Travel Phuket

Tourist information for Phuket, Thailand

2004 Boxing Day Tsunami

Travel Phuket

On December 26, 2004, an undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean with a magnitude of approximately 9.0 – the third largest ever recorded – triggered a deadly and catastrophic tsunami, now known as the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the earthquake released energy comparable to 23,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs and had the largest recorded magnitude in 40 years. The effects of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami on Phuket and Thailand were devastating.

A tsunami is actually a series of waves, best described as a "wave train". Hurtling forward at the speed of a jetliner, with some waves reaching a fearful, towering height of 30 meters (100 feet), the tsunami of 2004 traveled quickly, radiating out from the epicenter of the earthquake.

The tsunami struck Indonesia the hardest, and followed by hitting Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, killing over 230,000 people and leaving millions of survivors homeless. The carnage traveled some 5,000 km (3,000 miles) to Africa, where the tsunami still arrived with enough force to kill yet more people and significantly damage property.

The event is on record as the one of the deadliest natural disasters, and quite likely the most destructive tsunami in history.

Tsunami: a deadly force

Tsunamis can travel inland as far as 300 meters, or a thousand feet or more, devouring everything in their path. Almost a third of the people that perished in the 2004 tsunami terror were children, likely because they were too weak to withstand the force of the water and fight against it. Others were crushed when they were hurled against structures and debris by the turbulent sea.

Many witnesses say the approaching tsunami sounded like 3 freight trains or the roar of jet engines. In some places, the phenomenon presented itself as a torrent of foaming water, rapidly moving inland, destroying everything in its path. The following link is to a text account of the Phuket tsunami - including images and related websites - provided by Mark Oberle.

In other areas, the ocean retreated, exposing the muddy seabed and stranding fishing boats and pleasure craft. Those that knew this receding ocean spelled danger headed for high ground, before the giant waves came crashing down with the ocean’s return, saving themselves and those they were able to take with them.

Hardest hit in Thailand

In Thailand, the entire Andaman Coast was affected, with Phuket and Khao Lak hit the hardest. The death toll in Khao Lak is estimated at over 4,000 people, but some estimates have the death toll topping 10,000. Due to inaccurate census and spotty record-keeping, no true numbers are known. It's suspected that the hi-rise concrete hotels at the key tourist locations in Phuket helped save a number of lives, while the low bungalows of Khao Lak couldn't withstand the angry waters. When the waters receded, elephants were used at some places in Phuket and Phang Nga to move debris in the search for survivors and victims, as well as to clear roads.

Economic impact

The economic impact of the Boxing Day Tsunami was considerable. Tourism was one of the most severely affected, since the majority of resorts suffered major destruction or were swept completely out to sea. Fishing was also greatly affected, with the loss of fishing boats, trawlers, bait and tackle, most of which fishermen couldn't afford to replace, having lost their homes as well. Additionally, piers and fish-processing facilities were lost or severely damaged by the tsunami.

To add insult to injury, fishermen that were able to start working again found their catches weren't being purchased by local merchants, since there was a concern among the local people that the fish being caught had dined on human flesh from victims swept out to sea. This idea offended the locals on a spiritual level and raised health concerns as well. As patrons weren't consuming locally-caught fish in their restaurants, many merchants started purchasing fish from Gulf of Thailand ports, Vietnam, or Malaysia in order to reassure customers there wasn't a threat of contamination.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Lee Jong-Wook, even went on Thai television to tell the people that he ate fish daily, hoping to reassure them that eating locally-caught fish was okay.

Long road to recovery – or not?

Although Phuket was one of the hardest-hit areas, most destinations seem to be recovering well, despite occupancy numbers that plummeted overnight following the catastrophe. Original estimates had put recovery of this popular tropical destination at ten years, but reconstruction seems to be well ahead of schedule.

For instance, rebuilding had begun in Patong within 6 months of the disaster, and about a year later there were few remaining scars of the event. By early 2006, resort development and construction was again well under way, and a large portion of tourists had returned.

For other areas like Khao Lak, recovery will take a little longer, especially without a strong tourism base, a muddy and confusing recovery plan, and less government assistance.

Recent tourism stats indicate that Thailand tourism has rebounded nicely since the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami but is now being affected by other issues, namely a sluggish, if not downright awful, global economy, but occupancies at Phuket resorts showed an increase in September 2010. The Thai government credits the increase to a larger number of conventions coming to Phuket to participate and/or host surfing competitions, golf, and other sports events. Even the show "Survivor" had a hand in Phuket's favorable statistics – they used Phuket as a production base while filming.

Overall, tourists are returning to Phuket, helping the area – and its people - to recover from one of the world’s worst natural disasters and the loved ones lost.