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A Trip to a Haunted Thai Town

By Frederik Balfour Normally at this time of year, foreigners would be flocking to Khao Lak village on the Adaman Sea. Its picture-perfect blue skies and azure waters have long been a favorite of scuba divers and vacationers. But no more. This was the part of Thailand most affected by the Dec. 26 tsunami. The country has reported 5,300 people dead -- both residents and tourists -- and most of the fatalities happened here. Only about half of Khao Lak's 5,000 inhabitants survived.

Not a soul is on the sand, no boats are on the water, and the village itself looks like a war zone. Palm trees are uprooted, buildings flattened, and the ground littered with the remains of a once-thriving tourist village. Beachside bungalows are completely wrecked, save a toilet here or a shower stall there. As I walked along the beach, picking through the wood, twisted metal, and reinforced concrete that had turned to rubble, I came across a credit-card-reading machine and a counterfeit Independence Day DVD whose cover read: "The question of weather [sic] or not we are alone in the universe."

VOLUNTEERS POUR IN. I didn't have much time to ponder this existential question, because a group of Italian disaster experts arrived in a van. There were 11 of them, all in matching T-shirts: a psychologist, an engineer, a doctor, a carpenter, and other specialists from Nuovo Acropoli, a Rome-based group that normally contends with forest fires and avalanches. They didn't quite know how, but they felt certain their skills would help the survivors of Khao Lak rebuild.

There's certainly no shortage of volunteers. A few minutes after the Italians showed up, I met Ronald Brook, a retired advertising executive from Toronto. He and his wife are here working with the group Tsunami Volunteer, which is building simple children's furniture for schools and refugee camps. Like the Italians, their group had its own T-shirts. This was new to me, the idea of each group distinguishing its identity.

The Brooks were paying $12 a night to stay in one of 14 rooms on the second floor of Seafan Dive Center, which survived the wall of water that devastated buildings closer to the beach. Seafan's owner, Sudarat Seksan, had opened her shop just two weeks before the tsunami hit. She has received 19,000 baht [$475] from the government as compensation for the damage -- all she's likely to get -- but it doesn't begin to cover her costs. "The government just makes something look beautiful [for the media], but it doesn't help much here."

WAITING FOR MONEY. Odom Klerket, a 56-year-old fisherman, is also getting impatient with the government. He got $480 for his destroyed house and lives with his family of five in a refugee camp. Though he has plenty of drinking water, food, and shelter, that's not enough. He wants to go return to work. "I'm afraid, but I would still like to go back fishing," says Odom, who also lost his fishing boat, "everything." He's still waiting for money from the government to buy a new one.

Unlike the popular resort of Phuket some 95 kilometers to the south, which has already dug itself out from the tsunami and is seeing the tourists return, Khao Lak will take years to recover, residents say. With all its beachside property destroyed, tourists are staying away. The loss of half of the town's people has scarred the survivors. Most of the population now lives in refugee camps. Those whose homes weren't destroyed have fled them for higher ground and are frightened to come back.

People remain jittery about a second wave coming, and just two days before I arrived, a rumor swept through the village that had people running and screaming again.

MENTAL ANGUISH. Residents also fear ghosts, I was told. Most Thais are deeply superstitious, especially the farther you travel from major cities. Residents swear they've heard the disembodied cries of lost souls who still think they're on holiday. Even members of the army claim they have heard things at night.

Everyone has trouble sleeping, says Bunmee Salee, the 30-year-old owner of Andaman Scuba. "I have nightmares every day," she says. "When a dog howls in the night, I don't know if it's the second wave coming." When the tsunami hit on Dec. 26, she fled to the roof of her two-story shop. A foreigner who had been buying drinks downstairs fled with her, helping carry her wheelchair-bound husband to safety.

Fleeing people were everywhere, she recounts, but the water was too fast. "I saw people running, screaming, and I told them to come up to our roof, but they were too shocked," she says. "You watch people die, you cannot help them, the wave is too strong. It is very sad, seeing parents with kids in their arms."

THREE-STAGE PROCESS. A white wall called the Wall of Remembrance leads to the Thai Tsunami Victim Identification Center, located off the highway to the airport on the northern tip of Phuket Island. The wall exhibits photos of missing children and adults from all over the world, and flags and flowers have been left in tribute.

It's Leif Andersson's job to identify the thousands of foreigners who perished that day. Andersson, a forensic detective from Sweden and site commander at the Thai Tsunami Victim Identification Center, has been working 14 to 18 hours every day for nearly three weeks. Despite having one of the grimmest jobs imaginable, he manages to stay cheerful, at least for now. There's even some gallows humor: "See you next disaster," he shouts at some German forensic police who come to say goodbye.

It will be many months before Andersson's own team packs up. More than 1,500 bodies in his center still need identification, and new remains keep coming in. Andersson and experts from Austria, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, and elsewhere carry out a three-stage process to ID the bodies. First they fingerprint the corpses, then give full dental examinations, and take X-rays. Finally, they collect DNA samples and send them to China or the Netherlands for analysis. Information is matched against a missing-persons database on Phuket.

"THE HARDEST PART." Gathering DNA is becoming increasingly difficult. DNA quickly breaks down as bodies decompose, and the corpses arriving some six weeks after the disaster are in an advanced state of decomposition. Thanks mostly to dental records, the center discharges between 10 and 20 bodies per day.

No stranger to such conditions, Andersson worked in Kosovo in 1999 and Bali in 2002. The Thai situation is worse, however. "This is unusual because there are so many bodies. There were only 200 and something in Bali. I've already seen 500 bodies. When you start to talk about 2,000 or 200,000, it's so big you can't understand it," he says. "And here, it's [dealing with] lots of children -- that's the hardest part of it.

"You never know if you can handle it. Now I feel O.K., but I haven't had a chance to reflect," he adds. "For most people working in a mortuary, you are so concentrated [on] what you're doing, you don't think about what you're seeing. That's the difficult part about when you go home. You have all the memories, and all you have seen will be seen again." Balfour

is BusinessWeek's Asia correspondent

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