The Bangkok airport's Burger King normally isn't that crowded in the morning. Most Thais seem to prefer the nearby food court, which serves Thai rice soups rather than heavy egg-and-biscuit American breakfasts. But, on Monday morning last week, the day after a massive tsunami swamped Thailand and the rest of Southeast and South Asia, the area around Burger King is packed. Several Thai monks, dressed in the simple orange and saffron robes of the Buddhist clergy, their heads shaved completely bare, are surrounded by locals and foreigners. Men, women, and small children all press offerings into the monks' hands and quietly ask for blessings, for good fortune that might help bring their families back to them. The young monks, some of whom appear no older than twelve and seem frightened by such awesome responsibilities, dutifully take whatever is pressed into their palms.
The rest of the airport is not so serene. At one Thai Airways counter, shell-shocked Western tourists up from southern resort islands like Phuket, where more than 1,000 visitors have already perished, try to figure out how to get home, given that the only possessions they retain are the torn clothes on their backs. European, Japanese, and American diplomats, frantic and screaming, grab passengers arriving off planes from the south, demanding any information about survivors. Nearby, Bangkok Thais who have family in the south stand huddled around televisions, scanning for news about the dead and wailing--unusual in a country where openly expressing negative emotions is discouraged--at what they hear. Screams of "Ay! Ay!" ring out. Some older women collapse at the televised sight of whole southern villages washed away and bloated dead bodies piling up on previously squeaky white sand beaches. The Thai prime minister, a go-getter CEO type who normally grins constantly, appears on television; he looks utterly wrecked.
The numbers ring up like the grim reaper's pinball machine. Five hundred in Thailand. One thousand. Then 2,000. More. Forty thousand across the region. Then 50,000. Eighty thousand. One hundred thousand. No one is spared. Thai friends' relatives are dead. My local fixer's family members are dead. Nearly everyone on Phi Phi Island, a prime resort immortalized by the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach, is dead; only two hotels on the entire island still stand. It seems half of Sri Lanka is dead. The Thai king's grandson is dead. The former finance minister is dead. Last year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl clings to a tree in the water off western Thailand for eight hours; otherwise she, too, would be dead. I wonder, guiltily, whether the daughter of a family friend who'd called me in early December to ask advice on Thailand, and whom I assured the Thai beach resorts were safe--from bandits or sex tourists, not from giant waves--is dead.
In the Thai south, the situation is Dantesque. Searching for relatives, dazed survivors wander Thailand's beaches, where bodies are being stacked. Many worry that aftershocks will return. Pediatric wards are reportedly packed with children wailing for their parents. Thai dentists are rushing to identify the dead by their jaw records before they must be buried in mass graves; whole primary school classes have been washed away together with their teachers. At local hospitals, foreign tourists tearfully receive news of lost loved ones; thousands are still missing in Phang Nga Bay, an achingly beautiful region of limestone karsts rising straight out of the warm water like a moonscape--and now one of the hardest-hit areas. For some reason, of all the Western travelers, Scandinavians seem to have taken the brunt of the hit--diplomats say this may be the worst disaster in Scandinavian history. The fragile coral ecosystem that made Thailand famous lies in ruin. Cars and three-wheeled tuk-tuks have been upended and tossed by the waves into bizarre, abstract patterns all over beach towns. A few stiff-upper-lipped vacationers--Brits, probably--have reportedly returned to the remaining beaches to sunbathe, along with one unshakable Thai masseuse.
I fly to the deep south, into the majority Muslim area of Thailand bordering Malaysia, where an insurgency and a resulting government crackdown has led to bloodshed, turning Muslims against Buddhists and vice versa. But now even this troubled region, where flak-jacketed soldiers with heavy machine guns patrol the streets at night and bombs explode routinely, is a bit quieter. Here, too, people gather around TV screens anywhere they can. Many mutter "fon tok, fon tok" over and over, using the Thai phrase for the regular monsoon that comes every year, a phrase that doesn't seem appropriate for such a calamity; but then, this event is so rare that Thais don't appear to have a word for it. Some southern Muslims plan eight-hour bus rides up to Phuket to help with humanitarian aid. "I can't believe, I can't believe," my southern friend mutters over and over.
Unfortunately, the tsunami also exposes Thailand's pretensions. For more than a decade, the country has been poised between developing and developed, building new rail systems, hotels, and flashy financial districts in an attempt to join the Asian tigers--Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and others--in the First World. Since coming to power in 2001, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon before entering politics, has aggressively promoted Thailand's state-led economic model as an example for other nations, a model that has come to be known throughout Asia as "Thaksinomics."
Bangkok may have a skyline to match any city, an uber-modern subway, and Saville Row-suited bankers; but, facing this disaster, Thailand's government fails its people, even as individual Thai rescue workers perform superhuman tasks. The Nation, the best Thai newspaper, reports that, after the earthquake off Indonesia, Thai officials had roughly 45 minutes to analyze the quake and determine whether to issue a tsunami warning. They didn't, The Nation reports, in large part because "officials feared the tourism industry would be affected if an alert were issued but no tsunami transpired." (Tourism is Thailand's biggest earner of foreign exchange.) A warning might have prompted more people on the southern beaches to seek higher ground, potentially saving thousands of lives. Meanwhile, Thailand's national civic defense organization, supposedly designed to handle disasters, suffers from a lack of basic equipment--it reportedly doesn't have the heavy machinery needed to remove debris from stricken areas, allowing search and rescue to proceed. Without enough government-supplied preservative, bodies quickly decompose in the tropical sun, creating a horrific stench. Poor coordination among Thai authorities leads to wild misestimates of casualties and survivors. Only after the tsunami does the government issue suggestions on how citizens should act when faced by a killer wave. "Had the officials in charge that morning been working with a clear-cut, well-rehearsed, and properly communicated procedure, a tsunami warning would have been sounded," notes Nation Group Editor-in-Chief Sutichai Yoon.
Instead, Thais, like people in most developing nations, turn for help not to the state but to those they have always trusted--family members, close friends, religious figures. Thousands of ordinary Thais open their homes to stranded peers and Western tourists in an enormous display of generosity, and even the normally nasty immigration authorities help visitors whose passports have washed away. Volunteers from the country's major hospitals jet to the south to help out, and many individuals, Thai companies, and members of the royal family quickly give blood or set up private donation funds to compensate families of the dead. Thai friends--and people in America--barrage me with e-mails and phone calls to make sure I'm OK. I am. Paradise isn't.