Mr. Ton drove me to the airport today in his luxury car. Which didn’t fit too closely with my own primitive standards of luxuriousness. Still, it was a big black SUV, rode up high, was clean, spacious and comfortable. It was also neither new nor was it old. Truth though, it was certainly several degrees of automotive quality above and beyond most of the other little taxis you find in Phuket.
Mr. Ton was not the first person I had asked to drive me. Coming out from the hotel I negotiated a long circuitous gauntlet of drivers. All their cars were clean and ready to go, but each one, for a reason I cannot fathom was hideously overpriced for the distance I had asked them to travel.
After several attempts of trying to come to some kind of sensible transaction with a scruffy scrum of cabbies, shielded behind dark glasses and puffing on cheap Thai cigarettes, I simply moved on to find a different thicket of hired cars accompanied by a different set of indifferent drivers, and try again.
Mr. Ton was not wearing dark glasses or smoking, or more importantly greedy. I simply described the trip I wanted to take and he patiently listened. Out and back to the airport and perhaps a 20 minute wait while I went in to finalize some future travel plans.
I am not sure if he noticed that I was on the cusp of being a little desperate. Which he could have most certainly used to his advantage. Whatever the case we ultimately negotiated an agreeable price that was many hundreds of Bahts lower than what I had been offered just minutes earlier.
We didn’t speak at all on the way out to the airport. It is pretty far and the road is very picturesque as it winds up and over the hills that surround Patong beach. I enjoyed the peace and wasn’t sure just how much English Mr. Ton spoke. Till then all I was aware of was his thick almost incomprehensible accent.
The turnaround at the airport was swift, successful, and released the self-imposed burden of doubt about the success of my travel options in the coming weeks. My steps were light as I returned to the car in the parking lot, where I found Mr.Ton trying to gobble down the last few bites of his lunch.
On the way back we talked a lot. He told me about the rubber trees growing in long straight lines beside the road. How men had to come there in the middle of the night when it was cool in order to harvest sap. Work long hours in the darkness with small lamps and collect just a few pounds of latex that was worth very very little.
Once our conversation began in earnest I was surprised just how much of his speech I could understand. Now I hoped that he could help me with something more significant, than cars, airports, and rubber trees. I wanted him to tell me about that December day in 2004. The day that the Tsunami wave roared into town from the sea.
Mr.Ton paused ever so slightly when I asked him. Then he patiently described the little series of innocent moments in his morning that led up to the dramatic blow that followed. How he had been at the beach that morning with his previous taxi. His car parked on the road that hugs the shoreline. His day started early on that Sunday morning. It had begun lazy and slow, there had been no business at all. No customers struggling home from a long boozy Saturday night. With nothing better to do he strolled out onto the beach.
What he did not know, or for that matter millions of others, was that the greatest earthquake in recorded history had taken place (9.1) about 600 miles away, just off the coast of Sumatra.
The waters are relatively shallow there and so the great wave, because of all the vagaries of geology and water dynamics, took a long time to travel, nearly 2 hours to reach Phuket. Mr. Ton says he first noticed the water rushing peculiarly out to sea. Strange most certainly, but he had no clue what such an unusual thing meant.
Nobody in his lifetime had ever seen such a thing before. Somewhere seismic scientists of course knew that two great slabs of the earth's crust had shifted 30 km down. But even something so great as the largest recorded earthquake in history does not mean for sure that a tsunami will follow. Some officials in Thailand knew it happened but were powerless to warn or prevent what was imminently going to happen on the little holiday island of Phuket just off the coast.
This all happened 9 years ago. Yet things like this you never forget. Mr. Ton describes how a little after 9, the great frothing monster swelled up just over the horizon. He says he didn’t really understand what it was at first, but some part of him knew, that he had to do only one thing, run as fast as he could towards the hills behind him.
When you are as close as he was you simply can’t outrun all the force and speed of a tidal wave. Eventually it caught up with him and he was instantly in water up to his thighs. He was knocked over but bounced back to his feet and continued on until he made the hill that faces the beach. There were at least 2 great waves he said. The second even more powerful than the first. When he was at last safe and dry he looked back at what had been his world and it was gone.
2 of his friends who had been standing on the road nearby made a different choice than to run away like he did. Instead they jumped into his vacant car and closed the doors. Their choice became their own tomb instead. They died almost immediately, the car was washed through the streets for many blocks.
Something like 5,300 people were killed by the tsunami wave that rolled across most of the great flat beaches of Phuket. It snatched the life away from anyone in its path, taxi drivers and tourists, anybody who could not make their way to higher ground. The destruction was particularly bad in coves like Patong beach.
Mr. Ton has probably told his story many times over the past few years. I am certain it is not something he enjoys sharing. It probably takes more that a few persistent questions from inquisitive passengers for him to tell it all. Once he starts though he knows it is important to talk about this day. In so doing maybe he can feel just a little better each time he describes that day and all that took place. Always of course emphasizing the contradictory fate of his 2 friends, who chose his car for safety, and how he, who made an impulsive wiser choice to run away.
The irony of all this, is that like most innocent victims of such catastrophes, his car insurance company gave him nothing what so ever for his loss. This, despite years of his regular faithful payments. However you view his luck, good or bad, he has moved on as best he can. With no car he had to take all kinds of other jobs and slowly he saved up, so that he could afford to buy this current luxury car. As he tells me this he doesn’t gripe nor does he complain. The sad indisputable reality is that he could so easily have lost his life and not just his car.
As we near the beach where all this happened, he points out just how far the water came up. How one moment everything simply vanished or was destroyed. Now you see block after block of shops and bars and businesses. Endless motor bikes, open bars, and restless throngs of tourists seeking out good times, and not the sad story of what once happened here.
As I look around I can see no trace at all of what happened that day. When we get back to beach he parks his car, in just the same spot where he had parked on that December morning.
I ask him if I can take his picture and he is happy to pose for me. The car, and its driver, now looking much more impressive to me.