There has always been something magical for me about seeing photos of South East Asia… the jutting cliffs on the beaches of turquoise blue. So, I thought, why not escape with my best friend and a backpack of rock climbing gear to the beaches in Thailand over the Christmas holiday? Ok… I had a hidden agenda. What better way to skip out on all the hustle and bustle of the cold Xmas shopping, too?
We traveled for over 40 hours from Denver to Seattle to Tokyo to Bangkok. Some may fear these long flights. In some strange way this is one of the few times in life that I am imprisoned and all I can do is relax. It wasn't that the flight that was so bad, at least we were warm. You would imagine Bangkok airport to be warm. Arriving into the Bangkok airport around midnight there wasn’t much point to find a hotel with our next flight in a few long hours. So with this overnight layover, I curled up on the dirty cold marble floor of the Bangkok International Airport with blankets 'borrowed' from the airplane while Zack entertained himself with his camera all night. By the 6am daybreak, we were off again on flight to Krabi in southern Thailand.
The salty breeze on the air while negotiating with the taxi driver reassured us that we were getting closer to our destination as we stepped out of the airport. A fairly short drive took us to the beach were Zack and I found a long boat to take us to East Railey beach. Finally being here on a long boat staring up at the cliff faces in Thailand was simply unimaginable that we were actually here - and it was only 9am in the morning.
Since we needed to find a place to stay, we walked along the restaurants along East Railey while watching climbers dance along the cliff faces above us. A kind Brit told us, “These accommodations are a little more expensive, but all the bungalows on Ton Sai are nice and about the same price ... but beware of Viking – I’ve heard plenty of stories of the rats in the walls of the huts.”
After crossing the path among unique upscale bungalows from East Railey to West Railey, we walked down the beach in search of Ton Sai. There is a cliff face separating Railey from Ton Sai. Since the tide was low, we walked along the rocks to the beach rather then climb up into the jungle and back with some assistance of fixed ropes. It was the that we finally arrive at Ton Sai – one of the internationally renown beaches for rock climbing in all of Southeast Asia. I stood in front of Freedom Bar and stared straight up hundreds of beautiful feet of limestone just waiting to be pulled and tugged on.
At this point we would have slept anywhere. Zack was still searching for the cheapest on the beach – 250 Baht (about $6.25 US a night for us each to have our own hut). It was either the jet lag or our incredible sense to find the cheapest deal on the beach for bungalows that made us stay at the Viking Bungalows. We found out later from complaints that only the huts with bathroom pits attached had the rats because of the thatch walls hid the rats against the concrete toilet area. But since huts with waterless toilets were an extra dollar a day, Zack and I didn’t have to worry about it.
We had our days all planned out – days in the sun and on the rock – what more could two climbers ask for? Unfortunately, initial plans went south when after eating or drinking something that didn’t settle with us. Zack thought it was calamari - I knew it was pork intestines. We had to hang up the gear and settle for crashing on the mat in the bungalow for a few days. Once we felt more like ourselves, we figured it was better to get sick in the ocean, which would just attract the fish than be high on a rope above the other. So, on Christmas we rented two kayaks and enjoyed the surf out around the islands. Looking back, had the tide swept out at this time, I don't know what we could have done. The drop in the surf would have put us onto the wet coral with 10-15 feet of it to climb out of. Had we not been able to climb out of the razor sharp barricade, I can't imagine the event when the wave hit.
It was so difficult to believe it was Christmas. This was the first time Zack and I had ever been out of the Midwest away from our families, the snow, and the cold weather for the holidays. As we sat on the beach in front of Freedom Bar on Christmas Eve, we admired the view and enjoyed the small talk you do at night on the beach with strangers from all over the globe. We stared at the outlines of the cliffs above us against a star filled sky and the roman candles that lined the beach in front of the open bars. Out in the water many boats were to be seen because they set anchor due to the Full Moon Party coming up on the 28th.
Zack pointed out to the sailboat that had green and red Christmas lights on it running from the top of the mast to the bow and aft (front and back of the boat for all non-sailors). As the boat turned in the tide, Zack pointed out when the shape of the lights made a near perfect triangle and said, “That is my tree this Christmas.”
We had emailed our friends and family kind words for Christmas and our plans to go to Pei Pei Island to do some scuba diving the following day. That night we met an Austrian guy and four Austrian girls that were staying next door – all of us had been quite antisocial the past few days because of illness. Upon hearing that they had hired a guide to take them climbing, it wasn’t too difficult for Zack and I to convince ourselves we were feeling better, so we offered our own climbing services. We didn't know it at the time, but had we not met our new friends, we would have been on the water at 9am the next day instead of on the beach.
The next morning we woke around 9am and had breakfast at the Viking Restaurant right on the beach – I ordered my usual banana pancakes with honey. After finishing breakfast, I grabbed all my climbing gear from my hut and brought it to the restaurant and then took two of the girls to the Gear Rental store right next door for extra ropes, harnesses, etc. On our way over there, I did see the group of Thais on the beach and it sounded like they were arguing.
You have to understand, this section of the beach is in front of the boat launch. Every day someone drops something from transporting it from the boat or they stack too much weight on to a bike in the sand only for the bike to be too heavy to push and it falls over in the sand. Yes. This happens every day. This was why I didn't think anything about it.
It was after a good 10-15 mins negotiating with the Rental Store about what particular gear we needed. I was walking out of the store with two 65 meter ropes over my shoulders and an armload of gear when one of the girls commented that the Thais were starting to scare her and she wanted to know what they were yelling about. At this point, there was nothing to see. The only thing that worried the Thais was that the tide was extremely far out. I grew up in Michigan. The tide has never been anything I was particularly educated in. But with another beautiful day under a cloudless sky and nothing in sight that I could imagine that would disturb this, I wasn't worried.
It wasn't till I walked Marlene, one of the Austrians, down to the beach where I realized that something was very wrong. Out of nowhere there were 50 or more Thais, many carrying babies, all screaming and panicking. You have to understand that the Thais do not panic. If you drive the streets anywhere in Thailand you’ll see 2, 3, sometimes 4 people on the same motorcycle. They will be carrying babies, women sitting side saddle just weaving in and out of traffic. The thought is: if you stress, you tighten up. That’s when accidents happen.
We looked out onto the ocean and saw only a very low tide – quite unusual for that time of the day (shortly after 10am). There were two longboats coming in at an obnoxious speed – the Thais may not be known for their safe driving, but this was really scary. Marlene made the comment, “Is it the police?’. It was the chaos of an underage high school drinking party that gets broken up by the police flashlights – or at least from what I’ve seen on television.
And then I saw it coming.
It had come from the right, revealing itself from the rock cliffs. It was a beautiful wall of whiteness that was moving across the calm ocean water. I’ll have to admit that my first instinct wasn’t to stand there and admire it – as amazing as it was. Later talking to the Austrian girl, she said it had to be close to 7-8 meters high. I had to do the math in my head because as an American I think in feet. I do have to agree, it was over 20 some-odd feet high.
The first word that ran though my mind was a soft… "f*ck".
The cliché is to say it looked like something from the movies.
One of the best elements to climbing is that you can’t think about all the daily stress when you are on the rock. I’ve been known to stay up late with things on my mind, but when I climb, it is almost like everything is turned off. On the rock, you only have to think about one thing. Get your left hand to put just a little more pressure onto that crimper. Move your right toe just a little more to the right on that flake and dig in. When dealing with body control it is simple – you are on the rock or you are not. This moment upon seeing the wave, all was very simple. My only thoughts were, “run” and “run uphill”.
Nothing was brave about this event. As I turned around, I just said, “run”. I pushed the girl as she was frozen in place. She took off towards the right and her friends - I already had the map in my mind to the fastest point uphill and that was to the left. It was less than 5 steps before I bent over and dropped all the gear – it was all rental gear by the way, and a thought flashed in my mind how upset my folks would have been if I was slowed down too much because of it. Running up the dirt path I still remember the thought, "Well, this is it. I'm going to die." My mind was surprisingly very clear. I truly believed that the water would crash though the trees and over me. Although this was looking like my last day alive, it had been filled with sunshine - not everyone has the good fortune to leave the world with such a beautiful memory of it.
I felt a speck of remorse, but I was also really happy with the life I lived to that point. I remember saying to myself, "Boy, you had it great". I knew I was going to die. And I accepted that. But I wasn't going to just give up - what would the point in that be in that?
So I continued to run.
Water: it has no taste, no smell, no color, and yet it is the most important thing in the world to sustain life. And it was exactly that water that was going to take mine.
Near the top of the dirt path, I caught an Irishman that had asked me moments earlier in the gear shop if I needed a climbing partner. I told him we already had an even number and it wouldn’t work out. It seems as though he and I were destined to play our role in this strange adventure together one way or another. He asked me, “How far should we go?” My only response was, “Why should we stop?”
Coming up quickly, the Jungle Hut bungalows lined the path with travelers relaxing in the hammocks on the porches unaware of the event coming below. Maybe it was the fact that we were running full force uphill like track stars or the look of “What the hell is going on?” on some tall-white American that caught their attention. All I could say is “There is a wave. It is a very large wave.” Before they could ask me what I was talking about, you could hear it crashing. The high cliff walls that provide seclusion for this beach from all roads, echoed with deafening sounds. It didn’t take long for people to grab backpacks and start uphill behind us.
An old Thai women was being helped by her grandson who wasn't much younger then me up the long stairs on the steep hill. Without a word and only a nod of the head, the grandson and I locked our arms under hers and picked her up rest of the long stairs. In her fear, I saw a smile.
The tales of travelers coming up from below was that the water took out the beach front. All the bars and restaurants received major damage. This wasn't only what worried people. It was that we had no idea what caused it or if there would be another one. And if there was another, how much bigger could it be.
Over the next 4 hours, pockets of travelers lined the mountain pass sharing from one group to next that Phuket was hit and that Pei Pei Island was gone. There was a warning that another wave would come in an hour – larger then before. Time passed uneventfully and then another warning of another wave. There wasn't any where else to go.
We passed the time doing the mathematical calculations of how high the next wave would have to be to hit us at our altitude. Needless to say, we were plenty high enough. However, after seeing the video footage of so many different countries affected, we all knew we did the right thing.
I was prepared to have lost everything. I knew all my climbing gear was in the restaurant and that the restaurant was ‘gone’ – I still didn’t know what that meant. My bungalow was a few hundred feet from shore, slightly uphill. I was already trying to figure out how I’d have to get a new passport, clothes, etc. Additionally, I realized that I had left my camera with my climbing gear and that too was gone. At that time, I was proud to have lost everything. I know that sounds strange, but seeing the loss around me ... at least I wasn't different.
Cargo pants are still the best to travel in. I’ve been pointed out in the past to be an American simply because of my cargo parts. But in the last few travels I’ve seen more and more foreigner realize their importance. It may have been close to an hour before I checked my pockets only to find that the camera was with me the whole time. What a wonderful gift at that moment.
We knew people had been hurt. You could see the empty kayaks floating in the bay and the bottoms of the 50+ overturned boats. No one really had an answer - what do we do? Coming down from the mountain was a logical choice, but difficult at the same time. Many people stayed up there far past when I left, already hours into late afternoon.
I can't explain the feeling of the situation. We have all thought "what if" from time to time. You can understand the fear for survival - that is easy. But what do you do when you know there are people in the ocean within swimming distance and they are hurt. You have no idea what the situation is. This is the only part of my story I will never be fully complete with.
The shoreline where the dirt path from the hills spit us out onto looked like a war zone. The best way to describe the destruction is that of a bomb or other large weapon. The waves had washed up into all the bars, restaurants, climbing shops, and stores and simply gutted them. Many of the buildings still had their foundations and roofs, but were all cleaned out.
I remember thinking, “What a fitting way of retiring all of my climbing gear.” I can’t explain the selfish thoughts we have at these unique moments of events. This was just mine.
My next move was to go behind the restaurant towards my bungalow. My expectations didn’t rise after seeing the first two huts destroyed with debris scattered all over. Then I saw a wonderful site – the water had actually stopped within 10 feet of my hut. It may have only been dirty t-shirts and a toothbrush that were saved in my hut, but at that moment it was also piece of mind.
Walking along the beach, you could pick up hundreds of brown bottles of cold beer – labels all taken off in the surf. CD’s and odds and ends from kitchens were found scattered amongst the splintered wood that littered the beach. From the storefronts to the water as far as you could see, was trash. The Thais already started picking up the trash – a task almost too large to comprehend. There were screams for a med kit in English closer to the cliff. I always said, if you are going to get hurt, do it around climbers. Someone is always prepared to help.
They were carrying a woman out of the water. She, her boyfriend, mother and sister had left on kayaks 20 minutes before the wave hit. Her boyfriend was later found washed up on Railey Beach about a mile down – still alive later that day. Her Mother’s body was found the next day in the bay. As of the day we left, her sister’s body was never found. The woman was eventually air lifted out hours later with a sever head wound and a hole in her leg about the size of a fist. The dead coral that makes the beach not very pleasant to swim in, was even less pleasant on that day.
No long boats were left in the bay. A few larger sailing boats survived by being hidden behind the islands that broke the blunt of the waves. We just stood and watched some of the boats pick up survivors stranded in open water.
Each time we saw someone climb into the boat, we all silently cheered.
We could only make out shadows of the bottom of the longboats that were scattered all along the bay. The one international phone on the beach near Freedom Bar was gone. The internet café on the beach was no longer there. A Thai had already picked up stacks of computer monitors and was dumping water out of them. There was an internet café that survived up the hill, but all day we never found it open.
I had my camera, but it just didn't feel right takeing many photos. Seeing the homes of so many lost, I felt more the outsider whom could walk away from this mess and not look back. I was the peeping tom. It wasn't fair.
One of the Austrians let me use her phone. No one could connect by voice – it was like 9/11 in New York, but we were able to text message. I sent a message to the only cell number I knew by heart at the time. I wasn’t even sure Erin would know what my message was about because it would have been in the middle of the night and news probably didn’t make it there yet. I was just thinking of the expression on her face when she got the message. After writing, “Matt here. Zack and I are ok”. I was told I had 125 more characters to send. So I figured I’d make the most of it. The entire text message was as follows:
“Matt here. Zack and I are ok.
Was on beach. Saw big wave.
Ran uphill. Call my mom and dad.
Love you all - Matt”
I had 16 more characters to use but I couldn’t figure out what to say on the spot. Too bad the message never got though. That is the trouble of using a European phone in Thailand trying to call America.
I didn't know it at the time, but by morning in America the news had reached my parents as they were getting ready to travel to Chicago to celebrate with the family the holidays. I forgot all about my email on Christmas telling everyone back home that Zack and I would be on Pei Pei Island that day. When he found an empty Inbox, Dad was right to email.
From: "Joe Leach"
Subject: Please Report IN
Sent: 26 Dec 2004 11:58:54
We are getting ready to head to Jill and Frank's, and had the TV on - news about the earthquake and the Tsunamis that hit India and Thailand.
From what we heard, your island was hit.
Your report please!
Love, Mom and DAD
By 3o’clock, Zack and I were trying to figure out what to do. We knew we needed to get word to our families. We didn’t quite know what to say to the owner of the Viking Bungalows. We quietly picked up all our stuff and hiked uphill to find an open bungalow. Zack even tried finding Coby, the owner of the Viking Bar, because he still had a 120 baht tab still open. After not finding Coby and seeing the bar destroyed he figured that the $3.50 bill wouldn’t really mean much.
The word was the water was closed and that no boats were allowed out. This really didn’t seem to matter because there weren’t any boats left. We thought of hiking out of the jungle, but there would not have been time before sunset. That night after getting sick of watching the magnitude of what we were living in on CNN, I sat up late at night playing “Windmill” with Mike from Austria and explaining what I could about the mess with the US government to him and the girls. “Windmill” was a game Mike called ‘Chess for Farmers’. A very interesting strategic game that was much easier to learn than to try to explain why Bush won the election.
Many people slept with one eye open that night – surprisingly I still slept like a rock. The next morning while trying to order eggs and toast with the gang from the beach when they said they were already out of toast and OJ. Zack and I looked at each other - knowing that we'd have to make a decision about how to leave.
It was then we decided to hike up and out of the mountain through the jungle. Zack grabbed me and said, "It's just you and I. We are leaving everyone else behind." I've always been 'the more the merrier'. But I did understand.
Looking back, we did want to stay, but without any climbing gear I was a bit bummed. It wasn’t easy finding climbing shoes to fit my size 13 feet when the shops had gear, let alone now. So, after eating what we could, we gathered our gear and were pointed in the direction of the trail that up into the mountain. Thank goodness a few other travelers had the same idea that morning and they made the trail at least visible in some parts.
I was happy to make as much noise as I could hiking up the rocky trail. There were plenty of monkeys in the area and many warnings of all kinds of snakes. After a quick search on Google when I was back in the States, I found that there are plenty of pythons, vipers, and cobras in Thailand. I thought all those warnings I heard about the snakes in this area were to scare the tall white American. The hike up wasn’t too bad, except the thorn bushes from hell and vines that grabbed and tied around our packs. There were times it took us 20 mins to hike 5 feet the jungle was so thick. This whole adventure deserves its own story. The climb down on other side was on near vertical dirt paths with climbing ropes hanging from trees. We had to climb hand-over-hand making us glad we left all the girls behind. There is no way they would have been able to make this trek.
After a few hours, we arrived in Ao Nang – a small beach community much more geared towards tourists. There was damage to much of the beach front stores, but overall they were saved by the 15 foot sea wall on the beach. I remember walking into town. Zack and I seemed to turn a lot of heads every though there were so many white tourists at this place. I didn't think we were 'that' haggard looking.
Next, we went in search of a phone or internet to contact our parents. It was a bit ironic that the wave crashed on my beach at 10:15 pm of December 25th for my parents back home. It was the day of my 29th birthday. It had ran through my head that things could have been worse – at least in a strange sense it could have been poetic – to die on your birthday.
And I don’t care how old you are, even a day into my 29th birthday, calling my parents and hearing my Mother crying and screaming at the same time, “You’re Alive!” almost brought me to my knees. Reflecting on that call my mother said, “You just kept laughing.”
It wasn’t that I was laughing, it was that I was doing everything I could not to cry in the small crowded internet café along with everyone else holding back there own tears as they contacted their family and loved ones.
A year later my family met in Chicago for the holidays again. My sister stood on the top of the steps outside the bedroom doors and say, "This is where Mom answered the phone. The whole family was awake when we hear that phone ring and we knew you were alive." She hugged me and told me how glad she was that I came home for Christmas this year.
After recovering from the phone call, Zack and I had to get some real food in our bellies since we had little else but banana pancakes to eat for the last 5 days because of our weak stomachs. And there we saw our savior - the Golden Arches. You have to understand. I hate McDonalds. I hate the food. (Please forgive me for this comment) but I hate seeing overweight people walking in and out of McDonalds. I didn't even think that it had been over 14 years since I had McFatMeal - but at that moment all I wanted was a Big Mac, large fries, and a Coke. Yes - I sold out. And it never tasted so damn good. For the first time in days I had a full stomach and a smile on my face.
We were able to find a hotel uphill from the ocean that even had a pool – thought we’d treat ourselves a little. After believing you were going to die, you can't help but splurge a bit on life. And yes, after lying in the pool and taking the first hot shower in over a week, we stopped back at MickyD's and had another #1 Meal Deal with a Coke. Only overseas could I have eaten McDonalds twice in one day and actually feel better. Had this happened in the US, I would still be sick!
It was later that night walking the busy streets of Ao Nang that still bothers me. It was around 8 o’clock and everyone filled the restaurants and shops and there is plenty of things for sale on the road off the beach above the sea wall. Zack and I had dinner and were just off the beach looking at getting tailor made suits. Yes, we were treating ourselves again. Then the shouts started outside in the streets. Zack and I knew what it meant and we just reacted. We blew though the door of the store was immediately engulfed by over 2,000 tourists running from the beach. I lost Zack in the crowd. People were shouting, “Pei Pei was hit again” and “This wave is larger”. Fear is a very contagious thing.
Tables in restaurants were being flipped over and the sound of glass breaking in shops could be heard as everyone ran uphill. I even tried to steal (well, borrow of course) a motorcycle to no avail. Instead a truck was driving by I jumped into the back. I'm thinking now that they could make a movie of this - the scene was incredible and I sat by myself passing hundreds of people running for their lives. As I looked back, at all these people, I saw a shadow of someone running - I knew it was Zack running as fast as he could in flip-flops. I yelled through the driver side door (on the right side of the car) to the driver to slow down so my friend could catch up. I freaked him out - he didn't see me dive into his moving truck bed. As the truck slowed down, the cab was flooded with people and the driver took off with some people half in and half out of the truck. I kept pulling people in as quickly as I could - I had no need to be greedy. But Zack was still running when the truck took off again. It still makes me laugh knowing I was hanging off the back of the truck being held by all the others and I was yelling at Zack just to run a little harder while our hands were inches apart for what seemed forever. But with an extra kick to his step, we grabbed each other and we all pulled him into the moving truck. It was tight, but we made room.
We waited about two hours far up between Krabi and Ao Nang. A Swedish couple was trying to call their daughter who just had a child and was somewhere down below in town. “There are two American boys here that are trying to keep us all calm” was what she told her daughter once she reached her. But all this was for nothing. Just a scare. Someone said ' wave' and the tension was already there winding us tight. It didn’t take much this time to ignite the chaos. Over two thousand were running scared for a false alarm.
A week later after getting a bus (where I caught a Thai on top of the bus going through our bags) to Bangkok and then another to Chang Mei (very far from any ocean), I was still a bit uneasy. It wasn’t the potential for disaster, it was the fear that winds groups of people tight. I've had this feeling even years later - in China I was in a shop and the sky opened and immediately started to pour where people were running from the streets - I was ready again to run. I remember my parents who were with me this trip to stop and look at me questioning. I kinda felt foolish, but I lowered my eyes and told them. In an understanding way, Mom just said, ‘That’s ok’.
Friends were understandable concerned when I arrived back home. But I felt fine. I knew what happened and I dealt with it. I think things would have been different if in that moment running from the wave I was scared of my own death. Not just afraid, but really scared. Life has been good to me. I have no regrets. There are always things that I would have wanted to do, but if that was it then I would have been ready to go. Because of that, this is a story that I'm proud of.
I’ll be back to Thailand someday. That magical beauty is still there – even if for a while it is below the rubble. Plenty of rocks are waiting to be climbed and more stories to be shared with fellow travelers, which may have been one reason I didn’t put up too much of a fight to stay longer at Ton Sai.
The next time I am in Thailand and I’m hanging off a cliff a few hundred feet above the beach, I will not be thinking of what it was like the last time I was here. I’ll only be thinking about my left hand and how to put just a little more pressure into that limestone pocket and to move my right toe just a little more to the right on that stalactite and hang on.
Unless you want to see the Photo Gallery
© 2005 Matthew J. Leach
No portion can be dublicated without premission from Author.