On Dec. 26, 2003, an earthquake in Bam, Iran, killed nearly 30,000 people. A year later to the day, history made a terrifying encore with an earthquake that shook the planet from its axis. The quake itself — a 9.0 magnitude, underwater event off the coast of northwestern Indonesia — was a trifling event, relative to the massive tsunamis it spawned across the Indian Ocean. In the nearly two weeks since the quake, the estimated death toll has rocketed almost daily, reaching 140,000 as of Metro Weekly press time and projected to climb yet further.
Although some areas were spared, the tsunamis inflicted major damage on Phuket’s Patong beach, a popular gay tourist destination
(Photo courtesy of Connect)
A truly multinational disaster, the tsunamis ravaged the shores of Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Somalia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Maldives, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Seychelles and Kenya, according to the United States Geological Survey.
The Thailand victims included many on Phuket, an island popular with Western tourists. In fact, the most commercialized beach on the island, Patong, is very popular with gay tourists from all over the world. Planet Out has rated it one of the world’s Top 10 gay beaches. Much of the gay scene is centered around Connect Guesthouse in the Paradise Complex, a few blocks of small roads about two blocks inland, full of gay bars, guesthouses, massage parlors, restaurants and nightclubs.
BÃ¶rje Carlsson, manager of the Swedish-owned Connect Guesthouse, was awake when the tsunami hit Patong at 8:30 a.m.
“It was a clear blue sky and we were having our morning coffee at Connect when we heard people screaming that the beach had disappeared,” Carlsson explains. He walked with his boyfriend the two blocks to the beach to investigate. “When I got close to the beach, I heard more screaming and suddenly saw this huge wave, taller than the palm trees, coming to crash down on us. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. We rushed into a hotel as the huge wave rolled into Patong Beach.”
The hotel Carlsson and his boyfriend ran into, the Thara Patong Hotel, sits along the main road that runs the length of Patong, with little standing between it and the sea.
“The giant wave flooded the lobby within seconds and dragged furniture onto the street,” says Carlsson. “I had to wrap myself around a pillar to avoid being swept away. As I was standing there, a car actually floated into the lobby and overturned because the current was so strong. The water was up to my chest and I was holding onto my boyfriend’s hand because he can’t swim.”
Carlsson says that both he and his boyfriend escaped the battering tsunami without injury. Ulf Mikaelsson, owner of Connect and a resident of Thailand for seven years, says that of those visiting or living in the Paradise Complex, Carlsson was one of the few to feel the brunt of the tsunami.
“[When] the first wave hit Patong Beach…almost all our guests were sleeping after a late Swedish Christmas dinner party at Connect,” Mikaelsson says. He adds that most of the local Thais who work in the Paradise Complex were also still asleep. Sleeping in rather than taking an early morning walk on the beach may have saved a number of lives that morning.
“The Paradise Complex area did not get affected by the water at all,” continues Mikaelsson. “It’s a strange feeling to walk from one side of Rath-U-Thit Road to the other.” The road he cites runs parallel to the main road that runs the length of Patong, one block further inland. The Paradise Complex sits just on the inland side of the road. “On one side it looks like a war zone, and on the other side nothing has changed.”
Paradise Thailand: Travel: Thailand offers a splendorous land for vacation, relaxation and reasons to smile (May 20, 2004)
In the hours immediately following the disaster, Connect, which has an Internet cafÃ© and satellite TV, became a gathering spot. Mikaelsson says his guesthouse didn’t even lose electricity after the tsunami. He adds that the guesthouse was fully occupied, but that no Americans were there at the time.
“I had a walk on the beach road yesterday morning and it was at that time I really understood the full extent of the devastation close to the beach,” Mikaelsson said in an e-mail on Dec. 28. “Many rescue workers were busy clearing debris from the streets. Refrigerators, cars, furniture from restaurants and an entire concrete building were in the middle of the road. I could see a car inside a building on the second floor.
“This evening seems totally natural and calm. Being in the Paradise Complex feels much like being on another island because everything is so ‘normal.’ It was like the entire Paradise Complex just got very lucky.”