Lak study site. Right: Epicenter of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake (Mw 9.3) and indication of coastlines that were struck most severely by the accompanying tsunami.

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


Tsunami inundation at Khao Lak. Left: before tsunami. Middle: after tsunami. Right: inundated area marked in red.


Left: zoom of inundated area south of Pakarang Cape. Right: destruction at Khao Lak.

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.


Tsunami monument at Kamala Beach (Phuket), described by the artist as follows: “Natural disaster is caused by a shift of nature to obtain equilibrium of the earth’s motions and forces of nature. Its dynamism includes connecting, flowing and changing things from atomic structure, physical chemistry, human behavior to inner universe as a cycle of life linking everything to one. Based on the theory of substance, I created a sculpture memorial using lines in the shape of a sphere to connect the inner oval that represents the axis and the rotation of the world around itself and the sun, related to magnetic fields in the universe. Inside the circle there are layers of shapes which are interlinked. I use wave lines to present what people called Tsunami Disaster. Everything happens for a reason (Ituppujjayata) even loss of lives or others. At last, something rises to replace that loss.”


Tsunami evacuation building at Pakarang Cape


Boat 813. On the morning of December 26, 2004, a navy patrol boat was serving as guard for the king’s grandson, Bhumi Jensen, who was among the fatalities. The boat was caught in the powerful wave of the tsunami and washed inland approximately 2 km. The boat has been left in place serving as a reminder and memorial.  



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