The ghosts of Phuket

John Burdett, The New York Times, January 14, 2005

BANGKOK, Thailand -- In 22 years of using Bangkok's airport, Don Muang, the busiest in Southeast Asia, I have never known it to be anything but crowded. On New Year's Eve, five days after the tsunami that devastated Phuket and much of the rest of southern Thailand, it was empty.

I called friends, and found that nobody I knew had died; but everyone knew someone who was missing, from every walk of life: businessmen, prostitutes, dealers in marijuana, doctors and politicians. The tsunami made no social distinctions.

I was returning from Laos, where my family and I had spent the Christmas vacation by the banks of the Mekong, in the delightful town of Luang Prabang. When we heard the news, my first thought was "It could have been us." I had originally planned to take us sailing in the Andaman Sea, off Phuket. What chance would we have had in a small sailboat when people drowned in their hotel rooms? We were saved by indolence: I decided to drink Laotian beer by the Mekong rather than face the hassle of sailing.

On the street in Laos, every other Westerner was saying the same two things: "It happened at Christmas." And, like me: "It could have been us," for many Westerners in Laos also make a stop in Phuket on their tour of Southeast Asia.

Almost everyone at that moment was ascribing a karmic cause to the disaster. Phuket had been a peaceful fishing island before the West brought to it money, decadence, environmental vandalism, alcohol, drugs and prostitution. And disaster struck on one of the most important religious holidays in the West.

Here in Thailand, though, the mainly Buddhist population adopted a more practical perspective. Thais have made compassion a pillar of their society. A poor country, Thailand had few resources to mobilize, so the people mobilized themselves. Many tambons, or villages, sent one in every 100 young men down to Phuket to help out. Doctors, and especially dentists (to match dental records with unidentifiable corpses), went at their own expense, slept on the floors of temples, fed themselves as best they could and risked disease.

Survivors appeared on television to testify to the extraordinary courage of Thais who had died trying to save tourists. The phrase "nam jai," meaning "consideration from the heart," was frequently heard.

At least as many Thais as foreigners had died, but most of the nam jai seemed directed at visitors. Thais were all so sorry that this had happened here, that their country had been so unlucky for so many visitors. It is embarrassing how much preferential treatment Westerners receive, even in death: the most careful identification, the best coffins.

The Thai way of grieving surprised tearful relatives of victims from the West. Life is tough for most of this country's 65 million inhabitants, who generally cultivate a Buddhist stoicism: Strong emotion creates expanding circles of distress in the mind, tearing us away from the still center; best to meet tragedy with calm and dignity, not anger and guilt over having survived. "Jai yen," or "cool heart," is what you need.

In a cab on the way home to my condo here, the driver says, "First the Asian financial crisis, then 9/11, then Iraq, then troubles with Muslims in the south of Thailand, now this."

I say, "You mean the omens for the 21st century are not good?"

A shrug: "No, but what can you do? Life goes on."

On the other hand, when Theravada Buddhism came to dominance here in the 13th century, it had to accommodate Hinduism and native animism. Detachment is all well and good, but spirits must be appeased, the dead cannot be left to roam aimlessly - and something must be done to feed that ravenous sea god who expressed his rage by eating 5,300 people.

"How do Thai people like you feel about it now, two weeks later?" I ask Pui, who works behind a bar in downtown Bangkok and has frequently been to Phuket on business.

"The ghosts are a problem," she replies without hesitation.

"Thai people hate ghosts and now Phuket is full of them. I won't go down there again."

Other girls at the bar corroborate. The grapevine is alive with ghost stories: the fisherman on Phi Phi Island who heard a large group of Westerners calling for help, but when he looked saw nobody; the tuk-tuk driver on Phuket who stopped for five tourists hailing his motorized rickshaw, then, when he looked behind him into the tuk-tuk, found no passengers.

Marly, a Thai who also works at the bar and has spent a lot of time in Phuket, sees things differently: "You know, I bet most of the Thais down there who died were from Isaan, especially the women," she says. Isaan, in the northeast, is the most impoverished part of Thailand; the Isaan women work in Phuket and send their earnings back home to families living on farms too poor to provide a living. "They were subsidizing agriculture. In the West the taxpayers subsidize farming, here it's the prostitutes. Sure, they'll rebuild Phuket in a year, but a lot of farmers will be broke by then."

We are joined by Sonja, who orders a coffee "So, maybe the young men from Isaan can work on the rebuilding, give the girls a break," she says.

"As long as they can take the ghosts," Pui says with a laugh. She looks at me. "Thai men are as timid as women when it comes to ghosts."

"But they'll do it if they have to," Marly says. Pui agrees.

Ghosts or no ghosts, life goes on.

(John Burdett is the author of the novel ??Bangkok 8?? and its forthcoming sequel, ??Bangkok Tattoo.??)