The next day starts hazily, and we sleep in as late as possible before getting a lift to our new place. Within minutes we’re on a shaded deck facing the water, taking in the uninterrupted vista of the Andaman Sea while waiting for lunch. There are cushions on the floor around the low table, and though some people are lazing in banana chairs on the sand we more or less have the place to ourselves. The sun is belting down and it’s going to be another glorious day; serious lazing is in order. We’re rather dusty from the night before, so after lunch Kristen goes to the room for a rest while I stay at the café and surf the interweb for a while. Eventually I get tired too and head to bed, Kristen in turn gets up and potters around the guesthouse while I crash out for an hour or two. The day is shaping up to be entirely relaxed, and we don’t have to move on for another two days so there is no rush to do anything.
Some time later that afternoon I’m laying in bed, half awake, barely aware of a deep male voice droning quietly over a loudspeaker somewhere outside. It’s hot in the room and I’m still not ready to contemplate being upright. Suddenly Kristen bursts her head through the door and urgently says “come on, get up, we’ve got to go! Now!”. I don’t move straight away, taking time to process the order. I begin to notice a siren blaring in the distance. Kristen yells again frustratedly at me: “we’ve got to go! It’s a tsunami!!”
All the dots line up in my head. Sirens. Low voice on a loudspeaker. The smell of fear. Tsunami. Kristen wants me to grab my small backpack, but it’s contents are spread out all around the room and I don’t want to waste any time. My wallet is already in my pocket so I just pick up my shoes and a t-shirt, and have the sense to lock the padlock on our room with shaking hands. Adrenalin is coursing hard by now, and I take several seconds to snap the lock shut. Pulling on my shirt I step outside and see dozens of people rushing down the road to head towards the hills. Motorcycles are racing in both directions. There is a tangible air of panic, fear gripping everyone to the core. Our guesthouse is located on a street that runs parallel to the beach and is just a few metres above sea level; if a tsunami comes anyone staying on this street would be in deep shit. Worst of all noone knows how long we’ve got until it’s supposed to hit, so of course we all assume it’s literally seconds away. Running down the street to safety is the logical thing to do, and we all want to do it fast.
Kristen and I debate sharply what to do, and she’s in favour of getting a lift in a car because the hills are at least a kilometre or two away. Our hostess wants us to go with her, but she’s waiting indefinitely for someone else to come and we find the delay inexplicable – the wave could be here any second. Kristen spies another car across the road with two spare seats and resolves that those seats are for us. She bolts across the road to demand we get in when suddenly from nowhere a scooter appears from left going hell for leather down the road. Kristen doesn’t have a chance: the scooter hits her directly on her left side and she flies for several metres down the road, ending up sprawled face down on the tarmac. The scooter goes flying into bushes, and Kristen just lays there. Not moving.
I’m barely five metres away when this happens and see it all unfold in vivid technicolor. Screaming her name I run to her, and as I crouch down she begins to move immediately. Thank god. Disoriented and injured, she sits up groggily and with the help of some others I get her off the road. The occupants of the car Kristen was running for step out and help her into the back seat, with me climbing in beside her. In any normal time we would wait by the road for an ambulance while providing first aid, in case Kristen had a serious injury. But this is a tsunami alert, and the panic isn’t over yet.
We soon turn the car around and head down the road, towards the turnoff to the hills. Scooters are zipping all around and cars are driving crazily too, and there are several near misses in the next couple of minutes. Kristen is awake and still focussed on the tsunami alert; despite her injuries all she wants to do is get to higher ground. As we head up the hill traffic begins to bank up, and the frustration builds as we cannot drive as fast as we want. After an aeon we reach the high point of the mountain, clearly safe from a tsunami of any size. Well clear to me, anyway, as I wasn’t just hit by a motorbike: Kristen is still concerned about our safety but I reassure her that we’ve definitely come high enough. The road is now blocked in both directions by fleeing vehicles, ironically this is proof that we’re in the right spot but it also means we can’t get Kristen to the hospital anytime soon.
A man who literally lives in a swag in the bushes nearby offers us his sleeping mat, and I take Kristen there to sit away from the crowds. Even though we’re up high there is still fear all around, and now that we’re able to stop moving there’s time to start worrying about Kristen’s injuries. Her right arm is extremely sore, and she got badly hit on both sides the head, particularly on the left side. She’s vomited several times over the past half an hour, and understandably wants the pain to go away now. At any normal time we’d go to the hospital, but this is anything but a normal time and we can do nothing but wait. I sit with her, reassuring as best I can and finding water to drink, but the frustration of forced inaction is stupefying.
After another half an hour the couple who brought us to the hills start to leave, and they take us slightly down the hill to a family home. We receive instant shelter and support from all there, especially the amazingly calm Canadian woman, Xander. She keeps us both on an even keel while trying to sort out transport to the hospital, and she has a first aid kit that allows us to dress the obvious grazes and wounds. By now there is a general belief that Kristen has probably broken her arm, but until we get to hospital there is no way to confirm that. By this time we’ve heard that the earthquake was huge at 8.9 richter and the tsunami is predicted to come around 6pm, which is still half an hour away. If only we’d known that earlier…
News comes frequently about rides to the hospital, before the excellent update that they are sending an ambulance to us! Soon sirens arrive and the “ambulance” turns out to be a dual cab ute with sirens. But that’s way better than nothing, and we gratefully get in the cab for the speedy ride to hospital. The time we are driving is approximately when the wave is due, but the hospital is on the eastern side of the island – ie. away from the anticipated tsunami – so there really is no risk. But as we descend the hill to the coast I can’t help but look out to the sea every few seconds, expecting to see a wave crashing towards us at any moment.
After what seems an interminable time we reach the hospital, where a doctor assesses her immediately. In the circumstances it’s a very quiet place, with only one other emergency patient being treated, and Kristen is swiftly whisked away for x-rays. Eventually the doctor looks at the scans and gives us the news that there are no fractures: somehow she’s avoided breaking her arm! That brings enormous relief to us all because Kristen has been through the recovery from a serious break before and wanted above all to not have to go through that again. However given the bash on her head and the vomiting, the doctor recommends she stay overnight for observation. If all goes well, she can get discharged in the morning. This is fine by us, as we are also reassured that if any tsunami comes we are in “the safest place on the island”. We are very concerned about aftershocks from such a big earthquake, so being safe from the waves is very high in our minds.
So we settle in for the night in the ward of the small Koh Lanta Hospital. Staff are numerous and helpful, the language barrier not too insurmountable (though it does cause problems at times), but it’s a rustic place at best. The ward is un-airconditioned and opens directly to the outside, so mosquitoes buzz around incessantly. There are no mozzie nets. I curl up in the corner of her bed and we settle in for a looong night. We talk about the day, how scared we were at times and how we dealt with it as well. We were both extremely glad we were not still on Koh Kradan when the alert came, as the tsunami “safe place” on that island is barely 30m above sea level. It doesn’t bear thinking how we would have felt to be marooned on that rock, waiting for a wave of unknown size to arrive. Because I didn’t bring my bag we don’t have any entertainment apart from a single book, so for a time I read aloud from it before we drift off into fitful sleep.
But about 11pm we are woken by a female voice softly saying “sorry, sorry” and opening the curtain around the bed. It’s the woman from our guesthouse and her friend, who have tracked us down because we didn’t return to our room that night! They are very concerned and wanted to see how Kristen was, offering us as much help as we wanted. We were both very touched by this and explained that we’d be staying the night in hospital, but that I would be returning to the room the next morning to get our things. Throughout the whole ordeal the kindness of strangers was frequent and boundless, and undoubtedly helped us both to deal with the experience better.
Kristen did not worsen through the night, happily, and early the next morning I head off for a couple of hours to hire a car and gather our bags while Kristen waited for a doctor to come. At the very least we would need to spend some days resting up before even considering moving on to somewhere else, and there was no way Kristen could walk far let alone carry any bags. Hiring a car was the only option, and it also meant I could scout around and find somewhere high up in the hills – we were still very conscious of possible future tsunami alerts and didn’t want to have to go through that panic again.
As it turns out almost all of the hotels on Koh Lanta are on the beach. Not surprising really, but rather annoying for our needs at that time! However I did find one spectacularly perfect place in Ao Kantiang again: very high in the hills, luxurious (so Kristen’s recovery would be done comfortably), and we knew there was a great restaurant at the bottom of the hill (Alama) so I could get quality food as needed. The only thing was it was way above our price range, so I intended to keep hunting later in the day for something more suitable to our budget.
But first it was back to the hospital, as I didn’t want to be away for too long. When I return a new doctor is reassessing the x-rays from last night and he has bad news: he spots a hairline fracture in the right wrist, and a partial break in her upper right humerus. Fan-bloody-tastic. Exactly what we didn’t want to hear, however it was consistent with the amount of pain Kristen was feeling in her arm. New x-rays confirm the break, and a half-cast is applied to her wrist with the instruction to return in a week. If there is not significant swelling, then they will apply a full cast which will have to stay on for a month L There is pleasant surprise when our host from the guesthouse returns again with her friend, once again they are wanting to ensure Kristen is okay and willing to help. They stay for the next couple of hours until we are finally discharged, helping with translation where possible and keeping Kristen company when I have to run around doing some essential tasks. Once again, the kindness of strangers throughout this experience has been very heartwarming.
We certainly don’t want to leave the island if we have to come back later, and now that a break is confirmed staying somewhere very comfortable wins out over quibbles about the budget: the recovery comes first. As Kristen is certainly in no mood to trounce around the island looking for a place to stay we decide to book into the really nice place in the hills for a couple of days, and delay our decision whether (and where) to move elsewhere. As I check in and explain our situation, the manager offers us a reduced price so I immediately agree to stay three nights. And we both agree that it was the right decision: Kristen said yesterday (our second day here) that being somewhere so nice and comfortable has definitely made it easier to relax and recover. And for me it’s probably the best place I’ve ever stayed, anywhere in the world. It’s a massive two-room villa with very spacious living areas and a huge kitchen. As I type this I’m on the table of the outdoor deck, looking out over 180 degree views of the Andaman Sea with Kantiang Bay below to the left and several islands shimmering in the distance. There are several different kinds of day beds, semi-outdoor shower with views, flat-screen tv and unlimited high-speed internet. There’s even a computer so we can play movies on the flat-screen all day long – which we have! You can see some pictures of the place we’re staying below:
All up April 11th was a day we’d rather not have had, but life happens so all we can do is make the best of it and carry on. Our updates may be a little less adventurous for a time, but the main thing we’re alive and safe and on the road to recovery