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Light Up Phuket

Nik Martin, PhuketDecember 26, 2013

More than a thousand people took part in a candlelight ceremony on the Thai island to mark the ninth anniversary of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, one of the world's deadliest natural disasters.

Image: Nik Martin

"I'm just stood trying to put myself here at the time of the Tsunami and I just can't imagine what it was like," said Briton Carole Rutherford. As she watched the sun set on Patong Beach in Phuket, the events of December 26, 2004 brought her "close to tears."

The beach was packed with holidaymakers; but most seemed oblivious to what the date now represents. Instead they watched from their sun-loungers as a cruise liner pulled into the bay and jet-skiers criss-crossed each other at top speed.

Nine years earlier, when the third strongest earthquake ever recorded struck off the coast of Indonesia's Aceh province, it triggered a series of Tsunamis which killed more than 230,000 people in fourteen countries, including Thailand.

Paradise remembers

Although the country's Andaman Sea coast didn't see the same loss of life as Indonesia or Sri Lanka, more than 4,800 people are confirmed to have died here. Nearly 4,500 disappeared too, according to official Thai government figures. About half of those killed were foreigners.

While the day passed without notice for many, more than a thousand people - Thais, foreign residents and tourists - gathered on the evening of December 26 at the edge of the beach, for a remembrance ceremony for the victims and their families.

People gather on a beach in Phuket to mark the 9th anniversary of the tsunami
Over 1,000 people gathered on the beach to mark the 9th anniversary of the tsunamiImage: Nik Martin

Dozens of teenagers created giant sea animals in the sand and planted candles, waiting for a mass lighting ceremony as soon as night fell.

"Light Up Phuket" has become part of annual events to ensure the Tsunami is not forgotten. The anniversary is an opportunity to remind the public - and especially young people - what to do in the unlikely event of another killer wave.

In Patong, the only other clue to the complete carnage that stunned this holiday island nearly a decade ago is the occasional Tsunami evacuation sign along the beach road, pointing the way to higher ground.

While watching preparations for the evening's ceremony, Rutherford admitted her husband played a significant role in the aftermath of the tragedy. An ex-police officer, he spent five months in Phuket as part of a UK delegation to help identify those killed in the disaster.

"They were able to return personal property to a number of relatives and hopefully give them some sense of closure," she told DW.

Candles on the beach in Phuket
Candles were lit to remember the victimsImage: Nik Martin

Coastal carnage

When the Tsunami struck, Patong Beach saw structures washed away and hundreds of seafront shops suffered heavy damaged to their ground floors.

But 80 kilometers up the coast, the resort of Khao Lak suffered far worse, due to its low rise holiday bungalows. Nearly all the buildings on the seafront were destroyed as the waves crashed as much as two kilometers inland.

They carried much of the way, a 25 meter-long police boat which had been guarding one of the Thai King's grandsons. His body was found the next day a few meters from the hotel where he was staying.

The vessel has remained there and recently had a small Tsunami museum built round it.

While the world's media focused on Phuket, Khao Lak is considered Tsunami ground zero by most Thais. On Thursday morning, a multi-faith service took place further up the coast, with Buddhist, Muslim and Christian speakers.

Tourists remember

"It was beautiful, there were monks praying and many people came with flowers and at one point, they called out the names of all the victims," said Greta Anderson, who attended both ceremonies.

The Norwegian told DW how she watched a disaster unfold at home on TV, the day after Christmas nine years ago and wanted to pay her respects to the dead while she was in Thailand.

Other tourists attending the commemoration described their horror as they watched the death toll continue to climb as the killer waves travelled thousands of kilometers.

"It's a day I remember so clearly," said Christine Levains, who spends four months of the year in Phuket. "I like Thai people very much so I wanted to show my solidarity because this was a big catastrophe for them."

The Belgian said the remembrance ceremony was much bigger this year and expects it to be bigger still next year, to mark the 10th anniversary.

Women light candles during a prayer ceremony for the victims of the 2004 tsunami on the ninth anniversary of the disaster, at Marina beach in the southern Indian city of Chennai December 26, 2013. Hundreds of memorial events were held across Asia in memory of the towering waves that crashed ashore with little warning on December 26, 2004, killing at least 226,000 people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and nine other countries. More than half the victims were Indonesians; with Sri Lanka and India next worst hit. (Photo: REUTERS/Babu)
People across Asia commemorated the anniversary of the tsunamiImage: Reuters

Another tourist, Carolyn Ellis said it was important for her and her friends to come and pay their respects to those who died while on holiday.

"For the people that experienced it, there are no words to describe what happened on that day. There's nothing we can say that will make the relatives feel any better. But they should just know that the whole world is with them today, in spirit," said the Australian.