A decade on, foreign tourist survivors revisit tsunami-hit Thailand beaches

People attend a Swedish memorial service for victims of the 2004 tsunami at a beach in Khao Lak, Thailand on Dec 26, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
People attend a Swedish memorial service for victims of the 2004 tsunami at a beach in Khao Lak, Thailand on Dec 26, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

KHAO LAK, Thailand (AFP) - Ten years after the Indian Ocean tsunami, foreign tourists who survived the crushing waves still return to the Thai beaches where thousands lost loved ones, seeking recovery and solace.

"As soon as I could walk properly, we came back," said Mr Steve McQueenie, a detective for London's Metropolitan Police, explaining the powerful urge to revisit Thailand just six months after the Dec 26, 2004, disaster to make sense of the unfathomable.

On Boxing Day this year, the 46-year-old Glaswegian again returned, joining hundreds of other survivors at a candlelight vigil in the resort hub of Khao Lak, south-west Thailand, to mark a decade since the tsunami claimed 220,000 lives across 14 nations.

Memories of the calamity are never far away for Mr McQueenie and his wife Nicola, who survived waters that killed 5,395 in Thailand alone - half of them foreign holidaymakers celebrating Christmas.

Sitting before a tranquil Andaman Sea, just a few metres from where they had stayed, he recalls the sudden "huge brown wall of water" that ripped apart their bungalow and plunged him underwater.

"When I reached the surface, everything I could see was water. I couldn't see any buildings above it, I couldn't see inland really, and it just felt we'd been dropped in the middle of a really rough ocean."

Flung further inland by the colossal wave, he kept afloat long enough to latch onto a palm tree until the water retreated.

In spite of a severe leg injury, the policeman limped towards the road and was eventually transported up into the hills by Thais who feared more waves would strike.

He was reunited hours later with Nicola.

Mr McQueenie's voice breaks as he remembers the "selfless" help of local Thais, aid that spurred the couple to raise US$15,500 (S$20,500) for ravaged communities around Khao Lak once they returned home.

"There's always going to be part of us that kind of belongs here," Mr McQueenie said.

There are other survivors for whom the disaster is too painful to revisit, including many residents who would prefer to focus on the future.

Yet many foreigners share a desire to return to a place with which they share a bond forged through tragedy.

Swiss national Raymond Moor returns every year with his wife to remember the dead, especially the Thai hotel worker who hauled him out of the water to safety.

The 58-year-old breaks into tears recounting the moment.

"The Thai people helped us so, so much. They gave us food, clothes," says his wife, picking up where he stopped, as they visited a memorial in Ban Nam Khem fishing village north of Khao Lak, virtually erased by the waves.

Returning to Thailand has helped the couple reconcile the tragedy and also allows them to visit the local orphanage they support.

Mr Andy Chaggar survived the tsunami that killed his girlfriend Nova Mills after the first 10 foot-high wave propelled him out of their beachside bungalow onto a higher storey of a resort under construction.

The British electronics engineer also returned to Khao Lak after months of rehabilitation for his injuries, but this time as a volunteer to rebuild a decimated village.

Mr Chaggar, 37, said it was an integral part of his recovery, going on to co-found the charity International Disaster Volunteers, which has run projects in Haiti as well as Manila and typhoon-hit Tacloban in the Philippines.

"After going through the tsunami, my previous job felt meaningless," he said, finding new purpose through aid work and two years ago marrying his American wife Emma, whom he met while volunteering.

A small white lighthouse a few metres from the shore is the only recognisable landmark Mr Chaggar can recall on Nang Thong beach, as hotels reduced to rubble have been rebuilt in greater number and size in the years since the waves struck.

But perhaps longer-lasting changes are found in the survivors now revisiting beaches where they escaped death, drawn back, for different reasons, year after year.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.