The concrete bungalows open up toward the ocean like blossoms. Only a glass wall and a few dozen meters stand between their occupants and the Indian Ocean. The interiors of the 36 box-like bungalows are a study in straight lines, teak and polished concrete, and each of them is named after a different tropical plant. This one is called Calathea, and it's part of Casa de la Flora, Thailand's newest design hotel.
On Dec. 26, 2004, Bungalow B1 of the Sita Garden hotel stood in exactly the same spot where Calathea now stands. B1 was made of brick and only half as big. At the time, it was occupied by a British couple.
It was about 10 a.m., and the ocean's waters were pulling away from the shore. A vacationer from Munich was the first to realize what was happening. "Tsunami -- run, run!" she shouted to the other guests at the Sita Garden before she and her husband sped away on a rented moped.
The wave that rolled over Khao Lak less than a minute later was 10 meters (33 feet) high. It ripped away everything in its path, snapping concrete columns as thick as tree trunks and hurling cars onto the third floors of hotels. "All that was left of the Sita Garden was a hole in the ground," says Richard Doring, the German travel-guide writer who owned the resort.
Seventeen of the Sita Garden's 22 guests were able to make it to safety. The man from the British couple staying in B1 gave the woman from Munich the bird when she shouted the warning. He and his wife died at the Sita Garden, as did a father, a young woman from Sweden and an older woman from Switzerland.
A Beach Transformed
On the sunny morning on the day after Christmas, the tsunami killed 8,000 people in Thailand, including more than 500 Germans. The largest number of German vacationers died in Khao Lak. The authorities collected thousands of bodies in the town's temples, while distraught survivors searched the wreckage for items that had once belonged to their family members.
The 2004 tsunami disaster had a profound effect on many people. It struck the coasts of developing and emerging nations, but it also killed many people from the developed world. Of course, the wave drew no distinctions. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Khao Lak, where the travel giants Thomas Cook and Neckermann had just set up their first hotels.
Even when they were surrounded by only ruins, hoteliers were already asking themselves if the tourists would ever return and, if they did, whether they would they really want to sunbathe on a beach where so many people had died.
Today, there are about as many hotel beds in Khao Lak as there were before the tsunami. Still, the new Khao Lak is trendier, more exclusive and more expensive. The tsunami put an end to what was once a backpacker's paradise. In the past, as long as there was enough money and demand, hoteliers would have simply built more huts. But now they have either taken things to the next level of comfort and created resorts -- or simply gotten out of the business altogether.
Nowadays, at any rate, backpackers will only find cheap bungalows far away from the beachfront, which is now lined with new luxury hotels catering to a new type of guest. Casa de la Flora is the most unusual of the bunch. Michael Gähler, a 43-year-old Swiss national, has been the hotel manager for the last three months, leading it into its first high season. "Our guests are looking for something different," he says.
In saying "different," Gähler is hinting at the hotel's exclusive nature. It bills itself as a stylish and relaxing place offering the maximum amount of privacy. "That's the style we offer," Gähler says, adding that the disaster also presented an opportunity. "As bad as the tsunami was," he says, "it also motivated people to invest."
Thai businessman Sompong Dowpiset owns the Casa de la Flora. He made his fortune importing bathroom fixtures made by the German company Grohe to Thailand, and then he recognized another way to make money: importing German tourists.
Dowpiset had already opened another luxury hotel, the La Flora, shortly before the tsunami struck. Later on, he bought new land a few hundred meters down the beach and hired the Bangkok architecture firm VaSLab to design and build a modern resort.
The beachfront bungalows made of concrete cubes are the result of that effort. "Our goal was to enable guests to experience their surroundings from the inside out," says architect Vasu Virajsilp. The concrete interior walls and floors look velvety in the soft light of the tropics. Even the sofas seem to shimmer against a backdrop of varying shades of polished gray concrete.
From the bedroom on the second floor of the Calathea, guests can look directly out over the water from the comfort of their bed. The minimalist design, which features teak, glass and Apple devices, is the product of Bangkok's Anon Pairot Studio. Every detail, down to the fragrant rice-bran soap, seems to fit together.
Guests at each bungalow can relax around their own granite-tiled pool. But Gähler also plans to build a lounge on the roof of the restaurant, where guests will be able to sip Tom Kha cocktails, listen to music and watch the sun set over the Andaman Sea. Speedboats will dock at a floating pier to take guests on private outings to dramatic cliffs as well as on diving excursions.
From Ruins to Riches
Gähler doesn't think it's a contradiction to construct such a beautiful environment on the site of a horrific natural disaster. In fact, he says he believes that the history of Khao Lak gives vacationers a special relationship to the place.
It is just this kind of special relationship that Richard Doring has always wanted to create -- but of a slightly different kind. Since coming to Khao Lak in the 1980s and building the Sita Garden bungalow hotel, he has dreamed of bringing tourists and Thais together.
After the tsunami destroyed the Sita Garden, he started a project to help local residents cope with the traumatic event. He set up a system of bungalow sponsorships, in which individual vacationers could lend local developers €10,000 over a 10-year period. In return, they would be entitled to use their bungalow for free 14 days a year.
"We have achieved 10 percent of what we wanted," he says. Doring built a new Sita Garden on the beach a few hundred meters to the south, and he also operates a new website advertising attractions in southern Thailand. Still, he admits that many other owners of small hotels simply had to give up after the tsunami. "The whole budget tourism industry is gone," he says.
As far as Doring sees it, the Casa de la Flora doesn't at all fit in at Khao Lak. Its "bunker-like rabbit hutches" are some of the "ugliest things I've ever seen," he says. For him, the beauty of Khao Lak lay in the individual travelers who were interested in nature and culture, the former backpackers who had become doctors and actors and relaxed in the simple bungalows within "Mai's Quiet Zone" remembering days gone by.
The tsunami erased Mai's Quiet Zone forever. The Sofitel, which stood in ruins for years, reopened as a new hotel a year ago. The hotel had become a symbol of the catastrophe because more guests -- a total of 186 -- died there than in any other hotel. Now it has been rebuilt to look almost exactly like the former hotel but under a new name, the five-star Marriott Hotel.
An Anxious Start to a Better Future
Long-standing companies have also managed to start over again. The Nang Thong I Resort, with its 60 bungalows, was the oldest in Khao Lak and, in the eyes of many regulars, the most beautiful. The tsunami turned it into a sea of mud. At the time, Chitladda Sornin, the owner's niece, was the only one who believed in Khao Lak's future.
Sornin, now 39, laughs when she thinks of the many obstacles she has had to overcome. Workers refused to come to the construction site, fearing a new wave, and when Sornin reopened the resort in November 2005, the staff was as bundle of raw nerves. "At every report or rumor of an earthquake, everyone would jump up and run away," she recalls. "It happened a lot."
Emails from her regular guests gave her hope. Vacationers eventually returned, even though the new beach bungalows went for at least €60 ($83) a night, or twice the pre-tsunami rate. But the bungalows now also have television and air-conditioning. "Khao Lak has changed," Sornin says. "Everyone built something better than before.
Trying to Remember, Trying to Forget
Khao Lak now has an early warning system and towers with sirens. Signs with a picture of a blue wave and the words "Tsunami Evacuation Route" appear every few hundred meters, reminding tourists of the disaster. Nevertheless, the beach bungalows and hotels are back in the same unprotected locations where they were before: directly on the ocean. Indeed, "beachfront bungalow" has remained the magical phrase in Khao Lak -- and the reason why tourists go there in the first place.
In the center of Khao Lak, a police boat still stands more than a kilometer inland where the tsunami's wave left it. Although the local tsunami museum is only a garage with a few laminated pictures, many tourists still come to see it. For the memorial wall in the nearby fishing village of Nam Khem, family members designed a tile for each victim and then placed them on the wall. At the Bang Muang temple, there are small altars covered with faded photos commemorating the dead. There is also a shrine for the young Swedish woman who died at the Sita Garden.
At the Casa de la Flora, only Srivika Boo-Nga, the 40-year-old front desk manager, has been in Khao Lak long enough to be able to tell stories about the tsunami. Boo-Nga, who wears golden eye shadow and keeps her hair pulled back in a ponytail, only survived because she was late for work on the day the tsunami struck. "Something held a protecting hand over me," she says. A month after the disaster, she was deleting numbers from her mobile phone "one after another. I didn't have those friends anymore."
When she started looking for a new job, she realized that all of the resort hotels in Thailand lie on the ocean. Three times, she went through the motions of applying and signing the employment contract, but she fled in a panic each time. "You need time to forget," she says. Even today, she says she gets hyper-alert whenever everything is quiet and whenever wild animals start behaving strangely.
A colleague of Michael Besser, a 30-year-old tax official in Berlin, died in the tsunami. "Is it OK to vacation here? I asked myself that question immediately," Besser says. "But then I thought that if you stay away, you'll really be harming the people there." Last year, Besser went on a backpacking trip through Myanmar. This year, he says, he wanted to "enjoy something beautiful," so he rented a bungalow at Casa de la Flora with his boyfriend.
The two men are more interested in the resort's design than in the location itself. "If I were to build a house for myself," Besser says enthusiastically, "it would have to look like this."
Juliane and Sven Bär, who came here on their honeymoon from Frankfurt, praise the smart details, like the "Do Not Disturb" button placed next to the bed in the bungalow. Likewise, guests don't have to walk past the restaurant to get to the water, "so you don't see everyone waddling down to the beach in their swimsuits," says Sven, who works as a publishing-house executive. The Bärs have talked extensively with local residents about the tsunami and studied the evacuation routes. "We know where to go if it happens," Juliane says. But she adds that, whenever the surf comes too close to the bungalows, she gets "an uneasy feeling."
This year's heavy monsoon rains have left large parts of Bangkok, Thailand's capital, underwater. The fall storms were also unusually strong, ripping away up to 40 meters of coastline in front of some hotels. The walls in front of the Casa de la Flora are missing some of their tiles.
Although the sea is usually calm in the high season, which starts in December, waist-high waves are now crashing against the shoreline, and sheet lightning is illuminating a sky full of dark thunderclouds. Then the water hisses close to the bungalows.