A candle-lit ceremony to mourn the dead marked the beginning of a somber new year on the Thai island of Phuket, reports BBC News. Emotions were raw, many were in tears. One Thai woman cried: "I want to say to all the country, we are so sorry, for we cannot control this thing." It was all in marked contrast to the usual scenes here at this time of year, where gay revelers from around the world would normally pack Phuket's Patong Beach, dubbed by many as the gayest resort area in Asia.
But it is hard to celebrate when you're surrounded by the death and destruction wrought by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Although most Thais would save their celebrations for Chinese New Year in February, December 31 is usually a fairly riotous evening in Phuket. But this year the government has canceled all official celebrations, and many hotels and bars are using their parties to raise funds for relief efforts. More than 5,100 people are reported dead in Phuket, nearly half of them foreign tourists, and nearly 3,800 are still missing.
On Monday the Reuters news agency reported that a Thai expert said he tried to warn the government there that a deadly tsunami might be sweeping toward tourist-packed beaches but couldn't find anyone to take his calls. Samith Dhammasaroj said he was sure a tsunami was coming as soon as he heard about the massive December 26 earthquake off Indonesia's Sumatra island that measured magnitude 9.0--the world's biggest in 40 years. "I tried to call the director-general of the meteorological office, but his phone was always busy," Samith said as he described his desperate attempts to generate an alert that might have saved thousands of lives. "I tried to phone the office, but it was a Sunday and no one was there," said the former chief of the meteorological department now charged with setting up an early warning disaster system for Thailand.
Ulf Mikaelsson, a Swedish man who co-owns the predominantly gay Connect Guest House and Coffee Bar in Patong Beach, said that while the death and devastation are huge and relief efforts are paramount, he is worried that gay travelers will further devastate the area by staying away from a resort that was largely untouched by the tsunami. "It will take some months to clean up and rebuild the beach area, but everything else on the island, 500 yards or more from the beach, is exactly as it was, untouched by the tsunami," he said. "The shops and hotels on the beach are gone or damaged, but cleanup is well under way, and the Thais will rebuild the rest very quickly."
Phuket's gay community faces very difficult times due to cancellations brought on by media reports that fail to point this out, Mikaelsson said. "The fear exploited by the media for its own purposes have threatened to decimate the current season, on which so many of the small businesses that cater to the gay community depend for survival," he said. "Right now, the Phuket gay community is busy raising funds for those Thais and foreigners who suffered injury and loss due to the tidal wave. Soon it may have to raise funds from some source to survive. Many annual visitors will return; they know there is no reason to stay away, but new arrivals may not understand that the island paradise known the world over is alive and well."