Page last updated at 01:46 GMT, Saturday, 26 December 2009

Tsunami-hit Thailand: Recovery and remembrance

The Indian Ocean tsunami killed about 5,400 people in Thailand, half of whom were foreign tourists. Five years on, the BBC's South East Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey went back to the worst-hit areas to see how people were coping.

Patong beach umbrellas, Phuket, Thailand, 23 Dec 09
Patong Beach is popular and open for business, five years on

Martin Carpenter looks out from a second floor balcony towards the sea.

Below him a group of holidaymakers are throwing a ball about in a bright blue swimming pool.

On the beach beyond, tourists apply more suntan lotion as the midday rays reflect off the white sand beach - a picture postcard scene straight out of the brochures.

"It's always difficult at this time of year," Martin says.

"This resort where we're standing was totally washed out. So when you look at it now, the peaceful tranquillity of it, this is what Phuket's all about and it was just so devastating that that natural disaster hit when it did."

Martin Carpenter, British hon consul, Phuket, 22 Dec 09
Martin Carpenter volunteered during the tsunami and calls Phuket home

Martin, now the British honorary consul here, has lived in Phuket for 17 years. He led a team of volunteers helping survivors and relatives of the victims in the aftermath of the disaster.

"We realised, as time went on, that we had also lost personal friends. It was a tough time for everybody, but people pulled through," he said.

"There was a resilience within the local Thai population. I think that really bonded people, including all the foreigners who were here... They all had a common goal and that goal was recovery."

This resilience and determination has helped Phuket rebuild to the extent that you would hardly know there had ever been such a terrible tragedy five years ago.

Learning experience

But if you look closely, the signs are there.

In the playground of Ban Kalim school, a group of students play an anarchic-looking ball game.

Their enthusiastic voices echo off the concrete walls, which are decorated with a series of identical pictures showing a blue-coloured wave and a blue-coloured figure running ahead of it.

In the sky above, a big blue arrow points in the direction of the staircase - instructions for what to do if another tsunami were ever to hit the school.

Ban Kalim School classroom Phuket, 23 Dec 09
Thai schoolchildren learn how to cope with any future tsunami

Upstairs a group of 11-year-olds are reciting the months of the year in English. These extra language lessons, with native English speakers as teachers, are funded by a charity set up after the tsunami.

Peter Hamilton, of the Phuket Has Been Good To Us Foundation, told me the aim was to give local children a head start.

"We felt that if we could help improve the English language education then we would be able to improve the opportunities for these children in the tourism industry and perhaps in other walks of life as well," he said.

Phuket is working hard to leave its troubled past behind. But what of the many far-flung islands?

Phi Phi - once the destination of choice for backpackers and honeymooners alike - was devastated by the destructive power of the tsunami.

Buildings, boats and hundreds of people were swept away by the terrifying torrent of water.

In terms of loss of life, Thailand was not as badly affected as other countries in Asia, but many of the victims were foreign tourists, which meant that what happened here reverberated around the world.

Now Phi Phi is rebuilding, the debris has been cleared, and the tourists are starting to come back.

Beautiful islands

Scuba diving boats compete with the traditional long-tailed fishing boats and commercial ferries to moor up at the busy pier.

As he helps load tanks of compressed air onto the deck of a dive boat, Komrun "Champ" Sorsumboon stops to remember 26 December 2004, when he was guiding a group of foreign snorkelers at an off-shore reef.

Komrun "Champ" Sorsumboon, Phi Phi, 23 Dec 09
Champ survived the tsunami and now has a new career

They were buffeted by strong currents, and the water turned a strange dirty colour.

They just thought that, perhaps, a storm was coming - until they returned to Phi Phi.

The paradise island they had left behind earlier that morning had been reduced to rubble.

Champ tells his story with incredible eloquence and grace. He spent the days after the tsunami helping survivors, and searching for news of friends. Then for months he helped in the clean-up operation.

His life changed for the better, he says, after he won a sponsorship through tsunami donations to train to become a scuba diving instructor.

"I really like my new job," he tells me. "Before I didn't have any qualifications.

"I was just a snorkelling guide. Now I have a good salary and I like showing foreigners that Phi Phi is beautiful, on the land but also under the sea."

Champ is a young man whose world was almost wiped out of existence by the power of the tsunami's waves, but he is now banking his future on the appeal of nature's softer side.

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