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Last Updated: Friday, 18 March, 2005, 15:43 GMT
Rebuilding Thailand's dream island
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Koh Phi Phi

For the first few weeks after the 26 December tsunami, the Thai island of Phi Phi was eerily quiet.

Clearing up on Phi Phi
Phi Phi is being cleaned up by local and Western volunteers
More than 6,000 people died in Thailand alone - and the backpacker haven of Phi Phi was one of the worst-affected areas.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, all those who survived were encouraged to leave the island.

But now, nearly three months on, Phi Phi is a hive of activity.

Local Thais work alongside foreign volunteers, shovels and buckets in hand, to clean out partially destroyed buildings and help bring this beautiful tourist island back to life.

Many of the streets have now been cleared of debris, and some shops and restaurants have reopened - albeit with damaged stock.

But much remains to be done. Huge piles of rubble need to be shifted, and most of the islanders are still living in temporary shelters in the nearby mainland town of Krabi.

The people who have returned to Phi Phi island

Perhaps most importantly, the government has yet to decide its long-term plans for Phi Phi, making it difficult for people to begin rebuilding.

The government's decision is due by the beginning of May, but many people are not prepared to wait until then. Instead, they are determined to press on with the clean-up operation.

Huge task

Jenny Behlin-Swedel and Neill Dodson, two Swedish nationals who owned an underwater videography company on the island, were the first to return.

"We came back early in January with two wheelbarrows and some shovels," said Ms Behlin-Swedel.

Word soon spread among tourists in the area, and more and more people arrived to pitch in with the clean-up effort.

"Once one street opened, it just snowballed," she said.

Local Thais are also helping, many of whom are being paid a small amount by a charity called Hi Phi Phi, which was set up in the aftermath of the tsunami.

We all want to come back. It's the place... where we were born
Phi Phi community chief Manop Kongkowreip

"Everyone wants to go back to the island, but they can't as they have no work," said Apichat Lanlongsa, who runs Hi Phi Phi. "In order to get them back, we need to give them food to eat, a place to stay and work to do."

Twenty locals have already gone back to the island, while another 200 families are waiting in temporary housing in Krabi until they can find a way to earn a living back on the island.

Charities working in the area have recently set up a micro-credit scheme, to help small businesses get back on their feet.

"We need to interview each person individually to find out their exact situation, and then we can give them some money," said Ivan Daza, from the Thailand Islands Foundation.

One of those already helped by the scheme is Suphawan Rakraeng, who owned one of Phi Phi's pharmacies.

"The building's still there, but I've got no stock. I've been given 125,000 baht ( $3,000) for drugs to restock my shop," she said.

Unsettling rumours

However much financial aid the people of Phi Phi receive, many of them - while keen to return to the island - have other hurdles to overcome.

Suphawan Rakraeng admitted that she was afraid of going back.

"It's the ghosts," she said simply. "I've been to the island several times since the tsunami, as I am determined to live there again. But I haven't slept there yet. I'm aiming to do that by the end of the month, but I won't be on my own - I'll stay with a neighbour."

The islanders could also face another problem in their quest to return to Phi Phi.

They have heard rumours of a government proposal to ban houses from the beach area, and turn the island into a luxury resort - a plan they say will deprive them of jobs.

Yarbson Boorabatim, one of the few Phi Phi residents to own land, has already protested to Bangkok on behalf of the island's Landowners' Foundation.

"It's not clear exactly what is being proposed, but we are against any methods that keep private landowners from Phi Phi," she said.

"I'm sure we will never get compensation, and many fishermen and other locals will have to live somewhere else," she warned.

Before, Phi Phi was like a slum. Many people died because the walkways were narrow and people couldn't run. We need to change that
Krabi province vice-governor Cheye Panichpanpun

The head of the Thai community on the island, Manop Kongkowreip, said local people were worried they would never be able to return to the island if the rumoured plans were true.

"We all want to come back. It's the place where we live, and the place where we were born," he said. "It's important for the community to stay together."

The vice-governor of Krabi province, Cheye Panichpanpun, denied that plans to turn the island into an exclusive resort were on the table.

But he did say that big changes were needed.

"Before, Phi Phi was like a slum," he said. "Many people died because the walkways were narrow and people couldn't run. We need to change that."

He said the government was considering making the beach area of Phi Phi a "special area", although he did not specify what this entailed.

'Incredible potential'

Manop Kongkowreip described the tsunami disaster as the "worst thing to ever happen to this community".

But the people of Phi Phi seem determined to rise again from the ruins.

"We're going to stay on the island, and prove that we can rebuild," said shop owner Chankan Dermchai. "We're not earning much money right now, but it's the only place we want to be."

"Phi Phi is never going to be the same, but it still has incredible potential," added Mike Law - a British man who has spent more than 14 years on the island.

"It deserves a chance, but local businesses need to know the government's plans - and they also need some financial help from the larger aid agencies."

"I don't understand why after three months this still hasn't come to fruition," he said.

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