Phuket and Phi Phi - After the tsunami...

Trip Start Oct 13, 2004
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Trip End Jun 21, 2005


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Monday, March 21, 2005

Thailand: Phuket - After the Tsunami
March 24, 2005

She Said:
After confirming safety conditions in Phuket, we set off committed to doing our part in assisting with the relief effort. As we flew in, I read an article in the paper that anyone doing any type of volunteer work now had to obtain a temporary work visa. Apparently some ex-pats are taking advantage of the situation raising funds for tsunami aid and then using them to rebuild their businesses. Not cool to be touting pics of orphans and widows and then use the cash to build a new dive shop! I wasn't sure where that left us but we were sure we'd figure out some way to help out, we just had to keep an open mind....

Having watched CNN coverage like the rest of the world, I was prepared for the worst. Imagine my surprise, to be greeted by the most fabulous, clean, pristine beaches. These people are very industrious and the main areas have been cleaned up beautifully. Everyone says things are back to the bygone beauty of 20 years ago, before the droves of tourists arrived. It truly is breathtaking beauty - long strips of silky white sand beaches overlooking islands of majestic, limestone cliffs, crystal clear blue water. Words cannot describe.

That said, there is clearly evidence of the horror created by this tsunami...anything beachfront is pretty much gone where the force of the water took out entire buildings. Most are currently in various stages of reconstruction, discreetly fenced off as they work feverishly to get back in business. To what business though? - sadly, this place has become a victim of the media. No one is here and despite the horror of what they've been thru - losing loved ones and homes, it is now compounded with the difficulty of even making a living without tourists. It's heartbreaking.

And for those who are venturing to this area of Thailand, there are deals everywhere, sometimes up to 75% off accommodation! By far the best conditions are for returning guests, customer loyalty campaigns everywhere. We were first-timers here, so couldn't take advantage of that and had decided to move around and explore much of the area. Well, the first time we went to check out, we instantly became 'loyal guests' and were given a smokin' deal to stay (this after the already 50% Off normal rates we had already rec'd just for coming). When we did leave and come back, we not only got the smokin' deal, but upgrades as well. An amazing time to be here.

Warning....into the minds of the Duke-Schewes....feel free to skip this "transparency moment". Meet our latest alter-egos....Frugal Freda and Five Star Freddy. Mark & I are finding more about ourselves and our dynamics all the time. I, Freda, admittedly have some spending issues - love to shop, but it's all about the deal, baby. Freddy on the other hand, is becoming more in touch with his up-market leanings - Five Star all the way. So think of the interesting dynamics between those two heading into a land where both deals and luxury abound. I saw it as a major opportunity to lower our seriously over-budget per diem...Mark on the other hand saw the chance for staying at the best-of-the-best for a very reasonable price. In the end, we all won but it's been an amazing opportunity to really look at ourselves, our character defects, our positive attributes and expend the energy to figure out how to work together...happily we still love ourselves and each other :-)

Soooo....what were some of our highlights.
Welcome to the James Bond Zero Zero Seven Tour ... that's how our Thai Guide showcased it, not Double-O 7. I couldn't help but laugh every time he said it (which was lots!)
o Exploring Phuket Island & Phang Nga including some areas hit very hard by the tsunami

o Long Boat out to islands (loud but fast....is that really a car engine on that boat?! :)

o Kayaking thru Sea Caves - VERY cool! Some of the rock entrances were so low you had to lie down and the rocks would pass right above your nose. Occasionally, the kayak would actually scrape, then you would enter these magical 'tubes' of massive limestone, open to the sky. UNBELIEVABLE!

o James Bond Rock is beautiful but totally over-marketed. This beautiful strip of beach literally jammed with vendors selling stuff that frankly should have been left in the sea!

o Lunch at the floating Muslim Village. Great seafood and a very cool environment. Beautiful restaurants, unbelievable mosque and decrepit homes - interesting priorities.

o Monkey Temple - they spent a great deal of time warning us about the monkeys....obviously they've never been to Bali. These guys were down-right polite. Actually a parallel to the cultural selling strategies of the respective countries, too - Thai people are more laid back whereas the Balinese are way more aggressive. There was a gorgeous cave with a huge gold Buddha lying on his side. We did a little spelunking and Kayla, formerly freaked by caves was leading the troupes on our exploration mission.

o Gem Gallery - this was not on the published itinerary but was conveniently where all the buses met us to take us back to our hotels. Conveniently, none of the shuttles were there when we arrived so we were taken inside for a complimentary drink and sales job - nice set up! Actually the gems were beautiful and cheap, but it had been a long day and we just weren't in the mood to buy. As I look at the prices in Germany, I'm kicking myself now!!!!! Freda hates missing a deal!

The magic of Phi Phil Village...see Five Star Freddy for more detail.
- Beauty & solitude

- Diving - Kayla's 1st dive

- Service - 160 staff for 12 guests...that's a 13:1 ratio...for our family of four (1/3 of the guests) that meant > 50 staff at our beck and call. They would even come around with golf carts to take you around the resort.

- Private Cooking classes - amazing food and what a blast for the whole family. Kayla had the kid's version where she made Fried Rice and a dessert while Mark & I 'toiled' over a more comprehensive menu. Ty, was the ever helpful personal assistant. We had so much food, we ate for lunch and dinner. Yummy.

- Spa - aaaaah, heaven on earth. Gorgeous facilities, amazing service, incredible treatments .... and yes, I had the entire spa to myself.

Helping out...
Sadly, it became clear that for many reasons (bureaucracy, corruption, politics, timeliness) many of the people that really need the help aren't getting it. I felt it was important to try to find a local agency to support. I eventually found this church, Phuket Christian Assembly that is doing some absolutely incredible work - rebuilding homes, raising funds to rebuild a school and starting up an orphanage for the children who lost their parents (they already have 74 children signed up and haven't even broke ground yet - so sad). In less than 2 months, they have raised over 18Million Baht and the pastor was presenting the cheque to the King the day we left. Here's a little group of 120 people doing truly amazing things. Even more bizarre as Christians represent less than 1% of the Thai population - it's hard to even find a church, let alone one that is so highly mobilized. It felt so great to walk into this non-descript building off a little side street and see genuine people focused on helping those in need and truly making a difference. No religious clubs here!

So in the end we didn't end up helping to clean the beach or anything physically tangible - we simply donated some clothes and money to the cause as it became obvious that the greatest need really is directed funds. So aside from coming and spending money to get the economy back up and running, donations in the right hands is paramount. If you feel led, I feel confident that this is a place where the money really will get to the people. http://www.phuketchristiancentre.com/

All in all, loved the experience. It is a beautiful place and a magical time to be there. I hate the sex trade and the eco-terrorism aspect of what commercialization has brought to this country - but then again, it's hard for us in the western world to understand what real poverty is like and the lengths you could go to, to simply survive.

Highlights:
1. Phi Phil Island Village - everything about this place. An awesome experience in every way!!

2. Kayla's 8th Birthday. I can't believe my beautiful, little munchkin is 8. As I journalled on her birthday, I reflected on what incredible gift I have in my children and what unbelievable joy they bring to my life. I pray I get to share many more birthdays with her.

She 'fessed up that she was initially worried that this would be a bummer of a birthday - no party with her friends or family, few presents etc, but it turned out to be one of the best ever. We did party all month with her with our elephant extravaganza in Chiang Mai and then added Scuba Diving, her special Cooking Class and celebrated at a big Thai Dinner & Show at our hotel. I think she was feeling pretty special when they stopped all the proceedings to bring out a special cake for her and then the whole restaurant and performers all serenaded her. That said, she did experience some homesickness on this leg so I'm grateful to all of you that took the time to drop her emails/e-cards etc.

3. Sea Kayaking thru the Limestone caves

Lowlights:
1. Ty getting a hold of the scissors and giving himself a chop-job. Worse, he got a hold of Kayla's beloved horse collection and trimmed a few manes and tails. Not a happy time!

2. The pillows in SE Asia SUCK - big, horrible foam things! I'm so glad we have our own along as our luxury item. If you're at all attached to proper sleep, I'd definitely throw one in - a little feather pillow compresses great in a stuff sack.

3. Road weariness - this was really the first time on the trip we experienced some real 'family tension' (not implying that we don't all have our moments...but generally it's been pretty easy). Everyone had different reasons - K homesick, 5 months on the road, the plight of these people was really overwhelming at times - poverty, sex trade, tsunami horrors. For Mark & I, it was another reminder of how diverse we are in dealing with situations (I leap into action, where Mark is more reserved). It was an important time for us to revisit acceptance of others differences and just work thru stuff - yep, this is real life.

4. A heavy heart from messages of cancer struggles and death back home. These are always a crushing reminder of my reality, too.

He Said:
Highlights:
1. Phi Phi Island Village (http://www.ppisland.com) I can't say enough....
2. Our Family Cooking Class at Phi Phi village conducted by the Executive Chef!
3. The Beaches
4. The Spirit of the Thai people
5. The Deals (Five * Freddy loves them too, but for different reasons)
6. Scuba Diving around Phi Phi highlights:
- Kayla's first scuba dive (after a couple sessions in the pool)
- Our Dive Masters/Instructors at Phi Phi Village Mr. Linus and Carrie
- Cuttle Fish, Hawksbill Turtles, Schools of Snapper, Lion Fish and Eels - - Some amazing Coral,Anemones as well complete with Clown Fish and Anemone Fish
- The video of Kayla's first dive put together by Carrie

(Five * Freddy wants an Underwater Casing for his video camera now - that might be a great purchase for the Red Sea Diving experience, Freda :))
7. The Food continues to be a highlight, I'm sure this will become even more glaring as we move to Food Purgatory in Germany.
8. Our day exploring Ao Phang-Nga which included:
- Paddling through limestone caves and around various limestone islands
- Ko Phing Kan a.k.a James Bond Island re: "The Man with the Golden Gun"
- A Long Boat Ride through the the largest remaining Mangrove forest in Thailand)
- Ko Panyi home of a traditional Muslim Fishing Village
9. The Best Thai Massage I've had in Thailand
10. Oh and by the way there is indeed a Starbucks in Patong. It has a great beach front location and was completely destroyed by the Tsunami. But, they are back up and running and you'd never know anything happened.
11. Getting in a couple rounds of Golf, complete with Caddie and some decent sticks.
12. Running on Patong Beach - probably the best beach I have ever ran on, loved it!!!

Lowlights:
1. Having to leave SE Asia 
2. The lack of tourists and the amount of misinformation floating around - Phuket and Phi Phi for that matter are open for business and if there was ever a time to come it is now as the crowds will eventually return!
3. Wishing I/We could do more...
4. Just being a bit off as per Shannon's comments!

Well our last couple weeks in Thailand have come to an end and it is off to Germany for a few days before heading off to Tanzania and Egypt. I must say that I am sad to be leaving SE Asia and were it not for our Safari's I'm pretty sure we'd have just hung around here for another month or so. It is just a great place to be!
We spent the last couple of weeks of our Thailand leg in the south of Thailand on the Islands Phuket and Phi Phi. Both were hit pretty hard by the Tsunami but we were surprised to see how quickly things are rebounding. The only thing missing is the tourists.

We spent our time on Phuket at Patong Beach and while along the beach front street there is a still a lot of rebuilding and going it really had no impact on us. All the services, food etc. that you need are all readily available and once you get back from the beach front you'd never know a Tsunami had hit this area. The beach at Patong is awesome but I can only imagine how crowded it must be when it really busy. Prior to the Tsunami they were putting out 6000 beach lounge chair and half that many umbrellas along a 3 km stretch of beach. At the time we were there, only a small portion was being put out and many were empty but as I said above that won't last as there really is no reason not to come to Phuket.

When we come back we'll likely stay a little further south at either Karon or Kata Beach - when it gets busy again it'll be better as they are definitely quieter and a little more family oriented. Yet the beaches are just as spectacular. We'd have likely gone down that direction on this trip except for the fact that we couldn't beat the deal we were getting from Deevana Patong Resort & Spa. After our first few nights they dropped our rate to 1300 Baht/Night including breakfast, which is about $42 Cdn for a really nice deluxe room overlooking the pool. Like I said there are some great deals to be had right now and they definitely won't last.

Phi Phi - Paradise Found!!!!
In the middle of our stay in Phuket we took off for Phi Phi for a few days. We had talked with a fellow who had just come back and he said it was a must do. He could not have been more right about that as this was the highlight of our Southern Thailand trip for me. We booked in at Phi Phi Island Village which had a special offer which netted out for us to be about $165 Cdn/Night including Breakfast for all us. Now this rate is a bit more than our budget allocation but it was worth every penny. If things had been normal we'd have been paying at least double that amount plus extra for the kids. This was winner for both Freda and Freddy! :)

Phi Phi was without a doubt the most magical places I have ever stayed. The service was amazing, the resort was pretty much empty, it was running at between 12 and 16 guests during our time there with a staff of 165. You do the math and you get a ridiculous staff to guest ratio which I'm sure accounted for the most amazing service. That said I'm sure you get awesome service even when this resort is full. I think they have 80 or maybe 100 Beach Bungalows of which maybe 6 or 8 were being used. We literally had the place to ourselves for 4 days. At any point in time you could wonder down to the beach and have the entire beach to yourself and was about 800 Meters of white sand in a quiet little bay. Talk about Paradise, it just doesn't get any better than this.

As I said we had the whole place pretty much to ourselves so when we decided to do something like take a cooking class or go scuba diving it was always just our family and the assigned staff. The personalized service was the best. For our family cooking class, they even had a special kids class and we had the Executive Chef for the resort and the manager of the restaurant and some supporting staff providing the instruction and assistance. You can't really beat that level of service!

Scuba diving was also amazing, they offered up some free try scuba offerings everyday in the pool and Kayla was all over that our first day at the resort. It was like she was meant to dive, she just jumped in with Carrie and Linus the dive instructors and geared up and went under. It was very cool. But the best was yet to come!

PADI now offers a "Bubblers" program for kids 8-10 that allows them to actually dive in the ocean with a depth limit of 2 meters. We figured what an awesome birthday present it would be for Kayla to take her out with us when we went diving. So we booked the whole family for a morning of diving. Tyler came along on the boat and just hung out while we went diving. It was so cool to see her in the water with us. We cruised around with her for a bit and then we left her in the capable hands of Linus and headed off for some deeper water. Imagine our surprise when returned to the boat 40 minutes later and she was still cruising around with Linus, she had stayed under as long as we had and had actually ventured down to 3 meters at one point to check out an eel. She's just so at home in the water.

As a bonus Carrie was shooting underwater video and put together a whole video for us of Kayla's first dive. A nice little keepsake and Carrie did a great job of editing it and putting it to music. A big thanks to both Mr. Linus and Ms. Carrie as they were so great to us and so awesome with Kayla.

All in all Phi Phi was so amazing for us but it was also sad to see how empty the resort was. It is a credit to the owners that they have kept most of the staff on and in doing so are taking the long term view that tourists will return and they will need good staff. That said it must be very hard because there is just nobody coming right now and their "busy" season is rapidly coming to an end. It could therefore be a very tough 2005 for those who depend on the tourism business in Phuket and Phi Phi and the other areas affected by the Tsunami. There is also a lot of confusion around aid money, where people will be allowed to rebuild, if at all on certain parts of Phi Phi and on and on it goes. So, while the people are willing there are hurdles to be overcome not the least of which is convincing people to come back. So, I will encourage anyone who is looking for a great place for a vacation to consider Phuket, Phi Phi, or Krabi. You'll love the beaches, the people and the food and your tourist dollar will go a long way to help this area get back on its feet. It is definitely a win-win.

Kid's Said:
Highlights:
Tyler:
Chicken Satays and Fried Chicken from the street vendors - his favorite snack along with fresh pineapple from the vendors for desert
Swimming every day

Kayla:
Birthday fun! Diving and parties and presents!
My new digital camera, so I can take my own pictures
Scuba Diving was amazing!
Kho Phi Phi Island (even though I think the name is funny)

Lowlights:
Tyler:
People wouldn't leave him alone - the Thai people couldn't get enough of him and were always talking to him and touching him. They couldn't grasp the translation of his name and would usually call him "Ty-land". They couldn't believe we would name our son after their country :)

Kayla:
Seeing the results of the tsunami
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