Phuket, Thailand, 10 years after the tsunami: Paradise as usual

Guests were pouring Earl Grey tea and buttering croissants on the sunny beachside deck, and for the manager of Southeast Asia's newest luxury resort, this was a perfect moment.

A full house. Breakfast in paradise.

Then Anthony Lark's phone rang.

A friend, a fellow Australian, was calling from his yacht, having watched in shock as a "tidal wave" smashed into Phi Phi Island.

It was December 26, 2004, and on Phuket, Lark's Trisara resort was full for the first time since opening six weeks earlier, after three years of work in design and construction.

"I just stood up and calmly looked out, and the sea was evaporating in front of me. It was like a vacuum cleaner," Lark recalls.

He had no choice but to shatter the idyll.

No one was harmed and the resort was protected from the tsunami by a barrier reef, but 60 of 300 staff had family members killed or injured - and then came the cancellations.

"It was like, from feast to famine, overnight," Lark says.


"With 300 employees and no guests, what do you do?"

Across the holiday island, people were asking the same thing.

Jason Beavan found a baby grand piano and a tuk-tuk floating where his desk had been at a hotel in Patong, the beach were several Australian tourists died.

He was working for a timeshare company and had to reassure members their investment was safe, so he rented out the nearest internet cafe he could find.

In Thailand, you get used to setbacks and overcoming them, says Beavan, who grew up in Sydney.

The tsunami had killed at least 250 people in Phuket, and at least 5400 overall in Thailand.

But that night, a Thai woman had managed to open her cafe on devastated Beach Road.

"OK, the bar was full of sand and she had a jet ski wedged underneath the pool table, but she was still serving food and drinks," he says.

"It sort of was just a speed hump. Everyone just got on with it."

Over the hill at Karon Beach, the Hilton Hotel was barely touched by the tsunami.

It was the logical base for emergency operations, including those of the Australian Federal Police and consular officials.

Like so many others, pool attendant Oranit helped in any way she could.

Armed with only the pool first-aid kit, she treated dozens of tourists who came limping into the hotel grounds, their bodies studded with glass.

"Big waves came over to the road and there was many people floating in the water, with vans, with pick-ups, and many people had accidents," Oranit says.

Over the next days, she remembers watching Australian officials going about their work "with their hearts".

Now "Nit" is in her 18th year at the Hilton, and working in the cafe.

These days, she says she's more likely to hear Russian and Mandarin being spoken than an Aussie accent, with Australia overtaken as Phuket's No.1 market since 2004.

It's just one adjustment Phuket has made after the tsunami.

Tourists shunned Thailand for a year after the disaster.

Holidaying where so many had died was a turn-off for many, and particularly culturally sensitive for Asian tourists.

For Thais, the lull and resulting financial stress only compounded the disaster.

And when visitors returned at last, there was the new reality that Phuket was inextricably linked with the Asian tsunami.

Anthony Lark had to take all this on board, and basically relaunch his resort.

"We recovered very quickly, but tourism didn't," he says.

"Perception is reality."

The association persists a decade on, but only for those who haven't seen the island since the footage of waves crashing into Patong's hotels.

For everyone there, Lark says, life has moved on.

Jason Beavan, now general manager of a media group that includes Phuket's leading English-language newspaper, agrees.

"We got back on our feet and I survived, and yeah," he says.

"I'd much prefer not to be talking about it, actually."

Somewhere, he has a T-shirt that lists the calamities that have touched Thailand: military coups, SARS, bird flu, the tsunami. The front of it says: "Still alive and kicking."

"The resilience of the Thai people, especially the people of Phuket, is phenomenal," he says.

It has been six months since Thailand's latest military coup, and General Prayuth Chan-ocha says martial law will continue "as long as necessary".

If more speed humps are ahead for Thailand, there's also every chance it will get over them like before.